LOCAL GOVERNMENT: The decision by members of Unison’s Local Government National Joint Council to agree to binding arbitration effectively brings this year’s pay dispute to an end. It is a failure for the union and the leftists who lead the sector and will be a bitter disappointment to the members who supported action but wanted a better deal.
Arbitration is unlikely to lead to any offer that meets the union’s demands (6%) and may actually include small victories for the bosses — further increases in productivity for perhaps one half of a percentage point increase in this year’s offer. All this has been clearly signalled in the framework for talks already agreed by the unions and the employers.
Under binding arbitration the union will have to accept any offer made and members will have no say on the final deal.
How have we got to this point? On a very narrow vote in favour in 2007 the leadership decided not to press ahead with strike action because, in their view, support was not strong enough to launch a successful campaign. It was hard for serious trade unionists to disagree with such a practical judgement, based on a calculation of the balance of forces. A poor turnout that failed to move the employers would only demoralise members and activists already disappointed by the failures of the pension dispute.
“Keeping your powder dry” until the situation changes is sometimes reasonable. But it does imply some care in maintaining what you’ve got and building something more. This was not done. Instead an initial plan of two days action with no firm follow up or ideas of how to build the action went ahead on a narrow vote in favour of action.
That vote nevertheless was positive and it’s the duty of a leadership to build and bolster support. This meant paying attention to what were the obvious inequalities between branches and across regions. Workers’ Liberty supporters in particular argued for the use of selective action to maintain momentum over the summer
Instead it all went quiet and the next members heard was that the union was in “talks about talks” but that there was no better offer.
The recent branch based consultation has now persuaded the NJC that the members are no longer willing to take action. And as far as the members are concernted the two day strike did not achieve anything. It’s not surprising the members did not want to take further action.
But going to ACAS is a real act of despair. By doing this the NJC have almost admitted defeat. They are accepting some responsibility for that — in their press release they say that a “review of this year’s action and negotiations and our bargaining power will kick off at the next NJC Committee.”
But this should be a matter for the whole sector to learn from, not just the NJC. For a start isn’t the fact that the NJC is not directly elected and accountable to the members a cause for concern in itself, especially given their power over decisions on pay. The review must include how the high expectations that some on the left, particularly the SWP, had about how the “mood to fight” substituted for the necessary detailed work of building support in the branches. The idea that the economic crisis would automatically mean the members were willing to fight, that having a left leadership meant the dispute was safe from a sell out, and the failure to have a strategy that went beyond two days of initial action... all of this need accounting for.
The lack of a rank and file movement inside Unison is a key weakness. Such a movement could have effectively pressed the leadership to keep the struggle going over the summer and provide the network of contacts necessary to keep ordinary members informed and engaged. Unfortunately the focus of both the United Left and Socialist Party members has been on securing positions in the bureaucracy without having an organised base of support outside of a few left branches.
Some have argued that the key factor in failing to engage members was the inability to coordinate with other unions. The possibility of unity may have increased the likelihood of more action but it was not decisive. Certainly it could not have been made the sole reason for taking action. Let’s remember that Unison is a massive union, unlike say NAPO who have to seek allies before contemplating action. Unity would have enhanced action but it was always dependent on UNISON organising action itself.
The TUC has passed a motion calling for coordinated action and yes, Unison did support it. But the leadership in Health and now Local Government had ensured that Unison has no action to coordinate. The best that can come out of the TUC motion is that Unison will find it harder to attack branches who have taken a lead in organising local Public Sector Alliances. These at least can still provide the basis for Unison branches to provide solidarity to the unions who will be taking action.
The union had a year and more to prepare for action on pay, but failed to develop the arguments and support the branches in engaging the members. That in turn is a result in a decline in organisation particularly outside of the metropolitan areas and big towns that cannot be ignored.
Local activists and branches should challenge the NJC and their decision and use the opportunity of the review to start organising now for an emergency sector conference to debate a serious industrial strategy, and learn lessons from our own recent experience and more positively that of the ongoing dispute in Scotland. Left leadership is not enough without being linked to a developed rank and file network that can deliver the action in the branches.
COUNCIL WORKERS: Something like 150,000 Scottish council workers, organized in Unison, the GMB and Unite, struck over pay on September 24.
After a previous day of strike action, Coalition of Scottish Local Authorities withdrew its three year pay deal of 2.5 percent each year in favour of one year at 2.5 percent. While multi-year pay deals, particularly sub-inflation ones, are crap, this is hardly an improvement — representing, obviously, not an extra penny. The unions are demanding 5 percent, which would just about keep up with notional inflation.
Many schools were also shut due to action by teaching assistants, caretakers and other ancillary staff — and to teachers' refusing to cross picket lines.
The lesson, in Scotland as in England: keep up the action to win. And yet with de facto capitulation in England, Scottish workers have been left to fight alone.
USDAW: Socialist Party member Robbie Segal has taken 40% in the election for general secretary of the shopworkers' union USDAW. As the SP’s press release put it: “Robbie is a Tesco worker who on shoe-string resources with a tiny band of activists in a David and Goliath battle faced the entire USDAW official machine.”
The union bureaucracy was, it seems, mobilised on a huge scale to defend the Blairite incumbent John Hannett — who had the additional advantage of appearing in union publications every month, while Segal was a relative unknown. But her demand for an £8 minimum wage, her opposition to social partnership — which in Tesco, for instance, has made USDAW virtually a company union — and her pledge to remain on her current wage and not take Hannett's 100,000 salary obviously struck a cord with members.
Solidarity has made many very serious criticisms of the Socialist Party's record in the unions. We have not changed our minds. But we would like to congratulate comrade Segal on an excellent result.
There are plans to create a campaign for a fighting, democratic USDAW. Future issues of Solidarity will carry more information.
ADULT EDUCATION: The Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning is a new campaign aimed at stopping the decline of Adult Education 1.5 million course places have been lost over the last two years.
The launch meeting will be held at 5 pm on Tuesday 30 September at 27 Britannia Street WC1X 9JP.