Pay, Recruitment and the Economic Crisis

We live, as they say, in interesting times. We have just witnessed blind panic on the world stock markets, collapses of major banks and insurance institutions, whole economies on the brink of bankruptcy.

How this will all pan out nobody knows (I’ve always liked the quote, though I’m not sure who it’s from, that “economic forecasting is not a respectable human activity”), but as we head into recession, job losses and home repossessions are becoming an altogether more regular occurrence.

The Government’s response to all this has been a massive bail out of the banks and the slashing of interest rates (with probably more to come if that doesn’t work – I hope that line doesn’t count as economic forecasting!).

There’s no doubting that banks and other financial institutions have been completely reckless but the Government shouldn’t escape scot-free from any blame. They have been quite happy to ride the wave of the housing and debt fuelled bonanza. Policies like buy to let have helped fan the flames and now many ordinary people, who just wanted somewhere to live, are getting burnt.

A little closer to home, the 2008 pay rise for local government workers in England and Wales remains unresolved. The 2.45% interim payment negotiated by Unison is to be welcomed whilst we await a final decision from ACAS.

There is no doubting that this year’s pay campaign has involved some tough calls – it has been difficult for our negotiators and industrial action committee and difficult for our members.

The narrow vote in favour of strike action on a low turnout did nonetheless represent a mandate for a strike. However, in such circumstances there is always a concern about how well action will be supported.

In the event, our members did not let us down – there is no doubting that the vast majority supported the 2 days of action regardless of whether that was what they voted for. That action was enough to get the employers back to the negotiating table.

However, understandably there was concern over whether we could do it again. Declining union density (the proportion of local government employees who are union members) certainly contributed to a lack of impact in some areas (and I don’t just mean in Norwich City Council). Spiralling prices, that were a feature earlier this year, were a double edged sword in that whilst people could see that 2.45% was a pay cut, they were also worried about losing even more money. In the circumstances, when Unison decided to consult over further action it was probably little surprise that our members took the opportunity to call a halt.

It is probably wise to expect very little from ACAS because then we won’t be disappointed (in fact it’s probably wise to expect nothing from ACAS then we won’t be disappointed). Certainly in the light of Scottish local government workers settling for 3%, and inflation now falling rapidly, it would take a major aberration for us to get even that much.

So, this brings us on to the 2009 pay claim. In line with a Conference resolution, driven by a desire to see the 2009 pay award actually paid in April, we have already submitted the claim for 2009.

A summary of the claim reads as such “To improve real pay levels, the Trade Union Side seeks a one-year, across-the-board pay increase of at least the level of retail price inflation with additional increases for the lower paid.”

The way RPI is going at the moment this could end up a very small claim indeed! But hey, there I go economic forecasting again.

However, as Unison’s consultation paper on the 2009 claim said “Negotiations over next year’s claim are likely to be even tougher than this year…the current situation therefore requires a claim which reflects our members’ needs and UNISON’s aspirations for them…it also calls for substantial membership growth to boost our bargaining power”.

Recruitment is key to where we are going as a union and indeed for the trade union movement as a whole. These are difficult times, people are feeling the pinch and sometimes spending £10 or more a month on Union membership can seem like a luxury.

However, it is up to us all to try to raise the profile of Unison – to let non members and new employees know of what we do, effectively on their behalf, that the working conditions they enjoy are largely there because of things that we have done in the past, and further that membership brings many more benefits and a bit of security.

Let them know that you don’t have to be on your own. In difficult times, the one place you should be is in the union.

Roger Denton
Steward and Branch Treasurer (in a personal capacity)