Fire and brimstone missing at Unite’s mass meeting for charity workers

The mass meeting last night of charity sector workers organised by Unite showcased a side of the Labour Party rarely seen these days.

Labour MPs initially outnumbered charity workers in committee room 11 of the Palace of Westminster, as delegates battled with hordes of tourists and schoolchildren to get through security. The MPs declared themselves only too anxious to be lobbied on the woes of being a charity worker in the era of competitive tendering, while charities minister, former charity worker and Unite member Angela Smith oozed sympathy and concurred with Unite’s assessment that management in the sector needed to pull its socks up and become “more union-friendly”.

Perhaps this friendly, genteel environment accounted for the lack of fire and brimstone from the floor. One delegate from Edinburgh did his best to get the pulse racing by announcing he was “fed up” with cuts in sick pay and pensions, and of being treated as part of a “second-class workforce” by councils.

Another delegate said he was “quite emotional” about his charity’s announcement that unless its workers work four extra hours a week without increased pay the organisation could go under. “A gun is being held to our heads,” he said.   

The Government was also accused of being a “disgrace” for pitting legal charities in direct competition with one another “based on price and nothing else”. But such barbs were spread relatively thinly among reasoned and, in some cases, pre-prepared analyses of contracting culture.

It is also worth noting that while the meeting was addressed by Ben Kernighan of the NCVO and Neil Cleeveley of Navca, Acevo representatives were conspicuous by their absence. Doubtless this is because the chief executives body got itself into quite a squabble with Unite late last year, when Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of Acevo, accused the union of having a vendetta against the sector.

By a neat coincidence, Kyle was hobnobbing with Gordon Brown at the opening of the new offices of the trade union Community at the same time the Unite meeting was progressing. In his blog, Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: “It’s good to be able to work with the unions, as opposed to having to defend our members from disgraceful attacks on them by unions like Unite”.

So much for civil society solidarity, comrades.