Concern at concessions to governmentUNISON members in Wales have expressed their concern at agreements on pensions reached by the union leaders with the Con Dem government.
On November 30 two million workers struck for one day in the biggest strike in Britain since the 1970s. They were united around the core issues of refusing the government's demands to working longer, paying more and receiving less pensions. Just before Christmas UNISON and GMB leaders broke ranks and declared an outline "Heads of Agreement" with the government which conceded the main demands of the Con Dems to make public sector workers pay for the economic crisis.The 'cost ceiling' the government imposed as its target to cut money from public sector pensions has been achieved according to these proposals.
A UNISON member commented on the pensions summit organised by UNISON Cymru on January 9th:
"Unfortunately, the tone for the day was set before discussions even began, when UNISON officers started collecting in a statement circulated by a Service Group Executive member from Wales, Mark Evans, calling for rejection of the 'Heads of Agreement'. The chair for the day told us that this was because the views in the document were simply the opinions of an individual and not the position of UNISON, which we would be given to us during the course of the day. And there's me thinking that we're a member-led union and would determine our own position!
"N30 and the campaign to date was reviewed by UNISON's Head of Local Government for Wales, Dominic MacAskill. He stressed the historic nature of the action; 30+ unions working together, the numbers on demonstrations, support from the public and the 126% increase in recruitment from the announcement of the ballot to the day of strike action itself. The lesson he drew from this however was that 'we need to be realistic' and that 'we need a negotiated settlement'. We were told that we should therefore welcome the 'Heads of Agreement' as a 'significant advance'.
"A lot of the rest of the day dealt with technical questions on the various schemes. Although these were supposed to be factual sessions there was a clear steer from all the speakers towards suspending action and endorsing the 'heads of agreement'. One official echoed Tories like Boris Johnson when he said that there wasn't majority support for action because only 27% voted, clearly ignoring the huge support for the strike itself. A national official gave the briefing for Local Government and Civil Service. Both these sessions were based on Powerpoint presentations sent down from London only that morning.
"Both presentations hailed substantial gains on the 'heads of agreement', which at best are temporary and in most cases are based on hopes rather than hard facts. For example, an NHS official welcomed the protection on contributions for members earning less than £26,558 but failed to point out that this is only for 2012 and that the government wants acceptance of 9.8% average pension contributions for 2012-14. Despite the mass of power point slides, the LGPS presentation in particular, was very hazy on details. By the way, nobody was able to explain when UNISON stopped calling for pensions based on final salary and started advocating average career earnings schemes as being more 'equality-proof'. It would be ludicrous to push CARE without details on accrual rates and revaluation etc.
"One point in the LGPS presentation in particular got members' backs up: 'Most members don't want more industrial action at this stage'. Of course no one wants to strike for the sake of it, but most workers understand that we have to fight to save our pensions and further strike action is necessary if we are to win. It was pointed out that members had understood on N30 that a single day wasn't going to win the campaign and had voted for action in the expectation of further escalated action. One branch has had two stewards' meetings since N30 (one today) and at both resolutions for further action on at least the same scale as November, were overwhelmingly passed. There is definitely no mood for selective action on the grounds of the division that would be caused and agreement that if there is to be future action then it should be national and united. The national official, said that he wouldn't have put that in if he had written the presentation himself but that statement is now part of an official UNISON statement sent to all LGPS branches in Wales. It was repeatedly stressed that this is not a deal and that the ballot remains live and that we can still take action months down the line.
"Lay members didn't really get an opportunity for input until the final session, on maintaining the campaign. For this we were broken into workshops and by now many people had already left. There was no enthusiasm for what is on offer. Practically nobody is buying the line that this is a significant advance - lay members understand that nothing has changed.
"I don't know if UNISON has learnt from previous regional pensions summits but the whole day was stage managed to ensure that the views of lay members were heard as little as possible.
"In a straw pole of my members it is clear that:
- None of them are happy at this agreement
- None of them were opposed to further action
- More than one raised the possibility of leaving the union if this deal goes through because they've surrendered a day's pay for nothing
- Several, without prompting, suggested the next action should be more protracted to have an impact on the employers."
However the Local Government and NHS Service Group Executives in UNISON have been persuaded to allow negotiations to go ahead around the principles agreed with the government. The leadership has argued that the ballots for strike action are still live and action can be restarted. UNISON branches need to make it clear that the union leadership that the must not budge on the core issues of the dispute and be prepared to resurrect action to defend pensions.