Unison general secretary warns Labour to make its alternative to the austerity agenda clear if it wants to win next election
Speak to almost any MP at Westminster and you’ll hear a recognition that austerity is going to continue well beyond 2015. There are important differences between Labour and the coalition, but even Labour politicians accept that money is going to be tight for the foreseeable future. Yet, if you nip up the Victoria line to the Unison HQ at Euston, you’ll hear Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, advocate a bright, simple alternative: an end to cuts, and rising salaries in the public sector. In a lengthy interview, here are the main points he had to make.
• Prentis accused Labour of “avoiding all the big issues” and said that the party had to be much clearer about what its alternative was to the austerity agenda. Although he was generally supportive of Ed Miliband, he said Labour needed to be more specific about what it would do if it won the election. “They are avoiding all the big issues,” he said. “There’s no doubt whatsoever they want to avoid a discussion on privatisation. They want to avoid a discussion on public service pay. We won’t let them.” He also said it would be unacceptable for Labour to postpone key policy decisions until three months before the election.
• He said Labour would have no hope if it went into the 2015 election proposing further cuts in spending on public services.
• He criticised Labour, and Ed Balls in particular, for supporting the coalition’s public sector pay freeze. “There will be a big difference between us if both Eds [Miliband and Balls] keep saying that they support the pay restraint policy of the Tories,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense in terms of their own politics.”
• He said that Labour should commit itself to paying all public sector workers at least the living wage. He claimed that the cost would not be a problem because of the advantages to be gained from the proposal.
• He said he expected public sector workers to take more strike action in the future. Unison was gearing up for a dispute over pay, he said, but privatisation or job losses could also trigger further industrial action.
• He said last year’s strike helped Unison and other unions achieve significant concessions from the government over public sector pensions. “Nobody can say that we lost on pensions, and nobody can say that the action in November was not effective,” he said.
• He said there was a possibility of Unison and the GMB merging at some point in the future.
• He said the reputation of trade unions was improving. “People are beginning to see that trade unions can be a voice for the good,” he said. “I do not get the impression, from the work that we are doing, that people still see us as cart horses from the past.”
Unison is Britain’s biggest public sector union and one of the Labour party’s biggest financial backers, which makes Prentis one of the most powerful figures in Labour politics. Union watchers are divided as to whether or not he is a genuine member of the “awkward squad”.
Unison has been at the heart of union protests against the government’s austerity programme over the last two and a half years, but Prentis is less militant and bombastic than some of his TUC colleagues and in his interview he stressed that most of his members were women and that Unison was not a union that would lead them in a direction they didn’t want to follow. Many of his members work in nursing and health and Unison’s plush HQ incorporates the old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital, a pioneering hospital set up in the 19th century by the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor.
Prentis showed me around the mini museum on the site which is open to visitors for free, clearly proud of what Unison has done to preserve a slice of Britain’s welfare heritage. Protecting the public sector in the current climate is a different matter. We spoke about his battles with the coalition, relations with Labour and what happens next in the campaign against austerity. Here’s how it went.
What Unison has achieved since 2010
Q: Over the last two and a half years, what successes have you had in trying to influence what the government has been doing? And what failures?
A: The starting point isn’t what we’re doing. It’s what our members are going through. And with the recession that started in 2007, it’s our members who are paying the price. It’s the people who provide public services every day of the week, the overwhelming majority low paid. Because of the failure of the banking system, and the way in which the coalition has adopted an austerity programme, it is our members who are in the eye of a perfect storm. The biggest fear of our members is losing their job. We’ve lost probably 300,000 jobs in the last 15 months in the areas where we recruit.
Alongside that, they’ve had a pay freeze. While inflation has been running at 3, 4, 5% a year, nearly all of our members have been subjected to a pay freeze. Many have had their pay cut. Not only that, there have been attacks on their sick pay, their annual leave. Our members are on the edge.
So if you are asking what has been most effective, we, at local level, have been fighting to keep those jobs, to minimise the number of redundancies, and we’ve kept as many people as we can doing their job.
Q: Can you give me an example of a local situation where Unison’s action has made a difference?
A: It’s happening everywhere. It’s not just on job losses. It’s also around privatisation proposals. We don’t win every fight. There was a big, big dispute in Southampton, which we took with our sister union Unite, and eventually we were able to reach a settlement there to stop the pay cuts. In Edinburgh they wanted to privatise the whole of the service; we stopped that. So we do have many, many victories along the way. We recognise that the strength of our union has got to be at local level. We’ve got to be there on the ground, with our members, when they are going through their trauma.
