Friday, November 21, 2014

On the practical benefits of defending the conditions of service of the local government workforce

‎I have a very long period of continuous local government service (I am not young).

As I have more than ten years such service, with my employer, according to the conditions of service negotiated with the local trade unions, I have 34 days paid leave each year in addition to public holidays.

It was 17 years ago that the employer last tried to reduce our leave entitlement (under a "hung" Council). We saw them off.

Therefore I am pleased that, for the next five working days, I shall derive the benefit of conditions of service fought for, won and defended by trade union action, as I shall be on holiday!

You'll not see me blog again for more than a week (regular readers Sid and Doris Trotspotter will be accessing NHS mental health services to help them cope).

While I'm away I strongly recommend to all trade unionists that you don't agree to offer any concessions to your employer on conditions of service (they never do any good!)

I also recommend to all UNISON local government branches that you support the call from the Manchester Branch for a Special Local Government Conference.

After all, when I get back from holiday I'll still need something to look forward to!


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Local government pay - is there an alternative to national pay bargaining?

As I observed yesterday, the Special Conference (which informed sources in the Euston Road now confidently predict) will consider how we should go about getting a decent pay increase for local government workers.

Some will understandably question the very future of national bargaining (particularly those in the authority intending to break away from national bargaining who, having prematurely implemented the 1% pay offer, are now seeking to claw back from those staff who stand to get less in 2014/15 from the pay settlement than they received under the previous offer against which national strike action was taken!)

There are other means to try to improve the living standards of local government workers other than simply by pursuing national pay claims, but none of these alone are a credible alternative.

Ever since the adoption of the Green Book in 1997 we have had a degree of local autonomy in relation to pay and grading, and to many conditions of service. This autonomy is – in circumstances of declining organisation and limited confidence – something which has generally been taken advantage of by employers. There is, however, nothing in principle to prevent the trade unions in any particular local authority proposing (for example) that the points to grades relationship in their Council be varied by giving everyone an extra increment (or more).

Such a local claim would no more break away from national pay bargaining than have the various measures introduced by particular local authorities (some of whom have held back incremental progression in the past, arguing that this did not breach Part Two of the Green Book).

However, the fact that something is procedurally possible does not mean that it would be well-advised. For each local authority where we might successfully fight for such a local “uplift” within the framework of the Green Book there will be many more where individual authorities might thereby be tempted to propose a local “downshift” which the unions might struggle to resist.

At a “higher” level of the bargaining framework, we know that there is some pressure on the employers’ side to consider Regional pay bargaining. The increasing divergence on the trade union side between the local leadership in the North West (and Greater London) and other Regions could clearly point in a similar direction.

However, the unevenness of the strength of the trade unions is as great within Regions as it is between them. Even in the short term, any trade union acquiescence to fractures in national pay bargaining would be a threat to more of our members than those for whom they might be an opportunity.

With apologies to our friends in the North, trade unionists in Greater London do have an opportunity which does not exist elsewhere, because of the way in which “London Weighting” was incorporated into the Outer and Inner London pay spines in 2000. It would be entirely within the framework of national pay bargaining for the trade unions to make a claim to increase the differentials between these and the national pay spine. In spite of the miserable outcome of the London Weighting dispute of a decade ago, the changed political balance of our London employers means that our ability to take effective action is now better aligned to those authorities we would most need to influence in order to achieve change at a Regional level.


Whether we should or should not do this is a question which now needs to be considered within Greater London – but overall, I think we need to accept that, from the point of view of local government workers, our priority has to be to find a way to make national pay bargaining deliver for our members in future.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So how do we raise pay in local government? - 1 the living wage?

‎The fourth and final topic which UNISON branches seeking to requisition a Special Local Government Conference is probably the most important - and it is as relevant to our members in Scotland as it is to those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (who have been the victims of the catastrophic misleadership of the NJC pay "dispute").

‎What are the best means to secure a decent pay increase for union members in local government?

