With over 100,000 local government jobs under threat, both council bosses and council workers are preparing for war.
Budgets need to be set at council meetings before the start of April and local politicians are slowly revealing the detail of the cuts.
Kirklees Unison branch recently balloted members over plans to cut non-school staff from 11,200 to 9,500. On a poor turnout (due in part to the snow) the branch got a slim majority for action. Branch officers kept their nerve and planned five days of action to start Monday 10 January. At the last minute management made an offer of no job losses before 1 April and an agreement that sickness absence will not be used in redundancy decisions. At a meeting on 8 January, 85 stewards voted unanimously to call off the action. These are just the opening scuffles in what will be a long battle, but Kirklees Unison will go into the next phase of the dispute from a position of strength.
Cuts can be fought; but often unions are not fighting.
In Wirral, the Tory-Lib Dem council issued offers of voluntary redundancy to their 6,000 employees in November. Workers who did not accept the deal were threatened with statutory minimum severance pay if their post was cut in the future. Consequently, 1,100 workers accepted the deal.
First indications suggest that large number of care staff and librarians have taken the voluntary redundancy package. This means the residents of the Wirral can expect the closure of half their libraries, five care homes for older people and a day centre for people with learning disabilities.
This anarchic way of making cuts is very destructive. But it finds some support in the unions.
According to the official Unison guidance, this deal should be considered as a victory as it has avoided any compulsory redundancies. If they follow the guidance, local union officers should now busy themselves with negotiations to sort out the finer details of closures and redeployments.
But the deal still means an increased workload for the staff left behind and the loss of services for the community. The Labour opposition on the council are considering a legal challenge because the Tory-Lib Dems “have not followed due process”. The anti-cuts battle will not be won through negotiations with management or legal challenges (important though these may be) but through mobilising for a campaign of industrial action.
As well as having a terrible policy on voluntary redundancies, the Unison bureaucracy is playing its traditional role in withholding strike ballots. But some branches have made progress in building enough grassroots pressure to force the bureaucracy into action.
In Notts County, a series of demonstrations, workplace meetings and an indicative ballot in favour of action has secured a strike ballot. It looks likely that Nottingham City Unison will soon follow.