PCS president Janice Godrich opened proceedings at a packed conference hall on Wednesday morning by thanking members for the latest action on 10 May.
“It was a magnificent display of determination and solidarity joining with our sisters and brothers in other public sector unions to stand united against this arrogant government’s lies and its ruthless attacks on working people,” she said.
But she went on to say that this has probably been one of the toughest years in our recent history and issued a strong warning saying that 80% of the government’s cuts are still to come.“We have seen job losses accelerated for PCS members, living standards are falling and the pay freeze has hit the lowest paid hardest,” she said.
Janice pointed out that inequality is now rising to levels last seen in the 1930s.
“While the majority tighten their belts the pay of the FTSE directors has risen by 40% in the past year,” she said. “Corporation tax and income tax for the richest has been cut and some companies' top directors now pay less tax than the cleaners. No wonder the Occupy Movement outside St Paul’s Cathedral hit a chord with so many people. All this misery is justified by saying the government is dealing with the deficit while the reality is this is about keeping millionaires in the cabinet to the style to which they have become accustomed and laying the basis for the wholesale privatisation of public services.”
But a strong note of optimism was added when Janice said the tide was turning against the cost-slashing coalition government.“Austerity isn’t working and the government is being forced on to the defensive,” she said. “Public services are failing and the public are beginning to look for another way. I’m proud to say PCS at the forefront of opposition against this brutal government over the past year.”
With more than 250,000 There is an Alternative pamphlets being printed and distributed the president said a new pamphlet would be launched at this year’s conference called Austerity Isn’t Working which will further consolidate PCS’s position as one of the main opponents to the coalition government – in contrast to the Labour leadership which has “disgraced itself” by signing up to the Tories’ cuts and cow-towed to the markets and the “rich kids” in the cabinet.
She said following the biggest strike in a generation of 30 November it was disappointing that momentum was lost with the TUC reducing the size of its congress to a rump but we have rejected this timid approach and worked hard to build a coalition of the unions to exert pressure needed to win concessions over pensions and defend jobs and services.
“We are living in hard times but we are fighting to build a union of solidarity,” she added.
On behalf of the NEC general secretary Mark Serwotka presented the annual report.
He started off by praising: “The most democratic, open union in the UK union movement. We have built Britain's best union,” he said. “I start from that point of view because we are going to have some very important debates this week. Important because the challenges that we as a union face are without precedent. The government's austerity measures and what they mean for our members, families and communities are completely unprecedented in Britain. We have to continue what we’ve done brilliantly over the years and say we are the real opposition to what the government is doing and build that opposition to defeat their austerity programme.”
“The government is unleashing hell on members, their communities, their families and some of the most vulnerable people in Britain,” he added. “And this is a government of millionaires, full of incompetence and ruling, frankly, on behalf of a tiny elite.”
To gales of laughter he picked out a variety of frontbench ministers.
“Francis Maude – the Minister for Chaos. Perhaps he was hiding on 10 May, storing Jerry cans of petrol in the many garages of the many houses he owned? Iain Duncan Smith, explaining on Question Time that the queues at Heathrow were a consequence of two planes landing at the same time. Damian Green the minister of immigration told us that problems were caused by the wrong type of wind. Then there’s Teresa May, the Home Secretary, telling the Tory Party Conference, ‘We were unable to deport an illegal immigrant because they have a cat.’ Which was a despicable lie. Then there’s Jeremy Hunt who told staff that the cuts were going to hurt everyone and it was a shame that 50% of staff had to go but he was feeling the pain because he was losing his ministerial car."
But he said the serious point was that these people running the country, without any democratic mandate, are carrying out the biggest onslaught on working people and their communities we have ever seen.
“And why are we being told there is no money when Britain’s richest corporations are currently sitting on £754 billion, half the country’s annual income, which they should be investing but they are not prepared to?” It tells us that this is an attack which means that those with the least are paying an enormous price for the folly of those at the top. What we have to do this week is dedicate ourselves to do everything that is necessary to fight the government and defend our members and families in the communities in which they live.”
He then praised the response on pensions, saying PCS has lead the way on 30 June, 30 November and, brilliantly, on 10 May.
“It’s because people recognise the robbery and the injustice that they are prepared to fight,” he said. “And for those who haven’t twigged it let’s take the words of Danny Alexander, the minister responsible, who let the cat out of the bag and said in parliament: ‘Our pensions reforms are substantially about making pensions more affordable to alternative providers.’ In other words privatisation is the key aim of this government.”
“If we don’t win on pensions then the attacks will intensify and lots more will be up for grabs,” he said. “As bad as the pension proposals were they are getting worse all the time. When we have a pension age of 68 we are told annually that the government will review it to see if it’s high enough. Sixty-eight will be the highest pension age of any country in western Europe. Contrast that with France where the newly-elected president has said he wants to drop the pension age from 62 to 60. The slogan of the week at conference should be: ‘Vive la France.’ The tide is turning across Europe.”
He praised the “incredible work” of the past year but said that more must be done and more unions must come together to rebuild the coalition and defeat the government, calling for a further strike in June with as many unions as possible.
“We have to ask how a government with no mandate is getting away with it,” he said. “Well, we have to show them that they can’t get away with it.”
Conference debated the emergency motion A584 regarding the national campaign on pensions.
Moving the motion was Mark Serwotka on behalf of the NEC.
“This is a huge debate that we need to have of building and leading the resistance to the government’s pensions’ attacks,” he said. “It’s worth reminding ourselves that our pensions are affordable and sustainable. The attack on pensions has nothing to do with pensions - it has everything to do with raising money to solve our economic difficulties.”
