Local government: strike call blocked?

Submitted by Anon on 14 September, 2007 - 5:51

Local government employers have upped their pay offer to trade unions in an attempt to stave off industrial action. Their deal would give a 3.4% pay rise to the poorest paid council workers and 2.475% for all others. It’s still a paycut.

On the other hand, while falling short of the aim of an increase in line with inflation it is the first major public sector deal to break the 2% limit.

At TUC Brown made it clear that such pay restraint will be required for some years to come. Becuse Brown has been saying there will be no exceptions to 2% the employers have had to justify their offer by saying local government workers have increased efficiency over the last few years more quickly than other public sector workers. Is this a backdoor productivity deal? Or some carefully chosen words to avoid Brown’s wrath?

Unison have already decided to reject the offer and move to a ballot on industrial action. The GMB have had a special conference and are moving to a consultative ballot before deciding on action.

Within a few months over a million council workers could be taking strike action over pay. Following on from the actions of postal workers, civil servants, Metronet and Prison Officers a long awaited “season of discontent” could become reality. We wanted a “summer of discontent”, it may have to be a winter...

The fact that Unison, the biggest union in local government, is giving a strong lead is bound to boost confidence of workers elsewhere. Most importantly perhaps in the health service where a worse pay deal, stuck at less than 2%, is being offered.

Unison in health is currently balloting on that deal but are reluctant to move into action. Yet now would be the best time to co-ordinate action across the sectors, bringing the full weight of the union into play. A simple slogan of “one union, one fight” would pull together the member’s common interest in securing a wage rise above the rate of inflation.

Unfortunately there has been a series of efforts by the full time officers in the health sector to silence a campaign to reject the offer in the ballot. The ballot went ahead without a recommendation from the Health Executive, beyond a note saying this was best offer to be achieved by negotiation. When individual members and branches tried to organise for a no vote, the response was a rapid clampdown from the bureaucracy with threats of disciplinary action. The lack of recommendation and information accompanying the ballot was clearly a surrepitious pushing for a yes vote and at best a partial if not actually lying attempt to present the deal as better than it is.

The fact that Karen Jennings, Unison’s head of health, is now to be a New Labour election candidate has further incensed rank and file activists. Rightly, members are asking if there is a conflict of interest between serving UNISON members interest and her boss to be Brown.

The various rulings made to try and stop the no campaign are being challenged and we await the results.
Not all the leadership are loyal minions of New Labour though. Others are genuinely cautious about the ability of the union to organise national industrial action in the NHS. Unison has never done this and sectional national action such as the NHS Logistics action has failed despite the tenacity of the workers involved.

This underlines the case for having an open debate in the union to discuss which forms of industrial action are both possible and would be effective. But the attempt to enforce silence has limited the opportunity for activists to start preparing members for the battles to come.

The ballot closes on 14 September. Fiven the high vote against the original deal in the RCN and the open door activists are finding in any discussion about voting No we can risk being optimistic. The RCN are meeting again on the 15th and at a special conference will be discussing taking action probably initially in the form of work to rule. The AMICUS section of UNITE have already decided to accept the deal although action elsewhere could see that decision reversed.

Health branches are generally quite poorly organised. Nevertheless the fact that one half of our union is moving into action cannot fail to have a positive effect.

Unity is a problem while the leadership tries to block local branch based initiatives, as in Leeds, to develop Public Sector Alliances. Dave Prentis has said that unity and joint action is the proper business only of himself and the other general secretaries, discouraging local initiatives with threatening letters. When that means blocking a forum for meeting others in the same union, who work in different sectors, it seems even more ridiculous.
The leadership worry that some of the militancy in local government might spread.

The developing tide of industrial struggle will drive on the development of solidarity networks and local Public Sector committees. The possibility exists for the birth of Unison as a true industrial union, for the first time taking on the role of coordinating campaigns and action across the public sector. That was the purpose for which it was formed and now is the chance to make it reality:
• one union, one struggle,
• no pay cuts across the public sector,
•for joint and coordinated strike action in Unison and beyond to end Brown’s pay freeze

By Mike Fenwick

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