Friday, May 22, 2015
Probation staff show the way on 11 June
UNISON members employed in the Probation Service will be taking strike action on Thursday 11 June in a dispute over pay following near-unanimous rejection of a “zero per cent” pay offer and a decisive “yes” vote in a national strike ballot. This will be the first national UNISON strike action since the General Election – and all UNISON members and activists should do all we can to support our members in probation.
That is the most important point which I want to make in this blog post – that we must show solidarity with UNISON members in probation taking action, and take inspiration from their action to every UNISON member.
We must, however, also reflect upon the lessons which we can learn – throughout UNISON – from our recent national pay disputes. The pay freeze across our public services has slashed something like a fifth off the real earnings of UNISON members across most of the sectors in which we organise. Now that we face an even more hostile Government, holding the purse strings even where they do not directly employ us, we need to develop a more effective approach towards reversing the decline in our living standards that that which failed under the Coalition Government.
Although our General Secretary smashed an ice sculpture in the shape of a pound sign at our Conference in 2012 we have found the pay freeze itself less fragile.
Commenting at the time on his 2012 Conference speech, Dave Prentis said; “I called on the TUC to organise a national demonstration on October 20 and I told delegates that we have got to work together to make it bigger than last March – it must be massive. Building a movement, an unstoppable momentum an alliance of unions, community groups and the public taking on this Government’s austerity agenda. I want it to be the biggest campaign this union’s ever seen. The demo will be just the beginning as we campaign and battle through the autumn and winter into next year.”
In fact it took two years before we saw national industrial action over pay in health and local government, and when this action did come, it was not coordinated (either in the timing of the action which was taken or in the demands for which UNISON was fighting – in the health service we were striking for the implementation of a 1% pay rise, which was what we were striking against in local government!)
Of course the October 2012 demonstration called for by Dave Prentis, whilst massive, was smaller than the demonstration which had taken place eighteen months previously –as the tide of opposition which rose against the Coalition Government in its first year and a half receded thereafter.
The high point of trade union opposition to the previous Government had been reached on 30 November 2011, when coordinated strike action in defence of public service pensions, saw the largest mass strike action since the 1926 General Strike.
When, the following month, UNISON, led by Dave Prentis, initiated what became the settlement of those disputes on terms which no honest and intelligent person considers to have been a victory that set the tone for national industrial relations for the remainder of the Coalition’s term of office.
The subsequent national pay disputes in the intervening period have been poor simulacrums of the pensions strike, repeating that tragedy as farce. We have mobilised members around demands, in support of which – when the employers have rejected them – we have called a token strike action before rapidly retreating and letting members vote on unsatisfactory settlements in ballots in which we have resolutely refused to offer any leadership.
The living standards of our members continue to decline, but the boost to activism during the period up to and including strike action has helped to moderate the decline in UNISON membership, sustaining the financial viability of our organisation.
This half-hearted opposition from UNISON, and most trade unions, to the attacks on our members from (what we can now see was) a half-hearted Tory Government wasn’t good enough then – and it certainly won’t be good enough now that we face a whole-hearted Tory Government committed not only to austerity but to direct attacks upon trade union rights.
In three weeks delegates will gather at our National Delegate Conference. We need to use that occasion as an opportunity to rethink how we organise and how we fight if UNISON as a whole is going to live up to the example being set on 11 June by our members in Probation.