Picture the scene: your trade union is representing NHS workers taking unprecedented industrial action. After two previously unsuccessful meetings, the government agrees to last-ditch discussions to avert more strikes, due the following week. Representatives of your union are in the room on behalf of 100,000-plus members, along with other similarly sized unions also representing NHS staff.
But then you discover “that the government didn’t set more than 45 minutes for the meeting”. That’s what happened to Onay Kasab, the national lead officer for the Unite union, which represents NHS paramedics, when his colleagues met with the government last month to avert another walkout. Unsurprisingly, the 45-minute meeting, held on 9 January, wasn’t enough to solve the complex issues at hand, and all of the unions involved in the talks continued with their planned strikes.
“The government’s missed yet another opportunity to put this right,” a clearly peeved Kasab told a group of reporters in the immediate aftermath of the talks. Kasab has now told Spotlight that he believed that the government entered those last-minute talks “in bad faith”.
Over the past year NHS staff, rail workers, teachers, postmen and others have all taken strike action demanding better pay and conditions amid the cost-of-living crisis. If and when the strikes will end is unclear. Successful negotiations between the government and trade unions will be key to their resolution. Which raises the question: what does it take to successfully negotiate with government?
The talks “vary”, Kasab, 55, who has been working alongside unions for more than three decades, said. There is a difference between public and private sector employers, too, and there are a number of private companies that “people wouldn’t expect to have recognition agreements with trade unions” that actively engage in collective bargaining, Kasab added. Unions also conduct extensive research and “forensic accounting” to justify why employers should meet workers’ demands, and how they could do it. That is what Unite did prior to its negotiations with the government.
Fundamentally, success “depends on the strength of your union”, encompassing everything from leadership structures to membership numbers, Kasab said. A well-organised union, he continued, is only effective if it has a membership ready to take all forms of action. “If your members say to you before negotiations, ‘We are willing to do A, B and C in order to win this claim’, that makes it a very different negotiation.”
The practicalities of discussions shift, too. After unions consult with members informally about what they want and what is feasible, talks begin. Kasab has brought representatives from lower branches of his union (as opposed to just using full-time union staff, as is convention) into some of the negotiations he has taken part in as they “are the best representatives for the people who work alongside them”. Unions representing workers in the same field – health, for example – tend to enter government negotiations together. During the recent wave of industrial action, Unite has had discussions about the NHS alongside the Unison and GMB unions, who represent a range of workers, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which represents nearly half a million nurses.
What also varies in negotiations are the length and dynamics of talks. Kasab recalled past discussions in which unions and employers chatted for several hours, sometimes all night – even ordering takeaways – with the aim for everyone involved to “sit in the room, lock the doors and try and get it resolved”. Discussions between the government and unions representing NHS staff have certainly not been like this. The 45-minute time slot for the most recent negotiations particularly irked Kasab: “When an employer does that, it tells you that they’re not serious.”
[See also: When teachers strike, the country stops working]
During the recent wave of industrial action, the government had ignored the “numerous public statements” from unions calling for more talks to resolve the strikes, Kasab said. Unions intensified their action: the RCN announced plans for a continuous 48-hour strike, and to have members working in A&E and intensive care strike as well. However, after the Treasury discovered a £30bn windfall in the public finances this week, and less than a week before further strikes, the government has agreed to start “intensive” negotiations with the RCN exclusively to end the nurses strike.
According to reports, the government hopes that a 5 per cent pay rise for nurses on their 2023-24 pay, plus an unspecified backdated payment for 2022-23, will be enough to end the dispute over nurses salaries. The RCN had a 19 per cent rise in mind for its members as a “starting point” for negotiations. Ministers, who have strongly opposed inflation busting pay rises, have called that idea “neither affordable nor realistic”.
Unite’s members, along with other unions, have been left in the dark by the government’s decision to only negotiate with the RCN. The national secretary of the GMB union, Rachel Harrison, has said it was a “tawdry example of ministers playing divide and rule politics with people’s lives”. Indeed, Unite also believes that the government has been disingenuous about their position on the NHS strikes before this most recent decision. According to Kasab, Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, who has been involved in negotiations, has been misleading the public by briefing to the press that talks are going well.
There is a certain amount of “bluffing” that comes with negotiating, but the government’s alleged “games” have exceeded this, Kasab said. “When we have employers – in this case, with Steve Barclay, and ultimately Rishi Sunak – telling people that there are constructive talks taking place on a dispute when they clearly are not… where the ministers in this case are lying, that doesn’t lead to good negotiations,” Kasab said, before the government announced the RCN negotiations.
Overall there remains a stalemate between the government and unions. With nurses’ pay lower in real terms since 2010, and rising public support for public sector strikes, to Kasab’s mind the current situation shows that winning the case for more pay “is not about the power of your argument alone”.
No two negotiations are ever the same, but some form of pay rise for workers is a common theme in resolutions to labour disputes. “Talk is cheap and truth is concrete,” said Kasab. He added that in the last year or so his union had won 80 per cent of the 500-plus disputes it had been involved in (mainly with private companies), winning members over £200m in extra earnings.
“So the method works,” he said. “Taking action works. Organising as a trade union works. It’s not just a slogan. We can see it – it’s concrete. And it has a real beneficial, positive impact on our members’ lives and their livelihoods.”
This article has been amended to note that Onay Kasab was not in the negotiating room with the government on 9 January