After just a single day’s strike over pay by workers local government, education, and the civil service, the press and the Tories are on the offensive against unions, highlighting the low turnouts in ballots, and pushing for new anti-union legislation.
We are right to highlight the hypocrisy of these calls coming from a government elected by a minority of voters with low turnouts in many constituencies, but in our own movement, we cannot be complacent. We have to honestly assess how we are organising for action and how best it can win. Turnouts and getting strong “yes” votes for industrial action, are important to our side and we need to seriously assess the state of our unions and their ability to organise and mobilise members.
The recent vote in Unison, where a majority of 59% voted for action, should be cause for concern. The turnout hasn’t been officially announced, and many staff in schools were not balloted, but it is possible it was under 20%. Three years ago turnout in the pension dispute ballot was 30%, with a 78% yes vote.
In GMB, they achieved a 73% yes vote on a 23% turnout, and Unite achieved 68% yes vote. Both of these may have been boosted by Unison already having voted yes, as they were voting to join already-proposed action.
Poor turnouts shouldn’t make ballots invalid; there are many reasons why turnouts will be low. In a general election, coverage across all media for months in advance (billboards, post from political parties bring the subject into everyone’s home and lives) delivers a turnout of just over 60%.
Union ballots, by comparison, can look relatively low-key. Not everyone works in large workplaces, some work from home, or work part-time doing multiple jobs, and can be hard to engage. Existing anti-union legislation, which insists on postal (rather than workplace) ballots, further atomises union members.
But these factors alone do not account for why the turnouts were so low this time. What’s going wrong, and why?
Since 2010, we have seen a concerted attack on public sector funding. City local authorities especially have faced unprecedented cuts (for instance, Manchester City Council has had to cut £250 million since 2010, and Liverpool has cut £173 million since 2011). Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been cut, services have been decimated, and workers who have kept their jobs face unachievable workloads, extremely low morale and high sickness levels. Some councils have privatised or outsourced whole departments, children’s services, leisure, IT, etc.
Public sector workers know this, and are angry about the attacks. How has the main public sector union, Unison, responded? Nationally, Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis has repeatedly said any branch or any group who want to fight back will have full support of the union. In reality, this hasn’t been the case.
Unison’s national political strategy is based on the idea that we cannot defeat the government in between elections — i.e., that it is not possible for councils, unions, workers and communities to win any concessions. So we wait for an election where we can oust the Tories and, in the meantime, help (Labour) councils consider how to soften the blow of cuts — whether through voluntary redundancy schemes, early retirement programmes, or spending reserves.
Attacks impact differently in each authority and region, and there has been little organised or coordinated action against cuts to jobs and services. When Unison branches want to take action, the union structures make it slow and difficult to get agreement to ballot.
So if branches are not encouraged or allowed to fight local outsourcing, or cuts to jobs, then why should they listen when the national unions makes calls to action?
The national strategy has led to many union branches prioritise casework, disciplinaries, and negotiation with management, over engaging with or communicating with members. This is not to say the council workers don’t get emails or newsletters from their branch, but the combination of the wave of attacks, and the lack of coordinated opposition from the unions, has led to a local, regional, and consequently national leadership not able or confident to fight. Union members who’ve essentially been told by their union that they cannot fight and win over cuts are unlikely to feel confident that we can fight and win over pay.
The national pay dispute should link with local battles over cuts, and unions should be allowed to fight on those issues locally. Publicity and material should convince our members that we can and must demand that councils don’t pass the cuts onto local communities and workers, and win the argument that the money exits to both improve and fund local services and pay decent wages.
This means that winning over unions, especially Unison, to a real fight with both local and national government over budgets. The same budgets that keep pay down, lead to the cuts. This is the same battle. Fighting them properly can turn around low turnouts.
Health ballot over pay
Unison has confirmed it will ballot its 300,000 health sector members from 28 August to 18 September for strikes against the “1% or increment” offer from the employers (which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt believes is already too high).
Unite, GMB, and the Royal College of Midwives have also announced they will ballot for strikes.
If the ballots return a yes vote, they create the potential for a coordinated mass strike on 28 September (the date Unison has announced for its next local government strike, and in which the other public-sector unions which struck on 10 July could also participate).
A strong yes vote from health workers would open up a new front in the battle with the government, whose policies on health have proved hugely unpopular. This would also give a much needed boost to education and local government workers.
Workers’ Liberty members who work in the NHS and other parts of the public sector will be mobilising over the summer to help deliver the best-possible yes vote, and to discuss ways of pushing for coordinated strikes in September.
We will also be pushing within our unions for them to name the next strikes, and other industrial actions, now, and for them to escalate from one-day strikes, rather than waiting for weeks (during which time momentum can subside) in between each strike.