Impact of strikes and demonstrations
Q: By talking about what you’ve achieved at a local level, is that a concession that, at a national level, there’s been a limit to what you’ve been able to do? The big events, like the strike and the demonstrations – do you feel they made a difference?
A: They made a tremendous difference.
Q: In what way?
A: We’ve got 1.34 million members. Over a million of them are women. What we do, more than any other union, is relate to our members. We don’t lead them if they don’t want to follow.
When we decided to have the demonstration in March last year, it was Unison that decided that demonstration should be held through the TUC. The police themselves said there were half a million people out on the streets. Over 300,000 of them were from Unison. Then we had the demonstration this year on 20 October.
Q: What I want to know, though, as someone who writes about national politics, is what effect this has on government decision making?
A: I think it has a lot more effect than we realise because the Tories and the Liberal Democrats do keep open means of talking to us. We do talk to Francis Maude [the Cabinet Office minister], we do talk to Danny Alexander [the chief secretary to the Treasury]. We can ring them and we can raise issues with them. We talk to power.
There may be different views about the pensions dispute, but at the end of the day in local government, where we’ve got over 750,000 members, no local government worker had to pay a penny more. If you remember, the coalition started by saying everyone would have to pay a 50% increase in their contributions. It did not happen in local government. We went to a better scheme, a career-average scheme, far fairer than what we had before, and the benefits as good as what we had before. Where we lost, and it was very difficult not to lose on this, was on the retirement age.
Q: But do you need to get half a million people on the streets to get in to see Danny Alexander? I’m sure Francis Maude or Danny Alexander would be happy to see you any time.
A: That was the biggest demonstration, certainly since the poll tax, and maybe the biggest ever.
Q: Does that actually affect your negotiating clout when you are in a room with Francis Maude?
A: Yes, yes. It affects them because they’re politicians and they do not want so many women opposed to them.
Q: But do you need to do the traditional industrial union activities like marches and strikes to get that influence?
A: Yes. But that’s only part of it. The other part is having a strategy that takes on the coalition, that shows that what the coalition is doing is not working, that shows that we do need growth in our society, that highlights the unfairness of the rich in our society living the life of Riley – 30% increase in their salaries in the past year for chief executives and head of banks – and yet the austerity programme being borne by the poorest in our society.
Q: Do you feel that strikes are an effective way of achieving your ends in the public sector in the current climate?
A: It would not be an effective way if you we were doing it every day of the week. We choose our battles. We are not going to have our members going to big defeats to make them more deflated. We make sure that if we are going to have a ballot, we are going to win that ballot and that the action we take, that they will remain solid.
Q: And last year’s strike – are you satisfied that that was a success?
A: It was Unison that called that day of action. We went into the TUC and said we were not getting anywhere in the pensions negotiations. We named the day. With the other public service unions, we were able to coordinate together on that day. Before we took that action, there had not been one single offer in local government on pensions.
You’ve got to remember where we started. At the start of the process people thought we were going to lose our defined benefit schemes. But we’ve come back with defined benefits schemes that are stronger. So nobody can say that we lost on pensions, and nobody can say that the action in November was not effective.
Q: In September the TUC voted to investigate the possibility of a general strike. Where do you see that going?
A: We voted for the motion. It’s now with the TUC general council, of which I’m a member. And the general council is seeking the views of individual unions on the motion. My very, very strong view is that the way in which we increase our strength is by coordinating our action. And the way in which we coordinate our action is within sectors. There are something like 13 local government unions. So, if we are taking industrial action, like we did on pensions, we all go together.
Q: Legally, have you got grounds for a strike?
A: We have got grounds to take strike action on pay. We’re running a major campaign among our members raising awareness of pay as an issue. There’s a three-year pay freeze. Inflation has probably gone up 15% in that time. They’re 15% worse off.
Q: And do you expect to see coordinated action, strike action, next year?
A: My experience is that no government pay policy has last more than three and a half years without there being an explosion. I think pay, and the lack of pay, and poverty, is shooting up the agenda in this country. People have been worried sick about their jobs, but the longer this goes on, they will want to stand up about their pay. It may not be in the next few months. But over the next period we will be highlighting to them what’s happened to their pay and talking to them about whether they are willing to do something about it. And we will be campaigning on the basis that at some stage we do move to an industrial action ballot on pay. We will also be talking to the other unions within our sector about coordinated action.
