In this letter to his branch, Lambeth UNISON Assistant Branch Secretary, Dan Jeffrey, criticises the record of the union leadership after the disappointment of the pensions campaign and reflects on the battles ahead.
Dear Lambeth UNISON News
This is going to be a fairly lengthy letter. It does contain some strong criticism of UNISON’s leadership and hierarchy. However this is in order to try and make the case to change the union’s leadership and the structures of the trade union in order to make it member led and a trade union which effectively fights for its members interests. It has been said to me that such criticism could demoralize the membership and I really hope this isn’t the case. The fact that the current leadership are not, in my view, doing nearly a good enough job is not a cause for apathy, but a cause to fight within our union for leaders who will really go out and protect our pensions, pay, jobs and services.
How much has your pay been cut since 2009?
Scale 4 – £3,363 per year
Scale 6 – £4, 051 per year
SO2 – £4,790 per year
PO2 – £5,258 per year
We are talking about huge pay decreases, with devastating effects on people’s standard of living. This comes at a time when the richest 1000 people in the UK are now wealthier than they have ever been:
“Britain ‘s wealthiest people saw their fortunes rise to record levels last year (2011), according to the annual Sunday Times Rich List (paywall), at a time when most Britons’ earnings and savings were squeezed by inflation and low interest rates. The combined wealth of Britain ‘s 1,000 richest people swelled by almost 5% to more than £414bn, the highest recorded by the 24-year-old survey.”
However the record of the current leadership’s strategy to smash the pay freeze is not good to say the least. The UNISON leadership seems to have meekly accepted every pay freeze for the past three years with barely a murmur. What makes this even more galling is that our General Secretary, on a pay and pensions package already worth over £100,000 a year, has continued to get pay rises, while low paid local government workers suffer pay freezes. It has been pointed out to me that criticism about how much our trade union leader’s are paid is often cynically used by the right wing press and government. They use it for anti-trade union reasons and are the ultimate hypocrites as they support massively paid directors and bankers, are a government of millionaires and get much of their funding from the rich, while the right wing press are owned by the super rich. However that does not mean that we should not criticize this as it is totally wrong in my view that our leadership gets pay and conditions which put them in the top 1% of wage earners. Firstly it is hard to criticize the rest of the top 1% when you are in it yourself! Also I think that it is morally wrong that trade union leaders have such massive pay packets, especially when representing low paid workers who are subject to pay freezes. Surely the incentive for becoming a trade union leader should be a passion to fight for your members interests, and a huge pay packet is not necessary or desirable.
While I know the job of General Secretary and the full timers can’t be easy if the leadership had spent less time, effort and union subs witching hunting UNISON activists out of their union positions and even their jobs, they might have had more time and resources to fight the pay freeze. Indeed where does the £200 million or so in subs that are paid to UNISON every year go? I imagine a fair chunk has gone to the plush officers at UNISON HQ, the five star hotel accommodation the leadership is put in at conferences and to pay the small army of UNISON regional and national officials, while strike funds remain pitifully small.
One thing I do think Dave Prentis got right is that it’s genuinely important that we build for the TUC demonstration on the 20 October. Jobs and services around the land are being decimated and we need to show the government, through a huge demonstration, that there is growing anger about what they are doing. But I would have to stress that a demonstration is not nearly enough, it has to be a spring board to much more. Demonstrations alone can be ignored by governments as the huge anti-war demonstrations and the 26 March TUC demonstration showed. However if they are used as a springboard for strikes and direct action (which trade union leaders such as Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka are calling for), then they can be very effective. The last time we took strike action over pay, was the last time we got a semi decent pay increase, and the loss in pay through the strikes has since been paid back many fold by the increase that we won.
The strike action on the 30 November in the pension’s dispute showed that members can be mobilised on a huge scale. However even with this momentum the leadership, I believe, is trying to squander it and wants us to accept a pension’s deal which is far less than we could achieve, and far less than we deserve. The “deal” would still mean working three years longer, getting less (through both the change in what inflation figures are used and through the scrapping of the final salary pension’s scheme) and ultimately paying far more (because we have to work longer). What is worse is that the UNISON leadership have tried to dishonestly present a bad deal as a good one. They even went as far as to produce pension’s calculators that assumed pay freezes or decreases in order to make the deal look better in comparison to the old scheme. At least these now seem to have been withdrawn.
If this was combined with year after year of pay freezes, it would mean our old age would be in ever more hardship. The current government is very weak and under pressure. Yet despite Dave Prentis saying before 30 November that we would need sustained strike action, he supported calling everything off after one day’s action. Even if we carried on with one day’s action a month for the next few months I believe we could achieve far more in a deal as the government would come under immense pressure. And as said if UNISON HQ had spent less money on highly paid bureaucrats and plush new offices we might be able to ease the pain for those taking action.
My view is that we deserve a far better leadership in UNISON than we have now. I believe that at a regional and national level UNISON is run in such a way that it leaves members totally distant from the decision making and running of the union and I think this is reflected in the fact that less than 17% of members vote in the general secretary election and far less than 10% vote for the NEC elections (in one election for Young Members Officer the turnout fell to 2.5% a couple of years ago!!). However as well as changing our leadership we need to mobilise in the here and now. UNISON has not done nearly enough to stop pay freezes and the 100,000s of public sector workers who have lost their jobs, and with them vital services gone. At a local level I think the fact that we have increased our membership density, hugely increased the amount of stewards and had our biggest AGM for over 10 years shows what can be done, as we have a branch that tries to involve members and engage members. And I believe and hope that our branch will be one of the best in building for the national demonstration on 20 October.
However we need far more than just a demonstration. We need strike action and direct action to stop the onslaught of attacks on services and jobs and to truly smash the pay freezes and get a genuinely good deal on pensions. 30 November gave a glimpse of what can be done if trade union leaderships inspire their members. If I’m honest I don’t believe our current leadership are up to the task (and I hope members change this at future elections), but the more we build at a local and regional level, the more chance we have of forcing them to get UNISON to take the action that is needed. The recent grassroots conference by members of the NUT is a good example of what to do [see here].
It has been an incredibly hard couple of years, but our branch has a massive amount to be proud of, and I hope our highly paid leaders at a national and regional level start to look at our needs in 2012 rather than taking the easy road. There is everything still to fight for, and we need a workers movement that is bold and brave, and prepared to take a lead in taking the government on and helping to pave the way to a society that is run for us, not for the rich. And that means more than gimmicks and photo opportunities. We need action, and we need it fast. There is still everything to win if we launch a real fightback.
Dan Jeffery (Assistant Branch Secretary – personal capacity)