Thursday, November 13, 2014
A tale of two cities on local government pay
Yesterday was the deadline for UNISON branches outside London to notify their Regional offices of the outcome of consultation with members on the disgraceful pay proposals which emerged from national negotiation.
London branches have until today (because we got the proposals a fair bit later!) and we won't have a clear national picture until after tomorrow's meeting of UNISON's National Joint Council Committee.
Indeed, there may not be a clear national picture. As individual branches announce their results to members the diversity of opinion emerges.
I am particularly struck by the difference between our branches in two large and important Northern cities, both of which are influential in their city, their Region and the national Union.
Our Newcastle branch voted by 83% to 17% to accept the pay proposals, on a 23% turnout, whereas our Manchester branch voted by 81% to 19% to reject the pay proposals, on a 32% turnout.
What accounts for this dramatic difference in opinion between branches consisting very largely of similar members doing similar jobs in cities where trade union density is higher than in the south?
A Londoner should address this question with some trepidation of course. From hundreds of miles away I can't see whether there are really significant differences in the general polity or the labour movement between the North East and North West which might account for this striking disparity - but I don't think there are.
The difference must be, I think, to do with how the Union engaged with its members during the process of consultation. The Newcastle branch did not make a recommendation, whereas the Manchester branch recommended rejection.
UNISON branches have the right to make their own recommendations in such an exercise, as they may determine - and long may that remain so. My purpose in making this observation is not so much to criticise the decision of the Newcastle branch (with which I obviously disagree) as to observe its consequences.
When consulted on pay proposals in the absence of a clear recommendation from their union, members will, in the majority observe a fait accompli, their acceptance of which is almost assumed.
When consulted with a clear recommendation, which is explained and campaigned for, members will see that they have a choice - that this need not be a fait accompli and that their trade union has within its ranks people committed to fighting for a better deal.
The difference between these two cities is that in Manchester the union branch showed leadership - exactly the same leadership which the majority of the National Joint Council Committee refused to show on 9 October.
This comparison also shows that the Leader of the Labour Group on the Local Government Association knew full well what he was doing when he wrote to our General Secretary ahead of that meeting and demanded that there be no recommendation to reject the pay proposals - just as the General Secretary knew what he was doing when he communicated the ultimatum and the majority of voting members knew what they were doing when they capitulated to it.
UNISON's national leadership went into this pay consultation on the basis of having made a promise to the employers that leadership was the one thing that they would not show.
I hope that tomorrow will show more Manchester and less Newcastle in the aggregate results - but whatever those results, this pay consultation poses the question of leadership in our trade union more starkly than at any point in our 21 year history.
I intend to seek re-election to our National Executive Council and hope for the widest unity of all those who deplore the disgraceful conduct at the top of our trade union.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.