UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

We are fighting a war of attrition and we will not give in

UNISON Policy Chair Jane Carolan, speaking at the Institute Of Employment Rights ‘What Now for Trade Unions?’ conference, outlined in clear and precise detail the way the Tories are pursuing a political goal to end the post war welfare consensus in the UK. Outlining the stupidity of making massive cuts now, Jane stressed the need for an industrial response and community unity in defending the basic public services relied on by all working people.

“In this speech I intend to cover the following areas:- Context, What’s happening on the ground? What is round the corner? Strategy for the future.

With the audience here today I feel that I don’t have to spend a lot of time on dealing with the context. I don’t have to persuade an audience at the IER that the results of last May’s election that saw the Con Dem coalition election were a disaster for the Labour Movement. That Coalition is increasingly unpopular if opinion polls are to be believed, but as we are all aware from the coalition agreement they are in power for the next 4 years and are currently trying to gerrymander the results of the next election

We all know the arithmetic. There are 307 Tories who are in coalition with 57 liberals. Labour have 259 seats and 28 are held by other parties, meaning that the united opposition could muster 287 votes. That could is conditional- given that the unionist parties of Ulster have a tradition of backing the Tories. But there is the potential for instability and unpredictability in the Westminster situation given that there are 20 votes between a united opposition and the Tories, so how and when and if the Liberal Democrats split is important. It could pose a major threat to the Tory programme but so far they seem content with ministerial cars and salaries rather than their principles.

What’s happening in England is under the direct control of Westminster. In Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland there is a different dynamic as those countries are funded by block grant from Westminster but have governments of different political colours. With cuts varying from 6.8% to 7.5 % it will be up to those governments as to how those cuts will be allocated.
Economics- the effects of the cuts in Public Sector Finances

Unlike the previous Labour Government that put politics above the economy as seen in their decision to stick to Tory spending plans for the two years after they were elected in 97, we need to understand that what is on offer is primarily political- Neither Cameron or Osborne understand economics particularly well as the governor of the Bank of England notes and the policies that they are pursuing have defined political goals rather than economic ones- We need to be quite clear what those political goals are -No less than the end of the post war political settlement. Osborne’s clear political predecessor is General Pinochet .The cynical nature of the economic policies being pursued is an blatant attempt to undo the gains made by workers over the course of the 20th century.

There is simply no necessity to pay off the deficit as quickly as Osborne wants as any competent economist will confirm. To quote Paul Krugman, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. It is Osborne’s choice to inflict the most pain on the weakest in our society. This is quite consistent with Tory strategy for recovery which is to increase profitability by intensifying employment insecurity and suppressing wage growth – the further redistribution of the social product from labour to capital over the next 5 years is actually set out in some of the Treasury’s recent projections and will have consequences beyond the public sector. Already there are signs of accelerating job creation in low wage, non-unionised, casualised sectors (including outsourced public service delivery), a point that I will come back to.

. As unions have been warning the public spending cuts are depressing demand and output is falling, inflation and unemployment are rising and jobless levels among young people will soon hit one million. The Coalition's misguided policies caused this collapse. The impact of the cuts will be deeply regressive- poorest households will be hit hardest, averaging to 20.5% of their household income compared with 1.6% for the richest ten per cent of households Wages are squeezed and employee benefits withdrawn, forcing those in work to work longer hours to make ends meet. The cuts to the benefits system are already well documented.

Combining the effect of the cuts with the tax and benefit changes the impact is even more deeply regressive – public spending is in itself “pro poor” with poorer households receiving a greater value of services to meet their needs – for example social housing- THRE IS NOTHING FAIR OR PROGRESSIVE OR ALL BEING IN IT TOGETHER. Add in the regional effects of the cuts in local government and the regional effect is multiplied on the poorest.

It’s not just that the Tory cuts are of themselves wrong and devastating but they attack some our basic principles.

Take Service Delivery

Under the guise of decentralisation and devolution to frontline the Tories are really about opening up services to greater private sector takeover under the guise of decentralisation and devolution to frontline. This can be seen in every piece of legislation that has been passed since the election. The Academies Bill, the Health Bill, the Localism Bill. State schools are under threat, state health provision is under threat, further and higher education is under threat, public sector housing provision is under threat, the very nature of the Welfare State is under threat. Combine this with level of cuts being made to those services that I will detail later and the retreat from public provision of public services is obvious.

Or Think about Accountability and Democracy

The defining difference between the public and private services is democracy. It is democratic structures that make public services responsive to the needs of those who pay for them and who use them. Unison believes that it must be about ensuring that the public meaningfully can participate in decision making processes about where they live and the services they need. It should be more than participating in consultation exercises where the public are asked to comment on pre determined choices. The public should be partners.
Through democracy comes accountability. For all the talk about the bonfire of the quangos, there is nothing in the Tory “big society” model that envisages meaningful engagement of service users and staff in planning and delivering services. A typical illustration is the plans for councils to hold referenda if they want to increase local taxes, so beloved of the Taxpayers Alliance. The focus is purely on the financial, rather than meaningful involvement in service planning.

