Apologies for a quiet two weeks! I’ve had the TUC, a Unite Executive Council meeting, and pretty much back to back meetings in between times.
Pay for the UK’s public sector workers – close to six million of us – has become a centrally important political issue. The outcome of the current conflict over Brown’s ‘pay restraint’ policy really matters.
Quite obviously this is a key issue for public sector workers. We’re being told that we have to pay for an economic crisis that isn’t of our making. We’re being told that we have take a pay cut – last year, this year, and for years to come – at a time when fuel and food bills are rocketing. This has real and serious implications for the quality of life for health workers, local government workers, civil servants, teachers and other education workers… There’s real hardship out there, for us and our families. It’s no wonder that the levels of anger and bitterness are escalating. We need a fightback.
Pay matters for the quality of public services too. I sometimes meet health campaigners who take quite a simplistic view that trade unions are selfish and greedy because ‘all they care about is what their members are paid’. This is just a wrong analysis. Trade unions are not beyond criticism, but if health workers are treated like dirt, face year on year pay cuts, are bullied at work, constantly threatened with privatisation and redundancy – how, under those circumstances, are we going to get high quality health care? The same is true for the rest of the public sector. If we value public services, we have to value our public service workers.
Public sector pay matters for the Government. Alistair Darling spoke at the TUC, and his message on public sector pay cuts was along the lines of ‘Tough shit’. The challenge for the Labour Government is that it faces a growing chance of wipe out at the next General Election. Alienating six million workers and their families is a good move if you’re hell bent on electoral suicide, but it’s hardly a vote winner.
And public sector pay is also crucial for the credibility of the TUC and every union that represents public sector workers. If unions can’t stop an attack of this magnitude on such a large number of people, we’re very conspicuously failing to do our job.
So, where are we now? It’s a mixed picture.
The TUC voted for a strong resolution that encourages co-ordinated industrial action amongst unions in dispute, that opposes privatisation, and that organises days of action including a major national demonstration against the Government’s pay policy. This is brilliant. Activists in every union with public sector members have to push hard to make the promises of action a reality. Public sector workers have real industrial muscle, but we tend to forget this. Solid action across several unions will be a powerful illustration of how strong we are, and will build confidence on the ground. The NUT and the PCS are balloting on industrial action. Unite’s health membership is due to ballot in the next few weeks. The TUC should move urgently to set a date for a ‘day of action’. November would be good! This remains a winnable fight.
The vote at the TUC for the composite motion on public sector pay was unanimous. The public display of unity unfortunately conceals a number of tensions. Informal reports in the days before Congress indicated that a massive row was simmering in the background. I stress the reports are entirely informal, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy – but the stories from several different sources are consistent. It seems that most unions agreed on the need to roll their separate resolutions on public sector pay into a single ‘composite’ motion, but then couldn’t agree on the content. Representatives of Unison wanted a long and worthy resolution that made the right noises but called for no action at all; other unions (including NUT, PCS and Unite) wanted something more robust. The ‘good guys’ won, more or less.
Are the leaderships of all our unions committed to the united action called for in the resolution? Sadly that’s questionable. Unison, as the biggest public sector union, negotiated the NHS pay deal that means three years of pay cuts. Reports emerged at Congress – days after the show of unity on pay – that Unison negotiators had told local authority employers that there would be no further industrial action on pay in England and Wales (and Unison has now gone to arbitration on local authority pay). When unions go down the road of subordinating the interests of their members to the perceived interests of a vicious right-wing Government, they do a disservice to their own members and to the union movement as a whole.
At Congress itself, tensions over pay were clear in the debate on an amendment from the Prison Officers Association. The POA quite rightly wanted to turn the TUC ‘days of action’ into ‘days of strike action’. This makes sense. The Government, sinking further and further into a quagmire of reaction, isn’t going to listen to a bit of huffing and puffing from unions. They’ll shift when we make them. Strike action fits.
Our unions are very divided on this one. On a show of hands at Congress, the vote on the POA amendment was extremely close. The President called for a card vote. The role of Unite became pivotal. A Unite delegation meeting the previous night had believed that the POA amendment calling for strike action was part of the main composite motion, which Unite was clearly supporting. When it came to the debate and the vote, delegates used their initiative, went with their instincts, and voted overwhelmingly to support the POA amendment for strike action.
On the card vote, things became more confused. The lay Chair of the delegation had not been given the card to enable us to take part in a card vote. While the vote for the POA amendment was taking place, the card could not be found. It was located just as the President called for card votes against the amendment. The Unite Chair was asked by senior officials (from the Amicus and T&G sides of the union) to use the Unite vote to vote against. Quite rightly he refused. Voting against the amendment would have meant voting against the clear wishes of our elected delegates. Unite therefore did not vote. If Unite had voted in favour of the amendment, it would have been carried very comfortably. In the event, the amendment was lost.
There are other problems too. I’m picking up on informal reports that a delegate meeting of UCU activists in Further Education has voted (very narrowly) against further industrial action on pay this year. The issue here isn’t a leadership that’s in bed with Labour, but a lack of confidence amongst senior activists that it’s possible to fight and win. This is a real disappointment (and highlights the need for the united action called for by the TUC, to overcome the lack of confidence that’s out there).
So, an overall picture that’s maybe like the curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’. We have a large public sector workforce, with high union density, angry, and being treated like dirt. We have a Government that’s discredited, as weak as it has ever been, but still very, very nasty indeed. We have some union leaderships who are fighting hard for the interests of their members; others who are ambivalent; others again who are running away from a fight so as not to rock the boat for Gordon Brown. The TUC needs to get its act together, and implement the decisions of Congress. Union activists have to remind the bureaucracy at the top of the unions that they’re here to represent us, not Gordon Brown. We also have to build our own confidence and organisation locally, regionally and nationally – not just within each union, but across union boundaries.
The potential for a fight on pay is still very obviously there – this year for some of our unions, and next year for all of us. This is still a fight that can be won. There are six million workers out there who aren’t willing to pay for the idiocies of greedy bankers.