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Scotland in UNISON


National Delegate Conference 17-20 June 2008

Conference 2008 - An overview

Working together to face the challenges

by John Stevenson (click highlighted areas for fuller reports)

Raise our people up or our people will bring you down, was General Secretary Dave Prentis' stark warning to the government as UNISON's National Conference in June set out a new ‘working together' agenda to defend public services and the public service team that delivers them.

Joint working, especially between the big Health and Local Government services, took centre stage as the Conference laid out strategies to face up to the challenges of shared services, pay limits, cuts and privatisation, while celebrating 10 years of the minimum wage by looking for improvements.

Jane Carolan
Jane Carolan
Lilian Macer
Lilian Macer

Scotland's Jane Carolan and Lilian Macer were key speakers in the debates. Jane warned that by 2030 we will be paying £198bn for current PFI contracts for buildings and equipment, over three times their value. "What a total waste of public money," she said. "It isn't just that private services cost more. Privatisation means service failures. Privatisation leads to fewer jobs, worse pay, worse conditions."

Lilian stressed the union needed "to share current and past experiences" to give branches the tools to face the challenges.

But it is not just the big services that are affected. Delegates from Higher Education, Energy, Police and the whole range of public services underlined the need to defend the public service ethos against the drive for profit.

United pay campaign: Jane also called for joint action on pay. "If this government truly wants 21st century public services, then it will have to pay 21st century pay rates But unions cannot fight these battles alone," she said. The motion committed us to "a united front, to work with the PCS, the GMB, NUT, UCU, CWU, Unite and other trade unions."

A campaign against violence to staff was agreed, demanding better reporting and gathering of figures to assess and address the problem. This reflects UNISON Scotland's research which shows huge shortfalls in how, or whether, public authorities monitor the problem.

Enforce trade union rights: Alan Bradley, Dumfries and Galloway Branch called on the NEC to continue to challenge inequality and enforce employment and trade union rights. Alan paid tribute once again to branch secretary Marion Stewart and classroom assistant and steward, Elaine North who won the STUC One Workplace Equalities Award in May for their campaigning work with classroom assistants.

NHS 60

Mick McGahey
Mick McGahey
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin

How often do we need reminded that public services were made public all those years ago precisely because private, profit based service delivery dismally failed?

And how better could that have been demonstrated than by the celebration of the NHS's 60th birthday? Scotland - where the first ever NHS hospital came into operation - was to the fore again in the debate.

Slamming PFI and privatisation, Lothian Health's Mick McGahey reminded us that, "The NHS is not bricks and mortar. It is not about who manages it. It's about the staff who work in it, who provide the services to patients and who are dedicated to it."

It is hard to imagine now that some of our grandparents were born at a time when money - and class - dictated how or whether you got basic medical treatment.

Public services are about people. The people who depend on them and the people who deliver them.

South Lanarkshire's John McLaughlin, a home carer, couldn't have underlined that - and the real effect of privatisation - better when he asked, "Would we rather big business looked after our mums and dads, or dedicated carers?"

James Clancy, President of Canadian public services union NUPGE told Conference that public services define a country and its communities.


But we can't challenge any of this if we are not organised ourselves.

That's why decisions on updating our organisation and recruitment strategy, UNISON's democratic structures and our political fund were also key debates.

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Mike Kirby
Mike Kirby
John Stevenson
John Stevenson

The biggest challenge in the union's history has been the fight for equal pay and the Conference threw its weight behind a funding formula to meet that challenge.

Moving the motion, Glasgow's Chris Stephens warned, "It is only through a collective approach from UNISON that we can resource the challenge that we face in securing equal pay for our members."

Scottish Convenor Mike Kirby hammered home the need to review our 10 year old structures and update them to meet the challenges of the 21st century, not least in terms of how we relate to devolved government across the nations.

It was about developing UNISON's unique democracy. It was about rights but also responsibilities. Most of all it was about members getting involved in the union at all levels. Key to it is the involvement of branches in policy making and delivering those policies as one union

"This union thrives. This union grows. It engages not only its members. It engages the community in which our members work. We set that agenda, that action plan through our debates, our lay democracy and work in partnership with staff to deliver. But we live in a changing political world and our processes require periodic review", said Mike.

