UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Now is the time to fight: President's speech in full

#uNDC11 Conference, guests, family and friends – good morning to you and welcome to Manchester. I would like to start by telling you a bit about me, I have worked in Local Government in Glasgow for 24 years, I am married to John and have two children Jack who is 15 and Rachel who is 14. I became involved in Nalgo when I spoke up at a union meeting during a dispute and the next thing I knew I was a steward, the Convenor, who I believe is in the hall said “I wouldn’t take a burst pay packet home to her”.

Things moved pretty quickly from there and just after Local Gov reorganisation our Branch Secretary Isobel decided to marry Brian, unfortunately Brian lived here in Manchester and before I knew it I was the Branch Secretary of nearly 13,000 members at 27! I’m still not sure if it was a case of being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place etc. So thanks Isobel, I think.

It was a baptism of fire, within my first month 3000 social workers in Glasgow walked out in an unofficial strike, talk about running before you can walk!

I’m glad to say we won the dispute eventually and in a way I’m grateful to those strikers for the experience I gained at that time and to Mike Kirby and Gerry Crawley for encouraging me to keep going, I loved my time at the Glasgow City Branch, it was a full time job but we had a great team.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Lizzie Ross who was the Branch Administrator at the time and as I often said “if Lizzie doesn’t know it it’s not worth knowing! Sadly Lizzie lost her battle with cancer in 2007 in her early forties and I’m sure the Branch won’t mind me saying it’s not the same without her.

I became the youngest ever NEC member in 2001 and am extremely proud to have represented Scotland since then.

I’ve been saying this all year, but I hope you won’t mind me repeating myself: it really has been a great privilege and honour for me to be your President for the past year. Actually I don’t think it had really sunk in yet that I was actually the President of 1.4 million members until I sat in that chair this morning and looked out at you all.

And there could be no better finale for me than to be chairing NDC... I hope I’ll still be saying that on Friday!

One of the big jobs as President is getting round to visit the union’s regions and as many Conferences as possible.

I’m really glad that I’ve managed to visit virtually every region, and attend the vast majority of service group and self-organised group conferences over the last year.

It’s only when you do this that you realise just what a wonderfully diverse union we are.

And it’s only when you do this that you properly appreciate the work that goes on across UNISON.

It’s amazing just how many talented and dedicated people I have met and worked with in the past year.

Our activists giving huge amounts of their time and energy over to defending our members at their hour of need and working to halt the destruction of our public services and our staff, many of whom see it as more than a job.

It’s very hard to single out particular parts of the union for special thanks, as there are huge numbers of people who have been encouraging and helpful over the last 12 months.

But I did want to mention the disabled members’ group and officers who have been particularly supportive to me over the year, given some of my own family circumstances. Thanks again.
Another highlight was my visit to Belfast where I was delighted to support members at the Royal Hospital by taking part in a white line picket, for those of you that don’t know this involves lining up along the white lines in the middle of the road without stopping the traffic, maybe something we should introduce here, however they did tell me later it was illegal and the unmarked police car had gone by several times but not to worry cause if I was arrested they had experience of taking food parcels to the prisons.

And my most embarrassing moment, well those of you at Women’s Conf may know it! During my speech I referred to Cameron, Clegg and Osbourne as a trio of T W A T S, I couldn’t understand the hilarity in the hall and thought to myself, didn’t think it was that funny they must just be being polite, only to be told afterwards that T W A T S has a totally different meaning south of the border than it does where I come from! I thought it meant idiots. I’m sorry but my mum’s in the hall so if any of you don’t know what it means down here ask somebody who is laughing.

Taking part in a few International trips has been another part of my year that has been especially rewarding – particularly the trips to South Africa and Palestine that I was proud to be part of.

The Palestine trip allowed me to achieve a lifetime ambition, as it was one place that I had always wanted to visit.

It was also a real eye opener. We might think we understand all about what is going on out there, but until you see it for yourself you can’t even comprehend what the Palestinian people are going through.

In a number of ways, the year of my Presidency has been quite unique – and I’m not just talking about my personal qualities!

On a deadly serious note, the attacks on our members have been unprecedented, both in their intensity and in their number.

You only have to have a passing glance at the order of business for the next four days to see that we are under assault on a number of fronts.

On pensions the government is determined to hit us with a triple whammy: they want us to pay more, work longer and then get less when we retire.

The economy is being dragged back towards recession by a chancellor who refuses to accept the need for a Plan B despite all the evidence that his Plan A is not working.

There is a refusal to learn from the pain experienced by our sisters and brothers in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, where austerity has simply driven the economy into ever-deeper crisis.

Instead growth has stalled and is even stopping the government from hitting its own deficit targets.

Counter-productive. Self-defeating. And wrong.

And the effect is felt every day by real people. Unemployment is huge, homelessness is on the rise, and spiralling inflation has meant that the poorest are once again the hardest hit.

And again the Tories have shown their true colours with their attitude to disabled people in the last few days, now claiming that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage to get on the jobs ladder. Rather than coming up with such disgraceful statements the Government should focus on restoring the massive amounts cut from the Equality and Human Rights Commission so that it can properly tackle disability discrimination.

