Unison - fighting the cuts. Or is it?

"My pension is fine, I don't know what they're worried about…"

The anti-cuts movement is buzzing with talk of a coordinated strike on 30 June. But where is Unison, the public sector's biggest union in all this?

The next big date for the anti-cuts movement is 30 June, where an agreement between several public sector unions (PCS, UCU, ATL, NUT and possibly some sections of Unite) has been reached for a coordinated strike nominally against pension cuts - but in reality against the whole austerity programme.

While the cuts in pensions are one of the most significant for public sector workers, anger over job cuts is more widespread. However, pensions are the only issue over which the unions can legally take strike action together, or even as a whole, as legally unions can only strike over their own terms and conditions, and the pension cuts are the only issue affecting the entire public sector.

So around 800,000 workers will be striking that day, but the public sector's biggest union, Unison with 1.3 million members predominantly in the NHS and local government won't be (the GMB won't be either, but as the GMB often acts effectively as a scab union in local government this is hardly surprising). So why is this?

Richard Seymour states in the Guardian that Unison may be prepared to strike in autumn, but does not wish to on June 30 believing that it may "undermine negotiations with the government".

Within Unison, we are being told that the union is preparing for industrial action. However, at a pensions briefing last week we were told that we would not be joining the June 30 strike, and any action wouldn't be until later this year, or perhaps early next year (which will be well after the horse has bolted - our 50% pension contribution increase will start to kick in in April). The main reason given for this was that the leadership claim that the union's membership records are inadequate and so employers could take out injunctions to prevent action on that basis.

Firstly, I doubt this is even true, for the following reasons:

  • We took national action across the whole local government section in 2008 (over pay) and 2006 (over pensions), to my knowledge without a single injunction on this basis.
  • Several other unions are taking all out action, and it seems doubtful that their records will be in a worse state than ours, if anything due to Unison's much larger resources the opposite would be more likely.
  • The recent court judgement on the case brought by the RMT effectively granted for the first time a right to strike in the UK and restricts the ability of employers to block action on the basis of technicalities, so if anything this records issue would be less significant now than in the past.

Secondly, even if it is true that this is a legitimate fear, it is not a valid excuse in any way for avoiding action for several reasons:

  • Unison has known for a long time that these sorts of attacks were coming and that a union-wide strike was going to be necessary. Why did it leave sorting out the records until only a few weeks before a massive proposed strike before starting?
  • If the quality of records was such a big issue, why do they not take some sort of action to rectify it? No support or communication has come to branches yet to deal with this.
  • If the union really wanted to resolve this, instead of recently hiring five new overpaid "assistant general secretaries", it could have hired a bunch of much cheaper data entry clerks to systematically go through and sort the records out.

The point I'm trying to get at here is that Unison is actively sabotaging the fight against cuts, and the attacks on our pensions, as they did during our pay disputes of 2008 and 2007. This is not a case of reluctant members being unwilling to strike - this is the union holding us back. A majority of members in my branch voted to strike against compulsory redundancies in an indicative ballot, however union has still not permitted us, several weeks on, to hold an official ballot while redundancies continue unabated.

We need to realise that the unions are not on our side - their focus is on getting a seat at the table with the government, and continuing to rake in membership dues to pay their own wages and pensions on the basis of their having this "influence" with the employers. If we rely on them to lead the fight against cuts we will lose - we can only have faith in ourselves.

Additional note
For just one small related slap in the face, I noticed in the March issue of InFocus, Unison's magazine for activists, it was stated that Unison supports the raising of local government and state pension ages to 66. Which is nice. [I will post in the exact wording when I find it later today]

Posted By

Steven.
Apr 21 2011 11:07

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Comments

Ramona
Apr 21 2011 11:33

Wow, shouldn't be surprised I know, but still...

Nicely written though Steven smile

Edit: Just saw this right after reading your article

http://www.thisislincolnshire.co.uk/news/Council-staff-balloted-strike-action/article-3472963-detail/article.html

So is it different depending on where you are, or have they changed their minds?

