Saturday, March 22, 2008

Can local government workers stomach strike action over pay?

A hat tip (as we bloggers say) to John McDermott for doing some maths about the very limited value of a 2.2% pay offer as has just been made to local government workers. John makes the point that we cannot afford this real pay cut.

Some anonymous comment on an earlier post here has however taken issue with the conclusion which I have drawn that we need national strike action in response to this offer (even if it goes up to 2.5% in the next few weeks).

It’s probably wrong of me but I tend to associate such anonymous comments with a political group noted for both anonymity and hostility to national strike action over public sector pay. However the arguments against strike action will be used by the employers as well as by right-wingers within the movement, and it is important that those of us who are loyal to the interests of UNISON and its members can engage with these arguments.

It is through engaging in debate with our members that we will be able to determine whether we can in fact deliver the action which will be needed to secure a satisfactory pay settlement.

There are those who see the role of trade union leadership as essentially passive – they believe that the leadership should strive to reflect the views of the membership and treat these views as if they were static – like the commentator on this blog who asks if there is the “stomach” for strike action.

I don’t share this perspective. I believe that the role of trade union leadership (which means everyone from General Secretary all the way up to a shop steward) is to seek to develop a strategy which can advance the interests of the members and then to win our members to support that strategy – in part that therefore involves trying to persuade members to take action and to make sacrifices. Whether we can win such arguments depends upon how persuasive and convincing our strategy and our arguments are.

The two main arguments against strike action are (1) that it won’t work and (2) that the costs will outweigh the benefits. These interact of course because no pay strike is likely to end in outright victory (i.e. the employers conceding our full claim) and it is therefore possible to compare the value of what is achieved (in terms of an increase in an initial offer) with the cost of the action to the strikers (in terms of loss of pay).

I have suggested previously on this blog that there is some reasonably persuasive recent historical evidence that national strike action over local government pay can improve local government pay relative to the rest of the economy. A more recent example of the potential effectiveness of national local government strike action is, of course the strike action we took in 2006 over local government pensions – while I was sceptical of the official verdict that this secured a “victory” there can be no doubt that the Government was shifted from its original position.

The evidence is that we do have the industrial muscle to secure a better pay offer (the question obviously is whether we have a strategy to exercise this muscle in the right way – and I will come back to that in a later post).

For members trying to decide, collectively and individually, whether to support a call for strike action, as well as the critical question of how they judge the Union’s strategy and its likely effectiveness, there is also the “cost-benefit analysis” – the comparison of pay lost through strike action with likely gains from taking the action.

One commentator on this blog said “I've worked out that for every day I go on strike the pay offer will have to increase by about 0.5% for me to recover the loss in the days wages in this pay year” and they were answered – in part – by the next commentator who pointed out that “if you do go on strike and management cave in, the 0.5% per day you 'lose' is then made up by the fact that whatever increase you have increases the 'base salary' year on year.”

In fact, if pay is deducted at the rate of 1/260th of annual salary for each day of strike action (as decided in UNISON’s recent legal victory) then that is 0.38% of annual salary for every day of strike action. Four days of strike action would need to see an increase in the employers’ offer of 1.5% in order to make good the loss of earnings in the same pay year – an increase of 0.755% in the employers’ offer would make good the loss within two pay years – an increase of 0.525% in three years (the principle is rather more important than the precise figures).

There are two important caveats to this calculation. The first is that a successful pay strike can have a knock on effect on pay offers in future years, the positive effect of which is not captured by these figures. The second is that these calculations can only be done after the event, whereas the decision about whether or not to support strike action has to be taken (rather obviously) in advance. The members deciding whether or not to take strike action have to make judgements about how much action will be required and what the likely outcome will be – in the public sector in particular these are judgements about politics not about arithmetic.

So what it all comes back to is whether we – the leadership of the Union – can advance a strategy which persuades our members that the sacrifice of strike action is worth making. That is what determines whether there is “the stomach” for strike action. That is what we need to be discussing…


john fricker said...

The strike in 2002 showed that local government workers will come out on strike if they strongly believe they are being treated unfairly and there is decisive leadership. The T&G's Jack Dromey led a strong campaign in 2002, but there was a complete absence of decisive leadership in 2007. Unfortunately, the Pay Commission set up in 2002 turned out to be no more than a temporary 'sticking plaster' and local government pay continues to fall behind private sector pay and pay in much of the public sector.

A strike wouldn't just be about pay. It would be about demonstrating to a government which repeatedly shows contempt for local government workers that we have had enough. We could have had some impact in this respect if strikes had been planned to coincide with the local elections. It's too late for that now because, once again, the unions have allowed fruitless negotiations to drag on. Once again, there is the danger of momentum being lost.

a very public sociologist said...

If the leadership appear strong and confident, workers will take heart. But if they prevaricate and wobble all over the place - as Unison has consistently done over hospital cuts and closures, then workers will not feel bold enough to take the employers on. We know that, and you can bet they know that too.