Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The perils of pay consultation

‎The third, of four, topics for debate at the anticipated Special Local Government Conference concerns the protocols for future pay consultations.

It seems to me that this goes way beyond the purely procedural matters upon which we agreed to consult ahead of next year's Annual Service Group Conference - although we do need to reflect upon every way in which we may be able to increase member participation and engagement.

As I have observed here before, when those of us who manage to get almost one third of eligible members to participate in a decision about their pay appear to be doing relatively well, it is clear that our organisation is not in a healthy state.

I think, however, that the experience of the utter defeat of the trade unions in the NJC pay dispute (arising from a capitulation choreographed from a hotel room at Labour Party Conference) directs us to consider problems with the substance, as much as the form, of pay consultation in our trade union.

I am grateful to those who gave a blow by blow account of the crucial meeting of the NJC Committee (on 9 October) for an understanding of how the terms of our surrender were communicated to our elected representatives.

The General Secretary had a letter from the Leader of the Labour Group on the Local Government Association, in which ‎Councillor McMahon dictated that the employers' side would only consult their constituent bodies on the pay proposals (which were not then, of course, a formal offer) if the strike on 14 October was called off, if the Union agreed not to recommend rejection - and if the Union told our members that the new proposals represented a significant improvement on the previous offer.

It was only the last lie that was too much for the General Secretary and the majority of the Committee, who were not prepared to take responsibility for making a positive recommendation to accept proposals which offered most members worse than nothing for having taken strike action in July.

Therefore the majority of the NJC Committee dusted off the timeworn phrase "the best that can be achieved by negotiation" - and (somehow, this part of the decision-making is less clear in reports I have heard) also concluded that only "sustained all-out strike action" could produce a better offer.

Picking this apart I think there are (at least) three evils for which we need, if we can, to find a remedy at our Special Conference.

‎First, our visible willingness to submit to bullying from a nonentity must never be repeated. No self-respecting trade unionist should have bent the knee to Councillor McMahon's offensive and presumptuous correspondence. 

The question of what recommendation we make to our members is not a question which we can allow to be determined by the employers. 

Of course, it may be a factor in negotiations (because employers know that our recommendations carry weight). If the employers indicate a willingness to offer a concession which is conditional upon our making a positive recommendation then - providing that our elected Committee has the matter fully reported before it and takes its own decision, we may make a recommendation designed to elicit that concession.

These were not those circumstances. The NJC Committee had had no real role in any negotiations before the first version of the pay proposals were put before them (and rightly rejected) at the end of September. Councillor McMahon's letter (which had, in any case, no more formal status than the not-yet-an-offer to which it referred) did not offer any significant material concession in return for which we were to do his bidding.

The Leader of the LGA Labour Group told UNISON to "jump" and the General Secretary came to the NJC Committee only to ask them "how high?" 

I do not know whether any decision of a Special Conference could prevent such an outcome in future (since one cannot legislate against cowardice or stupidity) but I do know that we need to give this question some thought.

Secondly, we need to address once more the responsibility of leading bodies in our trade union to lead. It was a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, on the part of the NJC Committee (or, at least of the majority thereof) to go out to consultation without making a clear recommendation either to accept or reject.

There is no shame in making an honest recommendation to accept an unsatisfactory offer if that recommendation is founded upon an equally honest and reasoned assessment that ‎a better outcome cannot be achieved.

I think we could enforce such honesty as a matter of policy if we agree that UNISON would always make a recommendation either to accept or to reject an offer - but would this be an attempt to find a procedural "fix" for what is essentially a political problem?

Thirdly, I think we need a much clearer account of how the decision came to be taken that the ONLY alternative to accepting pay proposals which were worse than the offer against which we had taken strike action was "sustained all-out strike action."

What consideration was given to the practicability of selective action and why was this rejected?

What consideration was given to a rolling programme of Regional action and why was this rejected?

Why did the Committee think that a solid two day strike by UNISON's local government membership would have had no impact?

I don't pose these questions in order to advocate (or oppose) any particular tactical option but to illustrate the point that there should have been a transparent and inclusive process of debating tactical options before we told our members that the ONLY thing they could do to get a better deal was "sustained all-out strike action."

I don't think much thought went into‎ this part of what we were told to be honest. The same combination of laziness and (dis)ingenuity which went into concluding that a worse offer was "the best" that could be achieved by negotiation clearly went on to inform the decision to tell our members that if they didn't like it they must be prepared to do far more than our leaders thought we would have the stomach for.

Again I may be wondering aloud about whether we can solve a problem of judgement and integrity by procedural prescription (which perhaps we cannot) but we could insist upon a more considered approach to an open assessment of the ‎merits and possibilities of different forms of action.

We may never have another national pay dispute in local government. Our leaders may have brought an end to decades of national pay bargaining through the misconduct of this year's "dispute".

However, if we are to have any hope for the future we must thoroughly revise our approach to pay consultation.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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