Steven.
Apr 21 2011 11:49
Ramona wrote:

Edit: Just saw this right after reading your article

http://www.thisislincolnshire.co.uk/news/Council-staff-balloted-strike-action/article-3472963-detail/article.html

So is it different depending on where you are, or have they changed their minds?

that is a single branch ballot against job cuts, so separate from the national pensions issue. Unison's regional offices historically have been very reluctant to ever grant official strike ballots, especially in London (where it was almost impossible), however with the cuts and upswing in general anger they are letting some branches have official strikes. My branch is still awaiting authorisation, and they have not got back to us in weeks, so effectively they are delaying it, even if they do eventually allow it (by which time the membership will be further demoralised having seen more colleagues sacked).

Auto
Apr 21 2011 11:57

Great article Steven.

For those who are in unions at the moment, what do you think the possibility for unnofficial actions by union memberships? Is it something that's on the cards or just a pipe dream right now?

Steven.
Apr 21 2011 12:02
Auto wrote:
Great article Steven.

For those who are in unions at the moment, what do you think the possibility for unnofficial actions by union memberships? Is it something that's on the cards or just a pipe dream right now?

I don't think it is something on the cards for most of local government at least. Especially as job cuts are around 20% over 2 to 3 years, whereas the fear of losing your job for taking unofficial action will probably be higher than that. Also, I think most people think the unions are organising strike action to defend us (quite a few people seemed to think that the proposed March 26 demonstration was meant to be a strike beforehand).

Joseph Kay
Apr 21 2011 12:39

Excellent piece, very timely with most of the left promoting massive illusions in the trade unions at the moment.

Steven. wrote:
However, at a pensions briefing last week we were told that we would not be joining the June 30 strike, and any action wouldn't be until later this year, or perhaps early next year (which will be well after the horse has bolted - our 50% pension contribution increase will start to kick in in April).

Something very similar happened at Sussex last year with Unite. Some of the more militant support staff were pushing for a ballot over redundancies, the branch/regional officials were dragging their feet saying threatening to strike would undermine their negotiating position (wtf?!), but eventually promised to bring the paperwork to the next meeting. then 'forgot'. then when they eventually 'remembered', the soonest strike date would have been a month after the redundancies were made. funnily enough nobody saw the point in striking then, which the union then used against the militants; 'there's no appetite for strike action, what can we do'. Calculated, cynical sabotage, and very demoralising.

Eleanargh
Apr 21 2011 12:48

FYI, for accuracy's sake etc, re: memberships records: Unison has been trying to clear them up for a long time - at least a year from my memory. Perhaps a communication to your branch has been missed - mine (small, H.E.) has received it, and help doing it, more than once. I'm not sure if, in your second bullet point, you mean 'better' rather than 'worse' state - if so, it's just speculation to say that Unison would be able to do it quicker than other unions because it has more resources (it also, obv, has a bunch more members), so it seems weak to bade an argument on it. Which is not to say I don't think that inaccuracy of records might not be a bit of an excuse to not strike, though; more detail in any decision made does need to be given to members if they ask for it.

Harrison
Apr 21 2011 13:33

for what its worth, from a chat with one of my colleagues, i was informed that Unison have specifically in the public libraries chosen to focus on the issue of the introduction of volunteers as opposed to what we perceive to be more important changes like branch closures and actual reductions to the services which will cause just as much if not more redundancies as well as simultaneously depriving the public

WobblyRachel
Apr 21 2011 14:27

Cameron will set the High Court on the unions and will wade in and rule it as a political strike and therefore illegal. The unions will fall on thier backs and play dead, while condeming anyone brave enough to take wildcat action. If the unions grow a pair then expect massive multi-million pound sequestions and the campaign will move away from strikes and onto getting the union leaders' salaries back from the goverment.

Only way I'd bother paying any attention to a strike announcement is if it was called by the rank and file - independantly from the union as wildcat.

Steven.
Apr 21 2011 15:01
WobblyRachel wrote:
Cameron will set the High Court on the unions and will wade in and rule it as a political strike and therefore illegal. The unions will fall on thier backs and play dead, while condeming anyone brave enough to take wildcat action. If the unions grow a pair then expect massive multi-million pound sequestions and the campaign will move away from strikes and onto getting the union leaders' salaries back from the goverment.

