Following a thorough briefing on the details of the changes implemented and proposed by the Coalition Government, the briefing moved on to discuss how we shall organise our response.
Every branch shall have (at least one) "pensions champion", who will be trained and briefed to understand the changes and proposals as they impact on the pension scheme(s) in which the branch has members.
These will be supplemented by "pensions contacts" (ideally) in every workplace in the branch. These "champions" and "contacts" need not be existing officers and stewards - indeed the role of "contact" in particular may be a relatively easy way to engage members who came out on their first demonstration on 26 March.
To keep up to date with the pensions campaign activists should check in regularly at http://www.unison.org.uk/pensions/protectour.asp and encourage members to do the same.
The Region are keen for branches to identify members willing and able to speak to the media as representative members of public sector pension schemes, as it is vital that we contest the perception, eagerly engendered by the Daily Mail (and other vile Tory rags) that our pensions are "gold-plated" by having the real voices of real people ready to answer the lies of our enemies. Members who are willing to do this should approach their branch, and branches should approach their Regional Organiser for support.
The meeting was briefed about preparations for industrial action and about the genuine and serious need to update membership records. An experienced and respected health activist made the important point that branches need to be prompted to begin discussions at an early point with management about the requirements for "life and limb" cover in the event of strike action - not least as this will underline the seriousness of our intent to act.
There was also some welcome discussion of our tactics in the event of industrial action - a discussion which needs to be continued on the widest basis. We need to accept both that a single day's strike, and "action short of strike action" are not, of themselves, actions which will force a Government to retreat. This does not, however mean that both one day strike action and action short of strike action may not form part of a programme of action designed to achieve our objective. These tactical decisions will eventually have to be taken by a relatively small group of people at HQ, but they must be informed by the widest debate amongst our membership - and this needs to be happening now.
I was struck by the fact that, amongst those who contributed to this debate were myself and my friend April Ashley, who are standing on the left slate in the current NEC elections. Those NEC candidates in the room being backed by the "leadership loyalist" slate simply had nothing to say on this question.
This did reinforce for me the point that the key difference between the serious united left, who stand "for a fighting and democratic union" and those who stand against us in support of a union led by its paid officials, is that whilst we all talk a good fight in the election addresses which we (or someone) writes - it is the candidates of the left who have a proven track record of actually fighting to defend our members.
Another area for discussion was the possible strike action on 30 June, when it may be that members of the NUT, PCS and possibly other unions, will follow the example already set by UCU members by striking against the Government's attacks on our pensions.
Activists from schools were particularly concerned that we should find ways to offer advice to our members which would underline our moral support for such action, if it is taken, even if logistical and other difficulties prevent us from taking action of the same kind on the same date.
I suggested that, should the action on 30 June proceed, we use it as a major part of our own campaign, by organising (for example) lunchtime protests in solidarity with those taking strike action on the day.
Before then, the next important date Regionally is likely to be Wednesday 25 May, when there is likely to be an afternoon briefing on the pensions campaign and industrial action procedures following a meeting of the Regional Council in the morning.
I was assured by a member of the Regional Management Team that they would be doing all they could to help the lay leadership ensure that we have a quorum at that Regional Council meeting (achieving which will clearly be an important indicator that we are both serious about developing our organisation for this coming struggle and that we are capable of doing so in the Region).
It would appear that we all now agree that we shall no longer be able to rely simply upon "guerilla tactics" to respond to the Coalition's "war of attrition" against public services and public servants, and that we all now accept that we must gear up to take national action to defend our pensions (both as an end in itself and as the only viable national trade dispute it is possible to have on a joint union basis).
This is certainly the message I took from our General Secretary at this week's NEC.
From all of this, I draw two conclusions about what UNISON activists on the left in London should be doing. First, we must do all we can to maximise turnout at the Regional Council and the briefing on 25 May.
Secondly, we must also do all we can to encourage members to vote in the current NEC elections and - in so doing - to vote for the candidates of the serious left who will put deeds as well as words into the fight to save our pensions (http://unisonleft.wordpress.com/).
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