At the same time, we are raising Unison’s profile around jobs, around protecting our members from privatisation and on pay. I would not guarantee at this stage which will be the issue which leads to members’ anger becoming so much they want to do something about it. It could be any of them, it could be all of them. If it’s all of them, you may say that’s political. I say all three issues are genuine legal issues on which to take industrial action. And we would fight that out in the courts if we had to.
Labour party and its policies
Q: At your conference earlier this year you spoke about the Labour party in your speech and you said: “To win back our trust Labour has to do much more, not being as bad as the Tories is not good enough. Labour – we want your support in tough times, not your lectures. Your comments supporting pay restraints were provocative. And if they continue, there is no way Labour will get the support of our members and this union.” That was in the summer. Since then, has the Labour party been moving in your direction?
A: That’s still my view, what I said in the summer. I think the pendulum is swinging against the coalition. But I do not believe that when it comes to a general election that Labour will win an election just because people are angry with the coalition and its austerity policy. Labour has got to have a vision that makes people want to vote for them. Unfortunately, at the end of their last period of office Labour was following policies around privatisation and the health service which were anathema to our members. If Labour wants our members to vote Labour in the next election, and hopefully they will do to get this coalition out, Labour has got to have a vision. It’s got to have a vision for growth, and it’s got to have a vision for how its going to deal with the poverty that a lot of our members have fallen into.
Q: Ed Miliband has said that if Labour gets into power, it is not going to be able spend money in the way that previous governments did. A few weeks after your speech, he gave his “predistribution” speech where he said: “The redistribution of the last Labour government relied on revenue which the next Labour government will not enjoy.” Do you accept that analysis?
A: I would do if I knew what he meant by predistribution. It’s not a campaigning slogan.
Q: No, it’s not, but the point he was making was that we are not going to be able to spend our way to social justice.
A: Labour needs to come out more clearly on what policies they are going to espouse if they get elected. They are avoiding all the big issues. There’s no doubt whatsoever they want to avoid a discussion on privatisation. They want to avoid a discussion on public service pay. We won’t let them. Unison will insist that there’s a debate on the health service. I’ve got a lot of time for Andy Burnham, but there’s no point Andy Burnham saying he’s going to repeal the latest Health Act. We want to know what they are going to put in place. There’s a lot of hard talking got to take place. The overwhelming majority of the public do not want their public services provided by public companies. They might be able to do it cheaper; they can’t do it better.
There will be a big difference between us if both Eds [Miliband and Balls] keep saying that they support the pay restraint policy of the Tories, because whilst they are in opposition they’ve got no influence on that pay policy. The first time they can get back in power is 2015. So why are they saying this to our members who are part of the Labour party? It just doesn’t make sense in terms of their own politics.
Q: They are worried, of course, that their economic credibility will be lost if they make spending commitments they can’t fund.
A: But this isn’t one way traffic. You get taxation from growth. You get money from a fairer taxation policy, where you make the wealthy contribute far more than they are doing. You deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion. You bring in a financial transaction tax. You do question whether or not we need to replace Trident and nuclear weapons. All of these things together are the alternatives to an austerity agenda, and Labour has got to adopt that alternative.
We need to talk this year about what we are going to do in 2015. I am not waiting, and my union is not waiting, until three months before the election, when they want us to do all the running around and it’s too late to get any agreements on these issues.
Labour and the living wage
Q: What would you like the Labour manifesto to say about the living wage? [In a submission to the Low Pay Commissioner earlier this year (pdf), Unison said that it wanted the national minimum wage (NMW) to rise “substantially” in 2013 and that after that it wanted the NMW to move “in stages” to the living wage level. But it did not set a timetable for this.]
A: The manifesto has got to have a commitment to achieve the living wage.
Q: In the public sector? Or all over?
A: There are more private sector workers benefiting from the living wage than public service workers. Far more.
Q: Isn’t that effectively the same, then, as saying that the minimum wage should rise to level of the living wage?
A: We will not drop the statutory minimum wage because that gives us a statutory floor. That is so important to us. So we will keep that. We would like the Low Pay Commission to look at the living wage.
Q: So what precisely should Labour say in its manifesto?
