Saturday, 20 January 2018

Why Unite Health should start a consultative national ballot for strike action

This discussion document was shared with the Unite Health National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) ahead of our January 18th meeting. The motion was put to the NISC to begin a consultative (indicative) ballot for industrial action and was defeated 6-12. The majority felt that with pay negotiations expected to return a deal in February, and consultation with members to take place in March or April, now was not the time to undertake an indicative ballot, and that this would put Unite negotiators in a difficult position with the government. I disagree with this assessment, but we will have to continue the discussion, and await the outcome of negotiations before any further decisions are taken on the matter.

Why Unite Health should start a consultative national ballot for strike action

I have asked the NISC chairs to allocate some time for a discussion and vote on starting a consultative national ballot for strike action over the governments failure to offer us a pay rise. I think this is necessary as we need to start preparation for industrial action against the government now, and not wait for the result of the government and Pay Review Bodies deliberations to start our preparation.

Many sections of Unite Health have not taken industrial action since the last national NHS strikes in 2014, and we have not had an attempt to secure a viable national ballot for industrial action since the new laws government balloting for industrial action came in in 2015. Thats why I think it necessary that we have the “dry run” of a consultative ballot as soon as possible. We need to obtain an accurate picture of how good our communication is with our membership, how active and well connected are our reps, branches and regional structures, and what our members appetite for action actually is. There is no better or more thorough way to do this than through a consultative ballot. It may be costly and time consuming, but it will also be good practice for branches and reps, giving us an opportunity to put the work in organising our members and giving new reps and activists experience getting the vote out in a ballot.

A consultative ballot shouldn't have too much of a negative political cost, if any. The RCN's consultative ballot last year only achieved a 19% turn out (giving them an idea of their weakness at getting their members to vote even in an electronic ballot), but the strong vote in favour of action received national news coverage, and was a political blow to the government. At a time when the government is under intense pressure for its scandalous running down of the NHS and the terrible winter crisis they have caused, we have an opportunity to add to this pressure by showing that symbolically, other sections of NHS workers are fed up and willing to take industrial action too. Even if our ballot returns a low turn out, we will at least know then how far we have to go to secure a viable ballot. It also serves as an opportunity to recruit new members who will want to join Unite as we will be proving our reputation for taking action

If we wait till the outcome of the Pay Review Body reports back, this will add many months to the timeframe of when action is possible. The PRB will report in February, and the government will probably drag their heels over their response, or they will use the Winter crisis to claim there isn't any money, or they don't have time to negotiate while they are trying to manage this NHS crisis, or any number of excuses. This could mean we don't receive a response till March, April, or possibly later. If we only go to our membership then with a consultative ballot, that puts off an actual ballot for several more months. We would be looking at strike action in the late summer or autumn at the earliest. And thats if all the unions agree! The RCN has already reneged on their commitment for a ballot for action, and we all know UNISON's reputation at a national level for dragging their feet and ducking a fight.

By initiating a consultative ballot now, we begin the preparation for effective industrial action now, so by the time the government responds to the PRB, we have reps, branches and regions better prepared to undertake and win a proper ballot for action. We add to the pressure on the government over their handling of the NHS and the winter crisis and show we mean business, and we show the other NHS unions, and the NHS workforce that Unite is the fighting back union and despite our smaller size, we are willing to stand up for our members and the service.

I welcome any responses to this piece, and apologise for the late timing of it being shared.

Mark Boothroyd


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