The huge public services union Unison meets in Brighton from 15 June for its local government sector conference and its general conference.
Issues under debate will include pay, privatisation, the Government's plans for schools, and Unison's role in the Labour Party.
Adie Kemp and Ed Whitby report.
Prentis chides Blair: but will he fight?
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, has called for a trade-union fight to "reclaim the Labour Party".
In Unison, the union's Labour Party affairs are regulated by an "Affiliated Political Fund" structure separate from and less democratic than the union's general conferences and committees.
It is unlikely that any hard-hitting debate on Labour Party matters will reach the conference floor in Brighton, but the issue will be in delegates' minds.
Prentis chose the recent Affiliated Political Fund conference for this speech, in which he hotly defended Unison's link with the Labour Party, but moved a call for a review of "Partnership into Power" (the Labour Party's current structure).
It's nice to see that the general secretary of the biggest union in the country has finally noticed that the Government isn't paying him any attention - though Prentis's motion was vague in the extreme and does not commit Prentis and his colleagues in any way.
Prentis, along with other union leaders, is feeling the pressure from his members. And, again like other union leaders, he feels let down that stalwart support for New Labour has not brought any payback. There has been very little in the way of "beer and sandwiches" at Blair's No 10.
The motion - and Prentis' speech - are first steps in trying to do something about both problems. They are an admission that the long standing position of the bureaucracy, in acting to hold down trade union involvement in political issues, is weakening.
It is becoming increasingly untenable for the union bureaucracy to fail to challenge the Blair government when the government's policies are so openly at odds with union priorities.
Prentis's motion is a way of making it appear that the bureaucracy are doing something about the problem, without actually doing anything.
For the left it represents a big opportunity. An admission by the union leadership that there are problems to be addressed creates openings for the left to push forward with our own positive agenda. It requires from the left that we do have a positive agenda to push forward, rather than seeing the discontent in the working class as only an opportunity for a little minor sect building.
Winning the unions to active participation in a political struggle against Blair means winning a fight inside the unions, not just against the passivity and cowardice of the union leadership, not just against the passivity and cynicism of the rank and file union activists, but also to establish clear political objectives for the unions to take forward.
It means taking up difficult issues for the left, like actively intervening in selection procedures for Labour candidates, pushing positive policies through Labour Party channels and insisting that reps inside the Labour Party support them.
It means moving the debate on the Political Funds away from the sterile and abstract discussion on the mechanics of possible financial support for candidates against Labour, and towards a practical debate on how the priorities of the union movement can be promoted in the political field.
Not a done deal
Unison, the biggest general health union, has returned a large ballot majority for the Government's complex new pay system for the Health Service.
Amicus and most of the sectoral unions and professional associations have also shown large majorities for accepting the deal, called Agenda For Change.
However, before the vote, Unison and Amicus had been forced, by objections from the left, to modify their proposals away from a straightforward acceptance of the new pay structure to a two-stage process.
Their vote was to agree to the system being tried out now in a dozen sites. The full scheme cannot be agreed until after another ballot of members in twelve months' time.
The union leaders won the votes by reassuring members that they could win significant improvements in the scheme through the year-long trial. They will be relying on that extra time to dissipate the opposition to the scheme. But the left should see this as a opportunity to concretise and clarify the positive changes that we need in order to make Agenda For Change acceptable.
The professional organisations have voted to accept the deal in its entirety. The Government will not easily agree to take notice of a second ballot in the unions. But if Unison or Amicus vote no in a second ballot, our refusal to co-operate can probably scupper the scheme anyway.
The Government has recently announced that first-wave Foundation Hospitals will join the twelve Early Implementer hospitals in applying the new scheme from October. This was never agreed by the unions, and wasn't considered in the ballots. It will further complicate the analysis of the initial implementation of the scheme, and is designed to frustrate any efforts by the unions to seriously renegotiate the terms of Agenda For Change.
But without such a renegotiation, the pay proposals will mean many thousands of Health Service workers, among them many of the poorest paid, will face reductions in their unsocial hours payments, longer working hours and a future condemned to low pay.
Activists in the unions, especially those which adopted the two-stage process, must ensure that their leaderships and negotiators are presented with definite demands for the areas of Agenda For Change which need to be renegotiated.
