Monday, February 06, 2012

After N30 - the debate with the "rejectionists"

Red Pepper hosts an interesting exchange of views between Gregor Gall, a prominent and thoughtful union oriented academic, and Heather Wakefield, our equally prominent and thoughtful Head of Local Government, concerning the outcome of "N30" (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/n30-and-after-was-that-it/). It's well worth reading in full.

There is a debate to be had and it has to get beyond discordant cries of betrayal on the one hand and disloyalty on the other.

Gregor summarises, perhaps approvingly, what he sees as the views of the PCS General Secretary;

"Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, has lambasted what he sees as 'fatalism' on the part of many other unions in this fight. By this, he means leaders of the GMB and Unison in particular do not seem to think they can win because they have become so psychologically inured to years of defeat since the 1980s."

However, Gregor also points to the lack of clear evidence of an appetite for sustained industrial action - and to the difficulties of sustaining important public support for such action given the weakness of "social movement" organising by UK trade unions (an interesting observation to which I hope to return).

The essential purpose of his citing the trenchant views of Mark Serwotka is to highlight precisely the division of opinion which they express, as evidence of a further collective weakness of our trade unions.

Therefore, it may be as much to Mark Serwotka as to Gregor Gall that Heather Wakefield addresses this part of her riposte;

"Those who argue that unions wanting to negotiate – the majority – have 'sold out' and undermined trade union solidarity need to get to grips with the complexities of public sector pensions, serious areas of weakness in membership density and organisation, sectoral bargaining arrangements in the public sector. Only when they have done that should they decide whether there is a route to getting everything we want through industrial action."

I will come to each of the three things with which Heather says we need to "get to grips" but first it is worth commenting on that last sentence. Which experienced trade unionist, at the start (or the middle, or the endgame) of any industrial dispute seriously asks the question "is there a route to getting everything we want through industrial action?"

This question, implied by Heather's critique of the "rejectionist" position in the current pensions dispute has two flaws. The first is the implication that the "rejectionists" believe that our trade unions are "one trick ponies" and are considering industrial action as a stand-alone tactic. This turns reality on its head. It is those who have followed UNISON's line of suspending industrial action for negotiations on a basis available before we went on strike who are deliberately restricting our tactical options - not those who are continuing to negotiate without having signed up to anything.

The second flaw is more important. Heather implies that, in order to consider - at this point - a strategy which included further industrial action, we would need to know that it could provide " a route to getting everything we want." This is an entirely false basis for comparing the different strategies of the "rejectionist" unions and those following UNISON's line.

It wasn't the author of the riposte to Gregor Gall who said that this dispute had always been about "damage limitation" - but that is not the view of only one individual at UNISON HQ. Those who are currently negotiating around the health and local government pension schemes are, I am sure, doing a good job. However, neither they nor the lay Service Group Executives (SGEs) with whose authority they act can believe for a moment that they are on a "route to getting everything we want."

The correct question is not "if we take further industrial action will we get everything?" It is "if we take further industrial action will we do better than if we do not?"

This is a question of tactics, to which the three factors with which Heather says we should get to grips are relevant. The "complexities of public sector pensions" certainly do mean that the eventual settlement of disputes would lead to specific scheme by scheme settlements from scheme negotiations. However, this "complexity" cannot be invoked to justify the decision to abandon a unified approach to action at any particular point in time.

Similarly our "areas of weakness" existed before, as well as after, N30 and cannot therefore, of themselves, provide a basis upon which to take a particular tactical decision - such as whether or not it has been right to abandon further unified action after just one day. Indeed, the relationship between our weaknesses and industrial action is more complex than at first appears. Given the impact of the pensions campaign on recruitment, it is at least arguable that a more forthright approach to continuing the campaign would help us to address some of these weaknesses.

Thirdly "sectoral bargaining arrangements" must most certainly be taken into account - and are an all but inevitable feature of any final settlement. Again, however, these arrangements were around before as well as after N30. Indeed, prior to our General Secretary's TUC speech (in which he did all but "name the day") it was a common refrain within UNISON that unity could only be built "sector by sector". However, one lesson of the N30 strike, and of the campaign leading up to it, is that cross-sectoral industrial action can improve the bargaining position of trade unions across sectors.

Therefore, I conclude that it is perfectly possible, having got to grips with the complexities of public sector pensions, the reality of areas of weakness, and the necessity for sectoral bargaining, still to conclude that it has been a grave tactical blunder to draw back prematurely from unified industrial action.

This is not because such action, taken alone, promises outright victory, but because the proven efficacy of the tactic of unified action warrants consideration of its further application as part of our overall strategy.

It is in any event good to see considered debate - and I hope that UNISON branches in local government will requisition the Special Service Group Conference where this debate should properly take place.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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