But it doesn’t stop there.

One of the ways the government thinks it can save cash is by parcelling as many of our public services off to the private sector as possible.

This is despite the warnings we’ve had in recent weeks from the appalling conditions at the private hospital in Bristol covered by the Panorama programme.

And from the fact that more than 30,000 elderly people face huge uncertainty about whether they will be turfed out onto the streets if Southern Cross goes bust.

But these failures have not been taken on board – quite the opposite. The government now wants to do the same with the NHS in England and other key public services.

To me this is more sick society than Big Society.

Unfortunately this hasn’t yet translated into enough problems for the Tories at the elections.

It’s not for want of trying on our part...

The Million Voices campaign has been increasingly high profile over my presidential year, with massive advertising and political work taking the union’s message into members’ workplaces and into people’s homes.

And the best part of this was also my proudest moment of the past 12 months, when I was able to lead off the national march and demonstration with Dave Prentis in London on 26 March.

It was a wonderful day that really did show our union in all its glory.
Purple and green as far as the eye could see.
UNISON balloons, banners and placards filling up the streets.

But thankfully our union’s work isn’t all about what goes on in London!

Back in December the NEC approved the use of 20 million pounds to set up the UNISON Fighting Fund. Half of this is ring fenced for industrial action, with 5.5 million for the general fighting fund and 4.5 million for the general political fund.

I’m glad to say that the union has been as flexible as possible in how it allocates the money: as long as regions and branches are tapping into the key UNISON priorities of defending jobs, protecting terms and conditions, and standing up for our public services.

This is really beginning to take off now with all Regions having submitted bids to the fund, and some funds already allocated but also – and crucially – branches across the union are stepping up to the mark and together committing hundreds of thousands of their own funds to help match some of these central allocations.

Regions have put a lot of work into this and must be commended, but also the increasing number of branches stepping in to help shore up essential work in the regions.

Of course, what we all do with the money will be key...

It may be a well rehearsed line at conference most years, but this time it’s doubly true: there really has never been a more important time for us to be organising effectively and recruiting harder than ever before.

As I have said, the scale of the challenge we face is massive.

We can rise to meet it if we improve our density and ensure that we continue to grow as a union.

We should be confident in our ability to do this.

Along with the general secretary, I had the pleasure last month of formally opening the new UNISON centre in London – or “Strike Central” as the Daily Mail would have it!

It really is the perfect building for UNISON: a modern and confident building for a modern and confident union.

The words “UNISON” emblazoned in massive letters for all to see across the top and bottom of the building.

Sending out a message: this is not a union that will be silenced, we will not be pushed around. We are here and we are here to stay.

Before I finish and let you get on with things, I hope you’ll permit me a few quick words about my Presidential charity for the year – Make A Child Smile.

Children from low-paid families or under privileged backgrounds are among the most vulnerable members of our society – particularly in the current climate of cuts.

We have a duty to protect and care for them and I am proud of the work our public services do to support such children and their families, often with very limited resources.

But we can go further.

Part of growing up, and part of what makes us who we are, is memories. It's crucial that young children have positive memories which can help them develop a positive outlook as they grow up.

The Make a Child Smile fund will be spent on organising or supporting activities and projects for vulnerable kids and I will be supporting a specific project in the name of Lizzie Ross that I mentioned earlier.

A fund has been set up by UNISON Welfare to which branches and regions can apply for financial support towards the event they want to support or organise. Your branch or regional donation will help to build and sustain the fund, and thank you to the many branches and regions who have already made donations and to our service providers, including Thomson’s, UIA, Stewart Travel, Britannia, Lighthouse, UIB, Tax Refund Co, TC Advertising and LV. I would also like to mention Steph Ready and Gillian Miller from my own region who will be taking part in a sponsored parachute jump in August for my project and say thank you to the Glasgow City and Stirling local gov branch for paying for it. I would ask you to visit the Unison Welfare stand and sponsor them.

Now I don’t want this to sound like an Oscar’s acceptance speech, but there are a number of people I want to thank before I finish...
Eleanor Smith and Chris Tansley, my vice presidents, my fellow nec members, all the staff at headquarters including our General Secretary Dave for all his support, I’m sure he’s smiling behind me but really thinking he will be glad to see the back of me! And a special thank you to Kevan Nelson and Joan Walker from the Executive office couldn’t have done it without you two.
And now the difficult part, my family, what can I say, my husband John who has been so supportive and put up with so much, my Dad, who I am so glad has made it here after a horrendous couple of years, his determination to recover from a brain injury has made me realise how precious life is, my amazing children Jack and Rachel, who haven’t seen much of me this year, sorry for all the things I’ve missed, thanks for all your support, I love you beyond words and I am so proud of both of you. Finally my Mum, doing this roll with dependent children isn’t easy but it would have been impossible without her, the washing the ironing the shopping the cleaning, the childminding the list is endless but most of all thank you for making me the person I am today.

So, that’s about all from me... for now at least.

I hope you all enjoy the debates and social events this week, as we work hard to build a strong future for our union.

As a note to finish on, last year at Conference I said that our mantra should be “never show your fear, always show your fight”.

Well this year, the fear is evident – now it is time to fight.