Unison, Unite and GMB are now consulting their members in local government over the Local Government Association’s two-year pay offer of 1 per cent a year, with higher rises at the bottom end to take account of the new National Living Wage. Will they take any notice of what the members are actually saying?
Following the fiasco over pay in 2014-2015, Unison, the largest of the three unions, surveyed its membership over what had gone wrong. The answer: pay rated something like fifteenth in members’ priorities.
But the self-styled “activists” steamed on with their claim. An attempt to re-open the 2014-2015 settlement was brusquely swept aside by the employers without a squeak from the trade unions, because they knew it was just posturing. Instead almost immediately after the 2014-2015 agreement had been signed the 2016 claim was lodged, banging drums that this would give a greater lead into mobilising the members so that they would fight.
Unison also conducted a preliminary consultation exercise with its members in late 2015 and early 2016. The main finding: an overwhelming reluctance to support industrial action. Again, the decision was to ignore that finding and press ahead with another consultation.
No trade union is facing up to the realities of where local government is going and the mindset of the members. If the government gets its way the employment base for local government will have been cut by half between 2010 and 2020. So the greater fear over job loss still prevails. The argument to fight the cuts by fighting for wages has not been won.
If trade unions will not fight for wages, one of the fundamental reasons for their existence, it is no wonder that paralysis runs throughout the membership – reinforced by the pursuit of an industrial strategy reminiscent of the generals of the First World War. Members are not stupid. But equally they are not engaged with finding alternative strategies as to how to fight.
It is disingenuous to claim that all that is missing is a lack of leadership – that’s the ultra-left sounding militant but in reality being defeatist. Workers are not so naïve as to believe that just because a national executive or a general secretary shouts “charge” then charge we do.
Workers have seen years of failed tactics and a failure by the members themselves to take responsibility for pay. A return to thinking is required. How do we determine a strategy to survive an employer-driven agenda to reduce the directly employed public sector by more than half?
The private sector grows as the public sector declines, very often with the same workers employed. How do we devise a form of guerrilla action to pick off these companies one by one? This is not going to be easy. Workers are going to have to come to terms with the fact that failure, defeat, loss, and victimisation will be the norm until we have rebuilt a trade union and class consciousness so sadly lost in recent years.
• A longer version of this article is on the web at www.cpbml.org.uk