Saturday, March 10, 2012

Responding to the Government on pensions - business unionism or organising unions?

The Government's "final offers" in the three unfunded "pay as you go" major public service pension schemes have been received with less than unalloyed joy (http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/116422).

The largest teachers' union is recommending rejection (in common with unions representing a clear majority of the unionised members of the Teachers' Pension Scheme, and is campaigning for further action (http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/15209).

The largest civil service union, representing the majority of unionised members of the Civil Service Pension Scheme is also recommending rejection and campaigning for further action (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/28-march--vote-yes/index.cfm).

From the largest health union though there is as yet no recommendation (to reject or otherwise) (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2624), This is because our Health Service Group Executive (SGE) will not meet to make a recommendation until 21 March.

This doesn't stop our Head of Health from opining - on our website - that; "The final proposals on the new NHS pension scheme released today have changed significantly from where the negotiations first started." This is (of course) almost inevitably true of lengthy negotiations in which the Government clearly started with wild proposals such as 1/100th accrual rates. The question surely isn't "have they moved at all?" It is; "have they moved significantly since the 2 November proposals which we rejected and against which our members in health took their first national action in a generation?"

Since the extent to which the Government had shifted by 2 November was so inadequate that we called for strike action, to justify "selling" an offer on which the elected leadership have yet to make a recommendation, national officials really should offer an honest assessment of what further progress has been made. This is all the more important since the Chief Secretary to the Treasury claimed on 20 December that the "Heads of Agreement" "deliver the Government's key objectives in full, and do so with no new money since our November offer" (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/statement_cst_201211.htm). If that isn't true we should be able to spell out why it isn't. If it is true then we should be honest with our members and not pretend to have achieved more than we have.

We are also told by our Head of Health that ""Key to the changes that UNISON has secured is success in keeping the fair deal. This is particularly significant in the light of NHS reforms because it allows outsourced staff to remain in the pension scheme."

Danny Alexander (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/statement_cst_201211.htm) says about this; "Because we have agreed to establish new schemes on a career average basis, I can tell the House that we have agreed to retain the Fair Deal provision and extend access for transferring staff.

The new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers and it is right that we offer workers continued access to them."

A cynic might say that our message to our members might therefore be; "don't worry if we fail to prevent the privatisation of your job, because - since we also failed to protect the value of your pensions, your new private employers have signed up to keep them."

In further shameless marketing of a negotiated outcome yet to receive the endorsement of elected leaders, we are also told that; "In this harsh economic climate it was crucial to ensure that no health worker earning less than £26,000 a year should be hit with an increase in their pension payments this year."

Leaving aside the question of whether those enjoying the fabulous lifestyle which £27,000 brings aren't also feeling the pinch just a bit (as are even those who enjoy the better living standards of our national negotiators), this desperate attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear also rather begs the question of what our health service members are to do when all pension contributions go up next year - when there is perhaps still just an outside chance that there will still be a "harsh economic climate".

The propoganda in favour of the Government offer on the UNISON website concludes with the observation that "In addition, scheme members within 10 years of retirement will receive protection."

Whether we should congratulate ourselves on protecting members on the basis of age (and whether that is really consistent with our Rule Book opposition to age discrimination) is one question. A more important question is why we should present this as part of the reason to accept a worse pensions deal now when it had already been offered to us on 2 November (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/statement_cst_021111.htm). We already had this protection for those within ten years of retirement before we notified the employers of our strike on 30 November. If we struck in spite of it then it can hardly be part of a victory achieved by that action.

I have sat through more than one too many NEC meeting at which sycophants have praised our "world class" negotiators to now join in such a chorus of idiocy in relation to the pathetic "offer" which "we" have "negotiated" for our members in the NHS Pension Scheme.

I cannot believe that any trade unionist worth their salt would vote to recommend this to members in a ballot, bearing in mind that anything other than a clear recommendation to reject will amount to a seal of approval from the pre-eminent health service trade union to a new pension scheme which will deliver the Government's objectives that health workers work longer and pay more to get less.

A democrat interested in member participation might think that we should delay any ballot to enable our Health Service Group Conference - which meets in a few weeks (http://cms.unison.co.uk/ConferenceDetail.asp?ConferenceID=285) to consider and approve (or amend or reject) a proposed recommendation to our members in the ballot (proposed to Conference by the SGE).

A trade union leadership acting with self confidence and a clear conscience would certainly adopt such an approach.

Regular readers Sid and Doris Marxist-Leninist will have picked up that I am unimpressed with the Government's "final offer" to our health service members, but of course that is neither here nor there. I am not a health worker and, as an NEC member, my views have no greater weight than those of any other interfering blogger.

However, we are a trade union, not an opinion polling company. We don't - or at least ought not to - seek the views of members on a question such as this in the abstract, but as part of a plan to build and strengthen our organisation. Therefore the views of our activists are very important, as they are the builders of our organisation.

If - and I merely hypothesise here - we were to embark upon a ballot with an SGE recommendation to accept which was seen by many activists to have been influenced by the sort of inappropriate "selling" of a dire Government "offer" which today shames our UNISON website, we would alienate some of our best activists. Similarly if a ballot were to commence without a recommendation agreed through the appropriate lay structures that would be a gross abdication of responsibility - and would be tantamount to a recommendation to accept as it would signify the unwillingness - or inability - of the trade union to fight on for a better deal.

If, however, Conference makes a recommendation, as was the case (in health) for Agenda for Change and (in local government) for Single Status, then - like it or loathe it - the recommendation has democratic legitimacy. The legacy of bitterness threatened by the approach of leaving it all to the SGE might thereby be avoided.

An organising union would ask Health Service Group Conference to make a recommendation to members in a ballot on the NHS Pension Scheme. A business union would sooner leave it to the SGE. Which is UNISON?

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

1 comment:

nick venedi said...

The major problem, in my opinion, with the pensions dispute is that our strategy consists of walking to central London on the 26 March 2011 and then taking just one day of action on the 30 November 12. This will not, I imagine, be scaring off Cameron or Clegg? Should we not be doing more??
Nick