Many unions have not endorsed the Government terms; but...

Submitted by martin on 21 December, 2011 - 7:49

The headline media reports - that is, the story as received by the big majority of public sector workers - are that most unions have accepted the 19 December Government terms on public sector pensions, quit the campaign, and settled down to negotiate fine detail. A closer look at union statements [below] indicates that many unions have not quite accepted the Government terms. That means the sell-out can be stopped. It also means something else, though.

Unison, GMB, and Unite signed a joint letter with the local government employers. That seems to be the only document actually signed so far.

The three unions withdrew from the agreement on 20 December because of a provocative letter from Government minister Eric Pickles.

On 21 December Unison and GMB declared themselves mollified, but Unite said its agreement remained suspended until a union sector committee on 9 January. Unite also said that it not signed up to the terms in the NHS and the civil service.

Or so the Financial Times (22 Dec) reports. Presumably because Unite's top full-time officials are embarrassed by the stroppiness of the union's sector committees, Unite itself has made no announcement. Most Unite members will have whatever information they've got from the mass media, which has told them that most unions have settled.

A firm stand by just a few unions who are willing publicly to reject the 19 December terms and plan further action - or even just PCS and NUT - could push the Government back even if every other union drops out. Those two unions alone have enough clout for that.

If a few unions take a firm stand, then they will probably rally others, such as the Unite health sector. If they only demur from full-scale capitulation, have their officials weaselling that they haven't really accepted the Government terms yet, and simultaneously but silently signal doubt about further action, then the weight of media and Government pressure will demobilise workers.

The problem is that so far only PCS and NIPSA have clearly told their members that the "heads of agreement" are absolutely not a framework which can be tweaked to get an acceptable deal, and that they continue to campaign for the unions' demands; and even PCS and NIPSA are vague about further action.

In health, Unite has rejected the "heads of agreement". But that decision was taken by the union's health sector Executive, not by the top full-time officials, and so has been hushed up by the union machine.

"The British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dental Association, British Dietetics Association, British Medical Association, British and Irish Orthoptic Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Federation of Clinical Scientists, GMB, Hospital Consultants and Specialist Association, Managers in Partnership, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, Society of Radiographers and UNISON" have "agreed to take [the Government plan] to their relevant executive bodies as the best that can be achieved by negotiations".

Unison's Head of Health, Christine McAnea, has supplemented this statement with a clear sign-off signal: "This is the government’s final offer.... We always knew this would be a damage limitation exercise – aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government’s pension changes".

In local government, Unite and GMB have signed joint statements with Unison.

In the civil service, PCS has clearly rejected the "heads of agreement". The FT reports that in retaliation "Cabinet Office insiders said the PCS would not be invited to further discussions on details of the reforms".

NIPSA, the Northern Ireland public service union, has declared: "NIPSA firmly rejects what is on offer as capable of providing for a fair solution to the dispute".

FDA has put out a statement offering its members little information, but a squalid sneer at PCS. "In the civil service, the FDA - together with Prospect and GMB - have... indicated [that] they were prepared to consider an outline of a new scheme as a basis for further negotiations... The Prison Officers' Association also wants to continue in the negotiations. Unite has stated that it 'wants negotiations and discussions to be positive and to reach a successful conclusion'. However, PCS appears to have rejected the proposals".

Prospect says it "has suspended industrial action for the duration of the talks [but] it has reserved the right to take further action if the talks break down". "Although the Cabinet Office sought to make continued participation in the negotiations conditional on acceptance of what it termed 'the main elements of scheme design', Prospect has undertaken to convey the outcome of the talks to [its] Civil Service Sector executive" (and, it suggests, though evasively, it has undertaken no more than that).

And the POA says that: "the POA would not endorse the 'Heads of Agreement' as outlined in [the Government's] formal offer until there has been a suitable conclusion to our negotiations on the normal pension age".

In education, the teachers' unions NUT and NASUWT have taken a halfway or "reserved" position. NUT general secretary Christine Blower announced: "the NUT was not able to sign up to the Government’s headline proposals. There was insufficient progress..."

But her statement was headlined not "campaign continues", but "talks to continue in the New Year".

The word from NUT full-time officials is that these weasel words are "tactical", designed to maximise unity with other unions like the NASUWT. This shows the bureaucratic way of thinking of the supposedly left-wing NUT top officials: the members can be fed any sort of bland rubbish and weasel words if only the top officials think those words serve some clever (or usually, in practice, not so clever) manoeuvre with the top officials of NASUWT.

An email from Blower to NUT members dated 20 December mentions the possibility of further action. "Your National Executive will meet in January to take a view on progress in the negotiations so far and next steps in our campaign, including any further proposals on industrial action". But those diffident words come only after opening paragraphs signalling that "progress" has been made in the negotiations, although they still do not quite "address all of the NUT's concerns", and that things make look better when the union gets "further documentation from the Government" which will "clarify" details.

Some on the left in the NUT excuse the NUT leaders' words, and some on the left in Unite excuse the Unite leadership, arguing that the important thing is that these unions have not "signed up", and the rest is reasonable tactical caution.

This too, however, is the world as seen by the union official for whom the heart and essence of union activity is his or her (overrated) cleverness in manoeuvring and negotiating, and the members are only a stage-army - not as seen from the workplace. In the workplaces what matters so far is that the supposedly left-wing NUT's position is indistinguishable from that of the big majority of unions, who say they haven't signed a deal yet, but tacitly accept the Government and mass-media line that the campaign is over. In fact, the supposedly left-wing NUT's position is weaker than that of the openly right-wing Prospect.

ATL says in so many words that it has "signed up to" the "heads of agreement". NAHT has a "reserved position" veering towards acceptance. "We have reached a point where we have produced some 'parameters' for the pension scheme which we believe exhaust the full potential of negotiations at this stage [and] are worth putting before our National Executive and members to see what you think... We will not escalate any industrial action while this process takes place".

The Scottish teachers' union EIS has made no statement.

None of the "halfway" unions challenges the Government's flat assertion that this is the "final position" and points out that "final" is always defined by how strong the union campaign is, not just by the bosses' wishes. None of them openly disputes the Government's measured claim of victory:

"The Government has set out its final position on the main elements of scheme design to be introduced in 2015. Trades unions have agreed to take these to their Executives as the best that can be achieved through negotiations...

"Further work on the remaining details will take place in the New Year and trades unions’ Executives will consult members as appropriate. This includes a commitment from most unions to suspend any further industrial action while the final details are resolved and unions are consulting their members".

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