Or consider the Threat to Public Service Principles

There is a shift from a perspective based primarily on serving the public using the resources available to one based on the view of the shareholder with the bottom line being profit margins. That is a clear illustration of the choice that exists between public good or private profit.

Or think about the idea of voluntarism and of local services being run by volunteers. Is that an example of community spirit or is it a sign of the deprofessionalisation of services and of misguided hypocritical Victorian philanthropy?

What’s Happening

The speed and impact of what is happening almost defies description. Every day branches up and down the country have to face loss of jobs, loss of conditions, and consequent loss of services. Unison estimates that 500,000 public sector jobs will go, costing the government £4.6 bn in lost tax revenue and costing £6.1 bn in benefit payments. Apart from the drastic loss of services, on the simple economics of that alone there has to be a question of whether it is logical. Add to that the additional consequential 400,000 private sector jobs that will follow those in the public sector with their associated costs and the economics of the mad house beckons.

Local Government Headlines

Local government faces cuts of 28% in the next 4 years and 45% in capital funding The Impact is not equal across the country, funnily enough. Crucially there is the impact of losing additional area grants that reflect the greater need in deprived areas. Funnily enough deprived areas don’t tend to vote Tory, as anyone in the North West will know. The cuts are front-loaded and the worst will take place over the period from 2011-2012

These reductions take place against a background of rising inflation and increasing demand for local government services –

Old people needing services including concessionary transport

Rising numbers of children and children with special needs

And with rising costs for child protection.

Councillors are faced with impossible choices and the fact seems to be that for many councils there is simply the lack of expertise political and financial to deal with them Some remember the lessons of Thatcherism; others don’t .To take a local example Blackpool council when faced with cuts of £6 million a year announced 280 compulsory redundancies. Any cursory examination of the books would have revealed that there were £9 million in unallocated reserves. Unison forced that examination.

Let’s just look at the North West where there are 41 Local Government employers, 41 sets of different negotiations.
2000 jobs to go in Manchester
2000 in Bolton
Sefton 25% reduction in staffing
800 jobs at Salford

Headlines about job cuts.

Last weekend saw the successful Campaign to highlight cuts in library services. But campaigns could be run for any service run by local government. Unfortunately they aren’t all “sexy”
Social care faces cuts. Ending support for older people
Ending support for adults with physical disabilities, and learning disabilities.
Child protection won’t protect children any more
Food safety and hygiene, waste collection and disposal, regulation of water face cuts, all impacting on the state of our living environment.
Museums, sports facilities, open spaces and parks, cultural spaces such as theatres cultural and the events that happen there. Are these services luxuries? Or is there a case that they are actually vital for health and well being?

Health headlines

Currently the Health Bill is going on its way through Parliament – phasing out primary care trusts and strategic health authorities. That means Fragmentation- from 150 PCTs to 600 GP consortia.

These are commissioning consortia – Their job is to dole out contracts and we have already seen those going to private companies like United Health care. The cost of these measures - £3 Billion for the introduction of price competition- will not seen a penny spent on health care.

At the same time Tory promises to protect the funding of the NHS are not worth the paper they are written on. Current spending is set to rise by 1.3% over the next 4 years while investment is cut by 17% in the same period. To keep pace with the demands of demography and technological development annual increases of 3% are required.

It is entirely true that the whole concept of the NHS in England as envisaged by Bevan is under threat. It is likely that the service can no longer provide the care and treatment that the public requires.
We see redundancies, across the Health Service – nurses, health care assistants, technicians, admin staff, ancillary staff, and other health care professionals

We see Service cuts –procedures being withdrawn- so called routine procedures that can make a vast difference to an individual life

We see ward cleaning standards going down – with the threat to the health that represents

Across the spectrum of conditions – Epilepsy- Autism -Mental Illness- Drug rehabilitation there are service cuts that link with cuts in the voluntary sector to see these vital services withdrawn.

How will these micro authorities cope with Public Health Emergencies- like Flu Pandemics?

These services that we are talking about are not fringe services – they will not be provided on the NHS making private health care more attractive for those who can afford it


You can make the same case across all the services in which we organise. Our police members are frequently seen as the back office function- not really the same as the Bobbies on the beat.

But strip back the police of their sophisticated equipment and what are you left with?
A bobby on the beat with a truncheon and a whistle.

Those back office staff provide all the technological back up from sophisticated intelligence systems to communications and computers, to basic admin and control rooms.

Don’t even mention forensic services. Forget the wonders of CSI.

