In January UNISON went back into negotiations with the government for both the Local Government and NHS Pension schemes. Our industrial action had brought some success, particularly for Local Government members, although not so much for our members in Health. The negotiations continued well into the Spring.
As in previous years in January and February the branch spent a lot of its time campaigning against the cuts in the run up to North Somerset Council’s budget setting meeting. But this year our ranks were swelled by young people from Portishead, Nailsea and Weston Youth Clubs who came to council meetings to protest about the complete removal of youth services in North Somerset. The young people were very vociferous, in fact downright loud, at our lobbies of council meetings during January and February, and we got some great TV coverage. Some of the young people also spoke at the council meetings. UNISON members lobbied councillors to protest at the £50 million of cuts over 4 years and the loss of 280 full-time jobs. Again we argued that the cuts will impact on the most vulnerable people in North Somerset – disabled people, young people and older people. We asked the council to reject the government’s bribe of a council tax freeze, which although seems attractive at this current moment in time, would lead to a massive hole in their budget in future years and therefore further cuts. Sadly our council is more interested in retaining its position as the second lowest council taxing authority in the South West and so the budget cuts were voted through.
Also in January we published the results of our members survey on the Council’s £100 million, 10 year contract for Support Services with Agilisys. Not a single North Somerset UNISON member thought that services were quicker, better or cheaper since the services had been privatised.
If you want to know why UNISON opposes the privatisation of public services then all you have to do is look at what’s happening with some of the council’s contracts to see why staff transferring under TUPE are not protected. Agilisys have done a number of restructures, and made staff redundant in ICT. They have also reduced unsociable hours payments not long before the Town Hall gateway extended its hours to weekends. There have also been a number of health and safety issues in the new town hall. Former council staff at the Winter Gardens, Playhouse and Tourist Information Centre who were TUPE transferred to Parkwood are being restructured, posts made redundant and unsocial hours payments reduced.
In February our campaign to stop the cuts to Youth Services was featured in UNISON’s In Focus magazine, which goes out monthly to all activists. Also in February a few of us from the branch went to a demonstration at Swindon Council, where the council are proposing to completely cut trade union facility time, and make two UNISON Reps redundant – I understand that the consultation on this proposal is still ongoing as we end 2012 and should be a concern for trade unionists throughout the UK.
In March the Health and Social Care bill was going through its final stages and a few members of the branch attended a rally in London, where we heard speakers including the comedian Jo Brand, our General Secretary Dave Prentis and Lib Dem MP Andrew George - all speaking against the privatisation of our NHS.
Also in March the branch signed an agreement called An Alternative to Austerity with Labour, Green and Independent councillors in North Somerset. The agreement sets out UNISON’s view of “An Alternative to Austerity” - an approach based on sustainable growth and the increased tax revenue, which will come from greater employment and business activity. Crucial to achieving this is a fairer tax system so that those who can afford to pay most do pay the most, and the Government putting an end to the tax avoidance and evasion that costs the country up to £125bn each year. At a local level it recognises that Local Councils have a key role in providing essential services, creating jobs, promoting economic development and challenging the Government’s policies. Public services, including local authorities have an essential role getting the economy through and out of recession.
In April our facility time was reduced and the council are also now charging us rent for our office. But compared to what is happening at Swindon Council, where the council are proposing a complete cut to facility time, we got off lightly. But our facility agreement is under review and is likely to be cut further as the council employs less staff and less union members. The message is for all members to recruit colleagues who aren’t currently UNISON members. Our union’s strength is in its members.
Also in April the branch started to run meetings for members affected by North Somerset Council’s proposal to create a new Integrated Care Organisation for North Somerset with its plan to merge the council’s Adults and Children’s services with Weston General Hospital and North Somerset Community Partnership. The council’s preferred option was a brand new organisation – effectively a privatisation of Health and Social Care in North Somerset.
In April the negotiations on the NHS pension concluded and UNISON Health members received ballot papers asking them to vote on the final proposals. The turnout of the ballot was very low, with only a small majority in favour of rejecting and taking industrial action. As a result UNISON had no option but to agree to the proposals, which will see increased contributions for members earning over a full-time equivalent salary of £26,558.
In May the parent of one of the young people affected by the Youth Services cuts began the process for taking legal action against the council on the grounds of failure to consult, and a very poor equality impact assessment. A North Somerset UNISON Rep provided a witness statement to the court. The judicial review took place in June, but the judge didn’t rule until July, when unfortunately he ruled in favour of the Council. As we end 2012 the lawyers taking the case have a hearing date in January to ask a judge to grant an appeal.
