London weighting dead end

Alan Stevens reports about Unison's long-running, stop and go London weighting dispute

It often surprises me that so many on the left just accept the surface appearance of things and make little or no attempt to analyse the deeper, and sometimes different, reality. It is the political equivalent of being smitten by a pretty face.

On the surface Unison’s long-running, stop and go London weighting dispute appeared to receive a big boost when a poll of its members working for local councils in the capital voted with a majority of 80% for continued action - it seemed that fighting resolve had hardened. The whole of the left rejoiced, and the usual banal substitutes for intelligent comment (“magnificent”, “brilliant” and “astounding”) littered the left journals.

We are told the employers were shocked. I think they were surprised: it was the union that was shocked - especially those closer to the membership (though not close enough): the left. But there was no attempt to analyse this shock result or what the consequences might be - it was just a green light to carry on unthinkingly. An opportunity to use those same adjectives to impress the inexperienced.

Some hard facts: union density is about 30% and Unison is far from being the only union representing the workers concerned; only 30% of members voted (currently the norm) and it was 80% of this minority that voted ‘yes’ - ie, probably less than eight percent of the workforce in the relevant departments. That is not to say that a small percentage of the workforce cannot drive forward and win a dispute, but it is a sobering fact to keep in mind.

The ballot question was obscure - it did not actually posit strike action (the general view for at least the past year has been that a strike ballot would be lost). Instead the vote was for or against the proposal to “continue the campaign” and it was only on the final page of a four-page leaflet that the form of this campaign was spelled out: a one-day, all-out strike and selective actions on full take-home pay. For the vast majority of members this meant very little action at all.

It is this writer’s view that the ballot result did not represent increased support for the union’s strategy or a hardening of resolve - or, for that matter, any significant motivation on London weighting. In fact I think it represented, more than anything else, an entrenchment of passivity - the inevitable result of a very weak, quick-fix strategy and poor tactics.

It was apparent from the very start of this campaign two and a half years ago that the London leadership and local activists were not confident of getting people out on strike. They came up with a strategy of gradual escalation: a one-day, a two-day and then a three-day strike. Nothing was projected beyond that. This was the basis of the 70% ballot result back then. A series of one-day strikes then ensued and, whilst members remained loyal, there was growing annoyance with such an ineffectual strategy. This was offset somewhat when all three unions went out together on the national pay claim. Rank and file members considered this to be the best thing to have happened in decades. Instead of an attempt to build on this (difficult with the respective bureaucracies), what we saw was attempts to poach the members of ‘rival’ unions.

It was clear that council workers would not put up with many more one-day strikes, so the decision was taken to go for rolling selective actions. It also became clear that there was little support for longer strikes amongst the whole membership and so a hunt for volunteers began. This was a big mistake. Instead of pulling out key groups as part of a confident programme of action, volunteers, usually in sections with a host of other gripes, effectively took time off away from stressful jobs on full pay - readers may think this is bluntly stated, but basically it is true.

By this method the very difficult task of getting in amongst the rank and file to build active support was bypassed in favour of a quick fix. The dispute became an end in itself that just dragged on with no real perspective for the future. The striker’s role was relatively passive - volunteer for time off with pay. And for the majority there is nothing so passive as the notion that ‘Someone else is doing it’. This persistent accommodation to weakness only served to entrench it and now escalation or even beginning to relate to members in a mature fashion is that much more difficult.

This is quite tragic because a whole range of other public sector workers are taking up the issue of London weighting. There has always been the potential to build a cross-union front on this question, if the rank and file could be activated. Unfortunately, that has not even begun to happen.

Following the 80% ‘yes’ vote, the most recent Unison strike, on October 16, coincided with a strike over the same issue by London members of the Communication Workers Union. There were proposals for a joint march, but it did not happen. This was a particular disappointment to many of the 1,000 or so Unison marchers. Unison’s strike was fairly well supported, but not so well as previous actions. Picketing was less extensive amid calls to prioritise the march but, although a couple of areas did some mobilising, many previously enthusiastic activists stayed away. Speeches at the rally were upbeat with talk of united actions, coordination between unions and being in it for the long haul. However, the serious underlying weaknesses are now becoming decisive. It is not over yet, but it is not looking good.

The misreading of the ballot result led many to believe that the employers’ ‘hope that we would go away’ had been dealt a decisive blow. It is more likely that the employers are perfectly well aware of the situation on the ground and they have now forced a crisis by withdrawing their minuscule offer, which had already been accepted by the TGWU and GMB. This provoked a walkout by all three unions. It is possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if you have good leadership, strong shop stewards committees and a motivated membership. We are light on all three.

There are other problems too. Firstly, funding the dispute has run into millions of pounds. Unison’s industrial action committee considers the current strategy ineffective and has suggested longer, all-out action. However, the ballot result confirmed the existing strategy and there seems to be little support for extensive action anyway. Funding for the selective actions being proposed by most branches is unlikely to be approved. In addition, the isolation of London as a special case is causing dissent in other regions, particularly as action in the capital is eating into union funds. Finally, whilst many branches have recruited during the dispute, some older, experienced members have resigned. Overall London membership has not increased.

Now is the time to take a step back and conduct a critical appraisal of this dispute in order to salvage what can be salvaged and to learn some lessons for the future. I am aware that this process has begun at the level of the London leadership - so far, behind closed doors. It should come out into the open. It should be a serious, critical and self-critical analysis.

It is quite probable that the national union, through the industrial action committee, will seek to back out under cover of ‘We are prepared to fund all-out action’ - knowing that such action is unlikely to win support. In other words, blame the members. The left might counterclaim a leadership sell-out. However, the strategy and tactics of this dispute were devised by Unison’s London region which is dominated by the left. The left also runs many local branches and shop stewards’ committees.

The main weakness therefore lies with ourselves. We need less cheerleading and quick-fix accommodation to the status quo and more serious and mature strategic thinking, linked with active steps to organise the rank and file across all the unions.