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Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the UK’s public sector workers have been subjected to a brutal decade of pay cuts and job losses.
Successive Conservative governments have persisted with an ideologically-driven austerity agenda that seeks to slash the size of the state and either deliver public services on the cheap, or stop delivering them altogether. At the heart of the austerity agenda was a public sector pay cap of 1%, implemented in 2010, which sought to ensure that pay for all public servants was held at or around existing levels in real terms.
In reality – even during years of low inflation – this pay cap meant an annual real terms pay cut for the public sector. Public sector pay rose by just 4.4% between 2010 and 2016 while the cost of living rose by 22%. So, a public sector worker who received the median public sector wage in 2010 and since then subject to the two year pay freeze followed by the 1% pay cap, has seen the value of her/his wage drop by £4,781 per year.
Throughout the years of austerity, UNISON has led campaigns against both the government’s pay policies and the wider austerity agenda. However, this campaigning was given greater impetus – and increased opportunity of success – following the 2017 general election.
Whilst in 2015, the Conservative Party had achieved a surprise majority of six in the House of Commons, the 2017 general election – called by Prime Minister May in order to increase her mandate – led to a hung Parliament without a firm majority for ongoing austerity.
It was in the days and weeks after the election that UNISON’s “Pay Up Now!” campaign was established to make the case for ending the public sector pay cap and restoring real terms pay rises for all public sector workers – a case that suddenly had a far more receptive audience in Parliament than only a few months before.
From the outset, the campaign had two clear audiences. The first was UNISON members, on the front line in public services across the UK, and in desperate need of a pay rise. The second vital audience was those in a position to secure a fundamentally different pay policy: Members of Parliament. The union decided that the campaign would not focus too greatly on wider public appeal due to the time constraints and the need to focus resources on the smaller audience who could win the argument for better pay.
Firstly, it was important to mobilise UNISON’s 1.3 million members nationally, regionally and through their workplaces at branch level – so that a clear message on public sector pay could be delivered in communities throughout the country. The union produced campaign materials, fact sheets, pay calculators and other resources centrally and disseminated them to members of the union for campaigning at a local level. These resources were subsequently used to show support for the campaign through local lobbying, press stunts and social media campaigning.
The lobbying was designed with the intention of ramping up pressure on MPs.
From the outset of the campaign, UNISON wrote to all MPs with carefully targeted messages. Conservative MPs were written to first, outlining UNISON’s position on pay, explaining the impact this has had on public services and calling on them to support the campaign.
Crucially, the letters referred to the number of UNISON members living in each MP’s constituency, reminding them of the substantial number of their constituents affected by their party’s decisions in government.
Letters were then sent to opposition MPs, thanking them for their ongoing support for the campaign (every other party in Parliament has indicated that they would support an end to the pay cap for at least some public sector workers). Messages to these MPs included a campaign pack featuring materials (posters, placards, badges, stickers) which parliamentarians could then use to advertise their support for the campaign in Parliament, in their constituencies and on social media.
This preliminary lobbying of MPs had the desired effect, with ten Conservative MPs responding either to express support, or to ask for further meetings with constituents and/or UNISON representatives.
At this stage, UNISON conducted a thorough mapping of MPs, based on their views on pay (either shared publicly, identified through lobbying or gleaned through political intelligence gathering). This divided parliament into a number of groupings, which could broadly be described as:
Based on this analysis, we believed that there were enough MPs – if lobbied effectively – to force the government to abandon the public sector pay cap and move towards real terms pay rises for public sector workers.
Further targeted lobbying took place to try and increase the size of group 2 – the group most critical to the success of the campaign. This included identifying the Conservative-held seats where the UNISON membership outnumbered the majority of the incumbent MP. All UNISON members in these seats were contacted by email and provided with a draft letter to send to their MP, calling on them to oppose the current pay policy and reminding them of the large number of UNISON members in their local electorate. The union also contacted local newspapers to reinforce the pressure on these most vulnerable MPs to change their position.
At the same time, UNISON used the British government’s Parliamentary Petition website to maximum effect. Any petitions on the site which receive 100,000 signatures are automatically considered for debate by MPs. In early September – as the petitions website was reactivated after the general election – UNISON launched a petition under the name of General Secretary Dave Prentis, and pushed the petition out to our members through a variety of digital networks. The petition quickly achieved the required number of signatures, securing a Westminster debate on 4 December 2017.
Further lobbying took place in October 2017, with a national lobby of Parliament on public sector pay. This was organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) but with UNISON acting as the lead union and providing the vast majority of members lobbying on the day. Particular focus was given to those MPs either already identified as being in “group 2” or who political intelligence suggested were open to approach.
In November the government held their annual budget statement – and our campaign achieved a clear breakthrough. From September onwards the government had alluded to an end to the public sector pay cap, but the budget was the clearest indication that this was the case. Furthermore, the Chancellor stated that they were specifically seeking to achieve a pay deal in the National Health Service (NHS), and that if a deal was reached, funding could be made available to pay for it.
The budget was followed by the parliamentary debate on public sector pay secured by our petition. A fresh round of lobbying of MPs was conducted – including a post budget email to all UNISON members, requesting them to ask their MP to attend the debate. UNISON reiterated our demands and made it clear that whilst the budget marked a change in government policy, that wasn’t enough – it wouldd take real action, and funding, from the government to deliver real pay rises for all public sector workers.
As a result of our lobbying, more than 80 MPs attended the debate to show their support, despite it clashing with an important Brexit debate and vote happening in Parliament at the same time. Opposition MPs were clear in their support for our campaign – with 26 separate references to UNISON made during the debate – although the government response showed an unwillingness to commit to anything more than a notional lifting of the pay cap.
However, in the weeks following the budget and the pay debate, circumstances began to change with regards to pay. In Local Government and Health – the two groups which cover the majority of UNISON membership – negotiations either have or are likely to result in pay offers in excess of the previous pay cap. We are currently consulting with our local government members in England and Wales on a pay offer with a minimum of 2% but worth up to 16% for the lowest paid. In the NHS we are coming to the end of extensive negotiations which we expect to result in an offer worth considerably more than 1%.
There is still a long way to go to achieve a fair and decent pay policy in the UK – one where above inflation pay rises each year are the norm – but there are significant signs that the campaigns run by UNISON and the other public sector unions are having a real impact.
 One exception to this was the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who were written to separately by our Northern Ireland region with a bespoke message. As the DUP are in a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative government, getting the tone of this messaging right was crucial.