Unison’s “depressing” analysis of the industrial battles ahead

The coalition government’s cuts to public sector pay, jobs and trade union rights will weaken the union movement on all sides. It’s a sobering report for a trade unionist to read. And no doubt it was sobering for Keith Sonnet, Unison’s deputy general secretary, to write.

In the report – circulated to union officials last week but written after the general election, and now seen by Tribune – Sonnet pulls no punches, summing up the challenges it faces from outside as “a depressing story”.

“The freezing of pay* and attacks on pensions will be unacceptable and force unions into industrial action that will be difficult to sustain”, he writes. “Locally deals will be sought to trade pay against jobs, but nationally it is not possible to implement such deals with meaning. These actions will undermine the bargaining machinery.”

It sounds as though he expects there to be little public support for strikes in the coming months and years as people soak up the pain from public service cuts and tax rises – not to mention if unemployment goes up.

If the government does want to actively undermine union power – as Sonnet says they do – there are many fronts to attack on.

Currently, unions are able to negotiate on pay and conditions nationally across the public sector – on behalf of doctors, nurses, other NHS staff, teachers, council workers and so on. Not to mention Whitehall civil servants.

We already know that national pay bargaining is going to be cut back: the Tories mentioned scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board in their election manifesto; and this week’s NHS white paper promises that national bargaining in the NHS will end. Sonnet reckons they will go for local government pay too.

Or as he puts it: “The growth in public sector jobs over the last 12 years will be reversed. Employers will seek to restructure to reduce costs with increased resort to outsourcing and strategic partnerships. Natural wastage may not be enough and enforced redundancies will occur.

“The greater fragmentation and restructuring of the public sector, together with greater emphasis on localisation and personalisation will put pressure on some of the national bargaining machinery. First, over time it will cover less of the workforce and secondly there will be ideological opposition”.

But he seems to have heard noises that not all pay bargaining is being tossed on the bonfire: “However, for key groups like doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants the Government will want to retain some form of pay review body”.

Meanwhile unions can expect more pain. “Recent months has seen the issue of trade union facilities being raised in the media by Conservative spokespeople, drawing attention to the cost to employers… Changes to the public sector will be used to weaken trade union influence and power. Time off for trade union activities will be restricted and employers may start to stop providing DOCAS [deduction of contributions at source, i.e. union subscriptions paid by the employer and deducted from pay packets]”.

Depressing indeed for unions. If the report is correct, it sounds as though they won’t be able to win every battle over cuts to pay, pensions, jobs and union rights. When I put this to Unison, they drew my attention to the strategy outlined by general secretary Dave Prentis in his speech to the union’s conference this year: “We will not take our members down dead end alleys. We will not exhaust ourselves in the first few months. But we will organise. We will organise public meetings and street demonstrations, in towns and cities, up and down the country. We will build lasting community alliances, to defend our public services. We will use our national campaign funds to raise public awareness about the consequences of cuts”. How that works out remains to be seen.

* there’ll be no pay rises for anyone earning over £21,000 in the public sector this year or next year, as George Osborne announced in the Budget.

(from Tribune blog)


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