UNISON's ballot of its one million members is due to start on 20 February. UNISON will be joined by 11 other unions in defence of the local government pension scheme. The ballot will finish on 10 March, with the first strike in the last week of March.
At the last meeting of UNISON's special local government executive (SGE), it was reported that the Tory employers were taking a hard line and daring the union to strike. The government is still harping on about affordability and the legality of the 85-year rule, where workers can retire on a full pension when they have served enough years.
But the European Commissioner responsible for pensions has disagreed with the government and said it would not be unlawful to keep the 85-year rule under the new EU legalisation. As for affordability, the union has also demonstrated that the introduction of the new Finance Act in April, where workers can commute up to 25% of their pension in a lump sum, will save the government and employers £3.7 billion and an ongoing saving of 1% on the pension bill. This measure alone is enough to cover any shortfall, leave our pension alone and pay for improvements to the scheme.
UNISON's national officers initially proposed a one-day strike of all members and then strikes of 'key groups' such as meat hygiene. Action would be at the end of March but not in April because of the school and college holidays. In reality this is an excuse to avoid action in the run-up to the local elections.
They think the best chance of winning is for political pressure to be put on until the formal consultation period ends on 28 February.
I opposed the key group strategy at the SGE, as it has not been successful anywhere since 1989. Instead of it being an auxiliary tactic to action by all members it soon becomes the only tactic, leaving the mass of the members passive in the dispute, relying on small groups on full take-home pay. The size of the strike fund can then dictate the dispute.
But this strategy can appear attractive and it was agreed by the majority of the SGE, including the United Left member. I then argued that we should not support just a one-day strike but should lay down to the members a programme of action that showed we were serious about trying to win - a programme that would send a message to the employer that they weren't just facing a token gesture. This was won with almost unanimous support.
I also proposed that we should again call on the TUC to name the day for the national demo and that it should be during the strike period. If the TUC refuses, the 11 unions balloting should call it. This was referred to UNISON's NEC.
The Socialist Party is concerned that decisions about the strategy of the strike appear to be taken behind closed doors and not by the elected leaderships of the members involved. In particular by the service group liaison committee (SGLC - which is a sub committee of the NEC, made up of all the service group chairs and vice chairs and the general secretary and national unelected officers).
The Socialist Party proposed we set up a strike committee that was made up of the five different service groups involved, proportional to the number of members in each service group.
This was not supported but instead a strike committee of the SGLC plus sector group chairs was agreed. It still means that the decisions of the SGE are in effect only recommendations to the SGLC and they can ignore them or not, despite how many or how few members they represent. It also means, for instance, that the chair of the health group is getting a say in our strike even though they have settled their dispute!
The Socialist Party believes that this risks putting the real control of the strike in the hands of a few unelected full-time officials.