Thursday, June 13, 2013

The best that can be achieved by negotiation?

After a three year pay freeze in which the living standards of local government workers have fallen by 16%, today's news is disappointing. Our pay will increase by 1% this year, whilst prices rise by 3%.

Our negotiators having forced the employers to offer the whole of the 1% which George Osborne had suggested in the first place, by a narrow majority UNISON's National Joint Council (NJC) Committee then failed to recommend that we reject a pay offer which they themselves described as "an insult."

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that, by a margin of nearly three to two, UNISON members accepted an offer that they were told was "the best that can be achieved by negotiation." The NJC Committee copped out by failing to recommend either acceptance (an honest capitulation) or rejection (which would have been in line with the interests of our members).

The significance of this dereliction of duty by the narrow majority of the NJC Committee is underlined by the fact that the two Regions which returned a majority vote to reject (London and the North West) were also the two Regions in which the Regional Local Government Committee/Executive recommended rejection.

In the same way, in Scotland, members have responded to a clear lead by rejecting the 1% insult which local government workers south of the border will now be swallowing - they are now rightly preparing for a strike ballot with a definite plan of action. I wish them luck.

Workers are rarely keen to strike - and to be asked to consider doing so by a visibly unenthusiastic leadership is always likely to elicit a negative response. Those who want to accept a real terms pay cut on behalf of some of the lowest paid trade unionists are never likely positively to propose this - that's where the weasel words ("the best that can be achieved by negotiation") come into their own.

What does this mean?

It means "the best that can be achieved by negotiation without either the reality or credible threat of action".

If we ballot for action, if we take action, then we can find that we negotiate a better deal than we could have done before we threatened, or before we took that action.

Locally, at branch level, we have used the threat of action to get better deals several times in recent years. Thus far we've not got to the point of taking action. A credible threat can be a useful tool - but a credible threat can only be issued by a leadership who look like they mean it.

To do this you have to start with a hard conversation with union members, in which you tell members things they may not want to hear.

You have to tell people the truth - that they have an interest in fighting to defend their interests (and sometimes also a duty to their current and future colleagues). You have to do what you can to force members to prepare for sacrifices that will hurt them and which they may be unenthusiastic to make.

It's not an argument you always win - and you run the risk of unpopularity.

But that's what leadership is.

Leadership is not telling people what they want to hear, reflecting back passivity and unwillingness to take risks and make sacrifices.

I think that the North West and London Regions showed leadership in the local government pay dispute.

The only way we will ever really get to "the best that can be achieved by negotiation" is by threatening, - if necessary - balloting for and -if possible - taking industrial action.

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1 comment:

willvine said...

As long as Unison continues to negotiate in across-the-board percentage terms on a framework that already has differentials built in it will continue to impoverish its own low paid constituents.It's time the union pushed for less inequality not more. My 1% rise will gross me £3 a week - less than the price of a pint round here. My line leader will get £6.