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.<fN> In the article "Union backs campaign on pension age change" it states: "There is an alternative to the government's plans… There should be no change before 2020, followed by an increase in the state pension age for men and women to 66 between 2020 and 2022… saving £20 billion for the government." </fN>

Posted By

Apr 21 2011 11:07


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Jul 16 2011 16:43

I've no idea really about Unison health as I'm not a member but at my hospital they seem very inactive (notice board still advertises a meeting in January and a rally last October) and I've met far more Unite members and reps. Obviously though this is the most spurious of all kinds of analysis and doesn't really mean anything. It does make me wonder though about what counts as a 'unionised' workplace, for example both are recognised within the hospital and have a relatively substantial number of members (I assume) yet within my department as far as I know very few if any are unionised, is this a unionised workplace? It seems to me that the internal separation of large industries (spatially, shift patterns, levels of management, differing conditions and so forth) is probably something overlooked by traditional forms of organisation. Sorry if this has got off track.

Jul 16 2011 19:38

That is an important observation: yes, your workplace would count as "unionised" as there is a recognised union there. But in reality for workers on the ground this means very little. What does make a difference is the actual level of existing workers' organisation.

Anyway, if you want to talk about this more I would suggest starting a new thread, as I would like to keep this predominantly on the topic of UNISON and the cuts.

Oct 22 2012 18:40

Was just rereading this article because I'm currently writing a detailed account of Unison's handling of the pensions dispute. And from the comments a couple of things came up:

Steven. wrote:
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).

just an update on this: what happened in the end was they said that despite a big yes vote turnout wasn't high enough so we couldn't have an official ballot. Even though the turnout was comparable with the turnout for national strike action ballots.

Also, while what happened sucks, it's always nice to be able to say "I told you so":

Steven. wrote:
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)