A: It should have a clear commitment that, wherever it is within its power, it will implement the living wage, and it will encourage private sector employers to also implement the living wage. It should be as simple as that.
Q: But if it’s just about encouraging the private sector, isn’t that where Ed Miliband is at the moment? [Miliband set out his specific proposals in a speech recently.]
A: Government cannot impose it on the private sector unless it is in the form of the minimum wage.
Q: That’s why I’m not clear what your proposal is.
A: Boris Johnson has given a commitment to pay it in his area. Local council leaders have given a commitment to pay it in their area. Whatever happens to the public services over the next five months, and they are going be decimated, maybe a million jobs gone, there will still be a lot of public service workers. And there’s no reason at all why the Labour party can’t give a commitment that across public services they will pay the living wage. Even the Tories are now talking about it. We want our Labour party to say they support the living wage and that they will implement it within that period of office where they can.
Q: Have you costed this out?
A: When we achieved the statutory minimum wage, we had all these things: you are going to lose millions of jobs, the country can’t afford it. Not a single person lost a job. The other thing you find is that when people are paid slightly better, they stay longer, there’s more commitment, morale improves, productivity improves. We don’t see this as being a cost. And that’s why employers are starting to pay it.
Labour and public services
Q: Coming back to the manifesto, one of the decisions Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are going to have to make is whether to accept the spending totals set out by the government. What do you think they should say about that?
A: I think they should have a coherent economic policy which is understandable, with simple supply-side policies that lead to growth, that lead to an increasing confidence, especially in the private sector, so that the private sector will invest in new jobs, that lead to more taxes being paid, more people in work, and from there you get growth that can fund better public services. They are not alternatives. The private sector and the public sector move forward together.
Q: If Ed Balls was here, he would say he’s been talking about his five-point plan, money for housing, the bankers’ bonus tax, a VAT cut. He would say he’s proposing this agenda already. Do you accept that?
A: There’s a problem of perception. The line is, we would do it a lot more slowly, a lot more gently. To a lot of people it still sounds like they are going to be cutting public services. Now, they are not going to get support if they say that. Because the reason public services are being cut is because there’s a lack of growth. We’ve got to get that growth in the economy to enable us to pay for our public services.
Q: Does that mean that any cut in headline budgets for public services would be unacceptable?
A: This is the issue. You are talking about if Labour get back into office in 2015. There isn’t going to be much left of local government. By 2015 it’s Armageddon days for local government. The first district council went bankrupt this week, or was threatened with bankruptcy. [West Somersert, which has been told it’s “not viable”, approved an emergency survival plan.] More will follow. By 2015 they will not have the money to provide basic services. And if Labour is going to be saying in 2015, against that background, we are going to cut public services even further, they’ll have no hope.
Unison’s link with Labour
Q: When I posted a blog inviting readers to suggest questions for this interview, several people [like morrisd2, TedStewart, Mssuky, JerryMander and deoraiocht] wanted to know if you thought there was a better alternative to political links with the Labour party.
A: We’ve had at least three debates at conference about our Labour link, and we are different to any other union because we do not affiliate all our members to the Labour party. We’ve got two political funds. If people want to pay into the Labour party fund, our affiliated fund, they’ve got to tick a box when they apply for membership. If they want to pay into our general campaigning political fund, they can tick a box and pay into that. Probably 490,000 of our members pay into our Labour political fund, and about 700,000 pay into the general fund. And our members opt in. We don’t use the opting out arrangement which is the norm within the Labour movement. We believe that is the right way of doing it.
The truth is, under the Labour party rules, we could not affiliate to another party unless we came out of the Labour party. Why would we when we have got a very, very democratic way of determining our membership of the party.
Q: There’s another way of looking at this. I heard a coalition minister say recently unions might be better off, like unions in other countries, not being affiliated to any party. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems see you as the enemy, because you fight them at elections. And, whenever Labour gets in, they’re embarrassed about being accused of being in the pockets of the unions and so they do their best to show that they’re not. Do you think you might be better off as a non-partisan campaigning organisation?
A: In every survey we do of non-members – we have focus groups of non-members – nobody comes out with the argument you’ve just come out with. It’s an issue for the media, and maybe for politicians. All of the work that we do to find out how to make ourselves attractive to non-members shows that they have got no aversion to a trade union, they’ve got no aversion to a link with the Labour party. The main reason people don’t join is that they haven’t been asked.
