The big public services union Unison has a live dispute on pay in both its major sectors — Local Government and Health.
Consultative ballots in both areas have returned high percentages for rejection of the employers’ offer and award — 79% in local government, 80% in health. In the context of rapidly rising costs of living, including food, fuel, national insurance, and council tax, the stage should be set for a huge confrontation with the government on pay.
However, both sectors have had relatively low turnouts in their ballots. On the basis of the consultative ballots, neither sector would meet the threshold required in anti-union legislation (50%) — with local government rumoured to be around 20% and health announced at 29%.
In local government Unison is moving to a formal ballot, set to run from 1 December to 14 January. Holding the ballot in the run up to and over Christmas puts the campaign to improve the turnout on the back foot from the start.
The Health service group, which makes decisions on industrial matters in the health sector, has decided on a second consultative ballot, a mistake which seems designed to erect as many hurdles to action as possible.
Despite these failures in leadership, a focus on building turnout in the next ballots is needed at all levels of the union. If this is combined with a strategic approach to building industrial action, doing what we can to counter the anti-union laws, rather than giving up in the face of them, action on pay could still happen. The strong reject votes show that is possible.
Part of the problem is inexperience in running campaigns at branch level. The national union has advocated partnership working with employers and servicing for members for so long that basic knowledge on how to actively engage members in a fight to win is missing. We need to turn this around and use the campaigns on pay to rebuild our union.
Activists should advocate:
• Holding members’ meetings, either online or in person. Hopefully lots of members will turn up, but even if they don’t the ones that do come can make up the core of people to build the campaign for the vote and become new reps and activists in the union.
• Recruiting at least one workplace contact from each workplace to lead on pay. This can be a steward but doesn’t have to be. Give them a list of members in their workplace for them to speak to about voting. Hold regular meetings of these people to track progress on getting the vote out.
• Organise workplace walkabouts or phone banking to contact members. Spend some of the union’s resources (in many cases bulging after a year of Covid-restricted inactivity) on organisers and targeted messaging.
• Work with other unions where possible. Across both local government and health we are all in a similar position and sending out a united message on pay will make us stronger.
Running campaigns on this basis at branch level is vital, but without a national campaign we will not win on pay (or other national issues in the future), so we also need to advocate that the union nationally orientates itself fully to winning the ballots. Paid organisers and officers should prioritise the issue of pay throughout the balloting periods.
The national union should take steps to use data collected during the ballot on an ongoing basis to help branches get the vote out. We must also demand that the union develops a longer term strategy to target areas where the union can meet legal thresholds and take action.
The left now holds the majority on Unison’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and is currently engaged in a bitter fight over the control and democracy in the union. This has to be waged in combination with the fight on carrying out the policies of the union.
The NEC should clearly and publicly instruct all parts of the union to prioritise the issues of pay and the possibility of industrial struggle. They should allocate significant funds to strike pay and campaigning. If the union bureaucracy stands in the way, launch a public fight for control and democracy involving members.