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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Friday, July 15, 2022

UNISON Retired Members should be supporting our members - not throwing stones from a glass house

One month on from UNISON National Delegate Conference (NDC) and UNISON is busy focusing on what matters to our members. In our largest Service Group, our largest bargaining unit has embarked upon a campaign to achieve a decent pay rise for local government workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. All UNISON members, including retired members, can help in this campaign as set out online here.

The relevant UNISON committee (The National Joint Council (NJC) Committee) has agreed to proceed to a disaggregated industrial action ballot if an acceptable pay offer from the employers is not forthcoming. In Scotland, UNISON members in local government are already being balloted for strike action over pay. Pay campaigns are also underway for NHS workers in England and Scotland (where an industrial action ballot has been launched). 

Across the length and breadth of the country, and the range of UNISON's service groups and sectors, our trade union is responding to the cost of living crisis in the way in which a trade union should. We face the challenges posed by the Tory Government’s anti-trade union laws, the latest of which means that not only must we win a secret postal ballot in favour of strike action but that the turnout in that ballot must exceed 50%. We have, however, no choice but to try to meet these challenges.

Over the past 12 years, NJC staff have lost on average 27.5% from the value of their pay when measured against the Retail Price Index (RPI) measure of inflation. Whilst UNISON has managed to sustain our membership levels over the years of austerity, we have not succeeded in maintaining the living standards of our members, and now we come to the point at which rising inflation makes the cost of living crisis simply unbearable for many of our members.

We may not win every ballot. We may not in every case, even in the majority of cases, reach the 50% turnout threshold. We may take strike action and yet fail to secure our objectives. At least now UNISON is taking the bold action necessary to begin to fight to defend our members interests. In the words often attributed to Bob Crow, "if you do fight you may not win. If you don't fight  you will always lose."

Pay negotiations are the ultimate responsibility, within UNISON, of Service Groups, whose (partially directly elected) Executives delegate this responsibility in many cases to (indirectly elected) Sector Committees. However, there can be little doubt that the dissatisfaction with declining living standards felt by the most active minority of our members who vote in elections for our (directly elected) National Executive Council (NEC) was a major factor in in the dramatic results of elections to the NEC last year.

It is only the NEC, through its Industrial Action Committee (IAC), which can authorise industrial action. It is, therefore, good news for UNISON members that we now have an NEC the majority of whom are committed to struggling with the primary objective of improving the living standards of our members (rather than having the primary objective of being seem to struggle (a little bit) in order to "show members we are on their side" and thereby recruit and retain members).

As a retired member of UNISON (in fact, an honorary life member for the past month) I want to be able to help our members in employment in their campaigns for fair pay. Unfortunately, the National Retired Members Committee (NRMC) does not seem to have undergone the same transformation as our NEC, and the retired member section of our website is not (currently) calling on retired members to take any action to support current pay campaigns.

Far from rallying support for UNISON members in employment, regrettably, the chair of the NRMC was very much to the fore in criticising and attacking our NEC last month at NDC. I heard her suggesting that the conduct of the NEC in allowing an unemployed member victimised by their employer to continue to hold office in the union was somehow unfair to retired members (such as herself), for whom such dispensation could not be made. As diligent readers of this Blog will know, that suggestion was quite wrong and illustrated, at best, an ignorance of UNISON Rules.

I should not have been surprised to find the NRMC Chair getting our Rules wrong, given that her Committee was responsible for an egregious breach of the election procedures in the last election for General Secretary. In spite of the fact that the NRMC had no power to make a nomination in that election, the Committee not only endorsed a candidate but publicised this endorsement on the UNISON website (until that post was taken down in response to complaints received). The Returning Officer determined that the action complained of did amount to a breach of the procedures. 

I must admit to having thought, as I listened to the chair of the NRMC attacking our NEC for, in her opinion, breaching our Rules that "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones”. I only hope that the NRMC can raise its game and try to mobilise retired members in support of our members in employment rather than pursuing an ill-informed faction fight against the majority of the NEC, who are determined to put UNISON's resources at the disposal of our members in the fight against the cost of living crisis.

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