This is a serious question which requires more thought than can be given in a single blog post, so for now I'll consider just the case of those whose job evaluated grades would deliver an hourly rate of less than £7.85 (outside London) or £9.15 (in London).

These workers would - under the Green Book terms and conditions (and on the basis of the pay deal to which we have just signed up) receive less than the "living wage" which is deemed (by that subset of the great and the good who deem such things) to be the minimum one needs to live a decent life.

We campaign for the living wage but - depending upon how this is paid ‎- when we win this campaign we can take the earnings of our lower paid members out of collective bargaining.

Discussing this yesterday with some fellow London Branch Secretaries we identified that, whereas some boroughs have implemented the London Living Wage by lifting all workers to at least the lowest spine point above the level of the living wage (so that they would benefit from any future negotiated pay increases) others treat the living wage as a supplement above the job evaluated grade (so that a negotiated pay increase simply reduces that supplement without increasing an employee's earnings).

Given the pusillanimous way in which our trade union (and the others) now approaches national collective bargaining - and the consequent increase in the relevance of the "living wage" to an increasing proportion of our membership - we need, as part of our preparation to debate the key issues at our Special Conference, to press for an approach to the implementation of the living wage which leaves the earnings of those workers on the living wage open to increase by collective bargaining.

Those of us whose employers have treated the living wage as a free-standing "add-on" to the evaluated "rate for the job" need to be assisted to change this approach, or an increasing proportion of our members will find that their pay is set not by the cut and thrust of industrial relations but by the grace and favour of those who (not living upon it themselves) determine the "living wage."

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And now for something completely different...

‎To give readers a rest from my incessant blog posts about local government pay (each and every one of which, I should point out to readers in the Euston area, alleges a breach of Rule B.1.4) I shall share a strange happening from this morning's meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC).

Whilst the Committee was reviewing budgets for the coming year a question arose as to whether there was adequate provision to meet the costs of an election for the position of General Secretary in 2015, as required by law (and Rules E.3.2 and E.3.3).

It turned out that this was not a question which should have been asked, at least not of that Committee and that it could not therefore be answered.

I'll pursue the question elsewhere, since it is a legitimate question which might be asked not only by any NEC member but by any UNISON member. I do think that significant and foreseeable expenditure is the sort of thing that should routinely be included in a budget and am surprised to learn that, in respect of the not inconsiderable cost of an election of this nature, this has not yet been done.

Perhaps no one has wanted to be the one to point out that there has to be a General Secretary election?

Or perhaps there is a view that, given our great success in taking on the pay freeze and winning an improvement in living standards for our members, the likelihood of a contested election is so small that there is no need to make provision for it in our budget?

A General Secretary election is not a matter of concern primarily to any intending candidates but to the Union as a whole. We cannot avoid discussing it for fear of causing offence.

It could - and should - be an opportunity to engage our million plus members in a discussion about where our Union is and should be going, and what it is that we, as workers need from UNISON now and in the future.

For as long as no one at the UNISON Centre will discuss openly the unavoidable necessity for such an election, I regret it becomes increasingly unlikely that we shall realise such opportunities.

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The perils of pay consultation

‎The third, of four, topics for debate at the anticipated Special Local Government Conference concerns the protocols for future pay consultations.

It seems to me that this goes way beyond the purely procedural matters upon which we agreed to consult ahead of next year's Annual Service Group Conference - although we do need to reflect upon every way in which we may be able to increase member participation and engagement.

As I have observed here before, when those of us who manage to get almost one third of eligible members to participate in a decision about their pay appear to be doing relatively well, it is clear that our organisation is not in a healthy state.

I think, however, that the experience of the utter defeat of the trade unions in the NJC pay dispute (arising from a capitulation choreographed from a hotel room at Labour Party Conference) directs us to consider problems with the substance, as much as the form, of pay consultation in our trade union.

I am grateful to those who gave a blow by blow account of the crucial meeting of the NJC Committee (on 9 October) for an understanding of how the terms of our surrender were communicated to our elected representatives.

