On 6 February, health union Unison’s Service Group Executive agreed to accept a number of attacks to Agenda for Change (AfC, the national terms and conditions for NHS staff) in a gambit straight out of the concession bargaining school of trade unionism.
Negotiations over AfC Change have been overshadowed by a number of Trusts in the South West and in the North East threatening to opt out of national bargaining and impose their own pay, terms and conditions. In response to this the unions have negotiated some small but significant concessions, trying to make AfC more attractive to these cost-cutting employers. The main changes involve abolishing unsocial hours pay for people on sickness absence and tightening up arrangements for incremental pay progression.
However, they have agreed to these proposals without securing any guarantees that these concessions will be enough to tempt the renegade employers back into national bargaining. The argument goes that if we can hang onto some husk of AfC until the next election then hopefully Labour will get into power and save us. But there are no cast-iron guarantees from Labour either!
In any case, the strategy does not seem to be working. Less than a week after Unison announced, Chris Hopson, head of the bosses’ federation Foundation Trust Network, representing 200 NHS employers, said it was “time to consider setting pay regionally or on a trust-by-trust basis.”
Ever since the pensions dispute, the union’s ability to deliver effective national strikes has been in doubt. Instead of trying to organise action and turn this situation around, the leadership trade away our terms and conditions and preach that salvation will come with a Labour government.
Unison officials made a big play of how they organised a widespread consultation with members before agreeing this deal. They didn’t. It would be surprising if 1% of the membership understood what was going on – let alone had enough information to make an informed decision or had a forum to voice that opinion.
If they are unable to organise effective strike action, then at very least we should expect the union to use its considerable resource to broadcast timely, honest information to the members.We are on the cusp of losing national bargaining whilst sending a clear signal to the employer that we are weak and unprepared to fight.
Don’t mourn, organise!