Local government workers have had three years of pay freeze, as well as facing cuts in pay and conditions of service and massive job losses.
That is why many members welcomed Unison general secretary Dave Prentis’ photo shoot at Unison conference in June 2012, when he took a hammer and smashed an ice sculpture in the shape of 0%!
In reality however the Unison bureaucracy’s campaign to fight the pay freeze was born out of the need for an excuse to end the pensions struggle rather than any desire to seriously fight for decent pay for workers.
Unison activists began to get ready for a fight over pay anyway, nowhere more so than in the North West, where the right-wing regional leadership are keen Prentis loyalists.
At the beginning of February a blow was struck to this fighting spirit by Prentis himself! Addressing a meeting of the North West regional council in Liverpool, Prentis shocked the delegates by telling them that he had got it wrong over pay, this was not the year to fight, members were more worried about jobs than pay. At least one full-time officer and some right-wing activists left the room at this point, presumably in disgust!
Shortly after the Prentis bombshell the local government employers made their first offer: 1% for the lowest paid members and 0.6% for the rest or 1% across the board with ‘strings’, mainly attacks on the sick pay scheme.
The North West region opposed this offer, got the support of branches in the region for this position and lobbied other regions. The offer was rejected at national level.
This offer was followed by a second ‘final’ offer of 1% across the board with no strings, which was also opposed by the North West, along with the greater London and Southern regions.
Other regions were split with the result that by a vote of 14 to 13 it was agreed to put the offer to members via branch ballots as “the best that can be achieved by negotiation” with no recommendation and saying that only sustained all-out strike action could bring about any improvement.
This strategy is clearly designed to pour cold water on any fighting mood while attempting to scare people off strike action.
The leadership in the North West, however, prepared to defy this position, having successfully argued at a regional delegate meeting that branches should campaign to reject the offer and call for an industrial action ballot.
The priority for Unison now is to campaign in the ballots for a clear rejection of the 1% offer and to build the confidence of the members to fight for a decent pay settlement.
Left activists are best placed to carry out this campaign, having been doing it against the opposition of the bureaucracy and their right-wing lay allies for years.
Clearly Unison is in a critical situation, facing threats that could do lasting damage to the union. This shift in the North West reflects increased dissatisfaction among the rank and file with the union’s ability to defend them.
A strong united and successful fight over pay will help transform Unison, move it away from passive acceptance of and acquiescence to cuts, to being a fighting organisation, worthy of the name of a trade union.