Negotiating pay cuts – or, how to throw Gordon Brown a lifeline

Gill George, Unite NEC member, reports on her blog that UNISON and RCN walked out on the other unions in negotiations over pay in the NHS. They appear to have reached their own deal with the Department of Health and the NHS employers. Karen Jennings, UNISON’s national officer is reported as saying that “we will be asking our executive to consider recommending this deal to members as a well-balanced package in the forthcoming consultation.”

This imparts a new meaning to “well-balanced”: a 2.75 increase this year (when inflation is at 4.1%), 2.4% the next year and 2.25% the year after. Far be it for me to say that UNISON leaders expect their members to rubber stamp such a “well balanced package” but the health service press has been reporting a deal already done. There is just the little problem that the union’s health conference has yet to meet to decide its view.

If the UNISON bureaucrats are able to push this through it will be a reflection of the level of demoralisation and weak organisation which exists amongst NHS staff. It is difficult to see any other rationale for recommending a three year pay cut than a to throw a lifeline to Gordon Brown, delivering ‘peace’ in the NHS in the run up to the next election.

Ironically, when Jennings and co are seeking to push through this pay cut, the three Health Ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern ireland have issued a public condemnation of Westminster for failing to involve them in discussions over pay. Even more pointedly, they have issued a joint statement expressing their support for the NHS remaining firmly in the public sector (in contrast to brown’s privatisation agenda).

It says much for UNISON leaders that they have formed a bloc with the RCN, an elitist professional body, and turned their back on the other health service unions.

As Jon Rogers (a UNISON EC member) has pointed out, the difference between a ‘good’ deal and a ‘bad’ deal appears to be 0.3% The unions have rejected the 2.45% offered for local government workers and put in a claim for 6%. However, there is a potential sting in the tail. UNISON’s website says:

“The consultation will be carried out on the basis that – if members vote to reject the offer – they will need be prepared to take sustained and escalating strike action, starting with a two-day strike and escalating to more than two consecutive days of action, to get the employers back to the negotiating table.”

Whilst it is certainly true that one day strikes would be of little use, the bureaucrats’ position in relation to the NHS leads you to believe that they are hardly enthusiastic of giving their friend Gordon a problem by organising strike of local government workers. They are surely hoping that the response of members will be such that they can say “the members do not want action”. The wording of the statement is designed to frighten them and lead the more conservative of them (or those who don’t think the leadership is serious) to vote ‘no’. This is underlined by the fact that the offer is less than half of the claim. If they were serious about the claim they would have gone straight to a strike ballot.

This particular lifeline (should UNISON push through its recommendation to accept a three year pay cut) seems unlikely to deliver the goods to Gordon. If, as seems likely currently, New Labour is dumped at the next General Election, the Tories will have been gifted the opportunity of using Brown’s NHS privatisation agenda to step up attacks on Health workers. And UNISON, and the other unions’ failure to address the weakness of workplace organisation, and to mobilise their members against Brown’s neo-liberal programme, will be in a weak state for resisting the further attacks which will surely follow.

It must be hoped that UNISON’s health service conference next weak calls the leadership to order and votes against the three year deal. If the union’s recommendation to accept is put to the members then it can only reinforce the demoralisation and sense of powerlessness which undoubtedly exists amongst wide sections of staff.

Unite and some of the smaller profession based unions like the Society of Radiographers have rejected the three year offer, whilst the GMB has called a meeting of reps to consider it. But it is UNISON which has the big battalions (at least in terms of numbers) in the NHS. So long as UNISON places the interests of New Labour above those of their own members then those battalions will not be mobilised and the problem of workplace organisation, of collective organisation, rightly stressed by Gill George, will not be addressed.

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