The branch continued its campaign against the Integrated Care Organisation during May, June, and July. At the end of May it was also revealed that 20 NHS Trusts in the South West had formed a consortium with the express aim of reducing the pay and conditions of NHS staff in the South West. Despite David Cameron’s promise to protect the NHS, hospitals are having to make massive cuts and they are looking at the staff pay bill to make these cuts. But this is also a move towards regional pay where National Health Service staff in the South West could end up on worse terms and conditions than NHS staff in other parts of the country.
In June UNISON members working at North Somerset Council were balloted on changes to the council’s flexi time policy. Although the initial and not terribly thorough consultative ballot indicated some members were willing to take industrial action over the issue, when we moved to a ballot of all members the turnout was so incredibly low (6%) we could not take action. The message for members is that it is really important that they take part in the democratic processes of their union. Our strength is not only in our numbers, but is also about members standing together and standing up for each other.
Also in June a member of the branch attended the Local Government conference in Bournemouth, where the main issues for debate included pensions and pay. UNISON will be campaigning heavily over local government pay in the run up to the pay claim for the 2013 pay increase. After 3 years of a pay freeze local government workers have lost about 13% of their pay. Almost 20% of North Somerset Council staff earn an hourly rate which is below the living wage of £7.45 an hour. The lowest paid local government workers now earn only 10 pence above the minimum wage. Many local government workers, including North Somerset Council workers earning under £21,000 did not receive the £250 pay increase promised by George Osborne. Inflation has been high over the period of our pay freeze, it was falling, but is now on the increase again. The Local Government pay claim demands ‘a substantial flat rate increase on all scale points as a step towards the longer term objective of restoring pay levels and achieving the Living Wage as the bottom NJC spinal column point’.
In July Local Government pensions negotiations came to a conclusion and UNISON members were balloted on the proposals. Although there will be contribution increases for those earning over £43.000, there will be no contribution increases for the vast majority of UNISON members. But as in Health there was no movement from the government on linking our retirement age to the state retirement age, and also the switch from RPI to CPI for calculating yearly pension increases. Members voted to accept the changes.
In July the campaign against the South West NHS Pay and Conditions Consortium got off the ground with a petition, members meetings, and the agreement of the Labour group at North Somerset Council to take a motion to the council opposing regional pay in the South West.
Also in July our campaign against the Integrated Care Organisation, which had involved the branch submitting a number of papers to North Somerset councillors, along with a UNISON Rep speaking at Scrutiny panels, finally paid off. The council announced that for financial reasons they would not be proceeding with a brand new organisation, but instead would look at closer partnership working - something which we had argued for all along. Although this was a good outcome for Local Government members, this now means that the future of Weston General Hospital is uncertain, and it will have to look at merging with another hospital – either in Bristol or Taunton, or even worse it may be taken over by a private company.
Over the summer the London Olympics and Paralympics gripped the nation, and at least two members of North Somerset UNISON were amongst the army of volunteers who made the games such a success. The Olympics also demonstrated yet again how the State has to bail out the private sector when the armed forces had to be called in because G4S who had been contracted to provide security couldn't do the job properly.
North Somerset UNISON had been negotiating with the council for almost 2 years on proposed reductions to unsocial hours for our lowest paid members, managing to stop the council from implementing the reductions. In July we undertook the third consultative ballot on final proposals – our recommendation was to reject and be prepared to take industrial action. On a 27% turnout members overwhelmingly rejected the proposals and said they would be prepared to take industrial action to protect their enhancements. The branch submitted a paper to councillors with evidence of how low paid local government workers are, including the fact that almost 20% of council staff earn under the living wage, and that we haven’t had a pay rise since 2009. As a result in August the council decided to postpone the proposed reduction to enhancements until we get a cost of living increase. They have also undertaken to provide tapered protection so that enhancements are not reduced all in one go. This was the best deal achievable through negotiation.
In September regional pay was the big issue for the branch. Health and Local Government members took part in a lobby against the South West NHS Pay Consortium at Weston General Hospital at the beginning of the month. At the end of September North Somerset councillors debated a motion opposing regional pay proposed by Labour councillors at UNISON’s request. Sadly due to the massive Tory majority and the fact that Conservative councillors were not allowed a free vote on the issue the motion was lost.
In October the UNISON office moved back to the Town Hall from Badger House, and the branch took two coach loads of members to the March for a Future that Works in London. We joined 150,000 people who marched through the streets of London to show their opposition to the government’s austerity programme. The march concluded in a rally in Hyde Park, where there were calls for a General Strike. It was a great day and we hope that 150,000 people have sent a powerful message to the government that they need to stop the massive cuts to public services, and instead switch to a plan that will give everyone a future that works.
