InFocus is the monthly magazine for UNISON members which provides useful information about ongoing union campaigns around the country. This article aims to review some of the critical issues raised in the October 2016 issue of the magazine, and in doing so, draw attention to the lack of clarity from UNISON’s leadership about how their members might most effectively fight back against Tory austerity.
In his opening editorial, UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis, correctly highlights how Unison’s members “are the backbone of this country, providing public services – even in difficult times like these – that saves lives, educates children, cares for older people and ensures that our society flourishes.” He adds: “As your union, we will always fight your corner against this Conservative government – by any means possible.” One way in which Unison is currently doing this is through their latest Public Service Champions campaign which aims to raise public awareness “to show how much our public services matter.” Prentis adds: “Of course, we have political demands too.”
“We know that Theresa May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, have been consistent advocates of the austerity agenda” Prentis explains, but then goes on to say we should give them one final chance — as if the Tory cuts that have stolen over 40% of local authority funding were not already unbearable. Prentis therefore continues, “in the upcoming autumn statement, they have a chance to show public service workers that they value their work and spirit, as the public so clearly do.”
“We are ready to engage with the government on rebuilding our services with the right funding…” but if they continue with Tory austerity Prentis says, “we’ll fight it every step of the way…” This raises the obvious question: why isn’t UNISON already fighting Tory austerity as hard as possible given that the Tories are making public service provision impossible to deliver. Theresa May has a proven track record of being to the right wing of even David Cameron, so why the delay in fighting back?
Indeed just a few pages later, Prentis himself acknowledges May’s dreadful form: “We might have a new prime minister, but she is sticking with the failed austerity that prolonged the recession and hurt so many working people.” Indeed, another article in the magazine summarises the findings of a recent UNISON report, Care on the cheap, which showed that two out of five (39%) healthcare assistants (HCAs) “say they have not received the training necessary to provide the care expected of them such as looking after dementia patients…” As if that were not enough to merit some form of collective industrial action, “The report highlights how HCAs are being treated as ‘glorified skivvies’ and often left unsupervised to plug gaps in NHS care because of nursing shortages.”
Shocking in its gory details, Care on the cheap also explained how “the impact of public sector pay restraint” means that many HCAs are only able to survive by “mak[ing] up for some of the real income they have lost through working extra hours…” But even this is not enough, and the effects of pay restraint has still meant that one in four HCAs reported getting further into debt, 36% noting that they have had to cut back on buying essentials, others saying they have had to use food banks (1%), take out pay day loans (6%), or have had to take on an additional job (8%).
In terms of solutions to these ongoing catastrophic problems, Prentis pointed out at the Labour Party conference in September, how the “unmitigated disaster” that is privatisation of public services will soon mean that “the size of the state will shrink to levels not seen since the 1930s. Everything we stand for is at stake.” Here, at the conference at least, he highlighted the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s firm opposition to austerity is pointing the way forward: “We need a Labour party committed to a programme of stopping and reversing the failed experiment of privatisation.”
But although it is widely recognised that the primary barrier to getting a such socialist commitment from elected Labour representatives is the old-guard of Blairite Labour MPs and councillors who resist being replaced with principled and accountable representatives, Prentis bizarrely argues that Labour activists should “stop talking about deselections”. This is a problematic suggestion, especially as proponents of deselections are only calling for democratic processes to be restored to the Labour Party. The point being to ensure that elected representatives are held accountable to the local Labour Party membership in the same way that trade union reps are — this is the entire point of the mandatory reselection processes, and Prentis opposes such talk.
On a positive note, the TUC president Liz Snape, who is also a UNISON Assistant General Secretary, explained at the Trade Union Congress in September: “if there’s one lesson from history we should never forget, it’s that our people – our class – were never handed anything on a plate. Nothing was give graciously and nothing came without a fight. That old saying, ‘unity is strength’, has never mattered more.” I couldn’t agree with her more. But unfortunately although we need unity in opposing the Tories, we first need to demand that elected members of the Labour Party unite with us. To do so will necessarily mean challenging the politics of the majority of Labour Party representatives who sadly do not subscribe to Corbyn’s fighting spirit, and we will need to make demands upon them to desist from carrying through Tory austerity, so they can unite with the unions in building a principled and popular fight-back against the Tories.
One doesn’t even have to look beyond the pages of UNISON’s magazine to see the current and grotesque failings of Labour-led Councils across the country. Although, significantly, at no point in the magazine do any of UNISON’s articles mention the fact that workers are fighting against Labour-led Councils. The first of the three examples is provided by the seventeen UNISON homecare workers who are “taking care company Sevacare and [Haringey] council to court in a dispute about illegal wages, after the widespread non-payment of the minimum wage.” This relates to the ongoing non-payment of travelling time between people’s houses, which means that on a “typical day” — where carers might be away from home for as many as 14 hours — workers were only being paid for half that time “leaving them earning as little as £3.85 an hour.”
The magazine then draws attention to the “disgraceful” actions of Derby’s Labour-led Council who have cut the pay of school support staff by 25%, and the “awful” actions of Durham’s Labour-led Council, where teaching assistants are looking to lose up to 23% of their wages. In the former case the Derby workers have already taken strike action, with more planned, while the Durham teaching assistants will take strike action on 8 and 9 November.
The solution couldn’t be clearer. Labour Councils must refuse to carry through Tory cuts and prove they are truly opposed to austerity by leading a struggle against the Tories. This may require some pressure being exerted upon our Labour representatives, so do get involved with your local UNISON branch and let’s work together to reverse Tory austerity and bring an end to this undemocratic and unaccountable government!