Unison delegates at the 2024 national conference (Photo: twitter/@tfrc_unison)

Day two of the national conference of Britain’s biggest union—Unison—was dominated by discussion of Palestine, the prospect of a Labour government and how to fight for workers’ rights.

Conference on Wednesday saw debates over a national care service, domestic abuse and experiences of black workers and Tory racism.

Union bureaucrats had instructed delegates to not say “from the river to the sea”. But one delegate from Wales, Nelly, defied the order and used the phrase in a speech on the conference floor.

“There is a genocide happening in Gaza,” she told Socialist Worker afterwards. “As a taxpayer I don’t work to save lives for my taxes to be used to fund a monster regime killing children.

“Saying from the river to the sea shouldn’t be banned—it means liberation for all Palestinian people.”

In her speech to conference, general secretary Christina McAnea called on delegates to support an incoming Labour government. Her tone was very different to speeches the day before.

“Over 14 years the Tories have broken our public services and threatened all our futures,” she said.

“The Tory legacy will be an economy on its knees, a country more divided than ever and a society more unequal than it has ever been. It’s a big ask to change things and it will take time.

“But with a Labour government we have a place at the table. Election day can’t come soon enough for me.

After the speech, Martin, the Capacity Scotland branch secretary, told Socialist Worker that he won’t be supporting Labour.

“I want a national care service, which we’ve already taken steps towards in Scotland, but I don’t trust Keir Starmer’s Labour to follow through on this.

“And because of devolution I won’t get the type of government I want. I support independence so I’m likely to vote SNP.”

Nelly said, “No one wants the Tories in anymore—the Tories don’t understand poverty or oppression.

“But Labour has lost my vote. As long as Starmer is leader, I will not be supporting it.”

It showed the thirst for change but also the obstacles to an effective fightback.

“He has the same values as the Tories when it comes to Palestine—he couldn’t even call for a genuine ceasefire,” Nelly added.

Martin said he was “really glad” that Palestine had dominated the conference. “It’s the biggest issue in the world right now,” he said.

“Palestine has to be at the forefront of the election and after, and we need to make sure any new government knows that. I’ll definitely be seeing what more we can do in our workplace and branch.”

Medena is a striking adult mental health social worker from Barnet in north London. “I’m looking forward to the discussion on Friday about strikes and fighting to win,” she told Socialist Worker.

“As a newly qualified social worker it’s not an ideal start to be out on strike. But we’re giving a platform to the issues in social care.

“We’re not the only council struggling with retention and recruitment. And our Labour council is scabbing on our strike to try and undermine it—this doesn’t give me much hope in a Labour government.

The motion to back more budgets to increase police numbers passed. But some delegates highlighted cops’ institutional racism.

Shanty, a disabled members’ officer from Lewisham in south London, said, “The insinuation that police are integral to community safety is concerning.

“Unions stand in favour of secure jobs for all workers but that doesn’t stop us questioning the role of the police in society as a whole.

“Refunding a broken and institutionally sexist and racist organisation doesn’t lead to black people feeling safer and less targeted. As a young, black disabled woman, I do not feel safe when I see a police officer.”

Delegates’ clear distrust of Labour doesn’t chime with the union’s leaders’ full backing of Starmer. After the election, Unison members have to continue to pressure and challenge Labour over every issue—and not let their union simply fall behind.

Days four and five: Thursday and Friday

On Thursday at the National Delegates Conference, Unison members discussed Palestine and supporting funding to Ukraine.

The Palestinian ambassador Dr Husam Zomlot addressed conference before a debate on the union’s stance on the Israeli war in Gaza. The room was filled with Palestine flags and chants of, “Free, free Palestine” rang out.

Delegates also held up placards reading, “Ceasefire now”. Union leaders kept to their rule banning, “From the river to the sea”—but multiple speakers defied it.

Liz Wheatley, the chair of the International Committee, said, “None of us will ever forget the sights and sounds that came out of Rafah.

“For weeks the IDF and Israeli government talked about a Rafah offensive. They knew an invasion was not a red line for many world leaders.

