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

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Getting members ready for action on pay

Why did a decisive ballot 3-2 rejection of the Scottish Local Government pay offer slide to a narrow 0.44% majority against taking action to do something about it? At times like these we remember the Michael McGahey quote when he was faced with a ballot going down. “They aren’t ready yet. It’s up to us to get them ready”.

But how do we get members ready for action? They were clearly angered by a pay-cut but they obviously couldn’t find the confidence to hit the streets to fight for more.

Was it the national leadership’s apparent lukewarm approach to the English pay campaign? Was it a failure to listen to the branches earlier in the year who said, one after the other, that they would struggle to deliver? Did activists start to believe their own propaganda with some branches confidently reporting their members were ready to act at the drop of a hat?

A bit of all perhaps. Despite the publicity materials and imaginative tactics like the ‘fair pay days’ leading to the ballot, reports suggested campaigning on the ground was patchy. Some branches that had originally voted to accept went out honourably and campaigned to change members’ minds. Others, perhaps laden down with day to day representation and managing cuts, didn’t do very much. The drive and momentum from the centre seemed to dissipate in the long ballot period.

Through it all, three issues stand out. One is job security. That is what is exercising members’ minds. We are making little inroad into the ‘big lie’ that the country is broke. Even where we are, the task seems too big to do anything about it. So members didn’t believe action could deliver. We need to repeat and repeat again that there is an alternative. That can be sapping for activists but we need to remember that, while we have heard the arguments over and over again, many members have not.

The other is the organising agenda. So many branches are focussed on a culture of representation and not on campaigning and organising. Going out and mobilising for a ballot doesn’t sit easy with that culture. It requires a head over a parapet which can be an uncomfortable thing is these times of attacks on facility time.

While there remains a representation rather than an organisational culture, some of that is because of the sheer workload faced by many local activists dealing with reorganisations and attacks on conditions that arise from the cuts. That is a reality that needs to be addressed.

Thirdly, the type of action is an issue. Members remain unconvinced about the effectiveness of traditional strike tactics. Selective action and action short of strikes is fraught with unintended consequences but we need to use our imagination – and learn from international colleagues - to box a bit more cleverly.

But there is a positive – and an important positive. A whisker short of half of those in the ballot did have the confidence to vote for action. That is a base to build on that must not be ignored.

It now needs leadership at national, Scottish, branch and workplace level to recognise that and get out and campaign for next year.

We will rarely be in a place where the members are up for action at the start of a pay round. It is not enough to describe whether members are ready or not. It is our job to get them ready.

That means plugging away month in month out on tackling the ‘big lie’. Speaking to members, not just pushing out leaflets. Agitating in the workplaces and not relying on social media to get the message across. Getting members to talk to each other about the issues.

There is a common misconception that if only the leadership would take a radical stance, the members would follow. Lambasting the leadership can divert from failings on the ground. It can also do the opposite of what is intended. It can sap confidence and build disunity. Nevertheless, the leadership needs to be prepared to take responsibility - and accept the accountability.

The old adage that the success of leadership is to be one step ahead of members and the failure is to be two steps ahead, applies here.

The leadership does have a role. A role in believing in the campaign. A role in motivating activists to motivate members. A role in being less afraid to fail. A role in recognising we will rarely start from a position of a confident membership ready to take action. We need to work to get there.

That leadership needs to be at all levels. That doesn’t mean banging on with a revolutionary fervour that turns members off. It means getting alongside members and identifying where they are – what is important to them - and starting from there.

Despite the lack of confidence this year, with a solid number of members in Scotland and other significant areas across the country prepared to vote for action, we have a base to build on. We must not waste that opportunity.