Monday afternoon started with a debate on childcare. It began with a panel session chaired by Guardian journalist Yvonne Roberts, with Carol Ball (UNISON nursery nurse) and Philippa Thompson from 4Children, speaking. This was followed by a couple of motions.
Speakers talked in particular about low pay and poor conditions for childcare workers, and mentioned the nursery nurses’ strike in Scotland last year.
The big majority of childcarers work at home or at small voluntary sector or private nurseries. Very few are in trade unions.
There was lots of praise for the government and the advances it has made in the area of working parents’ rights. It is true that things have got better. I have had progressively better maternity pay and leave for each of my three kids (born 1999, 2002 and 2004), and my partner now has stronger legal status as a father.
But the facts remain that:
- The vast majority of employers provide no help with childcare;
- Parental leave is unpaid, so useless to low-paid workers and a struggle for many others;
- Childcare is expensive and very hard to get outside ‘normal’ hours;
- Maternity and paternity rights are still not good enough;
- Childcare is still seem as a personal indulgence not a responsibility of society.
Many of these points were made during the debate. But 18 years of Tory government seem to have convinced many trade union big cheeses to hang out the banners for every crumb that falls from New Labour's table (apologies for that woeful mixed metaphor).
Next up was … me! I stuck my hand up to make a short speech about abortion rights, as otherwise this pressing issue would not have got a mention in Congress. I’ll post up the text later on. So make sure you check back.
Then there was the General Secretary’s address. I won’t bore you with the details (not yet, anyway) – you can read it yourself here, but don’t expect anything too exciting.
Congress also discussed anti-fascism. Speakers talked about fighting the BNP (rightly described by one speaker as “scum”, “dross” and “not very nice people”(!)) in the community and in elections. It also discussed the need for unions to have the legal right to exclude fascists from membership.
All very good, and guess what? The motion was passed unanimously. But as a movement, we are going to have to think more about how we fight the fascists, and get more active in actually doing it. I had an interesting conversation with the woman at the Trade Unions for Searchlight stall on this very subject.
The TUC Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Workers’ Conference introduced an motion entitled ‘Amendment to Equality Bill’. As the motion points out, the government plans to outlaw discrimination in the provision on services on the grounds of religion but not on the grounds of sexuality. Alan Jarman of UNISON, proposing the motion, asked “Why is it that this government believes that there is a hierarchy of equality? … this is nothing short of a travesty … Why should we have to wait for crumbs to fall from the table of government?” My sentiments exactly, and without mixing the crumbs metaphor with any other.
The seconding speech from the FDA (senior civil servants, yah) pointed out that religious communities are rightly getting legal protection from discrimination, but that a fair bit of homophobia originates from religious teachings. He said: “If your religion tells you that being gay is sinful, then your religion has got it wrong”.
In my view, political figures – including some in the labour movement – have been giving far too much credibility to religious authorities lately. It is good to hear someone pointing out that, er, they can be bigots sometimes and it’s not on.