Monday, December 15, 2014
Time to pick ourselves up
The advent of, well, advent doesn’t spell a reduced workload in local government – on the contrary, next year’s budget proposals are emerging in local authorities up and down the country and – particularly in the deprived areas which this Government targets for the greatest reductions – things look bleak.
For those of us who want to find ways in which our trade union movement can be used as a tool to protect the interests of workers threatened by this bleak outlook, it is vitally important that we can make a clear-headed assessment of the current usefulness of this tool.
At this month’s meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) we received the latest in the (recently initiated and) useful reports on industrial action ballots in recent months. These reports are a valuable source of data which describe the current vitality of our trade union when it comes to taking action. They are a challenging read.
Between February and November this year, in addition to the major national industrial action ballots, UNISON ran 77 local ballots for which figures were presented to the NEC. In these ballots, some of which were successful and a smaller number of which were not, some of which led to the settlement of disputes and some of which did not (or have not yet), the average turnout was 31%.
This is a higher turnout (on average) than the turnouts in the larger national ballots (21% in local government outside Scotland, 23% in Scotland, 15% in the health service in England and 21% in Wales) – but it is nevertheless low. A majority Tory (or Tory-UKIP) Government could be expected to legislate in ways which could prevent many of our ballots leading to “lawful” industrial action.
A trade union which cannot (or will not) take industrial action is hardly a trade union. Given the scale of the challenges which we face, particularly in local government, it is essential that we are able to mobilise our members to take action, just as it is essential that we engage in workplace organising, political lobbying and public campaigning.
At the moment we generally lack the ability to carry out this necessary action.
We certainly shall not improve our position by the defeatist option of refusing to consider action (“until we have built up our organisation” – because in that way we never will).
However, we need to start from a clear understanding of the enormous scale of the challenge which we face.
It may be more than six months until our members have the opportunity to debate UNISON’s future in a General Secretary election, but UNISON activists and members cannot wait. We need to find a way to pick our trade union up from the trough in which we find ourselves.