The General Secretary had a letter from the Leader of the Labour Group on the Local Government Association, in which ‎Councillor McMahon dictated that the employers' side would only consult their constituent bodies on the pay proposals (which were not then, of course, a formal offer) if the strike on 14 October was called off, if the Union agreed not to recommend rejection - and if the Union told our members that the new proposals represented a significant improvement on the previous offer.

It was only the last lie that was too much for the General Secretary and the majority of the Committee, who were not prepared to take responsibility for making a positive recommendation to accept proposals which offered most members worse than nothing for having taken strike action in July.

Therefore the majority of the NJC Committee dusted off the timeworn phrase "the best that can be achieved by negotiation" - and (somehow, this part of the decision-making is less clear in reports I have heard) also concluded that only "sustained all-out strike action" could produce a better offer.

Picking this apart I think there are (at least) three evils for which we need, if we can, to find a remedy at our Special Conference.

‎First, our visible willingness to submit to bullying from a nonentity must never be repeated. No self-respecting trade unionist should have bent the knee to Councillor McMahon's offensive and presumptuous correspondence. 

The question of what recommendation we make to our members is not a question which we can allow to be determined by the employers. 

Of course, it may be a factor in negotiations (because employers know that our recommendations carry weight). If the employers indicate a willingness to offer a concession which is conditional upon our making a positive recommendation then - providing that our elected Committee has the matter fully reported before it and takes its own decision, we may make a recommendation designed to elicit that concession.

These were not those circumstances. The NJC Committee had had no real role in any negotiations before the first version of the pay proposals were put before them (and rightly rejected) at the end of September. Councillor McMahon's letter (which had, in any case, no more formal status than the not-yet-an-offer to which it referred) did not offer any significant material concession in return for which we were to do his bidding.

The Leader of the LGA Labour Group told UNISON to "jump" and the General Secretary came to the NJC Committee only to ask them "how high?" 

I do not know whether any decision of a Special Conference could prevent such an outcome in future (since one cannot legislate against cowardice or stupidity) but I do know that we need to give this question some thought.

Secondly, we need to address once more the responsibility of leading bodies in our trade union to lead. It was a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, on the part of the NJC Committee (or, at least of the majority thereof) to go out to consultation without making a clear recommendation either to accept or reject.

There is no shame in making an honest recommendation to accept an unsatisfactory offer if that recommendation is founded upon an equally honest and reasoned assessment that ‎a better outcome cannot be achieved.

I think we could enforce such honesty as a matter of policy if we agree that UNISON would always make a recommendation either to accept or to reject an offer - but would this be an attempt to find a procedural "fix" for what is essentially a political problem?

Thirdly, I think we need a much clearer account of how the decision came to be taken that the ONLY alternative to accepting pay proposals which were worse than the offer against which we had taken strike action was "sustained all-out strike action."

What consideration was given to the practicability of selective action and why was this rejected?

What consideration was given to a rolling programme of Regional action and why was this rejected?

Why did the Committee think that a solid two day strike by UNISON's local government membership would have had no impact?

I don't pose these questions in order to advocate (or oppose) any particular tactical option but to illustrate the point that there should have been a transparent and inclusive process of debating tactical options before we told our members that the ONLY thing they could do to get a better deal was "sustained all-out strike action."

I don't think much thought went into‎ this part of what we were told to be honest. The same combination of laziness and (dis)ingenuity which went into concluding that a worse offer was "the best" that could be achieved by negotiation clearly went on to inform the decision to tell our members that if they didn't like it they must be prepared to do far more than our leaders thought we would have the stomach for.

Again I may be wondering aloud about whether we can solve a problem of judgement and integrity by procedural prescription (which perhaps we cannot) but we could insist upon a more considered approach to an open assessment of the ‎merits and possibilities of different forms of action.

We may never have another national pay dispute in local government. Our leaders may have brought an end to decades of national pay bargaining through the misconduct of this year's "dispute".

However, if we are to have any hope for the future we must thoroughly revise our approach to pay consultation.


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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

After the pay defeat - what is to be done?

