Saturday, September 13, 2008

If it's right to strike in Blackburn, West Lothian what about Blackburn, Lancashire?

Congratulations to our Scottish brothers and sisters for deciding upon further strike action in their local government pay dispute. This is in the context of the employers offering further talks but failing to make an improved offer – a course of action which the UNISON negotiator describes as “disingenuous”.

This is also of course precisely what the employers have done south of the border, following the resumption of talks after our strike action in July. Whilst negotiations have led to not just one but two joint statements, they have not produced any movement on the pay offer for 2008/09.

In assessing whether this means that UNISON’s local government membership in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should respond in the same way as our Scottish comrades to this impasse we have to continue to weigh up a number of factors.

On the one hand it is true that the Scottish strike action was based upon a better ballot result, and was more solidly supported than our July strike action. We cannot therefore just assume that because a particular course of action is right for Scotland we can assume it is right in England, Wales and Northern Ireland without thinking through the implications.

On the other hand, we may now have the opportunity to develop our strategy to win a better pay offer in the light of decisions taken and announced at the TUC.

The TUC is committed to coordinating public sector pay disputes. PCS are balloting for discontinuous strike action on the basis of plans for action over a three month period and the NUT are also balloting for discontinuous action. UCU members in Further Education will shortly be deciding whether to join this campaign which could possibly also see action by UNITE members in health.

In order to secure a better pay offer for our local government members we have to put pressure both on the Government (to provide resources to local government and to encourage the employers to settle) and on the employers themselves. I believe that unified public sector strike action on the widest possible basis could put pressure on both the Government and employers, and that our members could be persuaded to support action on this basis more solidly than they supported the action in July.

A key factor will be the attitude of UNISON’s leadership at every level. It is entirely within the hands of our Union that the TUC should decide to declare that the day on which PCS and the NUT take national strike action together should be a TUC Day of Action as mandated by Congress. On this basis an argument could more readily be won with other public service workers in dispute over pay to join such action.

We know that this is a weakened Government susceptible to political pressure – and that (from a far less weak position) the Government did make considerable concessions on public service pensions when confronted by a united movement. It is reasonable to conclude that similar pressure could produce concessions on public service pay and therefore to expect that a positive leadership for union members would consist of arguing for the need for such action.

Is there an alternative to further strike action if we want an improved pay offer? Negotiators on both sides of the dispute are obviously aware of the possibility of arbitration.

The employers’ side, in their submission to the Local Government Pay Commission back in 2003 argued that there is "no need for national strikes in local government because both parties have unilateral access to binding arbitration".

When, however, shortly after that submission was made, the trade union side tried to use this clause to settle the outstanding London Weighting dispute we found how easy it was for the employers’ side to sabotage it by refusing to cooperate with an arbitrator if one were appointed.

Since an arbitrator would give weight to the budgetary pressures on local authorities and to Government pay policy as much as to the standard of living of our members, even if the employers agreed to arbitration there is no reason to suppose that this would produce a significant improvement on 2.45%.

To propose a reference to arbitration at this stage of the dispute would be to give up on our claim and to write off the effort thus far expended in the dispute.

I think that this would be an error and that, for all the difficulties which confront us, our best course of action is without doubt to make a renewed effort to secure support for solid strike action in conjunction with as many other public servants as possible.

It is unfortunate that the basis for recent consultation with members excluded any serious attempt to engage members in a debate about the strategy which we are adopting over pay – this means that the results of such consultation are worthless as evidence to guide decisionmakers.

I hope that next week’s meeting of the UNISON National Joint Council Committee will give our activists the chance to develop and implement a strategy to secure an improved pay offer through unity with other public service workers.

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