Monday, May 12, 2008

Local Government pay - now what?

As reported below today's meeting of the National Joint Council Committee in UNISON agreed narrowly (but in my view unavoidably and rightly) to proceed with a strike ballot in the light of the narrow vote to reject in the consultation exercise on the employers' pay offer.

Clearly if one could choose the circumstances in which to launch a campaign for national strike action these are not quite the circumstances of choice. However, if the Industrial Action Committee of the UNISON NEC refuses to go ahead with the strike ballot they will be the people who decide that local government workers in England and Wales should suffer a real terms pay cut. I hope that my NEC colleagues on the Industrial Action Committee will not make such a mistake.

The arguments of those in the Northern and North West Regions who favoured acceptance were not, as I understand it, that our members are happy or satisfied with the pay offer. On the contrary we can all see that it is inadequate. The question remains whether or not there is the stomach for a fight on pay.

Obviously there are Regions and branches where a majority have favoured acceptance and I think there are a few important reasons for this to be considered. First, much having been made of the "2% limit" there has always been scope for presenting offers above 2% in a positive light. People may think "phew! that could have been worse" - members will also of course take account of the cost of taking strike action.

The critical factor in my experience in whether workers with a legitimate grievance will take strike action is whether or not they are persuaded that their leaders have a strategy to secure a more satisfactory outcome than that which will be achieved without action. It is therefore to this question that we should now turn our minds.

At present our members are unhappy with the inadquate pay offer but largely unconvinced that the Union has a plan which stands a good chance of securing a better offer. This is reflected in the narrow majorities in the consultation exercise and at the NJC Committee.

In these circumstances I think that the majority of the NJC Committee are to be congratulated in not accepting the employers' offer but have now set themselves, and the rest of us, the task of determining a strategy to win the dispute which can first of all persuade our members to embark upon strike action.

At this stage I have questions rather than answers.

How do we build support for action of more than one day? We know that the employers can ride out a single day, but not having seen longer term strike action on a serious national scale for some years we could have a dramatic effect. How do we maximise the effectiveness of such action? What is the role of national or Regional demonstrations?

Is there any role for selective strike action in local government alongside all-out action? This is remembered as having delivered "victory" in 1989 but in 2002 the Union largely failed to deliver effective selective action. There are no Grangemouths in the public services - or are there? Are there groups whose action could have a disproportionate effect?

How do we seek to coordinate with comrades in other Unions? This could be the critical factor in winning support among our own members for action. The possibility of joint action alongside teachers and civil servants exists, not to mention the possibility of joint action between health and local government (the coming of age for which UNISON has been waiting since 1993). Those who want to win the strike ballot (and that should be all those who care about the interests of our members and our Union) need to find credible and honest ways to present this case to our members.

Time is short and it is helpful (I think) that the Annual Meeting of UNISON United Left takes place this Saturday in London as we rank and file UNISON members need to discuss the campaign that needs to be waged for a "yes" vote in the strike ballot.

One final thought, for now.

I know that there will be those in the Union who do not look forward to the prospect of a strike ballot - but I think they need to look to the future. Our members in local government face Tory employers imposing pay cuts upon us. Given the likely outcome of the next General Election this will be the fate of what is left of the public sector in general.

The future for trade unions needs to be a future in which we mobilise our members to fight for our interests. Those of us who care about the future of trade unionism need to ensure that there is a strike ballot in local government and need to do all we can to win a majority for strike action.

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