Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The end of national pay bargaining in local government?

Tomorrow UNISON's Industrial Action Committee will meet to consider a request from the lay Committee representing the largest bargaining sector in the Union (which is also the largest bargaining group in the UK economy) for a strike ballot of local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The decision of the UNISON National Joint Council (NJC) Committee to request the ballot arises from the paltry response from the employers to the joint union pay claim for an increase of a pound an hour (essentially the same claim for which the same workers struck in 2014 before accepting a settlement less generous than the offer against which we had been striking).

The fiasco of the 2014 pay dispute led to angry scenes at a UNISON Special Local Government Conference last year and an abortive attempt by UNISON to reopen ‎the two year pay settlement last April. At the time it seemed that a decision to squander a campaign of industrial action by settling for something worse than the original offer could mark the beginning of the end of national pay bargaining in local government.

Now that the employers have made an offer which can dishonestly be presented as representing something of an achievement for the lowest paid, elements within our own movement are moving in for the kill, taking action which will draw to a close the period of national pay bargaining for local government workers which has lasted since the restoration of the National Joint Council after the Second World War.

The employers' offer to the majority of the workforce is 1% a year for each of the next two years, a proposed increase below the current Retail Price Index which will represent a continuation of the decline in our living standards which has been most pronounced since the economic crash and the 2010 election (but started earlier).

Larger percentage increases for the lowest paid (which are driven by the need to keep ahead of the increasing minimum wage and are not the product of negotiation or collective bargaining) have provided an excuse for the officials of the GMB to sit on their hands (having "consulted" members in a top-down national ballot without suggesting that there was‎ any alternative to acceptance and therefore securing a large majority for capitulation).

The GMB want to accept the munificence of our kind employers and are only now concerned that the other unions might hold things up.

In UNISON and UNITE, where lay members have at least some influence over what is done in our name, member consultation which involved activists produced significant majorities to reject the employers' offer. However, the turnout in the consultation (whilst equivalent to the turnout in UNISON's General Secretary election and twice that of the GMB's) was low enough to reinforce the timidity of those in any case inclined to that state of mind.

In UNITE this appears to have led to a "left" variant of the approach of the officials of the GMB, as the UNITE sector committee has concluded that its members won't be asked to take all-out action but will only contemplate selective action alongside UNISON. This sounds a bit militant but is really a complete sham.

Illusions in the possibilities for and potential of selective action by "key workers" in local government have long been fostered by memories of the 1989 NALGO pay dispute (the last really successful national local government dispute and one which did not depend either upon trade union unity or complete unity even within the union in dispute).

It is true that some of the selective action taken by NALGO members in 1989 contributed to the relatively satisfactory outcome of that dispute (and then to a couple of reasonable offers in the following years). However, the employers found a response to selective action in Newham a couple of years later - whilst wave after wave of privatisation took many of the "key workers" out of the local government workforce.

Half way along the downhill journey taken by the local government trade unions from 1989 to today, in the London Weighting dispute of 2002/3 we tested to destruction the hypothesis that selective strike action could be an effective tactic to shift recalcitrant local government employers. We found that it could not.

To say that a trade union in local government will ONLY consider selective action is to say that it is giving up and accepting the real terms pay cut proposed by the employers.

‎This is also the position of those within UNISON whose position is expressed in the self-fulfilling prophecy that their members do not have the "appetite" for action (as if the views of union members were a fact of nature, like the weather, which activists had no responsibility to seek to lead and influence).

Several Regions, represented by the minority of the NJC Committee opposed to strike action, take this view - and officers have been sure to list these Regions in the report‎ to the Industrial Action Committee (whilst omitting to mention the Regions representing the majority who favour action).

The decision of the Cymru/Wales local government comrades that now is the ideal time to stress their desire to abandon UK-wide national pay bargaining anyway also goes to show that it is not only Albion that can be perfidious.

Tomorrow's decision by the Industrial Action Committee could keep UK-wide national bargaining alive (if on life support) by proceeding to ballot our members and campaign for action - demonstrating that there is still some purpose and usefulness of our national union for members in our largest service group.

Or we could write the final words in the story of national pay bargaining for local government workers and go back one hundred years to bargain authority by authority. In which case local government workers will wonder even more why three quarters of their subscriptions should pay for a toothless national trade union (however impressively housed on the Euston Road).

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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