Glasgow Unison Protest 8 March 2022. Photo: Matt Dobson
Glasgow Unison Protest 8 March 2022. Photo: Matt Dobson

April Ashley, Unison NEC member, personal capacity

Unison members have been part of the wave of trade union struggles against the cost-of-living crisis.

Local government and school workers could be the latest to join this tidal wave, as they are being balloted for strike action. The Local Government National Joint Council committee (NJC – made up of reps from local government unions, including Unison) has rejected the underwhelming flat rate pay offer of £1,925.  The joint union pay claim for 2023-24 was for 12.7%.

The offer is identical to last year, which, without a strong lead from the top, Unison members accepted. However, this year is not the same as last year. When the employers’ offer was made last summer, we hadn’t seen the huge spike in energy prices. In the last year, gas prices rose by 132%, electricity 66%, mortgage interest payments 26% and petrol 22%.

With food inflation at 19% and still rising, members cannot live on such low pay and are angry. The pay offer amounts to only 4%-7% for most members. This is in effect another pay cut for members who have lost 25% of the value of their pay since 2010 and the austerity years.

As many people have commented, it is not a cost-of-living crisis but a cost-of-existing crisis!  With no end in sight!

That is why Unison members have been fighting back. Unison members in higher education and the environment agency have balloted and taken strike action, and will be taking more industrial action over the next period.

In spring, we saw health workers and ambulance workers taking strike action, with a number of hospitals only just missing the ballot threshold to strike alongside their RCN colleagues.

Health members, following a huge campaign for ‘accept’ by the right-wing leadership of Unison’s health service group executive (SGE), accepted the poor pay 2022-23 deal as they desperately needed some money. Socialist Party members on the SGE argued for reject, and were part of a sizeable minority of 15 against 21.

The deal, of an unconsolidated lump sum starting at £1,665 for 2022-23 and a below-inflation pay rise of 5% for 2023-24, did nothing to address low pay, the criminal shortage of staff and the crumbling of the NHS as it is continues to be privatised and starved of funds. Many members campaigned for reject, and our health members are still angry and are gearing up to fight for next year’s pay campaign.

In April, Unison’s health conference unanimously agreed to withdraw from the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB – made up of government-appointed so-called experts) so they can directly negotiate with the government on pay. A Tory government initially refusing to negotiate with the trade unions has been forced by the huge pressure of striking workers to negotiate directly with all the trade unions. 

RCN members courageously rejected the shoddy deal, against the recommendation of the RCN leadership, and are reballoting for further action. Unite has also rejected the pay deal and is engaged in a number of strikes.

Socialist Party members on Unison’s National Executive Council (NEC) have continually called for coordinating all the strike action so that we all strike together.

The year-long strike wave sees no sign of abating yet, with teachers, civil servants, and transport workers in the RMT and Aslef continuing action. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has suspended balloting its members on the inadequate Royal Mail deal, due to no change in the actions of management, including the victimisation of hundreds of reps and members. Many other workplaces, such as Amazon workers in Coventry and now homelessness housing workers in St Mungo’s (see pages 5 and 7), are also part of the strike wave.

School workers and teachers could potentially take action together in the autumn if Unison local government workers pass the Tory-imposed 50% turnout threshold in their disaggregated ballot.

In addition, over 50,000 National Education Union (NEU) support staff, although not part of the NJC, have balloted for strike action. If they pass the 50% threshold in their national ballot, they should be taking joint action along with Unison, Unite and GMB members.

The NEU has been fined by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for organising school support staff members, following a complaint made by the other support staff unions. Socialist Party members on the NECs of Unison and the NEU made a joint statement calling for maximum unity of school workers instead of such division (see Unison and NEU: For maximum unity not division’ at

It is essential to ensure there is effective action to win decent pay rises for all of us. We need to work together with the NEU, such as on the joint education unions’ lobby of parliament on 20 June on schools funding.

Unison conference also takes place as the Tories’ anti-strike minimum service levels bill is going through its final stages. Our members taking action could find themselves facing punitive action in the coming months. The Socialist Party calls on all Labour councils and mayors to refuse to issue employer notices – as the Scottish SNP government has already pledged to do. It is also vital that all trade unions discuss together now how to respond with urgent action – including preparations for a 24-hour general strike – should the law be enacted against any trade unionists.

Left leadership

The left won a majority on Unison’s NEC for the first time in 2021, including four Socialist Party members, with the Time For Real Change (TFRC) grouping in the leadership. Members had had enough of the old right-wing leadership that held back the fight against a decade of austerity.

However, at last year’s conference the NEC was censured and a vote of no-confidence was passed as the TFRC leadership were not seen to take complaints of bullying and harassment by mainly women members seriously. The Paul Holmes issue has, incredibly, still not been resolved, which will continue to give ammunition to the old right wing of the union who are desperately trying to win back control of the union.

The right wing of the NEC are happy to do Starmer’s bidding and would hold back members from taking any effective action against future attacks by a right-wing Labour government, who in turn will be happy to do the bidding of big business.

That’s why it is essential that the left leadership steps up to the plate with a serious fight on pay, conditions, jobs and funding in all sectors.

Starmer’s Labour won’t deliver for us

As industrial action continues, many members are also looking to desperately end the rule of the Tories. There is visceral hatred of the Rishi Sunak government, which has presided over the continued calamity of the collapse of living standards.

Many members will clearly vote to kick out the Tories in the general election which will have to take place in the next 18 months. But there is little enthusiasm for a Starmer-led Labour government, whose policies are increasingly difficult to differentiate from the Tories. The U-turn on Labour’s policy for free education is another nail in the coffin of Corbyn’s policies in the Labour Party, and a kick in the teeth for young people.

From banning frontbench Labour MPs from visiting picket lines, to barring Corbyn as a Labour candidate, to suspending Diane Abbott from the Labour whip shows his direction of travel – further and further to the right.

Our members need inflation-proof pay rises, full funding and an end to privatisation. We need to cancel all PFI debt, bring back in-house all the privatised services, and renationalise the public utilities where our members work, such as water, gas and electricity. But Starmer has made it clear whose side he is on in this fight – and it’s not ours!

Yet when the decision to bar Corbyn was taken at the Labour NEC, the Unison reps abstained! That is why the Socialist Party calls for a democratic discussion about how to achieve a genuine political voice for Unison members. Branches should be able to democratically decide to support candidates that back Unison policies, even if outside the Labour Party.

The Socialist Party argues that the trade unions must back Jeremy Corbyn to stand independently of the Labour Party, as part of a workers’ list of candidates. That could be a step towards the new workers’ party we need, that could genuinely defend the interests of Unison members and the working class.

Socialist Party conference fringe meeting:

  • 5.30pm/end of conference
  • Wednesday 14 June
  • Suite 1, Leonardo Hotel, opposite conference venue (formerly Jurys Inn)

Come to NSSN conference

11am – 4.30pm, 24 June at Conway Hall, London. Registration fee £6

Confirmed speakers so far: NIPSA General Secretary Carmel Gates, BFAWU General Secretary Sarah Woolley, POA General Secretary Steve Gillan, NAPO National Official Annoesjka Valent, GMB Officer Gary Palmer from the victorious #GMBThree