Local government members in the big public-services union Unison have voted two to one (66%) in favour of the 2020-21 pay award, in a ballot closing 11 August. The union’s national joint council committee accepted the offer from employers of 2.75%, though, it said, “it fell far short of the 10% claim and did not properly reward key workers for their exceptional contributions throughout the pandemic”.
The pay award fell even further short of the 22% our union had explained we have lost over the last ten years.
We are one of the unions representing care workers, school support staff, early years workers, street cleaners, library staff, and more many who have worked during the crisis in difficult circumstances to make sure the vulnerable, older people, and younger people, don’t suffer.
Surely now is an opportunity to strike a blow against this government. At least to test the anger of the public over the tragedy of poverty pay in care, and cuts in public health and care services and other local services.
But the union campaign was a poorly worded offer, no recommendation to reject. Outgoing general secretary Dave Prentis, and all the other senior staff, the assistant general secretaries leading on local government or health or education who get wheeled out to make angry speeches against the government each year at Unison conference, will say “it’s not us”. It’s the NEC [National Executive Committee], the elected representatives. And the NEC will say: “Oh no, it’s the Service Group committees”.
Let’s be clear. If Prentis or his assistant general secretaries had wanted a fight on pay, job cuts or conditions any time over the last 20 years, they could have made it happen. The committees have been mainly and solidly loyal to the union hierarchy. In fact loyalty is how you get nominated and elected in the overwhelmingly uncontested elections.
The rules on getting nominations and on branch cooperation on campaigning have undermined opposition or even scrutiny. To get on those committees or to work on them you need time, resources, and the backing of Unison staff regionally and nationally. To be honest, it’s hard and rare for a rank and file activist who isn’t on full release from their regular work to union duties (as a branch secretary or chair) to get on those committees.
There are glimmers of hope both on local government pay and on care-worker organising. The North West region is bucking the trend. It looks likely that the region that has won most rights for care workers will also have delivered the biggest reject vote for the pay offer.
And there is a growing, exciting pay campaign in the NHS. The campaign is demanding 15% for all NHS workers. This is being built from grassroots organisation across unions in hospitals, and it is critical of the unions’ handling of pay campaigns.
We need an industrial strategy for sectors buckling under cuts. General Secretary candidates must present a charter for union democracy that allows us to rebuild branches and connect activists.
To build a movement capable of winning for our members we need serious, well-organised rank-and-file networks that can build support for militant action and organise independently of union officialdom
We need the right for workers to ballot for action unimpeded by their region or industrial action committee (the anti-union laws make it hard enough without our own union making it harder).
We want regions reorganised so they support rather than control branches.
We want the right of branches to campaign independently of regional and national structures and to link up to build cross-branch campaigns and networks
Branches should control their Labour Link budgets and delegates, and decide which candidates Unison supports.
We want support for the struggles of those union members who face specific oppressions, including women, black people, LGBT people, and disabled people.