‎There being no rest for the wicked, I have ended a day which began with a Regional Local Government Committee by attending a meeting of the left caucus of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC).

We met to discuss the implications of the disastrous defeat of the local government pay campaign for the Union generally - and for forthcoming union elections in particular.

The dull compulsion to support a lethargic leadership which has haunted our trade union for so long is - at the very least - now in doubt.‎ The ossified bureaucracy which stares out at the world from the top of the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road has no credible leadership candidate nor even the vestige of a programme for leadership.

No serious succession planning having taken place over the past decade, the collapsing coalition which has delivered the last two victories in elections for General Secretary vanishes before our eyes.

What that may mean for the General Secretary election which is unavoidable in the next year is impossible to see. The "left" is, in our way, as ossified as anything we may confront at the ballot box.

This is a very dangerous time, as the cynicism and anger bred by the disastrous misleadership of the largest bargaining group in the economy can turn to an anti-union mood as swiftly as it can turn to support for an alternative.

Comrades on the left who see the present conjuncture only as a time of great opportunity have, I think, failed to consider how the experience of shattering defeat may work itself out.

That said, it is - without doubt - the case that critics of the present "leadership" of our trade union are under a particularly heavy obligation to ensure both that we stand sufficient candidates in the forthcoming elections to the National Executive Council (NEC) and to avoid socialist candidates standing against each other.

Indeed, the unity which we seek should be the unity of all those who will raise their voices in reasoned and constructive criticism of the catastrophic handling of the local government pay dispute. For this reason, the response of all the incumbent members of our NEC in our largest Region to the suggestion that they might all support each other's re-election is a litmus test.

All of these questions are now set to be discussed in Manchester on Saturday 17 January. The NEC left caucus has agreed to convene an open meeting with a view to building unity though we have no more authority than that which always attracts itself to those willing to act.

There is much more to trade unionism than periodic elections - and the presence or absence of unity in any particular election cannot be the only, or even the most important consideration.

However, every one of us who is angry and dismayed at the outcome of the local government pay "dispute" must stand ready to abandon all past preconceptions if we are to retrieve trade unionism for local government workers - and all public servants.

For those of us who have chosen to devote our lives to a movement in which we place the hope of a better world now is a moment for significant choice.

No one knows what will happen next.

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London debates the pay fiasco

‎I have spent a merry morning at a meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Committee where, as you might imagine there was some discussion of the recent pay dispute.

Those contributing to the debate were generally of the view that we should support the proposed Special Conference. 10 London boroughs said that they had already submitted their requisitions and two others indicated an intention to do so.

There was much anger at the conduct of the dispute by the national leadership - and considerable support for our sitting representatives on the National Joint Council Committee who were overwhelmingly re-elected in the face of a less-than-half-hearted challenge.

However, whilst the conduct of the national leadership of our trade union (and of the other unions which presently misrepresent local government workers) has indeed been disgraceful, there is a wider and deeper problem to be addressed.

287 UNISON branches submitted returns in the consultation process. In all but 50 of these the majority voted to accept a pay "offer" worse than that against which we had taken strike action.

19 of the 50 were in the North West and another 15 in London (though even in those two Regions which recorded a "popular vote" to reject there were more branches recording majority acceptance than rejection).

For those, like your blogger, for whom glasses are half full, it is clear that in most branches where there was a recommendation to reject members took confidence from that recommendation to support further strike action. The "rejectionist" branches also recorded (on average) higher turnouts from their members. 

However, the glass is also half empty, since in the very large majority of our branches, whether by democratic decision or through inertia, branch level elected leaders did not take a different stance from the national leadership.

It may well be that a national leadership which sows demoralisation and despondency will reap apathy and cynicism, but the reality of UNISON in local government is that this is the harvest we have. 

In our preparations for the Special Conference ‎those of us who are angry must reflect upon the reality that the majority of branches who will send delegates to the Conference will do so knowing that the majority of their members (who voted) accepted this defeat.

