Check-Mate: The government outfoxes the unions…
Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can view the news of the deal done between the government and a large group of public sector unions today, neither of which are positive. Many will scream ‘sell-out’ and ‘betrayal’, there is however, a slightly more positive explanation, that the unions have committed a huge tactical blunder engendered by a lack of self-confidence. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which particular interpretation you choose, because either way it is not hard to see the gigantic nature of the mistake they made.
It’s a mistake because they were in a strong bargaining position and could have won more concessions. Public opinion was behind them and the strike was solid enough to force the government to think again so they have squandered that position and now put themselves in a position where they will effectively be forced to settle. Looking at the details that are filtering through the concessions are indeed paltry, a mere stay of execution when it comes to an increase in contributions, for example.
Some gains may look good on paper but will be severely dented, if not entirely wiped out, by the governments victory in moving the calculation of contributions to being based on the Comsumer Price Index, not the Retail Price Index. By 2016, the Office for Budget Responsibility calculates the gap between the two could be as high as 1.8%, with it hitting a low of 2%. In the words of Danny Alexander;
“These heads of agreement deliver the government’s key objectives in full and do so with no new money since our November offer.”
Alexander’s comments tell us all we need to know about who won and who lost. Sadly, the unions who signed the Heads of Agreement have pretty much no choice but to now accept the deal and those who didn’t will inevitably have to follow suit. This is because public opinion, having been carefully prepared by todays announcement, will now expect a resolution and it will punish the unions, not the government if there is not one. Had the unions refused to sign the Heads of Agreement on the grounds that little had changed then they could have won public support, now not to follow through will risk its total loss.
Unions that find themselves outside the big tent of this deal are going to be faced with some difficult choices. This is especially true of the PCS – it looks like the government has decided that now is the time to break it and its power. They would be well advised to think long and hard about whether their struggle is best served by what starts to look suspiciously like a well-prepared kamikaze run. If they do soldier on then they will probably have to do so without public support and are unlikely to win further concessions.
It is a trade unions job to simply win the best deal possible for its members – not to fight the left’s class war for it – and sometimes the left seems to forget that. However, it is on those grounds, as we have seen that this deal is weakest. Members of those unions that have signed should rue the actions of their leaderships which have foisted a second-rate deal on them. They should also question the strategic sense of their negotiators. In the end the government has outplayed the unions not in the first instance by engendering a split in the union movement but by skillfully driving a wedge between the unions and their wider public support. Still, it seems unions do not understand how precious this commodity is and that shows they are far from being the positive force for good they can be.