Three national newspapers (the Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian) all ran stories this week about the public services union Unison "preparing the ground for a general strike". This came as a shock to most Unison members, who haven't seen much sign of Unison preparing the ground for any kind of struggle, never mind a general strike.
The source of the fuss was a press release issued by the union, indicating that its Executive Committee would back an amendment tabled at the Unison conference starting on 17 June, calling for an integrated strategy to fight for better pay across the public sector.
Solidarity asked Kate Ahrens, of Leicestershire Health branch, which submitted the motion, about it.
"The basic problem is that Unison has operated like a divided union in the past, settling pay claims in one sector whilst pursuing better claims elsewhere. The end result has always been that we've failed to win the best possible deal for our members, because struggles have been undermined by the settlements reached in other areas.
"We've found in the health sector that we've been encouraged to settle for deals that undercut pay claims being fought for by our colleagues in local government. This amendment is an attempt to put a stop to that. Unison is a union of 1.3 million workers, and our strength comes from uniting our struggles and fighting together against a common enemy: a government that would rather put money into the hands of profiteers and private sector sweatshop bosses than into the pockets of public sector workers.
"We know, we've seen it with the firefighters, that we can't defeat the Government's pay policies one service at a time. We can't win like that. We also know that it's not just about pay. If we don't win on pay, we probably also won't be winning on questions of service, of working conditions and so on.
"In the past, Unison has argued that pay claims were matters for each service group to decide separately, so it's a positive development that the NEC has indicated support for our proposals. But, of course, a promise to develop a coherent strategy isn't, in itself, a strategy. It will be up to Unison activists, in the branches and workplaces, to argue for the kind of co-operation and solidarity that this amendment calls for, and to actually make it happen.
"It's a basic trade union principle that unity is strength, but it's a lesson that sometimes needs to be relearned. Unison has spent ten years trying to win pay rises by having each group of workers present its own special case to employers, and, indirectly, the Government. That hasn't worked, and the result is that public sector workers are now notoriously badly paid. We need a new strategy - one based on working-class solidarity across all the sectors of public service, and beyond, and one that advocates a living wage for all workers, and a plan of action designed to win it. Hopefully this debate at Unison conference will be the start of such a strategy."