Rachel, there is pretty much no chance of that happening. The strikes are about changes to members' pensions, so I don't think there is any way they could be ruled political and illegal.

What is more likely is that a one-day strike will happen, or maybe a couple, then future dates will be called off pending months of negotiations. Then a cosmetically slightly better deal will be offered, which is still a massive cut from what we have now, which the unions will then recommend to members who have now been demoralised by months of inactivity and will now probably accept. Then the unions declare victory. (This is also what happened in the 2006 local government pensions dispute)

Quote:
Only way I'd bother paying any attention to a strike announcement is if it was called by the rank and file - independantly from the union as wildcat.

unfortunately, I do not see any way this is going to be happening in the near future.

Steven.
May 8 2011 09:42

By the way, as a short additional note I was speaking to someone close to the NUT leadership, and they say that behind closed doors Unison's line is "no way" are they going to be taking strike action, and that their line in negotiations is to say cut local government workers' pensions less, and cut teachers' more instead.

Steven.
May 20 2011 08:42

The latest gossip from high up the union hierarchy is that Unison is still blocking coordinated action in the TUC general council.

Apparently at the last meeting of the general Council, "Red Len" McCluskey (Unite) demanded to know when Dave Prentis was going to ballot and Dave basically offers him out for a fight.

Jason Cortez
May 20 2011 11:23

A reliable and well informed source has told me that the NEC have taken a position of no strikes but are not letting on to members and other unions and are playing the 'dragging it out as long as possible to string folks along' game.

Steven.
May 20 2011 11:39

Jason, I have heard that as well, but about the paid leadership, not the NEC which contains lefties like SWP and SP types. The paid leadership are the ones with the real power. I believe that the NEC were okay with the principle of taking action, but believe that members of the union on the whole are not yet ready

little_brother
May 20 2011 13:27

This and GMB embracing the Work Programme. 21st Century unions - pah.

http://unemploymentmovement.com/blog/welfare/49-workfare-the-future-says-gmb-union-.html

Jason Cortez
May 20 2011 13:52

Yeah you are probably right about the NEC thing. I have a terrible memory and this was weeks ago.

Between Your Teeth
May 20 2011 14:12

In regards to the pensions' battle, these words were handed down from on high to his waiting followers via the unison stone tablet/monthly magazine:

Dave Prentis wrote:
The government wants talks concluded by the end of June. We are hoping for the best, but putting in place measures to deal with the worst.

And that will involve a massive campaign and preparations for an industrial action ballot.

The NUT and PCS are to ballot early, and we support their cause. Our timescale will take longer and we will be working to coordinate with the other unions involved in the local government and health pension schemes.

so a public expression of an intention to ballot but no details of timescale other than "later".

john
Jun 7 2011 19:24

yes, the union leadership hold back on industrial action as a general rule; but surely the question, which I'm not sure whether is answered here or not, is whether it's easier to build for grassroots industrial action within the union or outside of it. If the argument is basically that we should be advocating wildcat strikes, it seems to me that the most likely chance of these actually happening is when the membership of a particular branch are ready for industrial action, but that the leadership don't manage to keep a lid on it - i.e. it's still better to be organising within the union rather than outside of it. I can't think of any examples over recent years of wildcat strikes happening without them first gestating within a formal trade union.

baboon
Jun 15 2011 12:30

A Unison spokeswoman said on BBC news today that "there is a risk (a risk!) of coordinated action which nobody wants and won't do any good".

Sidney Huffman
Jun 15 2011 13:33

*cancels unison membership*

Steven.
Jun 15 2011 16:53

Not that I'm a fan of unison officials - but baboon that is clearly meaning that service users/the government won't want it and won't be benefited by strikes (of course, proletarian service users will benefit ultimately if the struggle is successful but you see what I mean)

JoeMaguire
Jun 16 2011 00:14

I attended a Unison regional briefing some two weeks ago and was informed by the leadership that they were essentially setting up to avoid coordinated strike at all costs and would only strike in localised win-win situations. As frustrating as it is, and disappointing, its not surprising. I think John's point about whether your in or out is the crux of the situation but its not always clear cut whether the answer is to be in the union. For example we are in the process of rebuilding our branch, and people you speak to are wary because of how conservative the leadership are, which is a novel but new problem I have faced as a militant.

