Poor tactics, useless strategy

Unison's dispute over London weighting continues to suffer from serious underlying weaknesses, says Alan Stevens

Not so long ago the industrial action committee (IAC) was not expected to approve funding for further selective actions and one-day all-out strikes, as they were seen to be “ineffective”, and branches, in line with the ballot result, were not proposing anything different. However, it seems that, thanks to a tentative, behind-closed-doors ‘critical appraisal’ and equally behind-closed-doors manoeuvring and pressure from local functionaries and activists, a ‘new’ strategy has passed the IAC’s effectiveness test.

Starting Monday there will be a five-week strike for selective groups of volunteers on full take-home pay (nothing new here) and a two-day all-out strike in December on standard strike pay (£15 a day). The continuation of the London weighting dispute is therefore balanced on a knife edge between, on the one hand, a national leadership undercover exit strategy involving as little embarrassment as possible and, on the other, the stalling of this exit strategy by activists and local bureaucrats pushing escalation as far as they can without risking an embarrassing collapse. Both sides may also be hoping, Micawber fashion, that something may turn up.

However, for now, the escalation from one day to two days all-out is just enough to keep a distinctly asthmatic London weighting campaign wheezing along.

In keeping with a wholly irresponsible accommodation to passivity by (mainly left) activists, most Unison members are as yet unaware of the new ‘effective’ strategy. Already in some boroughs shop stewards are concerned about winning support for the two-day action just before Christmas and are suggesting possible top-ups to full take-home pay from branch funds!

The unsaid implication is that members will treat it as an opportunity to have two days off for Christmas shopping. It is likely, in my view, that even without a top-up a majority of members will - reluctantly - go along with the action out of a now seriously stretched loyalty to the union. However, the downward spiral of support seems set to continue and we may even see a collapse in a few areas.

There is a general view on the left that other disputes, particularly the CWU unofficial action, should inspire Unison members and help to build their confidence.

I do not think confidence is the main problem. Rather it is motivation. In fact the London region of Unison knows this - even after two and a half years of campaigning 75% of union literature on this issue is still devoted to persuading Unison members that the London weighting campaign is justified!

Activists should talk to and listen to the workers: London weighting - indeed pay generally - is not a top priority for most local government workers. It only comes about seventh on their list of concerns. There may be many reasons why pay figures so low down and maybe it ought to be higher. But this reality ought to be treated in a far more serious fashion. Issuing a leaflet every few months telling people what they already know, or talking to activists and the tiny minority that shows up at branch meetings is no substitute for positively engaging with the mass of workers where they work.

But let us return to the inspirational actions of others. Unison members will make a comparison between their dispute and that of the CWU, but the result will be to further demotivate Unison’s campaign. Put it like this. London CWU: immediate and decisive action and a massive impact. Unison: long-running, stop and go, indecisive and ineffectual. That is, CWU: strength; Unison: weakness.

Of course the employers have eyes too. It is a well known fact that some London employers are sympathetic to an increase in London weighting - an opportunity to split the employers, you might think. However, the dominant group is able to hold the line precisely because there is no significant threat from Unison.

After a two-and-a-half-year campaign and a series of continuing strikes it is the employers who control the game. They see weakness and have poked their finger at it. Their withdrawal of the minuscule offer already accepted by the other two unions was designed to provoke a walkout and up the stakes for Unison. It was designed to expose the gap between the need for an escalation to effective action and the lack of motivation and resolve on the ground.

Unison’s limp response not only confirms this gap but also points to a serious weakness at the level of shop stewards - who have allowed, or in many cases participated in, what appears to be wilful tactical stupidity.

A multi-union joint campaign across the public services is about the only thing that could motivate Unison members on this issue, and then a lot of rank and file organising would be needed - something completely missing at present. However, the prospects for even a joint Unison-TGWU-GMB approach are remote and this hinders the wider public service coordination with other unions.

A more realistic, if also remote, possibility is that the employers decide to ‘clear the decks’ to deal with a more important issue and make an offer to be snapped up by the national leadership. The organisation and leadership of this dispute is really that bad.

It gets worse. It is not just that leadership is poor and tactics ill thought out: there is a big problem at the level of strategy that goes to the heart of most of the left’s sect approach to the working class. For all the functionaries, stewards and activists that are the driving force behind this dispute I am sure that the aim of an increase in London weighting is in their heads - but for many it is only a part of the strategy and not the main part. It is the means to the end - a strike - that has been the real, primary goal, an end in itself, with any positive outcome just a bonus. Behind all the propaganda and speeches the actions all point to this conclusion.

From day one the aim was to have a dispute - any dispute for any reason - maintained and kept alive at all costs, no matter how inept. London weighting was a useful hook upon which to hang the action and the members useful pawns in a programme of militant posturing.