Local government workers have been offered pay rises of 2% in each of the next two years.
Further flat rate rises are promised for workers on the lowest pay, but the effect of existing top-ups which bring some of those workers up to the government’s National Living Wage is that some of them will get no pay rise at all.
The offer from the Local Government Association is below inflation (CPIH up 2.7% December 2016 to December 2017), and does not even start to make up for pay lost since 2010. According to the Unison union, strong in local government and health, “public sector pay rose by just 4.4% between 2010 and 2016 while the cost of living rose by 22%”.
Unison is conducting a consultative ballot of its members about the offer, and whether they are willing to strike, from Monday 29 January to 19 March. Since a special Unison conference called by branches in response to the sell-out of the 2014 pay dispute, Unison must make a recommendation to its members on any offer. The Unison members on the National Joint Council voted 12 to 11 to recommend rejection.
Recent ballot results in PCS (consultative) and in the CWU and UCU (formal) show that unions can break the thresholds imposed by the Trade Union Act (minimum 50% turnout, minimum 40% of eligible voters for action). Unison branches should look to how those thresholds were broken by other unions to get the highest possible turn-out in the consultative ballot.
Whatever the result of the consultative ballot, Unison should hold a formal ballot — mobilising and redirecting central union resources to win that ballot.
Unite is also recommending rejection of the offer. The GMB is balloting members without a recommendation. That may lead to its members accepting.
Unions across the public sector have put in the same 5% pay demand to employers. This is better and more definite than the rhetoric in the past few years which talked only of breaking the 1% pay freeze.
But even 5% comes nowhere near the amount lost by public sector workers since 2010. And demands for flat-rate increases — e.g. £2000 for every worker — would help the worst-paid, and help narrow the often large pay gaps in public services between the worst and best paid.
Coordination between unions is important. But remember the 2011 pensions dispute! That was sunk, even tually, by the self-proclaimed “fighting” unions saying they could do nothing unless the least militant unions would join them.
Especially when the employment rate — the proportion of people aged 16 to 64 who are in work — is at its highest-ever, 75.3%, many groups in the public sector have the muscle to win better pay rises even without all-across-the-board unity.
That unity is more likely to be achieved by stronger groups giving a lead, and inspiring others, than by everyone waiting until the weakest duck is exactly in row.