Steven.
Jun 16 2011 07:43

What you mean by "setting up to avoid coordinated strike at all costs"?

JoeMaguire
Jun 16 2011 19:44

They talked down an all out strike across Unison and also joining others on strike over same conditions and simply reinforced the legal implications to all and sundry, even when this was raised again later from the floor. They made it clear it was not acceptable to strike over privatisation and we had to follow the industrial action procedure to the letter, so we could overt legal challenges.

The data cleansing briefing (which emphasis's the points you made in a nutshell) talked about sorting out membership details, but arguing we should look for other methods aside from strikes to avoid the implications of being challenged in the courts. Its quite simple the leadership are quaking from the prospect of a militant response, and hope to pacify members through stoking up the spectre of the state.

Steven.
Jun 16 2011 19:54

Are you talking about pensions Joe? Or other issues? Privatisation is something else entirely, unison makes it pretty much impossible to have any sort of industrial action over that.

On the pensions issue, everything coming from the central union at the moment is saying industrial action is coming - probably in October - so this doesn't really tally with what you're saying, which I don't get.

Prentis was all over the media yesterday and the day before saying that strikes were coming, in the form of discontinuous strike action.

Of course, some of this may just be politicking before conference which is next week, where he will want to placate union activists who will be angry at the lack of action so far. But seeing as we did go on strike over pensions back in 2006, and have since then and smaller issues than this, I would find it quite hard to believe that we are not headed for industrial action at all.

(Or are you a unison member in health? That is a different kettle of fish to local government.)

JoeMaguire
Jun 16 2011 23:50

I am in HE and the briefing covered pensions and changes to the NHS. So I am not stringing out a single issue. As it stands there is no industrial action planned and I would be surprised of anything significant emerging in the next few months.

And with regards to 2006, alot as happened since then, namely court injunctions. Unison empitimise the legalistic approach.

Steven.
Jun 17 2011 07:48

Actually, there haven't been significant court injunctions against unison strikes (a couple of Almo's haven't been able to join strikes, because unison either forgot to notify the employer or forgot to ballot members). Not only that, but the RMT ruling the other week effectively establishes a right to strike and makes these kind of spurious injunctions more difficult for employers to get.

Was it a London regional briefing you went to? I don't really get what is going on here, as I went to a London regional briefing a couple of months ago about "preparing for industrial action" and have been invited to more since which I haven't been to. We also have been getting e-mails from the central union about preparing for action, with October mooted as the possible time.

Or was your briefing mostly for HE reps? I'm not sure if UNISON in higher education goes on strike much (maybe they did in 2006?) or is particularly well organised.

JoeMaguire
Jun 18 2011 10:58

It was the London briefing and included people across the public sector.

Hinnys on Holidays
Jul 4 2011 21:56
Quote:
Or are you a unison member in health? That is a different kettle of fish to local government

Could you elaborate here? I am one. Freshly. After getting utterly demoralised by the unite rep-ship in my area I have begun to dual card while I decide what the hell would be best in terms of being clued-in to regional and national industrial activity.

Steven.
Jul 4 2011 23:36

All I meant was that UNISON health is pretty conservative, even compared to UNISON in local government

Steven.
Jul 16 2011 15:07

Word on the street in UNISON is that a stitch up is imminent.

Apparently the government is due to announce on Tuesday that "constructive negotiations" are going to happen around the local government pension scheme (LGPS), and that members of the LGPS will be exempted from the contribution increase.

Basically this will mean that Council workers will be exempted from the increase (effectively a 3% pay cut roughly), and that smaller groups of workers like civil servants and teachers will now be split off from the big joint negotiations, leaving them more isolated (like the pay disputes of 2007/8).

This isn't good news for council workers either, however, as it looks like the union will totally cave over raising the retirement age, abolition of protection for privatised workers, the switch from RPI the CPI and possibly the replacement of final salary with career average scheme.

Also, of course if the government now defeats the remaining smaller groups of workers and succeeds in pushing through the contribution increase, then a couple of years down the line they will do that to us as well, and those other groups of workers won't support us, as they will already be paying the higher rate.

Anyway, this is what is rumoured so let's see how things progress