“They knew Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak would still send arms—they’ve made it clear over the last eight months that Palestinian lives don’t matter.

“Sunak and the Tories only care about their friends in the arms industry who are making a profit from death. But we’ve made it clear that we will continue to fight for an end to the bombing and the occupation.

“The students in encampments can inspire us to organise divestment in our workplaces. As public sector workers we have to say that every penny spent on death could be spent on our hospitals, schools, public services, international aid and the climate emergency.”

Glen from Sefton, north west England, said Unison needs to “get our own house in order”. “We need to send a clear message that we will never use the Grand Hotel or Leonardo’s again.

“These are owned by Israeli companies making massive profits from our union. We also need to serve notice on the Liverpool conference centre who stage international arms fairs every year.

“We need to take action in our branches, regions and nationally. We need to be serious about taking action to divest our pensions.”

Rana from west London said the attack on Gaza “affects everyone”. “When you turn up to national demonstrations with your Unison banners, when you hold your workplace day of action, when you wear your keffiyeh—these are actions not cheap words

“I have no faith in a Labour government to do the right thing.

“And over a half million chanting, ‘From the river to the sea’ is not hate speech. It’s about civilians including Jews living with equal rights in one state.

A Jewish delegate said, “Starmer and Biden are talking about a ceasefire but we have to remember a ceasefire is not the same as peace. We cannot get peace without justice.

“We need a movement for a better future—a democratic future where people live side by side. Not one where Jews are tied to an ethno-state carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

One motion said Unison should support Ukraine and its labour movement and “actively support Ukraine’s struggle for liberation from Russian imperialism”.

Delegates in favour argued that the way to end Russia’s war is to support Ukraine’s fightback.

Despite the motion passing by two-thirds, many delegates spoke against supporting war in Ukraine.

Jon from Portsmouth City branch said, “I condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign is pro-war and pro-Nato. It’s a front for imperialism.

“The working class cannot oppose Russian imperialism by backing Western imperialism.”

Helen from Barnet in north London said, “Most parts of the world do not experience Western dominance as some cuddly democratic force for good.

“When I see tweets of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign celebrating more military spending by the West, which only prolongs the war and risks it spreading, I cannot vote for this organisation.

“If we voted for a ceasefire in Gaza, we should vote for a ceasefire in Ukraine.”

Delegates also debated how to fight the council cuts and how to get back to pre-Tory government funding levels. 

Branch chair Nick Ruff talked about fighting redundancies in Kirklees, west Yorkshire. “Where I work the Labour council announced in November last year that it had a deficit of £26 million for the rest of that year and a further £47 million for 2024-25,” he said.

“They said that meant 250 compulsory redundancies in the first year and 750 the following year.

“We immediately as a branch organised a consultative ballot arguing to strike at the announcement of the first redundancies.

“Unfortunately the turnout wasn’t big enough. But we negotiated a strategy so that in every section where compulsory and proposed redundancies were likely we would organise ballots in that area.

“That worked—there has not been one compulsory redundancy in Kirklees. We know the attacks and cuts are coming. We have to continue to organise among our membership.”

On Friday, delegates celebrated strikes by Unison members, from health care assistants to NSL parking wardens in Camden in north London and school workers from Ash Field in Leicester. And they discussed how to organise to win, the right to strike and winning ballots and disputes.

Carrie from Dorset Health talked about members in her branch and region who had won.

“Workers in North Devon and Exeter Health branch took action because their employer Sodexo refused to pay the lump sum of the 2023 NHS pay award.

“One of our members was active for the first time after being in the union for 35 years. Sodexo gave £80 million to shareholders but couldn’t fork out £130,000 to pay their staff correctly.

“They voted 97 percent in favour of action and 75 percent of them refused the first offer because it wasn’t enough. They stuck for two days with 130 on the picket line, and some who went in came back out because Sodexo brought in agency workers to cover the strikers.

“When people see a fighting union, they want to be part of that. That’s the best organising tool we have.

Unison’s members must take the lessons of successful strikes back to their branches—fighting, striking and organising is the best way to raise the stakes under a new Labour rule, and protect and extend workers’ pay and conditions.

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