The unions should be made to commit themselves now to recommending a no vote next year unless all the problem areas are successfully renegotiated. Anything less than such a commitment will result in only minor cosmetic changes to the deal, and a furious effort by the union leaders to sell it to members next year on the basis that it's a done deal, and there's no going back.
The turnouts in the ballots were fairly low.
The AEEU half of Amicus saw the biggest no vote, 34% in a surprisingly high turnout of 44%. However the AEEU represents little among health workers - even less than the small Society of Radiographers, which was the only union to recommend (and achieve) a no vote. The SoR now has a problem: having secured its desired no vote, it will be unable to stop the bandwagon built up behind Agenda For Change by the votes in the bigger unions. A major staffing crisis in radiography already exists in many trusts, and this situation could get a lot worse as the reality of Agenda For Change sinks in.
In Unison only 18.5% voted against the offer, despite a fairly large degree of dissent inside the union. The 22% turnout showed that a very large percentage of the membership were not aware of the importance of the issue at all, or remain unconvinced either for or against the proposals. There is widespread confusion, and a feeling of "wait and see".
By campaigning on positive demands, relating directly to the concerns of health workers, we can change that "wait and see" into "seen it, and want something different".
Left wins 14 seats
The United Left in Unison have improved our position in elections to the union's leading committee.
The left stood a combined slate of 35 candidates for the 60 seats on the executive committee, which are elected in a complex variety of ways. It was the biggest left slate since the formation of the union. We increased our standing from nine members on the executive to fourteen - good, but not as good as we had hoped for.
There were some losses for the left. Mark New, the branch secretary of Dudley health branch, lost the seat he had won in a by-election. Glenn Kelly from Bromley narrowly lost in his bid to gain a seat in the Local Government section. Kate Ahrens, newly elected Health Service Group representative, was the only victorious left candidate in the national service groups seats.
Twenty-six of the 60-strong committee are newly elected, and we may be able to move some new committee members who do not currently identify with the left, but are also not pawns of the leadership.
Now can the United Left work together, and also pull others alongside us, in a campaign to awaken the sleeping giant of the union movement?
Level up to decent wages!
By Ed Whitby, Newcastle City Unison branch (personal capacity)
In the last 12 months we have seen very little progress, if any, on local single status negotiations.
These negotiations are supposed to put all local government workers, white-collar and blue-collar, on a common "single status" and pay structure. But the process has been allocated no money from national government, and so instead of worse-off workers getting improved gradings and no one losing out, in practice the agreements being negotiated locally pit one group of low-paid workers against another.
Last year's pay deal was handled badly, too. Last year's conference decided to ballot for action for a pay claim of £1750 flat rate or 6%, whichever was the greater.
After a day's strike action the leadership suspended action for six weeks to propose the new offer - 3.5% then, and another 3.5% for this year, for all except the bottom two grades who did marginally better.
The day's action - the first day of national strike action in Unison since its formation - had been very popular with union members. They saw it as a chance to let the government know how angry they felt, not just about pay but also about privatisation and cuts in services.
But then the leadership's commitment to challenge pay inequality and poverty pay with a flat rate claim turned to dust when they were offered an extra half a percent. Their delaying tactics pushed members into accepting the deal.
Two thirds of our members have a basic salary which is still below the European Poverty Level, and 80% of those are women workers.
Conference will have the opportunity to hold the leadership to account on pay, on single status, and on "best value" and privatisation. It also has a chance to overturn the leadership's support for government proposals on regional government (which threatens county councils) and school support staff.
Don't sell out schools
Unison local government conference will see the leadership under considerable pressure over their decision to sign up to the Government's "Remodelling the School Workforce" proposals.
Included in the proposals are attempts to use teaching assistants (TAs) as a cheap alternative to teachers. TAs are to be used to cover whole classes on their own in the "short term" (whatever short term means).
The Government wants to get round the shortage of teachers without making any commitment to put more money into schools. Its plans do not provide for nationally agreed job descriptions and pay rates for TAs and other support staff, or any paid route for them into qualifying as teachers.
Other Government proposals, to take 25 tasks away from teachers, will need investment in more support and admin staff at a time of 1,500 teacher redundancies and cuts in support staff and hours. Yet the proposals include no additional money (which is one reason why the National Union of Teachers has refused to sign up to it).
Unison is being urged by activists to withdraw from the agreement and unite with teachers to fight for greater investment in schools.