Unity is strength
Before the strike action in 2014 over the disgraceful 1% pay offer, I was asked to attend a meeting in the TUC with colleagues from Unite. The purpose of this was to talk about how trade unions can work jointly to achieve positive outcomes for members based on our experiences in Southampton of prolonged industrial action.
The fundamental principle of how we work is that we understand that working together, in Southampton, UNISON and Unite have the collective force of at least 5 thousand members. Both Mark Wood and myself understand our branches strengths and weaknesses, and we use this to our advantage. As well as weeks of strike action, our members took action short of strike — by working to rule, removing all overtime and goodwill and things such as asking staff not to use their own vehicle for work visits and use taxis instead.
UNISON and Unite share information, have joint meetings and even have financially supported each other during strike action which allowed the refuse collectors to stay out on strike indefinitely. We understood that this would benefit all members- regardless of what union they belonged to.
The meeting at the TUC was well received, with a lot of nodding as we relayed our experiences in Southampton. However, when it came to questions, there was overwhelming negativity and reluctance to put this into action within their own unions.
I believe that many trade unions have forgotten what it means to take industrial action. This needs to go beyond one days strike action, expecting our employers to change their minds. Many activists see being called out on industrial action ballots nothing more than a recruitment tool. It is a fact that we recruit the most on the lead up to strike action, but what happens after that action’s over? Branches are left having to explain to members what’s happened and why the alternative offer that was previously “not good enough” has suddenly been put forward to them.
UNISON leadership should co-ordinate closely with other groups, be they self-organised or other unions, working to a coherent strategy to oppose this vicious Tory government and their damaging plans for the next 5 years. Industrial action is difficult to deliver, many branches simply don’t have the physical or financial resources to do it (and that isn’t likely to change if this years’ conference is anything to go by). Our union should be offering is stronger financial support to branches, not in the form of one offs, but permanent financial security through reviewing the current allocation of branch funds, making sure the power is where it’s needed most — on the ground, fighting the fights that benefit us all.
The UNISON leadership needs to be more willing to support its branches that want and need to take industrial action rather than try and put us off. They should have enough confidence in us to know when balloting is appropriate, and when it’s not rather than shutting down debate when it’s needed the most.
For us, this formula worked. It was easy to plan, gave the unions a strong position and strengthened our relationship as a collective force against a common enemy.
This should be the way that UNISON chooses to work, across all our operations and under my leadership, it will.
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