We are in a position of weakness from which the leadership of our trade union wilfully averts it's gaze - but which we must analyse if we are to save our union from that leadership.

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What went wrong on 14 October?

http://unisonactive.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/protest-to-survive.html?m=1

The second, of four, topics about which UNISON's local government branches are seeking to requisition a Special Conference on pay concerns the circumstances in which local government strike action scheduled for 14 October was called off.

I've included the link above because an otherwise thoughtful post on UNISON Active is impaired by it's gullibility in falling for the game of "pass the parcel of responsibility" played energetically by the national officials of the three unions.

The "received wisdom" within UNISON is that it had become clear, before the NJC Committee on 9 October called off our strike action, that the other unions were already pulling the plug.

From whomever this "received wisdom" was received, it is not wise. Whilst it is doubtless true that the national officials of GMB and UNITE were itching to call off the 14 October as soon as the (then) "pay proposals" were developed (perhaps largely by themselves) - the formal position of both the other unions was that they would go ahead with UNISON if we went ahead.

Indeed, representing the majority of all trade unionists in local government and - therefore - holding the majority of votes on the NJC trade union side - UNISON could have snookered all those seeking this sell-out had the NJC Committee stuck to its guns and refused to consult on capitulation.

The silly games played by our well-paid national negotiators are not irrelevant to our weakness and consequent defeat, nor was deliberate misinformation absent from the choreography of surrender (delegates at UNISON's regional briefing in Yorkshire were told things about the position of the other unions which were not true).

However, too much attention to inter-union shenanigans distracts from the more serious weaknesses of organisation and leadership within UNISON which led us to October's "strike that never was".
The strike on 10 July was not, generally, as well-supported or effective as the pensions strike in November 2011. Reasonably good media coverage masked this to some extent, but at no level of our trade union‎ did we seriously assess what this meant in terms of how to win support for further action.

The damp squib of the "locked out" action in August was a further straw in the wind but, rather than speak openly and transparently with ourselves and our members, our national negotiators either participated in or permitted the secret discussions which led to the negotiation of unconditional surrender.

Had we been having an honest conversation with ourselves over the summer we could have addressed and tried to deal with the increasingly obvious unevenness of our strength and motivation between branches and Regions. As it was, we left that divergence to derail us in the autumn.

Because - for all that the substantive reality is of misleadership at national level compounding the weakness of a poorly organised rank and file - the formal position is also the truth. The NJC Committee voted as it did on 9 October because delegates from a majority of Regions reflected the confusion, demoralisation and lack of confidence in the majority of branches in their Regions.

The series of events which defeated our pay dispute included all these factors - and we need to consider, and try to understand, their interplay if we are to find a way to ensure that this self-inflicted catastrophe is never repeated.

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The need for honesty at the Special Local Government Conference

‎The first of four topics to be debated at the hoped-for Special Local Government Conference, according to the requisition submitted by branches, is the question of the 2014-2016 NJC pay proposals, now a formal offer which was accepted as soon as it was made.

It is important that we are honest with ourselves and our members about just what it is which we have accepted in order to analyse the outright defeat ‎which we have suffered at the hands of the Government and employers.

With the exception of those affected by the bottom loading intended to keep the bottom of our pay spine above the national minimum wage (who are in any case "enjoying" unacceptably low living standards already), we will most of us wake to a 2.2% increase on New Year's Day.

On the face of it that figure looks not far from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) - but this is a two year deal, and to keep up with ‎a CPI projected to increase by 2% a year in 2014 and 2015 would require an increase not of 2.2% but of more than 4%.

Of course the position of the trade unions has long been that the Retail Price Index (RPI) is a better guide to the changing cost of living (not least because it includes housing costs). With the RPI projected to increase by ‎3% a year in 2014 and 2015, we would have needed a 6.1% pay increase just to avoid our real wages in April 2016 being lower than they were in April 2014.

The first thing we have to recognise about the pay agreement struck last Friday by the two sides of the National Joint Council - and the reason why we must be honest in our assessment of this grave defeat - is that it will continue the downward spiral in the living standards of the local government workforce.

