HomeNational Conference Day 1Conference 2012 Darren Butterfield

Conference 2012 Darren Butterfield

2012 UNISON National Delegate Conference

Personal Delegate report

Local Government Conference this year took place in the not so sunny Bournemouth as on arrival I was greeted with wet and windy conditions and with the outlook for the next few days forecast to be gloomy, I was hoping that the general mood, passionate debate and this union’s plan to fight the Coalition government over the year ahead would improve things.  How wrong I was.  This years conference kicked off with a depressing Local Government Service Group Executive Annual Report which outlined how the cuts are causing spiralling economic woes and prolonging the recession, how membership levels in local government have dropped and how many experienced branch officer’s and representatives have left the union and ending with the final but ever predictable message ‘we must adopt an “holistic” approach to recruitment’.  After four years as a lay representative it really is becoming a tired old record which I believe is of little value when the union has adopted such a passive line on the prevention of enforced job losses.  It seems the only thing that matters is maintaining and or generating income through subscriptions. 

As Local Government Conference is over two days the first day of motions centred on cut’s, austerity and the impact on equalities, cuts in Youth Services (Hammersmith & Fulham Branch provided a moving example of what the cuts really mean to young people who have little hope or opportunity and who are disappointingly becoming Britain’s ‘lost generation’) and the attempts by the Coalition to ridicule and undermine health & safety legislation in their ridiculously labelled ‘red tape challenge’.  All were unanimously carried by Conference with little reason to oppose. 

I did take some inspiration from the Southampton Delegate who took the podium and roused support from the floor about his Branch’s fight against the Conservative controlled Council and their strategic strike action against cuts to pay and conditions of service.  We heard how oneSouthamptonmember was made redundant by a Conservative Councillor and in the recent elections this member stood against him and won his Council seat resulting in that same Councillor losing his job.  Effective retribution in a ‘what goes around comes around’ way which received rapturous applause from the floor. 

The majority of the afternoon session was about the detrimental changes to local government pensions with the Head of Local Government Heather Wakefield presenting a slideshow of the union’s negotiated settlement with the Government.  In this presentation we were sold the alleged benefits which included that 90% of local government members will pay the same contributions, there will be no change to the pension scheme until April 2014, all members will have to work longer (we were told that the Government accepted this union concession as the ‘deal breaker’) and that all pensions will be Career Averaged (CARE) ending the far greater and superior final salary scheme.  On the specifics, the UNISON consultation will commence straight away and the union expects all branches to consult with their members during this period and in the ballot period which commences 31/7/12 until 24/8/12.  The Government will commence its statutory consultation with pension members regardless of our ballot and its result on the 1st September 2012.  This means that the government may not take any notice of the UNISON ballot and could implement worse proposals. 

As was expected the pensions issue quite rightly caused the most controversy and injected some well needed and robust debate at Conference.  Emergency Motion 5 entitled ‘Consultation on LGPS Proposals’ roused Branches from Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Kirklees, Portsmouth and Salford to question the fact that members are being asked to take part in a ballot without any form of recommendation to accept or reject from the national union leadership.   

They also questioned the very tight ballot timescale which is unhelpfully scheduled during the school holidays and which virtually disenfranchises school members who are hard to organise at the best of times.  The union leadership was accused of abdicating their responsibility in not making either a reject/accept recommendation prior to the ballot on a very complicated issue and criticised for negotiating and attempting to settle on what generally many feel is a poor settlement. 

Strike action was supported in November 2011 on the basis that people did not want to work longer, pay more and get less.  We are being asked to accept precisely that; local government pension members will work until they are 68 (the average life expectancy for members in some areas is 68), a far greater number of members will pay more and get less because they will be on Career average pension schemes and pensions will be linked to the Consumer Price Index.  

