Members of UNISON, GMB and UNITE working for councils and schools in England and Wales are about to start balloting for strike action over pay. They are fighting against a derisory pay offer of 1.75% – in reality a pay cut. Even at the time this offer was made many months ago, it was well below the rate of inflation, but that is now running at over 4% overall, but with many crucial costs – energy, rents and house prices – going up by much greater amounts.
The demand is for a pay rise of 10% to stem the drastic decline in local government pay over many years. The value of local government pay is now 25% lower than it was in 2010, which tells us a lot about the severity of the austerity offensive of the last 10 years, as well as the abject failure of the trade union leaderships to resist it.
These pay negotiations cover some of the lowest-paid public sector workers in the country. Over 40,000 of staff working in councils and schools still don’t even earn the real living wage of £9.90 per hour.
These are the workers who provided care, cleaning and education through the pandemic at huge personal sacrifice and risk.
If strike action happens it will be the first national action on pay since 2014, and in the UNISON consultative exercise there was a 79% majority to reject the offer (albeit on a very low turnout).
However since the last action the political landscape has changed in both negative and positive ways. The 2016 Trade Union Act means that, for a strike to legally go ahead, at least 50% of all those balloted must turn out and a majority vote in favour. This is not some democratic reform as the Tories like to spin it – it is a major assault on the right to strike and designed to make striking as difficult as possible. The trade union movement needs to campaign both inside and outside the Labour Party for the repeal of all the trade union laws. It also goes without saying that a more confident trade union movement would be defying these laws anyway.
The 50% threshold Is a major challenge for unions conducting national ballots and several ballots have gone down to defeat simply through not meeting it. However, as the CWU has demonstrated, it is not insurmountable with effective organising on the ground.
The only “legal” method of voting is by post to members’ addresses, and it is no accident that the Tories took steps to ensure that members vote in isolation. It is therefore important that branches organise member meetings, in-person or online, to get the key messages across and to ensure that members know that they are acting collectively.
Another major challenge will be overcoming membership cynicism about what can be best described as the “Grand Old Duke of York” tactics of the union leaderships over the last decade. This was best exemplified by the pensions dispute a decade ago, when a number of public sector unions took joint action on one day in the nearest thing to a general strike since the real thing 85 years earlier. This should have been the start of a huge campaign but the leaders squandered the enthusiasm and militancy to saddle us with a poor deal with no more action taken. It was a similar story in the 2014 pay campaign.
On the positive side, there has been a change in the leadership of some of the unions involved. In UNISON the left formation, Time for a Real Change, now has a clear majority on the NEC and holds the important position of President. There is also the election of Sharon Graham as General Secretary of UNITE. There is therefore the prospect that there will be serious campaigning for a Yes vote in the ballot and less likelihood of action being scuppered.
The UNISON ballot opens on 1 December 2021 and closes on 14 January 2022.
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