MAKING THE ORDINARY EXTRORDINARY – ANDREW LINK – AEGIS REP YBS
This year’s Congress was never going to be ordinary given the events over the past four months. Since the General Election in May we have seen some extraordinary things – from the demise of the Scottish Labour Party to the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Conservative’s reckless, headstrong rush to push through more austerity and civil-liberty bills which will affect millions of people’s lives & livelihoods and, of course, the overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party Leadership contest. Ordinary is the new extraordinary.
It was a great honour to be invited to this year’s Congress in Brighton where I travelled with fellow YBS Aegis Rep Jas Singh. We set off early Sunday morning and expected to arrive late afternoon where we would be meeting Brian Linn, Fiona Steele, Lisa Robinson, Kevin Hall, Amy Phelan, Danny Tant and Clare Beglan.
However, the best-laid plans often go awry and this was highlighted with the various transport difficulties we all experienced on our journeys. Flight delays affecting those travelling from Scotland and an unfortunate incident on the railway slowing those from Yorkshire meant it was early evening before we all met in the bar of the Kings Hotel. I think 11 hours travel merits a pint.
For myself and Jas the journey consisted of car/train/coach/pub/train/taxi but it did give us plenty of time to debate the pros and cons of renationalising the railway network.
Sadly, the delays meant we missed the opening and first-night programme of business at the centre.
Sunday evening, therefore, became a chance to relax and meet up with old and new friends before the serious business commenced.
The Aegis ‘delegation’ decamped from our base at the Kings to take up the invitation from the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) to attend their social event at the end of Brighton Pier. In the Congress Guide this was creatively included within The Fringe programme, however, rather than
heated political debate we were treated to hot fish’n’chips, searing comedy from Francesca Martinez and blistering soul music from The Motor City Vipers.
It’s safe to say we made an impression on everybody there, and if Aegis ever need to appoint a Communication & Events Co-ordinator we need look no further than Mr Jas Singh (who single-handedly managed to break more ice than a fleet of Russian Arctic trawlers).
The following morning we expected to have breakfast before a nice stroll on to the Centre but, as I said at the beginning, this wasn’t to be a normal Congress and so it transpired as at 5am we found ourselves stood outside the hotel following a fire alarm. I say ‘we’ but this isn’t strictly correct as one of our party somehow managed to sleep through the incident – thankfully a false-alarm - possibly brought on by the still-smoking, dancing feet of Jas.
And so to Congress.
The early morning’s events cannot have been the ideal preparation for Brian who had the honour of, both personally and on behalf of Aegis, addressing Congress in one of the first Motions of the day. It has to be said though he managed to deliver one of the clearest, impassioned speeches of the day.
Motion 50 – Lifelong Learning – is one of the most important topics under discussion at Congress – and for good reason. Aegis members work in one of the most heavily regulated sectors and we are all subject to Continuous Professional Development, however, we are also entitled to continuous professional education and this is where unionlearn comes in.
Many of you will be aware of unionlearn through Aegis - indeed, some of you may have even taken advantage of what it has to offer – but it cannot be underestimated how important and beneficial it is, both on a personal level and to employers.
It is vital that employees have the opportunity to learn and develop new skills which in turn can only help improve workplace environments and performance. Just as important is it has to be done in a fair and equal manner. unionlearn helps to achieve this by promoting, providing and delivering learning courses at all levels.
Brian’s speech highlighted the reduction in funding, specifically in England, and how that funding is only given on a one-year rolling basis which does not allow for longer-term planning. The Motion called for an increase in funding and for the introduction of a longer three-year cycle. Unsurprisingly, the Motion was passed.
As much as I’m no great fan of Sir Richard Branson it did bring to mind his quote, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t.”
Following Brian’s speech we had the unusual sight and sound of the Rt Hon John Bercow MP addressing Congress. Far from the pantomime hissing and booing one would have expected he was treated with respect and this was reflected in the applause given at the end of his speech. I can’t imagine the same reception being given to, say, Len McCluskey addressing the CBI Annual Conference.