Heather Wakefield was accused of misrepresenting the reality of the settlement in favour of adopting the ‘politics of defeatism’ and ‘acceptance’.  Doncaster Branch asked the question that many on the floor were thinking i.e. if CARE is so good, then why isn’t it being recommended to UNISON’s employees as a more favourable pension entitlement?  In a final cry to re-ignite the pension dispute Emergency Motion 5 was taken to a card vote and to everybody’s surprise the President unilaterally decided that the card vote was not needed.  People cried disgruntled as it was clearly evident that approximately 20% of the floor voted in favour of the vote.  The motion fell, cry’s of shame ensued but the UNISON Conference continued ever forward.  Democracy personified it was not. 

The second day commenced with an interesting presentation from Income Data Services (the pay analysts) who confirmed that national pay bargaining is in abeyance and that this union has not negotiated a pay increase since 2009- apparently we are the ‘poor relation of the public sector’ while our private sector colleagues are enjoying annual pay increases of between 3-4%.  Interestingly they confirmed that the philosophy of regional pay or the ‘public sector pay premium’ has no evidence and that public sector workers do not ‘crowd out’ the regional labour market when jobs are available.  The Government are using this argument to suppress pay awards in local government and are effectively harmonising pay in our sector so now it is so low it has fallen just above the National Minimum Wage.  A very sad state of affairs. 

The pay issue was reflected in the various motions which followed this presentation regarding the effects of having no pay rise for four years on women, BAME members and in the causation of serious financial hardship for many of our lower paid members.  It is clear that pay is the next battle the union will fight in the call for an above inflation pay rise this year. However, it is worth noting that the union will only campaign on this issue, it is unlikely to take any other action to achieve this.

The most interesting motion in the afternoon’s session related to opposition to Newcastle City Branch Motion 50 on ‘FreeSchools, Academies andForcedAcademies’.  On the face of it Newcastle City, who appear to work very closely with their Labour run Council, say all the right things about campaigning against the Academisation of our schools but contradicts itself when it asked for the union to support alternative academy models such as ‘cooperative one’s’ as a last resort.  Haringey, supported by manyLondondelegates, voted against this motion and won the debate by arguing that this motion was confused and conflicted with the overall union policy to oppose academies in all their forms. 

In my ‘dig of the day’ one Barnsley delegate exposed his region’s reticence to support the privatisation of local Children’s Centre’s and so in response his Branch employed a lawyer and sought a judicial review halting the entire process.  Why can’t highly paid regional officials be held accountable according to the union’s rules regarding their wilful reluctance to assist their union members?  Why do lay members allow this to happen?

The union is once again mobilising to take part in yet another march in Londonon the 20th October 2012.  They anticipate a million to converge and march against the Coalition Government’s austerity agenda in what is the second such march in 18 months.  I took part in the march last year and was waiting for follow up action from the union soon after but nothing came.  I suppose I will take part in this march also but I am baffled to understand what purpose this will achieve while in the mean time tens of thousands of our members will lose their jobs and the union sit’s on its hands. Surely an injury to one is an injury to all so why should we accept one more forced redundancy in local government?

Marching has a purpose but the stakes are high and no alternative is being offered from the union’s leadership in response.  The calls that are made for action are falling on deaf ears and those that make them appear to be marginalised by the one’s not listening.  Before I end this report some facts to consider; Our members have not received a pay rise in 3 years, face a further pay freeze of a year, are enduring local cuts to terms and conditions and are having to pay more in retirement and lose favourable and hard fought for pension provisions.  The union movement inBritainis taking a pasting from a Conservative led government which has no democratic legitimacy and which is intent on tearing up the remaining (but poor) employment rights we have left in our country.  It is disappointing that this union has no ambition or plan to challenge this onslaught or use alternative means and the union movement collectively before it is too late.  There are 6.5 million trade union members in this country making it the biggest social movement in theUKand formidable force to resist the cuts.  It’s about time our union started to realise this.   

Darren Butterfield

(This report is a personal account of the Local Government Conference 2012 and the views expressed are not the views of the Harrow UNISON LG Branch Executive Committee)

Last Updated on Monday, 02 July 2012 12:51

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