The announcement yesterday of the forthcoming retirement of Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary for the past twenty years, will be the occasion for much praise. You won’t be reading this blog expecting to see more of that. Those who want to consider the future of UNISON (and therefore make decisions about candidates to replace Mr Prentis) need to take a clear-headed view about what has been happening to our trade union over the past twenty years.
This blog post is a small contribution to that necessary discussion and I shall start by looking at what is happening to our membership, based upon the returns which the Union makes to the Certification Officer. The number of members contributing to the General Fund (i.e. paying subscriptions) according to the earliest return readily accessible online (for 2003) was 1,301,000. The equivalent figure in the most recent return published online (for 2018) was 1,204,500. That decline of 7.4% over those fifteen years may well have been arrested – even reversed – more recently, and in any case compares favourably to the plight of the movement generally over the same period.
However, the performance of the trade union in achieving what it is that members look for from a union is perhaps less satisfactory – I will take the case of pay in local government (UNISON’s largest Service Group) and look at the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC) the body which negotiates pay for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and is the largest single bargaining unit in the economy). UNISON has a majority of seats on the trade union side of the NJC.
On 1 January 2001 (when UNISON’s third General Secretary commenced the first of his four terms of office) the hourly rate for the lowest paid local government worker was £4.61(an annual salary of £8,886) and spine point 28 was £9.52 (£18,372). This compared with a National Minimum Wage rate (for those aged 22 and above) of £3.70. The lowest point on the pay spine was therefore 25% above the minimum wage and spine point 28 (the highest point at which there is an entitlement to overtime payments under the terms of the national agreement) was more than two and a half times the minimum wage.
The current rate of the minimum wage is £8.72, the lowest point on the NJC pay spine is £9.00 an hour (an annual salary of £17,364) and the new spine point 22 – the equivalent of the old spine point 28 – is £13.64 (£26,317). The lowest point on the pay spine is now barely 3% above the minimum wage (as opposed to 25% twenty years ago) and a local government worker on the equivalent of the old spinal column point (SCP) 28 is now on just over one and a half times the minimum wage, as opposed to two and a half times when Mr Prentis first took office as General Secretary.
Looked at another way, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose from 72.6 in January 2001 to 108.5 in May 2020 (by 49.4%) so the money terms increase of 43.3% in the salary of a local government employee on old spine point 28 was actually a 9.6% reduction in real terms (whilst the 30% real terms increase at the bottom of the pay spine was outpaced by the 58% real terms increase in the minimum wage).
Neither during a decade of New Labour, nor during a decade of austerity (which also witnessed dramatic reductions in employment in local government) have we been able to improve the pay of UNISON members in our largest Service Group, other than for the lowest paid (whose fortunes have been influenced more by the need to try – and fail – to keep pace with increases in the statutory minimum wage rather more than by any gains from collective bargaining).
The challenge facing those who would step into the shoes of Dave Prentis is to set out a plan to build the union – and to increase its effectiveness in promoting and defending the interests of its members and potential members.
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