Of course, many of us would accept a settlement which offered a bit less higher up the pay spine if the money was being used to lift the lowest paid to the dignity of a living wage (as, of course, many branches - acting locally - have already achieved).‎ This, however, is not the case in respect of the two year pay deal accepted last Friday.

Those workers employed by authorities which have not already signed up to the living wage, and who are on points 10 and below of the national pay spine, know that (absent a political decision by their employer quite separate from collective bargaining) they will not reach the rate of the living wage which has been set in the autumn of 2014 this side of the spring of 2016 at the earliest.

The two year pay deal offers us all declining living standards without making any significant headway towards tackling low pay. 

The first thing we must do, if we are to move forward, is to face honestly the scale of the complete and utter defeat into which we have been led.

Without that honesty we shall get nowhere.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

What do we need from a Special Local Government Conference?

After the fiasco of the pay capitulation by the local government trade unions, UNISON activists need to work out how to make best use of the Special Conference which we are (I hope) about to requisition thanks to the Manchester Branch.

Last time local government activists succeeded in requisitioning a Special Conference, the national union responded by getting an agreement between the Service Group Executive and the relevant NEC Committee Chairs to call a different Special Conference so as to have more leeway to control the agenda.

Such sharp practice would be unwise on this occasion (although wisdom is in short supply at the UNISON Centre just now so it cannot be ruled out). All the best speakers on both sides at that previous Special Conference are united in criticism of the conduct of this year’s NJC pay “dispute”.

It is necessary to be clear. We have squandered the action on 10 July by settling for proposals which are in several ways worse than the one year 1% offer against which we took that action. No amount of obfuscation (or what plain speaking folk might call “lies”) can conceal this alarming truth.

Local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be materially better off now had we not had a dispute over pay in 2014 and simply accepted the 1%. None of those who gain a pittance in 2014/15 (comparing the previous to the revised offer) have gained more than they lost by striking for a day – and everyone will suffer for our inability to fight for better pay in the year in which a General Election will be fought on the issue of living standards.

Even when we have gained very little from disputes (as in 2008 when post-strike arbitration delivered an additional 0.3%) we have at least been able to say that the sacrifice of strike action has delivered some benefit which (even if only in the long term) will be seen to have been worth having. In 2014 the truth is that we have asked members to make the sacrifice of taking strike action and have achieved worse than nothing as a result.

The misleadership of this “dispute” goes beyond letting down the members immediately involved to bringing not just our own trade union but the entire movement into disrepute. That is why it is appropriate for us to convene a Special Service Group Conference.

The branches seeking a Special Conference want it to discuss;
  • The 2014-2016 NJC Pay Proposals.
  • The decision to cancel strike action on 14th October.
  • The future Pay Consultation protocols in respect of Local Government pay claims.
  • The best means to secure a decent pay increase for Local Government members.
This won’t be an academic exercise in debate for its own sake. The whole future of national trade unionism is at stake here, if the three largest trade unions in the country cannot manage to secure anything for workers in the largest organised bargaining group in the economy then local government trade unionists will want to know what is the purpose of our national structures (in their impressive erection on the Euston Road).

(Incidentally, any critic of the “expense” of a Special Conference would do well to attend to the loss of income from all the empty space at the UNISON Centre before opening their ill-informed mouth to make any such criticism.)

The flaccid complacency of our hypertrophied official structures absolutely requires to be shaken awake – and activists now need to coordinate in the run up to the Conference when it is called.

Of which.

More.

Soon.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Local Government trade unions complete pay capitulation - be angry but be organised



Sadly, in spite of vigorous opposition in many quarters (including clear majorities in opposition in London and the North West) the decision has been taken nationally to accept the disgraceful local government pay proposals. 

This means that we have decided to squander the effort that went into the 10 July strike and collude in a continuing decline in the living standards of the large majority of all our members in local government, UNISON’s largest service group.

It is right to take a little time to be angry at the way in which the continuous failure of our national leadership to be in any meaningful way either “national” or a “leadership” has led us into this predicament – but only a little time.

