Unison activists at Health Conference quite rightly did NOT endorse the 3-year pay offer negotiated by Unison and RCN.
The challenge, of course, is that the ‘union machine’ can be brought to bear to encourage a particular outcome. This isn’t a problem peculiar to Unison – it happened in my own union when the leadership wanted to force through Agenda for Change, for example.
There’s an interesting little article here from Unison’s website that in my view puts a strong spin in support of the deal, just after a conference where activists were fiercely critical of what’s on offer.
It’s worth challenging the sleight of hand being used to push 3 years of pay cuts.
A lively and full debate?
The debate is described as ‘lively and full’ – a convenient short-hand for a whole load of speakers expressing strong disagreement with what their negotiators have got for them.
RCN and Unison use different calculators!
The percentage uplifts are described by Unison as being worth 8.1% in total, over 3 years. The RCN – the joint signatory to the offer – does its sums differently. According to the RCN, the deal is worth ‘up to 7.99%’ – and that’s only for staff on bands one, five, and the bottom of band six.
The RCN reports that the proposals are worth ‘at least 7.6% for all staff’ – a figure rather lower than the 8.1% put about by Unison. Actually, it’s worth doing the sums. A cumulative percentage increase of 2.75%, 2.4% and 2.25% works out at 7.58% increase over the 3 years of the proposed deal. So the RCN is rounding up, and it’s very unclear what Unison is doing.
Unison continues to report percentage increases of 2.75%, 2.54% and 2.5% over the 3 years. This is misleading – the actual percentages, stated quite clearly in the proposed agreement, are 2.75%, 2.4% and 2.25%. The discrepancy is presumably accounted for by the small concessions achieved for designated groups. This is not made clear.
Do the lowest paid benefit?
The Unison article boasts that the offer is weighted towards the lower paid, increases the minimum wage to above Unison’s target, and is a step towards merging bands one and two. Well, maybe. But worth a more detailed look.
• The offer is weighted towards the lower paid according to Unison. The RCN, on the other hand, nods in the direction of the low paid, but then talks about how the proposals will ‘better reward nurses on bands five and six’. In fact the lowest paid NHS workers will get the standard 2.75% in Year 1 (a pay cut).
In Year 2, the abolition of the bottom spine point will deliver a decent percentage increase – 5.72% – for the smallish numbers of staff on spine point one, in their very first year of employment, right at the bottom of pay band one. All other low paid workers, including everyone else on the disgracefully low band one salaries, will get the standard 2.4%. It is a virtual certainty that this too will be a pay cut – including for the low paid.
And how about Year 3, with the flat rate payment of an additional £420? A not very spectacular £420 will be worth rather less in ‘real’ money by 2010, of course. Even with the £420 to NHS workers on bands one to three, the overall percentage increase varies between a magnificent 3.17% for those earning £13653 a year and 2.31% for the lucky individuals earning as much as £18,577 a year. Financial instability makes it difficult to estimate what inflation will be by 2010/11 – but a lot of expert commentators are reckoning on around 4%. So the lowest paid are set for a pay cut in Year 3 too.
It isn’t untrue to say the offer is weighted towards Unison’s lower paid members, but a likely 3 years of pay cuts isn’t much of an achievement! And an NHS starting salary that is set at £12,517 for 2008/09 is a wage that I regard as an insult to health workers.
• So how about this increase of the starting salary to a level above Unison’s minimum wage? Well, kind of. Unison decided in October 2007 that the minimum wage should be at least £6.75 an hour. That will not be achieved for health workers until 2009, when the very lowest paid will be getting £6.77 an hour – a whole 2p above Unison’s minimum wage! But how about inflation? In the past, Unison has updated its calls for a living minimum wage in line with inflation. Why not now? Prices will clearly go up between October 2007 and April 2009, and are set to rise very sharply indeed over the next few months. To meet an October 2007 aspiration in April 2009 is no great achievement – and is arguably an attempt to make this pay offer appear better than it is.
• Is the eventual abolition of the bottom spine point of band one really a step towards doing away with band one altogether? Maybe national negotiators have inside information on this – they’re clearly a lot closer to the Government than I am. But you could see agreement on a very minor tweak to the truly miserable salaries of band one as being an effective endorsement of poverty pay. That’s my take on it.
