England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Local Government workers vote yes to action but fighting strategy needed to overcome low turnout

In the recent Unison LG Pay Ballot, the results were disappointing for all those wanting to struggle for decent pay in Local Government. 70.2% of members voted YES to strike action, with 29.8% voted NO.

The disappointment is that turnout was 14.5%. But the 70.2% figure is a more accurate reflection of the mood and desire of members.

The bureaucracy has had decades to fine tune their strategy and technique to undermine the democratic processes in the union, especially national ballots. They will be feeling pleased with themselves, with a result that they will use to delay or avoid national action on pay for LG.

The low turnout in the ballot, also reflects the particular circumstances of the poll. Many LG workers remain working from home. Frontline workers in Health, Social Care, Education and Refuse Collection etc, are exhausted from working during the 2 year pandemic and after over 10 years of austerity. Overall this is a workforce feeling exhausted and with low morale.

Those working from home can start to feel isolated from colleagues and the union, so a ballot can easily be overlooked or lost, without the regular contact of colleagues and stewards.
Over the Christmas period many are distracted by other responsibilities in their lives, with family and friends, and seasonal demands taking priority over other pressing matters.

So, the 14% turnout should not be read as an indication that members are disinterested, ambivalent or hostile to a National Pay Campaign. It more accurately reflects the expertise of the bureaucracy to undermine members participation in union democracy. It signifies that working from home can cut off workers from colleagues and rank & file trade unionists. It tells us that over 12 years of austerity attacks on LG workers and 2 years of working during a pandemic has undermined confidence and morale.

How should the left respond?

The left in Unison will need to review the details of the campaign, and the obstacles that the bureaucracy has put in the way. It will have to look at those tactics that the right in the union will continue to deploy against the process of developing democratic structures.

The 70% voting YES is the significant figure to take from the results. The cost of living crisis is going to intensify over the coming months and years. The discontent and anger of workers will only increase, and it will become increasingly clear that there is an appetite for action on pay.

There have been significant victories against the bureaucracy in Unison, including in the NEC elections, where the left have the majority for the first time. Time For Real Change (TFRC) continues to develop, now standing a slate in the Service Group Executive (SGE).

Working within the structures of the union can produce gains. But decades of control by the bureaucracy has helped to undermine internal democracy and to push back rank & file stewards and activists wanting to organise and bring radical politics into the workplace.

TFRC needs to build on its success, and help to organise activists and stewards who want to help develop the democratic structures and make their union member led. TFRC can develop its presence within the union by holding regular Regional and Service Group meetings of supporters. This can help broaden the group’s support and bring in the layer of activists who want real change in the union. These layers of union activists can help deal with the issue of low turnout in ballots and elections, and play a part in creating a member-led union.

TFRC should use its position and influence to bring motions to branches, calling for accountability of Senior Officers in the union, and accountability of those who lead negotiations on pay etc. These motions should be brought to National Delegates Conference, as part of the process of putting members at the centre of our union and to create more democratic structures in Unison.

Socialist Alternative will continue to call for elections of all senior officials and will be taking motions to the branches that we are active in to make this a priority in our union.


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