From Monday we have to focus on how we build and change our trade union to represent the interests of local government workers. The sensible, and widely supported, initiative of the Manchester branch to call for a Special Service Group Conference gives us an opportunity which we must not now waste.

In order to make best use of this opportunity we must seek to understand the path that led us to this terrible outcome, including not only the lack of meaningful national leadership, but also the retreat and decline of workplace organisation and the unevenness of our organisation (and combativeness) within and between our Regions and our branches.

If we are to retain national pay bargaining (and I believe we should try) then we must redesign pay consultation procedures to prevent the deliberate sabotage of our members’ sacrifice and action which took place in this case. 

Having seen that we cannot rely in any way upon our a UNISON Centre more interested in gazing at its own collective navel from the vantage point of the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road, we also need to bring branches together before National Delegate Conference in order to redirect our trade union’s resources to the levels of the union where some good may be done.

This goes way beyond a restructuring or unification of those who have traditionally see ourselves as “the left”. We are at the beginning of a process which will determine whether UNISON has a meaningful and relevant future, and all those who want a trade union which knows how to fight for our members – and therefore want that future – need to draw together in our common interest and in the interests of UNISON members.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Whatever happens tomorrow - we have a lot of work to do

‎Today we heard that the relatively small number of UNITE members in local government (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) voted to "accept" the insulting pay proposals (which, of course, we have yet to be offered) by 81% to 19% on a 27% turnout.

Tomorrow's GMB ballot result will likely also be for acceptance (given the recommendation made in that Union).

However, the large majority of local government trade unionists are in UNISON - and the decision of UNISON's National Joint Council (NJC) Committee meeting tomorrow morning will mandate the majority of the trade union side and therefore be decisive.

The NJC Committee will know, tomorrow when it meets, results at which we can as yet only guess. Dorset have voted to reject, Norfolk to accept. All the London branches from which I have heard are rejecting, but there are others from whom I would not necessarily expect to hear.

Whatever tomorrow's outcome, the fact that the Lambeth branch turnout of 32% (89% rejecting) is - relatively spe‎aking - a "good" turnout tells us a great deal about the work which we all have to do to build workplace organisation.

This dispute tells us a lot about the need for better leadership - but at least as much about the need for better organisation.

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A tale of two cities on local government pay

‎Yesterday was the deadline for UNISON branches outside London to notify their Regional offices of the outcome of consultation with members on the disgraceful pay proposals which emerged from national negotiation.

London branches have until today (because we got the proposals a fair bit later!) and we won't have a clear national picture until after tomorrow's meeting of UNISON's National Joint Council Committee.

Indeed, there may not be a clear national picture. As individual branches announce their results to members the diversity of opinion emerges.

I am particularly struck by the difference between our branches in two large and important Northern cities, both of which are influential in their city, their Region and the national Union.

Our Newcastle branch voted by 83% to 17% to accept the pay proposals, on a 23% turnout, whereas our Manchester branch voted by 81% to 19% to reject the pay proposals, on a 32% turnout.

What accounts for this dramatic difference in opinion between branches consisting very largely of similar members doing similar jobs in cities where trade union density is higher than in the south?

A Londoner should address this question with some trepidation of course. From hundreds of miles away I can't see whether there are really significant differences‎ in the general polity or the labour movement between the North East and North West which might account for this striking disparity - but I don't think there are.

The difference must be, I think, to do with how the Union engaged with its members during the process of consultation. The Newcastle branch did not make a recommendation, whereas the Manchester branch recommended rejection.

UNISON branches have the right to make their own recommendations in such an exercise, as they may determine - and long may that remain so. My purpose in making this observation is not so much to criticise the decision of the Newcastle branch (with which I obviously disagree) as to observe its consequences.

When consulted on pay proposals in the absence of a clear recommendation from their union, members will, in the majority observe a fait accompli, their acceptance of which is almost assumed.

