Thursday, 10 July 2014

Ballot turnouts & the public sector strike

General strike 1926

The media has been extensively covering the public sector one day strike that took place today. The unions involved are Unison, Unite, GMB, the NUT & PCS. The purpose of the dispute is to draw attention to the low paid workers in the public sector who have suffered not just from pay freezes and more recently a 1% pay rise that gets nowhere near to helping members cope with increasing living costs, but also actual pay cuts resulting from the hiking of pension contributions.

A political "war of words" has already broken out between the unions and the government over not just the numbers involved but the veracity of the action being taken. The largest of the unions involved is Unison which registered a mere 23% turnout for its ballot, one percent less than that of PCS which managed 24%. Much is also being made of the decision by the NUT to launch a strike on the basis of a vote which took place in 2012, some two years ago.

The unions and some of the media have been claiming that this is the largest number of strikers since the General Strike. The generally accepted number of trade unionists who took part in 1926 is around 1.7 million. Most commentators report that today's turnout may be around the 1 million mark.

Certainly there have been large numbers taking part and the coalition government has an interest in playing down the turnout. Sky News reported:

The Cabinet Office issued a statement at 7am saying the action would "achieve nothing" and only a fifth (90,000) of the civil service workforce was out on strike.

How they would have known the turnout at that time of day is any ones guess.  The majority of staff would not be expected to turn up to work until around 8:30/9am. Certainly the turnout is much lower than the PCS leadership would expect but the actual figures are any ones guess given the obvious misinformation provided by Francis Maude's minions.

Even the membership figures quoted by Sky news are questionable. They reported PCS as having 270,000 members when the true figure is closer to 240,000. Additionally only 207,000 ballot papers were issued as the rest of the unions members are not in the public sector. Of those just 36,000 voted for the strike or around 17% of the total figure.

However the number of members who do go on strike is usually more than those who voted yes to strike action. That's always been the case.

Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison was interviewed this morning about turnout and bemoaned the fact members couldn't vote on-line in ballots. Actually in PCS because a "consultative" ballot was held regardless of the "outstanding mandate" from a couple of years back an attempt was made to introduce an on-line element. Frankly it did not seem to have an effect on the overall turnout at all. His other notion that members should be "balloted outside the workplace" is debatable due to the all obvious problem of undue pressure being put on members by some types of activists.

Meanwhile Unite refused to even publish it's turnout, the result of which is only reported on their website as being 68% of those who voted. In the current circumstances not a very helpful stance given the government, or more precisely the Tories are now planning further restrictions and minimum turnouts for unions in strike ballots.

Whilst the right to strike must be maintained in any democratic society, such a right should be used responsibly. 

The real question that needs to be addressed was the one that Dave Prentis highlighted at the beginning of his interview, increasing the participation of the members.

That is a problem for all unions. Len McCluskey highlighted that problem at the recent Unite policy conference. If the unions are to beat of the current challenges then participation by larger numbers of actual members is crucial.

Such participation will depend of unions becoming more representative of their members. Currently some like PCS are activists unions only interested in their own narrow agendas.

Therein lies the challenge for the future.

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