Despite the best efforts of the Unison leadership, members in the NHS have voted to reject the government's pensions offer and take “sustained industrial action”.
50.4% of members voted to reject the deal and for more strikes, against 49.5% to accept, on a turnout of 14.8%. Given that the official union propaganda that accompanied the ballot papers obscured the issues, presenting the improved “deal” in glowing terms and scaremongered about the effects of further strikes, this is a surprising result.
Whatever else can be said about the vote, this is clear indication that the membership is not endorsing the leadership's strategy on pensions.
Rather than use this vote as the start of efforts to reinvigorate the pensions campaign, unelected head of Health, Christina McAnea has already announced: “The low turnout coupled with the close vote shows there is no mandate to endorse the pensions’ proposals, but equally no mandate to take further industrial action.” She adds: “The turnout is disappointing but in some ways is not unexpected.”
Indeed, having given every indication that the leadership is unwilling to lead a fight, it is hardly surprising 85% of the membership abstained on the vote. However, it is a lie to say there is “no mandate” to take further industrial action. Unison has a live ballot for industrial action and this result is a mandate in its own right.
Although 7% of the union want to accept the offer, there are also 7% who are up for taking “sustained industrial action” — which is probably the most militant statement on the pensions dispute from any union to date.
Also, given the way the ballot was framed (“improved proposals” vs. “sustained industrial action”), the 85% of abstentions must be considered as passive rejections.
If members had been convinced that this was a good offer then they would have voted for it. There is plenty of raw material here for reigniting a fight on pensions.
A principled leadership would now attempt to mobilise the 7% rejectionists, some 25,000 workers, to create a new layer of activists to agitate amongst the remaining workforce for the strikes and other industrial action that we need.
A principled leadership would start a discussion about effective industrial strategy in the NHS and name a calendar of future strikes to show that they are serious about winning.
A principled leadership would raise the alarm about impending attacks on our terms and conditions and launch a media strategy that linked our industrial battles in the period to come with the defence of the NHS.
But Unison does not have a principled leadership. They were so scared of organising further strikes that they deliberately tried to talk up the pensions offer in the hope that an ill-informed membership would capitulate and give them the mandate to give in. The membership has shown it is not going to be duped.
It is now for this same membership to demand action and hold our leaders to account.
If they are unwilling or unable to lead a strike movement then we must build our own rank-and-file organisation to provide an alternative leadership. Unison activists should look to the example of the NUT, where the Local Associations for Action on Pensions is organising to reclaim control of the dispute for rank-and-file workers.
Unite members in the NHS will take “industrial action” of some form on 10 May, along with Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) members and members of the University and College Union (UCU) in FE colleges and “post-92” universities.
The 25,000 Unison members who have voted decisively to join them should fight for their right to do so.