Late last year the council employed KPMG to review the Support Services contract – a UNISON Rep was interviewed as part of the process. KPMG submitted their report to the council in April this year, and we had been trying to get a copy of it through Freedom of Information ever since. Finally in November we were issued with a copy of the summary report with one small redaction. The report outlines some serious issues with the contract. These include contract management, how key performance indicators are set, poor service for staff, and lack of procurement savings. As I write this review we are still trying to get the redaction reinstated, as well as get hold of a copy of the full report.
We ended the year with members of the branch taking part in the joint trade union march and rally against the South West NHS Pay Consortium in Bristol, and the start of the consultation with Health members on the proposed changes to their national terms and conditions – Agenda for Change.
Throughout the year the branch has been involved in numerous service reviews, including the massive Library restructure, and represented well over 100 members in individual cases.
Throughout the year we have also worked with colleagues in the PCS, NUT, UNITE and RMT through the Weston and North Somerset Trades Union Council.
As we start 2013 we will continue to fight the cuts in North Somerset – we have a lobby planned for the council budget setting meeting on 19th February. As a result of the failure of the Coalition’s public spending cuts, and George Osborne’s insistence that cuts must continue beyond 2015, North Somerset Council’s central government funding has been cut massively, and on top of the £50 million of cuts they planned to make between 2011 and 2015, they now have to make an extra £36 million up to 2018. The Coalition government’s attitude to local government makes it very clear that they don’t actually want local government to exist. They have made it even more difficult for councils across the country by capping the council tax increase at 2%, thus depriving councils of income from that source. But North Somerset Council has made matters worse for itself over a number of years with its below inflation council tax increases and its acceptance of the government’s bribe of a council tax freeze grant, which has left the council with a hole in their budget which we have estimated previously to be close to £8 million. UNISON will be responding to the budget consultation and will ask the council to reject the council tax freeze grant this year, and increase council tax by either the maximum amount of 2%, or an even higher increase which would force a referendum, and in doing so will send a very strong message to the government. This will also go a small way to mitigating the impact of the cuts.
We will also find out whether or not the council will merge its Adults and Children’s Services directorates. In January the Police will move into the town hall, and in April our members in Public Health will TUPE transfer to the council. In January the South West NHS Pay Consortium are due to announce their final proposals to cut staff pay and conditions. It is also likely that we will have another reduction in our facility time in 2013. As a result we need as many members as possible to step forward to become reps.
So what will be the big issues in the coming year? My personal view is that Local Government workers will be out on strike over pay, and I hope that we will be joined by many other workers, and in that way get the General Strike that was called for at the March for a Future that Works, and that in my wildest dreams will bring this government down. I hope that the issue of tax avoidance, so successfully raised over the past two years, and particularly in the last month of 2012 by UK Uncut, will become a major issue and those Global corporations that don’t pay tax here in the UK will come under further attack both from their customers, and those smaller businesses who do pay taxes. I also hope that we will see many more campaigns for the Living Wage, including here in North Somerset.
In 2012 the Conservative government made it very clear that we are not all in this together, although the worst may be yet to come. This year the government came a step closer to completely privatising the NHS. They have also been successful at making those people who work, often in poorly paid jobs – the so-called strivers, dislike those people who claim benefits – the so-called scroungers - not realising that the majority of people claiming benefits are in fact working, and that the vast majority of unemployed people claiming benefits want to work. We all need the safety net that unemployment and sickness benefits provide because we are all at risk of losing our jobs or becoming ill. We need to be putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and think about the golden rule “do to others as you would be done to”. The UK is such a low wage economy that benefits in the form of tax credits are needed to bring people up to subsistence levels, but at the same time are subsidising those employers who refuse to pay their workers a decent wage. In April the cuts to benefits will really start to bite, and those claiming them will see a cap of 1% on yearly increases. The government have also reduced employment rights – most recently a reduction of the 90 days consultation period for redundancies down to 45 days - in a country, where we already have very poor employment rights. If we allow this government to remain in power until 2015 then the welfare state – the safety net created for us all after the Second World War – will have been completely dismantled.
At the beginning of 2012 I referred to Woody Guthrie’s new year’s resolutions for 1942 including his resolution number 33 “Wake up and Fight”. I sincerely hope that those UNISON members and other people in this country, who haven’t woken up to what the Conservative government is doing, will finally WAKE UP AND FIGHT!