According to my Strathclyde colleagues CSI Strathclyde will consist of a man on a bicycle with some sticky back plastic and some squeezy bottles.

Modern police services require an integration of services and skills that cuts to the police service of 23% make impossible

Youth services are disappearing before our very eyes as a whole generation is thrown on the scrapheap.

Education maintenance allowance is abolished. Train to gain slashed.

The Connnexions service, proving specialised services for the young slashed.

Education headlines

A 4% increase in the funding doesn’t cover the rise in school rolls. School support staff are under direct threat, with several authorities seeing slashing those jobs as an easy saving.

In England the Academies Bill- is designed to dismantle and divide the state school system undermining local accountability through the local authority attacks on rights of staff to be covered by national bargaining, and similarly so call free schools will hand your cash to unaccountable middle class

Academies will take money out of the local authority funding pot giving themselves the freedom to spend the money that the local authority currently spends on your behalf.

They themselves make no contribution to key support services leaving local authorities to fund them on a significantly diminished budget

WE have seen the headlines about HE Funding- and the level of student fees
In FE Colleges –Training and education under serious threat. -Funding for courses is chopped and Companies reluctant to pay for courses
The List goes on and on.

Negotiating Issues

In all of these changes the plan of attack is always the same-
The first line of attack for all employers is the wages bill.
It starts with the imposition of inferior terms and conditions
Or freezing increments
Or abolishing contractual sick pay
Or removing shift allowances
Payments that for some workers can amount to up to 40% of their income.
And where our members are not inclined to go along with them – we see the tactics of Dismiss and re engage.
Then there are voluntary redundancy schemes

It is one thing to say that it is up to members if they want to take the money. But we are a trade union- protecting our members in the workplace is what we do. And the very least we can do is ensure that any procedures are fair and transparent rather than arbitrary and dictatorial. Rather than remaining politically pure and sidelined
And we need to ensure that where jobs go, employers face up to the consequences- that the service contracts.


Any branch faced with these circumstances has to be in the position of telling the members why they face these circumstances and linking the industrial to the wider political and economic context.
It is vital that workplace activity is also linked to explaining to the public why the cuts are unnecessary that means political campaigning.

And the key weapon that the trade unions have is the withdrawal OF LABOUR- INDUSTRIAL ACTION.
In Unison we already have branches balloting members and branches taking members out on strike. Expect more, much more as the campaign intensifies

What is round the corner?

Pay-Already have the public sector pay freeze. Wages are squeezed and the effect of rising inflation is that public sector workers are facing pay cuts. Now we have the Institute of Directors telling us that Public Sector Pay Bargaining is long past its sell buy date. There is a general feeling from member consultation that the issue of job security is currently more important. But current trends are simply unsustainable.
Pensions Upheaval- A comprehensive package of pain is currently proposed

Increase in state pension age and then the changes to Public Sector pension’s schemes
The transfer from RPI to CPI- a form of day light robbery

From the Comprehensive spending review there is the imposition of a 3% levy- a 3% increase in employee contributions that will not go to the pensions fund but to the treasury. They can’t tax the bankers but they will tax us- a tax that the majority of members cannot afford, and that will ultimately threaten the viability of schemes.

And meantime we await with bated breath the publication of the Hutton report. What further insanity will that produce?

Further Privatisation.

Let’s just mention 2 of the changes that are currently in the pipeline.

Abolition of the two tier workforce code – The code that provides a level playing field between the public sector and the private sector in contracting. It is the employers view s view is that it restricts completion and innovation- particularly the pensions element that reinforces the case for fair pensions. The Union view is that such abolition will lead only to cuts to pay and conditions with bidders undercutting each other for contracts.

The only consequence will be the race to the bottom.

Then we have a government document called “Modernising Procurement”. That is not intended to ensure that workers rights are further protected. Rather it is about ensuring that those rights as well as other obstacles to privatisation are removed.

Let’s no even speculate about further threats to the trade union ability to organise. Derecognition? Changes to Industrial Action laws? Simple things like changing the DOCAS arrangements?


It is important that we in the trade union movement that we remember the time frame in which we are operating- and that there are no quick fixes.
There is still 4 years till the next general election.
4 years of cuts and austerity.


The biggest story is the long war of attrition now underway in workplaces and communities all over the country. Huge amounts of work are going on to defend jobs and conditions and services across our public services and that work will continue. Basic trade union work, bargaining and negotiating and keeping our members concerns at the forefront, consulting them on the acceptability of outcomes then acting on that consultation in whatever direction that it takes us

It is not glamorous as the day to day battles of trade unionism never are and usually below the national radar. Our victories may be small but they will be significant none the less. I think it is especially true that UNISON has so much to deal with right now which paradoxically makes it harder to maintain national profile in comparison to other unions.

