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Ambulance dispute looms

Ambulance workers’ unions are dusting off their plans for a ballot on industrial action in England after negotiations over sick pay have reached an impasse. Thanks to devolution, never mind separatism, there is no longer any such thing as a British ambulance service, at least as far as the employers are concerned, and unfortunately unions too. 

The problem has its origin in recently negotiated changes to NHS pay and conditions that neglected to take into account ambulance workers. These changes gave unscrupulous ambulance employers an opportunity to deduct up to 25 per cent (which they get for working unsocial hours) out of any ambulance workers’ sick pay. 

More significant than the technical (and complicated) detail was the fact that employers saw a weakness and sought to exploit it. They simply deducted pay from workers’ pay packets without a negotiated settlement – indeed, without any negotiations at all. But workers are far stronger than they think they are. Especially when they’re organised in unions. 

The weakness that the employers perhaps spotted was that ambulance workers have allowed themselves to be divided between three unions, and indeed have an unenviable reputation for hopping from one to another when they don’t like what they see, especially when one of them demands taking some responsibility or involvement. Even Unison, with by far the largest membership in the area, has great unevenness across its 20,000+ members. Some having the best leadership in the British trade union movement, and some the worst. This too the employers were trying to exploit. 

But Unison moved swiftly, and in the absence of a formal agreement, or even any proposed negotiations, agreed to ballot for industrial action at the end of 2013. The other unions, seeing no immediate poaching advantage, meekly followed suit. Within a day of the receiving the ballot notice the employers conceded negotiations, and Unison agreed to lift its strike ballot. 

The negotiations have been difficult, and are not over yet, although pay deducted has indeed been reinstated. But a signal lesson has been learned: with clarity, determination and courage much can be achieved – all without the loss of any pay through industrial action, in effect without workers having to do much more than flex their little finger. Workers are not weak, as we are so often told. Our weakness is in the mind, and this dispute reveals that old truth. 

More than once during the course of negotiations a deal looked possible, one which would have vindicated Unison’s position. Now it turns out that the employers are in even more disarray than are the unions, who are currently unified under Unison’s leadership, and no agreement has yet been sealed.