Unison conference report

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 11:58

Left still has to win union to fight on privatisation
By Kate Ahrens
UNISON's annual conference took place in Bournemouth this month against the backdrop of a ballot for national strike action over pay in local government. However conference failed to reflect the anger over pay or privatisation that is clearly being felt by the membership of the union.
We on the left have to bear some responsibility for this - preparation for the conference was weak, with little or no coordination of motions and amendments through the United Left, and there was certainly no general strategy being promoted by the left as a whole. Instead there was a series of disconnected resolutions and amendments - some of which ended up cutting across each other in debate.
The key debate on activity took place early on in the week when a motion from the National Executive on privatisation was discussed. There were numerous amendments proposing activity ranging from a national demonstration to halting additional donations made to the Labour Party. However, despite some excellent interventions on conference floor, the left failed to garner support from delegates who appeared to be won over by the leadership view that national action was not deliverable, and that questions over our attitude to the Labour Party (including donations) should be referred to the ongoing "review" on the Political Funds.
On questions of internal union democracy, the left did considerably better. A motion of censure on the NEC over their delaying of the Political Fund review was carried, and a move by the NEC to gag minority voices on leadership bodies was rejected.
On the whole, the left intervention on conference floor was excellent - good speeches, a sensible and non-sectarian approach to dividing up tasks between the different left delegates and clear prioritisation of the key issues.
But if Unison is to start punching its weight in the campaign against privatisation or in winning serious pay increases for its members, the United Left needs to be organised on a year round basis, not just once a year. Having won a review of the political funds at last year's conference, and won a censure of the NEC for dragging its feet this year, the left must now take seriously how we intervene into the consultation process. The left needs to be the champions of union democracy and ensure that all the different alternatives are made available to conference to vote on next year. We want the end of the review process to leave us a situation where the union can more easily adjust its political structures in the future.
Battles over national action on privatisation are also vital. Conference will not be convinced that national action is possible unless they can see some evidence in practice. The past practice of winning motions against the opposition of the leadership and then waiting for them to implement left policies is now demonstrably hopeless. In contrast even to the fake left-leadership of Rodney Bickerstaffe, the current union leadership is clearly not prepared to organise successful national events against privatisation. The left must now show its own organising capabilities and through its successes force the union leadership to fall in behind a class struggle model of campaigning. The coming year will test the United Left. Can it organise sufficiently to produce real and effecting action against privatisation, whilst simultaneously intervening in the internal union review on the political funds and maintaining and extending its own democratic structures? The answer will be found in the victories that are won by workers taking action.

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