2021 was another incredibly difficult year for workers, particularly for those who, like our members, work in underfunded and overstretched public services.
As members in every workplace faced the risks and challenges posed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, austerity has continued unabated. For a decade workers have paid for the costs of the 2008 financial crisis and now we were told that we must pay for the costs of the pandemic response, whilst the super-rich continued to amass greater and greater wealth. As a result we see a continuation of the funding crisis in local government, meaning cuts to real-terms wages and to the services our communities depend on.
Local government employers offered a 1.75% pay increase for 2021, a significant pay cut considering inflation currently stands at above 5%. This came after 25% real-terms cut in local government pay since the start of austerity. Under these circumstances, and once the employers had walked away from the negotiating table, the unions had no option but to ballot members for strike action. Whilst a large majority of members who voted were in favour of taking action, the turnout was well below what is now the legal minimum required to take action. Clearly there are lessons to be learned at every level of the union moving forward. There is no way to challenge continued pay restraint that doesn’t involve the union effectively mobilising its members to take strike action.
The pay situation is equally serious if Higher and Further Education. Our members at University of Winchester were recently balloted on strike action and thanks to the hard work of our reps we came tantalisingly close to the required threshold to take action. The branch will be looking to engage with our membership at the university to try and better understand the results, and organise for the battles to come. In Further Education the branch is beginning to look at what can be done locally, within the framework of national pay structures, to secure a pay rise for our members in Hampshire who are squeezed between low pay, high rents, and rising living costs generally.
At Hampshire County Council a projected £80 million funding shortfall covering 2021-23 led the council to draw up yet another savings programme. We have voiced concerns both as part of the public consultation and in discussions with management about the impacts of these cuts. These cuts, which include, reductions in funding for homeless services, hit the most vulnerable hardest. As well as the redundancies, we are also deeply concerned about the impact on our members of proposals to outsource the provision of School Escorts on Home to School Transport. The branches response to the public consultation can be found here: ‘Balancing the Budget’ – Hampshire UNISON’s intial response to the Hampshire County Council public consultation | Hampshire Local Government
We are pleased to note that following a separate public consultation proposals to cut Health Visitor provision, to which UNISON was vocally opposed, were scrapped: Hampshire County Council drops plan to slash public health budget | Hampshire Chronicle
In schools and in the care sector, services have been pushed to breaking point as workers are pushed out by low pay and incredibly challenging working conditions. Short staffing then leads to additional pressures, increased workloads, increased levels of sickness, and, all too often, unsafe working arrangements.
In care, a bad situation was made worse by the government’s mandatory vaccination policy. Locally, staffing pressures within HCC Care have led to the temporary closure of Cranleigh Paddock and Copper Beeches, with staff reallocated to other HCC homes.
Schools also remain a high-pressure environment for our members who have had to continually adapt to ever-changing Department for Education COVID guidance and deal with increasingly challenging behaviour on the part of the children they work with.
It is in this context that the branch has been trying to protect and advance the interests of its members.
Since last years’ AGM we have been invited to 93 consultations in total, covering multiple employers and a range of situations (proposed changes to contracts, TUPE, etc). There were protracted negotiations with HCC over a change management were seeking to implement to the EHCC 2007 collective agreement in relation to the Home Working Allowance. Significant concessions had to be made but we managed to secure protection for current recipients and contractual status for the new allowance. There has been a decrease in the number of redundancy consultations this year, likely due to cuts being implemented through “vacancy management”, i.e., staff who leave not being replaced.
As with last year the branch has received a large number of referrals from members seeking advice and assistance. Levels of formal case work remain challenging given the size of the branch and our small base of activists.
Between the 2020 and 2021 AGMs the branch picked up 660 members. Unfortunately, this year has seen a decline to 6452 working members (7405 in total). This is in line with what we have seen across the union and was likely due to: a) the improving public health situation; b) the falling real incomes; c) a movement of workers out of those workplaces in which we’re organised. I’m glad to report that at the time of writing numbers are now stabilising.
Our first priority for the coming year is to recruit activists and in doing so integrate and organise those members we already have. The union only has a future when it can support and encourage members to become reps, equip them with the necessary training and empower them to make a difference in their workplaces. At a branch level we will be deploying significant resources, accumulated over many years of careful financial management, to this end.
With storm clouds still overhead in the form of continued austerity, we know much of our work over the coming year will be defensive as we seek to protect the jobs and working conditions of our members. However, we will also seek to take the initiative wherever we possibly can. One example of where we have sought to be proactive this year is our campaign to pressure the Hampshire Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels, a campaign that I am glad to say is gathering momentum. In the coming year we will be seeking to gain formal recognition agreements with a number of local employers, for ourselves and our sister unions. If we can achieve this, it would be a huge step in the right direction after decades of workforce fragmentation brought about by outsourcing and academisation.
I want to give a huge thank you to all the reps and other activists in the branch who have given their time to help members. The difference that you make to members, who are often in crisis when they reach out for help, cannot be overstated. It is the spirit of compassion and solidarity that you have shown that keeps the union alive. I also want to thank all our branch staff, all of whom have been working in very difficult circumstances for two years now. I want to thank everyone for the support they’ve shown me since day one of entering the role, it is a privilege to carry out this role on your behalf.