We need to maintain and replenish local union membership and organisation. There is no union branch in the country in which that is not possible.

We need to encourage a new generation of activism. Many of us here will be veterans of the Thatcher years. That’s where we started our activism and similar circumstances now will lead to greater politicisation. Trade unions need to be in a position to capitalise on that, providing both political education and organising skills.

Getting local branches to maintain a relationship between the bargaining agenda and having a higher campaigning profile is both a key factor and difficult to achieve. Many are excellent at negotiating but struggle at getting the wider message across, whether to their own members or to the general public. Others only struggle with the public part of the equation.

There’s certainly some a lack of clarity about this at the moment and we need a clearer strategy and shared understanding on this. Definitely they need to be combined, either without the other is likely to be ineffectual and ultimately disempowering. We need to ensure that at branch level there is the skills, knowledge and the resources to do both. Trade unions talk about having an “organising agenda”, one that marries the political objectives and the tactics of negotiating with an active workplace presence. Its time that we stopped talking about the organising agenda and went and did it, so to speak.


I think the really tough question is how can the popular reaction to the cuts be made into a sustainable movement. One that will stand the test of time (rather than exhausting itself or subsiding.

Campaigning in communities has become the new buzz word, but can come with its own pitfalls, not the least of which is that campaigns become vehicles where the People’s Front of Judea argue the toss with the Judean People’s Front as to how many Marxists can dance on a pin head and anyone who has been involved in any kind of community campaigning has seen that. Either that or there is an assumption that we have all the answers and that “the people” should be grateful that we have included them, and given them a place on the bus for the next demo. It is not only the right in politics who can have delusions of superiority.

Alongside this there is a genuine upsurge of community campaigning to defend services (sometimes with union support or leadership, sometimes entirely independent), especially around things like libraries and care homes. It’s good to see and quite exciting but as indicated above key issue is durability and political outcome – sometimes local campaigns can have very limited local objectives

Genuine coalitions have to be based on cooperation and sharing not just our resources but recognising that we have no monopoly of information, knowledge, tactics, or strategy: we need partnership. That said where there is a danger that campaigns can become particularised to one cause like saving libraries or a specific hospital unit like the local maternity or an individual facility, as trade unions we need to try to encourage linking the very local to the overall general campaign.

Many have talked about doing it but I want to point to the success of the Northern region of the TUC (particularly supported by Unison and PCS) that has successfully launched the Northern Public Service Alliance, consisting of trade unions and genuine community organisations and service user groups across the Northern region and that has gone on to develop local Public Service Alliance campaigns on the same model, - up to 23 such coalitions at the last count. Its success can be seen in the amount of political activity defending services across that region.

It’s a model that the TUC should be recommending across the country. As trade unions we should be capable of being learning organisations ourselves.


It is true also that no one trade union by itself can oppose the government’s programme on its own, and that there is a need for trade union unity, shown at the TUC in the composite carries at Congress. The TUC itself has a key role in organising and mobilising for events that allow the public expression of anger at the government’s course and has provided those opportunities, in the lobbying and demonstration activities that have taken place.

They also have an important role in influencing trends in opinion and the resources devoted to the web content that they have produced is important for influencing trends in opinion, and providing alternative sources of research and analysis to the status quo that prevails .It is also crucial that there is a media profile for an alternative political and economic agenda, to counter the wave of propaganda that insists that “there is no other way” in the majority of the national press and broadcast media.

Their most crucial role however will be co-ordinating the public sector trade unions in the fights that we face, responding as a partnership to government policy and initiatives, and coordinating the coming industrial activity. Inevitably and inexorably, a showdown on public sector pensions will arrive. This is a role that the TUC has successfully played before, and one in which they must show leadership again. Public sector workers will not be let down and cannot be let down.

At some point however the trade union movement needs a political strategy too. Both in local and national politics we need to clear up our message. How do we intervene at local level in politics, and can we be grown up enough to distinguish between councils forced to impose the cuts as it is their statutory duty to do so, but who are willing to work with us on the wider political message and take that to the communities that they represent?

Can we simply stick to a message that says, “ Don’t vote for the Con-dems?” and just oppose the coalition? We need to make demands of the Labour Party itself. A slogan of “Less cuts, less deeply “ won’t win hearts and minds. Nor will a rehash of the policies that were on display between ‘97 till ’09. A confident trade union movement needs to start setting that agenda out clearly.

We still don’t know if Ed Balls as shadow chancellor will have the courage and the imagination of Ed Balls the leadership candidate. There is one way to find out and that is by the clear articulation of our demands and setting the agenda, not waiting for it to emerge and then protesting that it doesn’t satisfy us."

See the UNISONActive Conference report at http://unisonactive.blogspot.com/2011/02/what-now-for-trade-unions-ier.html