Can the amounts be revised if inflation increases?
Unison’s material notes ‘a clause allowing the figures for years 2 and 3 to be revisited via evidence to the NHS pay review body if economic circumstances warrant it’. That’s absolutely true. The clause allows for years 2 and 3 to be revisited. But does the clause guarantee that years 2 and 3 will be revisited, if inflation rises sharply? Sadly not. The proposed agreement actually says, ‘In the event that the NHS PRB receive and identify new evidence of a significant and material change in recruitment and retention and wider economic and labour market conditions, they may request a remit from the Secretary of State to review the increases set out in this agreement for 2009/10 and/or 2010/11′.
So it’s up to the PRB – yes, the body that has recommended below-inflation awards for the last two years. Even worse, it’s up to the Secretary of State – that nice Alan Johnson who wants to cut our pay for the next three years. Our unions get no say at all. This is about as weak a commitment to review as you could possibly get. No local activist would let a local employer get away with an agreement like that.
Is there any commitment to a more fundamental review of pay structures?
No. Unison comments on ‘commitments to talks on reducing the number of pay points in other long pay bands and negotiations on Unison’s claim for a progressive reduction’. What does the proposed agreement actually say on this? ‘The parties have agreed to further talks within the three year period on proposals to reduce the number of incremental pay points (starting with bands 6 and 7) that are affordable within the context of future pay awards’.
So the commitment is to talks, not to any concessions from the Government. Even worse, it’s all dependent on the Government saying changes are ‘affordable’. Interestingly, we start with bands 6 and 7 – I wonder if this paragraph was negotiated by the RCN, as it obviously offers nothing at all to Unison’s lower-paid members? Most importantly, why should a Government that’s so hell-bent on slashing public sector pay suddenly give us faster progression through pay bands?
Which rate of inflation was that?
Unison’s report comments, ‘…conference recognised that it does not meet union policy calling for a “substantial” pay rise above RPI inflation, though the first year’s increase is more than the CPI inflation rate of 2.5%’.
Every trade unionist who has ever negotiated on pay knows that we bargain around RPI as the real rate of inflation, not CPI – the Government’s (much lower) measure. Why on earth is CPI introduced here?
This is the Unison Bargaining Support comment from March 2007:
‘The RPI should not be confused with the Consumer Prices Indices (CPI). CPI is the government’s official measure of inflation and forms the basis for the government’s inflation target. The methods used to calculate CPI are subtly different to RPI, allowing it to be used for international comparisons. A more detailed explanation of CPI is also included in this factsheet. Unison Bargaining Support strongly advises that CPI is not used as the basis for pay negotiations, because it does not take account of most housing costs’.
As trade unionists, we should absolutely reject any attempts – from the Government or union full timers – to talk up a poor offer by comparing it with CPI. Year 1 of the pay offer is a significant pay cut, and there’s no question about that at all.
It’s clear from the Unison report that members will be asked if they are ‘prepared to take lawful industrial action to secure a higher award’.
Industrial action is an interesting one. It’s worth remembering that members of PCS, NUT and UCU will be on strike next week against Government-imposed pay cuts. How did they win this? It’s stating the obvious – through union leaderships that gave a lead and backed their members. When members believe they have a strong union that stands with them, they will vote for industrial action. If there’s just vague talk of ‘industrial action’ – with members given no sense of support from the union and no vision that they can win – the risk is that this is a neat trick for destroying confidence rather than building it.
It’s worth remembering that this appallingly bad offer is only on the table because Unison and the RCN broke ranks with every other union to do their own deal. We don’t even know what might have been achieved through negotiation – because of the attempts of the Government, and the leaderships of Unison and the RCN to bounce all health workers into agreeing this.
Unison and RCN national negotiators are out of line on this one. Unison’s own Service Group Executive was unwilling to endorse the offer ‘won’ for them by negotiators.
Three years of pay cuts – forced through by one union and one professional organisation breaking ranks with everyone else – would weaken the union movement across the NHS, and would weaken the fight to defend the NHS. The outcome of this really matters. In Unison, I very much hope to see a successful campaign to achieve a ‘No’ vote. The response from every other union must be a robust, ‘No way – we’re not having it’. This disgraceful offer has to be kicked out.