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Unison goes to arbitration - a strategy or surrender?
Not long ago, Unison was leading the charge at the TUC for a united campaign of the public-sector unions against the government's pay freeze. The motion, moved by Keith Sonnet, Unison deputy general secretary, instructed the TUC to coordinate strike action and organise a national day of action, including a national demonstration.
A London Unison local government member
If Unison's leaders were genuine in moving this (and it wasn't just a bit of TUC rhetoric for the cameras) then we should be asking immediately for the TUC public-sector committee to lay down plans.
We should demand that the TUC name the day for the national demonstration to take place as soon as possible.
If the government can find billions to bail out the banks then they can settle our dispute in full.
Given that our own members in Scotland have taken further action and the NUT and PCS are to ballot for strike action in October, a national demo in October or early November could act to galvanise the whole of the public-sector workforce. It would prepare our members for further action, in the knowledge that they weren't alone. The impact we could have, particularly in the schools with the NUT would be significant.
Instead, what has happened? The Unison side of the NJC negotiating body voted to ask to go to arbitration!
We have had two months of nothing! Two months of so-called talks that have not delivered a penny more to our members, while they have lost two days' wages. They are rightly asking - for what?
The only outcome of the talks is to agree "a timetable for talks on our national terms and conditions". The idea that the employers are simply going to hand us better national terms and conditions, when they won't concede a higher pay rise is in my view fanciful.
The fear I have is that we sign up to a single status agreement mark II, with more of our terms and conditions being handed over for local negotiations, with branches being left to fight alone (again!).
It was a mistake to call off the action. We should have given the employers a clear deadline to make an acceptable offer and then reinstated the action when they failed to move.
Instead, the momentum gained could now be lost. This is a repeat of the failed tactics of the previous pay and pensions dispute, with the union leaders playing the 'grand old Duke of York' with our members.
If the union leaders were going to settle for a request for arbitration and talks about our national terms and conditions, why call the strike in the first place and lose members the two days' pay?
It is being suggested that the reason for going to arbitration is the failure of the July action and the union's inability to deliver any more now. Naturally these concerns have to be addressed and cannot be ignored.
It was reasonable, off the back of the close ballot result, for activists to wonder what would happen in July. There were those on the executive at that time who were saying they couldn't pull it off. Yet when it came to it, despite the conservatism of the leadership, the members in the leadership's own regions, such as the North East and the North West, showed their willingness to fight. Even the employers were forced to admit the large numbers out on strike.
In London, the fact that we had 1,000 members on a central London rally where the mood was more militant than I have witnessed in years, is an indication of the mood over pay. Around the union the reports were that there were more pickets out than we had been able to get before, showing a determined mood amongst a wider layer.
That mood has not gone away. If anything it is hardening because of the state of the economy and members' falling living standards.
Noone is saying securing further action is a walk in the park. But the action in July was better than expected. Other public-sector unions are balloting for action. The TUC have agreed to call a national demonstration. So now to go cap in hand to the employers asking for arbitration, when two months of talks delivered nothing, is little more than waving a white flag of surrender.
If the leadership were genuinely serious about a fight but were merely concerned about members' willingness to take action again, wouldn't it have been better to say to the employers - you have a week to come up with an improved offer. Then, with no improved offer, the union could have conducted a consultative members' ballot on the same timetable as the NUT and could have called for strike action on the same days.
That at least would have been a more honest position, rather than blaming the members and hiding behind the results of a flawed survey designed to get a particular result, carried out at the height of the holiday period.
The fact that the majority of the union leaders have put their faith in ACAS rather than the members says it all.
- We should now say to the employers - come up with a fair offer or we are going to strike with the NUT and the PCS.
- We must also use Unison's representatives on the TUC general council to demand the TUC name the day for the national demonstration. This would give confidence to all public-sector workers and prepare our members for a new round of action.
In The Socialist 2 October 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review