'This is about our union leaders letting New Labour off the hook,' was how a worker in East Ayrshire council reacted to the news that leaders of the UNISON union are calling off strikes by council workers across Scotland. Workers in other Scottish councils had the same reaction. 'There's a feeling of shock, of betrayal,' argued a worker in Inverclyde council. 'The union leaders are trying to ditch the fight, to help out New Labour in the run-up to the general election.'
UNISON leaders in Scotland say the all-out strikes by some 1,300 workers will be suspended from Monday to allow two weeks of negotiations with COSLA, the Scottish council employers' body. The move is a betrayal of the spirit shown by those strikers and the 80,000 council workers across Scotland who have solidly struck three times in recent months in a fight for a decent pay rise.
UNISON leaders in Scotland pushed the move through the Scottish Local Government Forum meeting of delegates from union branches in Scotland's 32 councils on Friday of last week. They effectively told delegates that unless they agreed to the suspension national UNISON leaders in London could pull the plug on the whole pay dispute. Scottish UNISON leaders claim there has been a 'significant breakthrough', making talks worthwhile.
But the employers have made no real improvement to their current pay offer. That offer, 6.1 percent over two years, was massively rejected by union members in a ballot. All the employers are offering is that they may make a better offer in eventual talks on pay for three and four years time. Tens of thousands of council workers will be left on poverty pay in the coming years.
Council workers in Scotland are fighting for a £500 or 5 percent rise, whichever is greater, and a £5 an hour minimum to tackle the serious problem of low pay.
Delegates from UNISON branches voted just before Christmas for strikes to be escalated with another 1,500 workers brought out. But UNISON leaders demanded that the dispute is settled at almost any price. The reason was clear, and political. 'There is no way we are having another Winter of Discontent in Scotland just before a general election,' an unnamed senior UNISON leader told the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in December.
Senior UNISON leaders also launched a press witch-hunt against local officials in Scotland, who have previously been loyal to New Labour, simply for daring to partially reflect the feeling of their members. Any deal after the two weeks of talks now planned has to be put out to some kind of 'consultation' with union members.
Union members must work to harness the feeling among council workers to try and prevent union leaders pushing through a shabby deal. 'We should be escalating, not suspending, the fight,' argues an Inverclyde council worker. 'We need to insist on proper mass meetings to discuss the outcome of talks, and if the deal is rubbish we should throw it out and demand the action is reinstated.'