Unison: massive vote for strikes

Submitted by Matthew on 9 November, 2011 - 2:49

Members of Unison, the country’s biggest public sector trade union, have overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action on 30 November.

78% of those voting in the union’s local government section voted for strikes, while 82% of health workers voted for the walkout. As well as being a decisive result in general, the figures explode the myth that NHS workers are automatically less militant and more reluctant to take action than their local government counterparts.

Scottish teachers’ union EIS has also returned its ballot result, registering an 82% vote in favour of strikes on a 54% turnout.

The turnouts in Unison’s ballots were low (30% in local government and 25% in the NHS), but no lower than is usual for ballots in a union of Unison’s size (and higher as a proportion than the number of people who voted for the Tories at the last general election). Part of the reason for the low turnout is the anti-union laws, which force unions to conduct their ballots through the post rather than in workplaces. Postal ballots atomise the voting process and abstract it from day-to-day experiences at work. The low turnout is also, in part, down to the union itself. Wherever good work was done to build the vote, it was driven at branch or workplace level with little or no support from the union nationally. Branches relied on neighbouring branches for resources and materials rather than the national union.

The decisive ballot result by no means suggests that we can just buckle up and wait for 30 November. There is still a fight to be had in Unison over what form the action will take, with the union’s right-wing suggesting that NHS workers should take a token two hours of strike action rather than a full day’s walkout.

A revised offer from the government, floated on 3 November, looks unlikely to prevent the action. The offer involved the protection of existing terms and conditions for anyone within 10 years of retirement and a slight change to the “accrual rates” — the rate at which pensions benefits are built up – meaning the new career-average schemes would be slightly more generous. It is positive that the mere threat of strike action has forced the government into these token concessions; it is a glimpse of what might be achieved with more sustained action. Union officials like the GMB’s Brian Strutton called the new offer “a step in the right direction”; if that’s the case, the step is tiny. Defending the status quo should be the bottom-line negotiation position for unions.

Union leaders don’t share that bottom-line. The rush into scheme-by-scheme negotiations (rather than across-the-board talks) where unions are much more susceptible to “divide-and-rule” tactics from the government, was mainly led by Unison’s Dave Prentis and strongly suggests that he is willing to accept some of government’s premises.

Rank-and-file activists must strengthen branch organisation and continue building independent strike committees to provide a counterweight to people who will, at best, mislead the dispute and, at worse, derail it entirely.

78% of those voting in the union’s local government section voted for strikes, while 82% of health workers voted for the walkout. As well as being a decisive result in general, the figures explode the myth that NHS workers are automatically less militant and more reluctant to take action than their local government counterparts.

Scottish teachers’ union EIS has also returned its ballot result, registering an 82% vote in favour of strikes on a 54% turnout.

The turnouts in Unison’s ballots were low (30% in local government and 25% in the NHS), but no lower than is usual for ballots in a union of Unison’s size (and higher as a proportion than the number of people who voted for the Tories at the last general election). Part of the reason for the low turnout is the anti-union laws, which force unions to conduct their ballots through the post rather than in workplaces. Postal ballots atomise the voting process and abstract it from day-to-day experiences at work. The low turnout is also, in part, down to the union itself. Wherever good work was done to build the vote, it was driven at branch or workplace level with little or no support from the union nationally. Branches relied on neighbouring branches for resources and materials rather than the national union.

The decisive ballot result by no means suggests that we can just buckle up and wait for 30 November. There is still a fight to be had in Unison over what form the action will take, with the union’s right-wing suggesting that NHS workers should take a token two hours of strike action rather than a full day’s walkout.

A revised offer from the government, floated on 3 November, looks unlikely to prevent the action. The offer involved the protection of existing terms and conditions for anyone within 10 years of retirement and a slight change to the “accrual rates” — the rate at which pensions benefits are built up – meaning the new career-average schemes would be slightly more generous. It is positive that the mere threat of strike action has forced the government into these token concessions; it is a glimpse of what might be achieved with more sustained action. Union officials like the GMB’s Brian Strutton called the new offer “a step in the right direction”; if that’s the case, the step is tiny. Defending the status quo should be the bottom-line negotiation position for unions.

Union leaders don’t share that bottom-line. The rush into scheme-by-scheme negotiations (rather than across-the-board talks) where unions are much more susceptible to “divide-and-rule” tactics from the government, was mainly led by Unison’s Dave Prentis and strongly suggests that he is willing to accept some of government’s premises.

Rank-and-file activists must strengthen branch organisation and continue building independent strike committees to provide a counterweight to people who will, at best, mislead the dispute and, at worse, derail it entirely.

Our aim is to close every building

By Ed Whitby, Newcastle Unison (pc)

Newcastle Unison stewards met on Monday 7 November to form plans for 30 November.

The mood was upbeat. There was discussion about getting a clearer message to members to counter the press reports that the strikes are not necessary.

We agreed to set up a strike committee involving ordinary stewards rather than just senior branch officers or those on full-time release.

On the day we want to close every building and every service. By putting out a strong message that we will picket every building, we hope that even in the academies, where the unions may feel less confident, we can pressure head-teachers into closing the school. The message is if management don’t close it, we’ll picket it.

The TUC is organising a march on the strike day across the iconic Tyne Bridge. Unfortunately the propose to assemble at 10.30am (which doesn’t leave very long for picketing) and the rally is somewhat out-of-the-way. We wil lobby the TUC for a later start, and a city-centre location for the rally.

The branch agreed to work with other unions through the Public Service Alliance to build a day of action in the city centre on Saturday 19 November. Our want to get 10 reps from each union branch in the town centre with stalls across the city centre, explaining the strike, making links with cuts and other attacks. We can’t rely on TUC or union full-timers to make this happen.

We’ll be calling on all activists — including from the anti-cuts networks, the Free Education Network, and Occupy Newcastle folk — to unite with us.

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