After lunch we listened intently to several motions surrounding Casualisation, Decent Jobs, Zero-Hour Contracts, Minimum and Living Wages which further highlighted the 2015 Congress strapline of ‘Great Jobs For Everyone’ – these types of arrangements clearly meant to further erode worker’s rights and, in many cases, meaning the minimum wage becoming a maximum wage for millions of people.
Keeping wages artificially low simply means more people reliant on State Benefits and effectively means the tax-payers are subsidising large corporations.
The afternoon continued with the address by TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, who clearly spelled out the damage and absurdity of the proposed Trade Union Bill going through its Second Reading on the very same day – coincidence, I think not.
For those of you who use social media just imagine having to tell your employer and the police exactly what you intend to post in two weeks’ time - this is just one of the many scary prospects facing representatives, officials and members if this Bill goes through. We’re now moving from Big Brother watching to now informing Big Brother what we’ll be doing.
Throughout the afternoon myself and Jas managed to keep a balance on proceedings by discovering the membership totals of various unions. Quite apart from Unison and Unite battling it out with over a million members it was a shock to see there are now only 1,073 in the NUM – highlighting the decline of an industry which still employed nearly a quarter of a million people in 1980. There are now more professional footballers (2,863) and psychologists (3,256) in a union.
The biggest shock was to find out there are 26,816 radiographers in a union, Society of Radiographers, and a further 9,486 members of the Society of Chiropodists & Podiatrists – who I assume always vote with their feet.
We also spent several hours speaking to the various exhibitors. One observation for the Green Party – Brighton is your stronghold, you may want to pick somebody a little more cheerful next time.
Monday evening I had the honour of attending the TUC Dinner with Brian, Fiona and Lisa. I say honour, but in the traditional union manner I was proposed, seconded and voted to attend following Kevin’s withdrawal at the last minute. It could also have been the fact I was the only other person wearing a shirt.
This was a chance to rub shoulders with the movers & shakers of the union movement, eat a nice meal and listen to the words of Frances O’Grady, TUC President Leslie Mannasseh and Labour Peer (to my shame I cannot remember her name) – this time in a more relaxed manner without the glare of the world’s media over-analysing.
The night was rounded off with lively, political debate back at the Kings where several of us thought it would be safer to stay closer to the exit, or the bar, in case of another fire alarm.
Tuesday morning saw a dramatic change in the weather and reflected the wind of change which had blown through politics just three days earlier with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader. It was also no surprise to see the electrifying effect this had on the speeches – the passion matching the increase of the wind-speed outside the centre.
Employment & Trade Union Rights, Health and Public Services are cornerstones of the trade union movement, so it was no surprise with which the emotion and enthusiasm of the speeches were delivered.
Unfortunately, Jeremy’s appearance was put back and this meant most of our party would not be able to see what would be the keynote speech of Congress due to prior travel arrangements.
I have to point out the Daily Mail’s report that Jeremy walked on to ‘Hey Big Spender’ was a little erroneous to say the least – they lied – although the band, Hampshire Swing Trio, did play this as part of their set twenty minutes before he appeared. However, he did walk on (after a false-start) to a reception normally reserved for a rock band – after all, he’s a similar age to the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper (Elected).
His speech was a call-to-arms (not literally being a pacifist) and a promise of support the trade unions have not received for many, many years. It served as a reminder that we are part of the biggest voluntary organisation in the country and celebrated the achievements which organised unions have brought about in the lives of ordinary working people.
Better working conditions, employment rights, welfare, health, education, public services and equality - these are all things we often take for granted and all things which are being eroded. They were built on the work of those before us and it is our responsibility to ensure that work was not wasted. They were built on ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Being part of a union is not about being radical, disruptive and uncooperative – it’s about progress, fairness and working on behalf of our members and, by extension, the wider community.
Jeremy Corbyn is proof that ordinary can be extraordinary.
And so our Congress experience came to an end. Before I end though I would like to say thanks to a few people – to Brian and Fiona for inviting us, the management and staff at both the Kings Hotel and The Grand, all at the GFTU for their hospitality and to all the volunteers at Congress.