UNISON has announced that the outcome of its consultative pay ballot was a 63.5% acceptance for the below-inflation pay offer from the employees.
Whilst the result may disappoint and frustrate many activists and members, the result is not entirely surprising when considered in the context of the uninspiring national campaign. However, in some of the branch results there are reasons to be optimistic, and there are certainly lessons to be learnt.
Left-led branches came out ahead. So why did the union fall short nationally?
It appears only two regions – London and the North West – may have voted to reject the offer. A number of branches have published their Branch results. In London, Hounslow, Lambeth and Barnet have reported turnouts of over 50% with significant votes to reject – in Barnet’s case, an impressive 89%. Similarly in the North West, Salford and Wirral have published their results with 70% and 91% rejections respectively, with over 50% turnouts.
These branch results are not a surprise. Up and down the country it is the active and pro-active branches, overwhelmingly left-led, that have delivered votes to reject. That is not because the members in those branches are more militant, or that they are feeling the cost of living crisis more acutely. Rather it is down to the leadership in those areas.
They are branches that have adopted an organising and campaigning approach, developing extended layers of activists and delivering for members consistently. Undoubtedly those branches have clearly pointed out that a below-inflation rise is a pay cut in their campaigning materials.
By contrast, UNISON nationally did not make a recommendation in the pay ballot. Instead they set out the case for and against, with the focus on the supposed positives. Material and e-mails from the union nationally for example tried to sugar coat the reality of the offer, stating that it was the “higher offer we have received for years” – which is incorrect when inflation is taken into account.
The social media presence of the union (it would be wrong to call it a campaign) was uninpsiring at best, with the lacklustre headline “decide on pay” being used instead of a clear lead and recommendation to reject.
Pay negotiation model needs to change
It is becoming Increasingly that the National Joint Council (NJC) Structure in local lovernment is not fit for purpose. In the health section, it is the Service Group Executive (SGE), directly elected by members that has ultimate authority over the pay negotiations. However, in local Government the SGE has no direct oversight. Rather the negotiations have been delegated to the NJC committee, with membership decided by the regions. This arrangement means that the wishes of the members are not directly influencing the pay negotiations. An urgent review and reform of the NJC Committee is needed.
Many of the ballots were influenced and led by the UNISON regional leaderships, including the unelected Regional Secretaries, as well as by the National Officers and NJC Committee. These have played a role in muffling the anger and pressures members face, not only on pay but on broader issues.
Time for Real Change (TFRC), the left grouping within the union has had a tremendous impact at a national level, both electorally and in starting to shift the outlook and direction of the union from servicing to organising, as well as putting the cost of living crisis at the forefront of our work. However as this result perhaps indicates, there is a need to build effective TFRC organisations in the regions.
That work has begun, but the need to further this work should not be underestimated, particularly as it is the regions (mainly right-controlled) that currently have decisive impact on the NJC Committee, and the Conference Standing Orders Committee that decides what we can and cannot debate at Conference.
We are also approaching the nomination period for the National Executive Committee elections. These elections are vital for the future direction of the union. Faced not only with a deepening cost of living crisis, but an aggressively anti-union Truss-led government, it is vital that the left continues to have decisive influence on the NEC.
That is why organising effective TFRC structures and a clear campaign are so important. Those local government branches, overwhelmingly led by TFRC activists, have shown what can be achieved. We must build upon that by developing new layers of activists for the battles ahead. There are clear reasons for remaining optimistic, despite this disappointing ballot.
Socialist Alternative members are and remain committed to the success of the TFRC project and building a UNISON that will be at the forefront of battles to improve the lives of members.