It’s been a mixed bag of news about trade unions in recent days. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has agreed an offer with Royal Mail – much to some workers’ anger. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has found its fight again, after previously caving in to the Tories. Plus, the National Education Union (NEU) has held firm over its strikes. So, with the CWU and RCN, was it a case of trade union leaders feeling the pressure? Or is there a deeper problem here?
NEU: a Tory-instigated impasse
First off, the Tory education minister Gillian Keegan has refused to meet with the NEU. This comes ahead of the union’s strike on Thursday 27 April. As the Telegraph reported, joint NEU general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said on Sunday morning TV:
I say now, directly to the Government, ‘we’ll go in tomorrow, let’s negotiate so we don’t have to take strike action on Thursday’. None of my members want to disrupt education and lose more pay when they are so inadequately paid already.
However, the Department for Education (DfE) was quick to tell the NEU to back off. A source told the Telegraph that the DfE’s “position had not changed” on the strikes. A spokesperson then further said:
We have made a fair and reasonable teacher pay offer to the unions, which recognises teachers’ hard work and commitment.
“Fair and reasonable” is quite the claim regarding a below-inflation pay rise – as the NEU has already pointed out on social media:
So, it appears the strike on 27 April will be going ahead. As one teacher told the NEU:
I’ve been teaching a long time and hope to retire soon. I can’t remember the last time I had a pay rise – the Government doesn’t value experienced teachers. I am also really worried about the young teachers I work with. I have seen so many come and go and a lot of it is down to them feeling that the low pay isn’t worth the terrible work-life balance and stress of the job.
Given the Tories’ refusal to talk with the NEU, it’s likely the strike on 2 May will also go ahead.
RCN: standing up to the government
Next, after the saga of the RCN’s ‘deal or no deal’ pay offer ballot – which the union wanted workers to back, but workers refused to – the Tories are now threatening legal action to stop the upcoming strike.
NHS bosses have told health secretary Steve Barclay that they think the planned strike from 30 April to 2 May is “highly likely” to be illegal. This is because, they claim, the ballot which gave the RCN the power to call strikes will run out on 2 May. So, Barclay has predictably taken legal action to try and stop the action. Bosses and the Tories trying to stop strikes? Who would have thought it?
Of course, the RCN has hit back. Its general secretary Pat Cullen told BBC Breakfast:
What they are doing is dragging our nursing staff through a court room, and I find this not just cruel but totally unacceptable
Moreover, the RCN is adamant that NHS England bosses are wrong. Plus, even if a court agrees, the union says strike action on 30 April and 1 May will still go ahead. Cullen said in a statement that:
This move is nakedly political. Nurses will not be gagged in this way by a bullying government.
Indeed – but maybe the RCN shouldn’t have caved in to the Tories’ pay offer in the first place? This is what happens when you dance with the devil.
CWU: red flags and dodgy deals?
Speaking of dancing with the devil, elsewhere CWU leaders have angered some members by agreeing to an offer from Royal Mail bosses. It’s an expansive deal that includes:
- A 10% pay rise across three years.
- Profit sharing with Royal Mail to the value of 20% for workers.
- No compulsory redundancies.
- Reduced changes to working patterns like start and finish times.
However, some members have kicked back against the deal and are angry. One member said:
Who is picking up the kids from school or paying for the childcare? And on Saturdays who is taking our places watching the football? Most people work for RM [Royal Mail] because of the hours… even 15 mins later doesn’t work, but 4.30pm finishes?
Someone also pointed out:
People have left that’s why no redundancies, rubbish pay deal, no back pay. Rounds are double the sizes and finish times later. What a rubbish deal.
The CWU itself has been pushing back against people’s criticisms on social media. But it’s clear some workers are really not happy. CWU members will get a vote on the deal – and whether or not they reject it remains to be seen.
Trade unions: a deeper problem than just tactics?
However, what has become clear in recent weeks is that there’s a disconnect between unions leaders and workers. The RCN tried to pull a similar stunt to the CWU – dressing a bad deal up as good – but frontline staff told the union to shove it. The University and College Union (UCU) also caved to bosses by cancelling strikes ahead of pay negotiations. That backfired – and the union had to put the strikes back on.
Clearly, some unions are not acting in the way their members would like. The coming weeks, especially for the CWU and RCN, will show whether this is just a disagreement in tactics or an entrenched problem with large unions that have to play the capitalist game.
Featured image via Nick Efford – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY-SA 2.0, the CWU – screengrab, the RCN – screengrab, and the NEU – screengrab