Set back for the UNISON local government pay campaign

UNISON’s ballot for strike action in local government over pay proved to be a disaster, writes a UNISON branch secretary from South London


UNISON’s ballot for strike action in local government over pay proved to be a disaster. The yes vote for strike action was 70% but the turn out was only 14.5%. This fell well below the 50% threshold needed to take strike action as set out in the reactionary anti-trade union laws.

The low turn out follows other failed national ballots in health over pay where a 24% turn out in the consultative ballot meant that UNISON didn’t proceed to a formal strike ballot.

We are now in a situation where the largest union in the country cannot get close to organising national strike action in its two biggest bargaining units, health and local government.

The poor showing among UNISON members in these sectors is partly born out of demoralisation but also decades of their trade union offering little in the way of muscular industrial strategy. UNISONs machinery is almost allergic to taking industrial action – the product of years of selling the union with a ‘service model’ or doing casework and providing cheap car insurance. Many UNISON members don’t really consider their trade union as a fighting organisation against the government, for most it comes across more as a professional association that they only interact with around restructures or disciplinaries.

As a result a number of branches in local government have withered and are barely active. Regional officers keep these going on life support but there is no incentive or desire to really make them campaigning organisations.

The low turn out was no doubt compounded by working from home, a lot of union members feel less engaged with the union, they don’t see the posters or get leafleted by their stewards and branch officers.

But there are criticisms that should be raised over the union’s strategy around pay. The decision to host a ballot over December/January, a winter campaign over Christmas and New Years, was a real hinderance to getting out the vote. School members were only in their workplaces for the first two weeks of the ballot period.

The rush to ballot in December meant that there was little time to data cleanse, some branches spent a lot of their time during the ballot helping members re-order new ballots to their homes because they had moved house and not updated their details.

And the decision to have a national aggregated ballot meant that UNISON would have to pull off a feat it had never done before – it had to double its turn out from the 2014 dispute of 24% in order to get anywhere close to striking. But it was inevitable that some worse organised regions and branches would depress the vote. If the ballot had been disaggregated to a workplace by workplace vote, as was done by the UCU in 2021, then some of the better organised branches might have got over the threshold to take action.  As it is the union was set an impossible task and then fell far short of it.

The unions committee responsible for the pay negotiations will meet on Tuesday 18th January and decide on next steps but it looks likely that union members will just have to swallow the insulting 1.75% pay increase, coming after  23% pay cut in real terms since 2010.

With inflation set to increase and even the Tories considered about the cost of living crisis the larger unions need to work out what they are going to do. A trade union movement that cannot deliver in its areas of supposed strength in key parts of the public sector is a movement that starts to look incredibly irrelevant –  a dangerous situation to be in.

It is clear that the UCU’s approach shows the way with ballots with workplace by workplace votes and a focus on the better organised areas. A genuine rank and file shop stewards movement would also be a huge help, coordinating efforts, sharing what works and helping strengthen workplace organisation where it is needed. But we need to really build a political campaign against the anti union laws and to educate trade unionists in what they are and what the problem is – Free Our Unions has established itself as a worthwhile initiative to help make this argument. Ultimately we can either go through the anti union laws and try and reach the arbitrary thresholds or we go around them and break them. At the moment we aren’t doing either.

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