He said that the union needed a strategy to get Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude back to the negotiating table, after the minister had refused our call for talks after 10 May.
“We are clear on the NEC that we cannot win on our own,” he said. “The overwhelming feedback from members after 10 May was that it was a brilliant strike but we need more unions with us to build momentum, not see it go back. Even though we would rather move faster and quicker you have to accept that other unions make decisions and we have to work with them. It is through the strength of other unions that we can succeed - not potentially going it alone and being defeated.”
Seconding the motion was Andrew Boylan from the Veterans' Agency national branch.
“It’s important to continue to fight and use every weapon in our arsenal,” he said. “But on a national level we have to build our coalition of resistance and build locally within town and city communities and get everyone to work together. We need to lead the way and be ready for the fight.”
The motion was overwhelmingly carried.
Delegates debated motion A13 regarding regional pay.
Moving the motion was Marianne Owens from Revenue and Customs South Wales branch who asked: “What does regional pay really mean? I believe it is the plan is to split the country into four regions: inner London, outer London, the M4 corridor and Wales and the rest of England. This is bad enough but they are not just intending to make pay regional but they want to make it market facing. This is a race to the bottom. Let’s be clear that the real reason they are introducing this is because of privatisation. Danny Alexander said the regional pay would make the public sector ‘More attractive to alternative providers’. It’s an attack on us and the services we provide to the public.”
Peter Royle from the DCLG Northern and Midlands branch seconded the motion: “Pay should be based on our job, not our department, and certainly our postcode. This could mean that being a Mancunian I’ll get paid more than my Liverpudlian comrades down the road for doing the same job. That is wrong.”
A variety of speakers included Kevin Greenway on behalf of the NEC who made this colourful speculation: “If this load of fat cats get their way they will be paying us in groats, chickens and carrots and turnips in the regions. We do not want postcode pay. This is driven by an ideology that is completely flawed. It is also no surprise to know that the zones that have been mentioned: from London and the south east across the M4 corridor to Bristol is Tory heartland. We have rumbled them. Already in the Ministry of Justice it’s proved to be divisive and failed.”
The motion was carried with the conference instructing the NEC to vehemently oppose regional pay or market facing pay in any shape or form.
A hush descended on conference as Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, took to the podium on Wednesday afternoon.
“Nineteen years ago I received the news that no mother wants to hear – the death of a child,” she said. “At that point I also wanted to die. I had to bury my eldest child and so begin a long journey for justice. Martin Luther King said: ‘Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just the first step’. Never knowing if I would get justice for Stephen I took the first step. I became Stephen’s voice as he had lost his.”
Doreen described how subsequent events resulted in important changes being made to the police force, the law and society in general. But she was here today primarily to talk about the trust and centre set up in the wake of her son’s death.
“It aims to give disadvantaged young people the opportunity and access denied them by circumstance and to help them fulfil their potential,” she said. “I have a personal stake in every young person that walks through our doors and am very proud to have awarded more than 100 bursaries, with eight of them qualifying as architects.”
An architect, poignantly, was something that Stephen had dreamed of becoming.
“We also opened the Stephen Lawrence Centre four years ago which is a beautiful monument to my son,” she said. “Its purpose is to help those who do not possess the tools to break down social barriers. We need to forge new paths to change our world. However, those beautiful minds need to be fed and watered in order to grow. We are the watering can to cultivate new thinkers with aspirations to change.”
Conference stood for over a minute to applaud Doreen and PCS president Janice Godrich presented her with a £5,000 cheque towards the trust's work.
Shortly after her emotional and inspiring speech to conference on Wednesday afternoon Doreen Lawrence gave an interview to Activate editor Dave Tilley.
Doreen spoke about a range of issues, including how she feels groups such as PCS have supported her campaign for justice and what she thinks of the government’s austerity measures.
How have found the energy, strength and determination to keep going over the past 19 years since your son Stephen’s murder?
I think we just had to keep to going and challenging the police and their inaction. They knew who had murdered Stephen and did nothing with the information. I have always said had Stephen been white they would have caught his killers.
Do you think things have improved over the last 19 years in terms of race relations in UK society as a whole?
Each time I think things have changed for the better and we have examples of positive improvements then something happens which puts that back. What I wanted to see after the inquiry which eventually followed Stephen’s death was for them to get rid of the whole police force and start again. Having said that since the recent trial and in the build-up to it the officers who have been involved seem to have a different mindset and relationship. But you have to be careful not to get too complacent.
Are you confident of changes and that the three remaining suspects are brought to justice?
If they (the police) had had the information at the time of the recent trial then the three others would have been in the dock at the same time as the other two. So no, I am not optimistic about any possible future convictions.
How has the support of PCS and other groups helped your campaign for justice?
Sitting there listening to the powerful messages of support at your conference meant a great deal to me. There has been great support from everyone and great support for us.
What do you think of the government’s cuts, particularly to legal aid and the Equality and Human Rights Commission?
This government does not have race on the agenda. Cuts have always affected the black community more. I despair to think of the future for my children and grandchildren. We used to think that Thatcher was bad but this present government are even worse than she ever was. They have no sense of reality because they don’t live in the real world. When my son was murdered they didn’t live in the real world, nothing much has change where they are concerned.
What is next for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and your own work?
After nearly 20 years of campaigning I’m coming to end of my campaigning. It’s time for someone else to take over. I would like to see the trust continue to work to break down barriers and give opportunities to people to achieve their ambitions. I would like to see organisations like PCS and other trade unions make long-lasting commitments to support the trust’s work.