Members of the UNISON trade union in local government in Scotland voted to reject the previous COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) pay offer with a near 90% majority on a high turnout just a few short weeks ago. This was following three days of determined strike action by members in schools and co-located nurseries. Further rolling action across Scotland had then begun to take place as part of the the next phase.
There can be no doubt that strike action had forced the employers to reconsider their position, despite numerous statements that there was no more money available to improve the pay offer this year. COSLA had repeatedly refused to approach the Scottish Government for additional funds to improve pay for council workers. This had been done in previous years.
Last week COSLA put forward an additional £17.2 million in to bring forward the staged rises due to kick in for some grades from January 2024 to allow that to be backdated to April 2023. Though welcome, this does not address the shortcomings of the deal for this year. The new offer still falls short of the rate of inflation for the majority of workers. In effect that means it remains a real terms pay cut.
The decision by a majority vote of the Scottish Local Government Committee to suspend all further action and to recommend acceptance was in our view the wrong decision. No attempt was made to consult with branch leaders about this approach. Branches that were gearing up for further action should have had input on the strategy throughout the campaign. All the signs were that the members taking strike action were well motivated and organised for further action. Members in branches that had narrowly missed out on getting over the 50% turnout threshold were keen to be re-balloted. Members in standalone nurseries not involved in the first wave of action were also reporting to be keen to join the action if called upon. Thousands of new members had been recruited and new reps were coming forward in every area. Therefore it cannot be argued that further action would not be supported by members in order to improve the deal.
Additional action and pressure on the Scottish Government could win an improved deal that addresses the issue of year upon year of below inflation pay deals. The threat of an imposition of the deal without agreement should have been met with an escalation of action. Since the decision to suspend the action members and branches are still asking about the details of what has significantly changed from the previously overwhelmingly rejected offer. Great emphasis was made about the previous rejected offer being funded by cuts to council jobs and services, that has not changed with this revised offer.
The COSLA offer letter is a wish list with no guarantees for future pay deals. The aim to get to a £15 an hour minimum wage by 2026 or 2027 is dependent upon being “subject to the continued improvement in the overall economic outlook and fiscal conditions for Scottish and Local Government”. Do we really believe the outlook for the economy over that period will improve that much?
The revised offer should be rejected and a return to strike action reinstated as soon as possible. Local branches can use their democratic right to recommend rejection to their members along with the Local Government Committee’s accept recommendation. Going forward, there needs to be a debate within the UNISON structures on ensuring that every branch is involved in shaping the campaign, with weighting of votes according to the size of branch membership, as happens with card votes at conferences.
Socialist Party Scotland and Scottish UNISON Socialist Network (SUSN) activists are arguing for a rejection of this offer. The politicians have once again been able to string out the negotiation period, UNISON needs to be prepared earlier in the pay cycle to take decisive action.