Backing a six-point recruitment and organisation plan, Edinburgh's John Stevenson underlined the need for support for the ‘nuts and bolts' work of the union. "There is no better way to recruit a new member than by word of mouth from a fellow worker who has something to thank the union for", he told Conference.

Davena Rankin
Davena Rankin

And Davena Rankin from Glasgow Caledonian University persuaded Conference to reduce new members' qualifying time for legal support to four weeks. Giving early support to members had led to UNISON being "the biggest union on campus".

Conference backed a review of the union's political fund, rejecting a misleading motion that suggested every member's money went to the Labour Party. In fact, only those members who pay into the ‘affiliated fund' pay anything to Labour, while the ‘general' campaigning political fund has no party affiliation. Both are essential to the union's campaigning agenda.

Gordon McKay
Gordon McKay

Ayrshire and Arran Health's Gordon McKay called for more members to get directly involved in building Labour policies that defend public services. "What we need is a Labour Government that builds council houses, a Labour Government that brings the railways back into public ownership, and a Labour Government that builds schools and hospitals through public sector financing rather than the waste and corruption of PFI.

"Comrades, to do that we don't need a review of the APF levy by those who don't pay the APF levy. What we need are more levy payers who campaign for UNISON policies within Labour and only select and reselect Labour Parliamentary candidates who support UNISON policies."

Social responsibility - challenging racism, gun and knife crime, pensions

As a union we have a responsibility to members but we also have a wider social responsibility.

Without that over the last 100 years, we wouldn't have won many of the rights and equalities we now enjoy - and we wouldn't have our NHS.

Conference heard harrowing accounts from people directly affected by the rise in gun and knife crime, as relatives of victims and as public service workers dealing with the human pain. A measured motion sought to address the causes in communities rather than overreacting to the results which can make the problem worse.

Maggie Jack
Maggie Jack
Davena Rankin
Sofi Taylor

Maggie Jack, Glasgow City, a first time speaker at conference, said, "UNISON has to be at the forefront of a campaign for investment in young people as opposed to legislation that penalizes them, but must also put pressure on employers to introduce adequate and effective measures to protect front-line workers from the increasing threat of violence."

There is no greater threat to equality than the lies and myths peddled by the far right and Conference was united in challenging that head-on, pledging to continue campaigning in communities and backing ‘Show Racism the Red Card".

Equal rights for migrant workers do not just protect them, they protect all workers and, as Conference met, UNISON Scotland's Sofi Taylor was launching a charter for these workers at the Scottish Parliament.

Pensions: Marking 100 years of the state pension delegatesoverwhelmingly backed a retired members' motion for the union to push for an immediate and substantial increase in the basic state pension to £138 a week. They also backed a call for a Responsible Contractor Investment Policy in Public Sector Pension Funds.


In a global economy, unions have to think globally. UNISON has a proud tradition of international solidarity and its long support for justice in South Africa was updated as we celebrated honorary UNISON member Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday.

Angela Lynes
Angela Lynes

Zimbabwe, Palestine, Burma and Colombia were all on the agenda. We heard of the life and death struggles of trade unionists in Colombia as UNISON pledged support for the Colombian Solidarity Campaign. While some of us face victimisation or even the loss of our job, Colombian trade unionists face death for their activity. Scotland's Angela Lynes told Conference, "In February, some 70 NGOs, trade unions and other social organisations reportedly received e-mail death threats from paramilitaries."

The tragic situation in the Gaza siege was reflected in a call to continue working with Palestinian and Israeli trade unions to promote dialogue and the peace process and to campaign to bring a concrete change in the policies of the British government and European Union, starting with an end to the arms trade between Israel, Britain and the EU.

Scotland in debates

You can't be serious all the time at Conference - though some try - and Edinburgh's John Stevenson had Conference rolling in the aisles in his ‘what you can do in a minute' speech in the rules debate. Funny though it was, the speech had a serious point about Conference organising itself and taking debates seriously.

Again this year, Scotland contributed hugely to that. Scottish contributions avoided the ‘one speech fits all' temptation others seem unable to resist.

Perhaps it is from having such an active Scottish Council where branches meet three times a year and debate issues that our speakers do so well at Conference. Perhaps it is from a solidarity that crosses political camps.

Whatever it is, our speakers stood out in bringing knowledge of their subject, a real involvement in lay activity and a real sense of debate to the Conference. On more than one occasion they won hearts and minds, not just votes.