And, you talk about the experience of other countries. We’re in a different position. We formed the Labour party. We are part of it. What you’re asking us to do is withdraw from the party we created. Why would we?
Q: How do you feel Ed Miliband is doing as leader?
Ed is doing well. You’ve got to remember that he’s got to have a period when he gets known by the electorate. I was a little bit worried before the Labour party conference that he was not getting known by people on a national basis. I think he pulled it round at the Labour party conference. The speech that he made was the right one for
him to make. People suddenly realised who he was, what he stood for, where he came from. I think that has changed his fortunes. What he needs now is to have the confidence to take the party forward. And he’s got to have a clear agenda. He can’t make that speech again next year. Next year people are going to want to know what he stands for in terms of policy.
Q: And what about Ed Balls? Is he the best person to be shadow chancellor?
Ed Balls is very good. He’s always worked very, very closely with Unison on Unison campaigns and we do wish him well. We just wish he would stop talking about supporting the Tory pay freeze when there’s no need to, because he’s got no influence over it.
Possibility of a Unison/GMB merger
Q: In an interview recently you talked about the possibility of there only being two major unions left in five years time. “There will be one major public service union and one major private sector union,” you said. How realistic is that?
A: If you go back to the point I made about coordination, it is embedded in everything I do that if you are going to be strong in getting over a message, you’ve got to coordinate with other unions. It is no good unions fighting each other. And we work very, very closely with the GMB, the biggest public service union apart from ourselves. And we will continue very, very close working relationships with unions like the GMB as we go forward. I do not see any sense in us doing things by ourselves. So that closer working, like it did when our own union was formed in 1993 between Nalgo, Nupe and Cohse, that closer working could lead to discussions. But if it does, it cannot be the old-fashioned type of merger. I’m just not interested in it.
Q: What do you mean by the old-fashioned type of merger?
A: Where the trade union barons come together, where it’s defensive, where it’s to cut costs because the unions are declining. We’re not declining. There’s got to be a way where unions can come together and add value.
Q: If you were to merge with the GMB, would that add value? Or would that just mean that public sector workers effectively had no choice?
A: It would add value. I’m not saying it will happen. Both the general secretary of the GMB and myself would not dream of talking about a merger without talking within our own union first. I don’t want any headlines saying we are going to merge, because that is not the case. But there is no doubt whatsoever that it would add value. Because just as we recruit in local government and health, they do.
Expanding Unison’s membership
Q: Another reader [markdonners] asked what Unison was doing to extend its membership. He said Unison should be doing more work like SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] in America.
A: SEIU are our sister union. I was with them three weeks ago. They are an organising union. They organise at local level. They’ve got to win the contracts, three, four-year contracts, in order to organise within that contract. We don’t have to do that. So there are differences between us. But we’ve adopted the same organising model as SEIU. There are about 140 local organisers who have been appointed in the last year.
Q: Another question asked by a reader [ArseneKnows] was whether you take members who are out of work.
A: Unemployed people can join Unison. We’ve got an unemployed rate. We can’t just, as an old-fashioned union, be concerned about our members. Our members provide public services. So we’ve got to be concerned about the public service itself. The users of the service have to come first. Many of the people who use our service are the disabled and the vulnerable. We stand up, as part of our campaigning work, for these people.
Reputation of trade unions
Q: Another reader [melrosechick] asked about the image of trade unions generally. Do you accept that unions do have a negative image?
A: From all the work that we do, and we are doing a tremendous amount of it, we no longer have that negative image. We’ve done 10 focus groups in the last three months, public sector workers and private sector workers not in the union. Not one single one of them had any antipathy to the union.
Q: Was that Unison, or unions in general?
A: We were testing Unison, but in a way so they didn’t know it. They were amazed the contribution rates were so low. They were amazed at the services that were provided. They were concerned that nobody had ever asked them to join.
Q: But were they amazed by all that because they went into that focus group with a negative view of what unions were all about?
A: No, the idea was “we can’t afford to be in a union”. But when they saw the rates, they had never realised it could be so cheap. So I don’t necessarily think that people think that we are something from the past. Society has moved on a long way from Thatcher, and people are beginning to see that trade unions can be a voice for the good. I do not get the impression, from the work that we are doing, that people still see us as cart horses from the past. There are surveys asking people to list who they trust more. Politicians are usually at the bottom. Trade unions are well up these days.