When consulted with a clear recommendation, which is explained and campaigned for, members will see that they have a choice - that this need not be a fait accompli and that their trade union has within its ranks people committed to fighting for a better deal.

The difference between these two cities is that in Manchester the union branch showed leadership - exactly the same leadership which the majority of the National Joint Council Committee refused to show on 9 October.

This comparison also shows that the Leader of the Labour Group on the Local Government Association knew full well what he was doing when he wrote to our General Secretary ahead of that meeting and demanded that there be no recommendation to reject the pay proposals - just as the General Secretary knew what he was doing when he communicated the ultimatum and the majority of voting members knew what they were doing when they capitulated to it.

UNISON's national leadership went into this pay consultation on the basis of having made a promise to the employers that leadership was the one thing that they would not show.

I hope that tomorrow will show more Manchester and less Newcastle‎ in the aggregate results - but whatever those results, this pay consultation poses the question of leadership in our trade union more starkly than at any point in our 21 year history.

I intend to seek re-election to our National Executive Council and hope for the widest unity of all those who deplore the disgraceful conduct at the top of our trade union.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

On the Association of Somerset Inseminators

The website of the Government’s Certification Officer repays the occasional visit. Last month the annual list of registered trade unions was published, giving information about every trade union which has asked to be listed.

Before making any other observation, I wish to pay tribute to the five (yes, 5) members of a small, but doubtless perfectly formed, trade union with a name which must surely have originated as a toungue-twister – The Association of Somerset Inseminators (ASI).

It is reassuring to know that, in an age dominated by giant trade unions often distant from their members, the steady hands of the diligent members of the Association are protected by their General Secretary – and that there can be a trade union with both zero administrative expenses and reserves equivalent to almost one hundred times the annual income.

At the other end of the scale, as at 31 December 2013, UNITE had 1,405,071 members, of whom 1,134,320 were contributing and UNISON had (at 31 December 2013) 1,282,560 members, of whom 1,266,750 were contributing (so that whereas UNITE had 122,511 more members than UNISON, UNISON had 132,430 more paying members than UNITE).

It would (of course) be unbelievably crass to observe that the sort of competition about size that one sees from time to time between the General Secretaries of the two largest trade unions would probably not impress the experienced members of the Association of Somerset Inseminators. I won’t dwell on this point.

UNITE’s problems with non-contributing members recently contributed to a finding against them by the Certification Officer in a case brought by defeated General Secretary candidate Jerry Hicks. Although most of the complaints brought by Jerry Hicks (relating to the last election in which he came second to Len McCluskey) were dismissed, the Certification Officer found that the Union was failing in its duty to keep its membership records up to date by not lapsing members in arrears of subscriptions.

The Certification Officer also found that the Union had subsequently taken action to resolve this – but the case highlights the dangers posed for our trade unions by the pernicious Part Three of the Lobbying Act – which introduces new requirements for the independent auditing of the accuracy of our membership records.

There can be little doubt that those provisions, had they been in force at the time of the last UNITE General Secretary election, could have been used by any mischievous employer to mount legal challenges to industrial action ballots by that union.

There is still time to respond to consultation on how the Government should implement these provisions – and if Labour politicians could stop squabbling and fight to win the General Election perhaps we won’t have to suffer from them.

Elsewhere in the reports published by the Certification Officer one can find that the 2012 accounts of the Society of Union Employees (SUE) the non-TUC trade union to which a minority of UNISON employees belong, were qualified by their auditors because of the practice of one cheque signatory signing blank cheques. UNISON Branch Officers taken to task for the same undesirable practice may wish to take note!

One can also find out that the pitiable “Social Workers Union” created by a the British Association of Social Workers (and which all members of that Association are eligible to join) still fails to attract the majority of BASW members. UNISON remains the organisation for social workers who want a trade union – though UNISON activists must be alert to the importance of ensuring that our trade union attends to the views and interests of our members.

It is also worth noting that the grandly titled Industrial Workers of the World have 750 members, but none of these are in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or “elsewhere abroad” – giving a peculiarly domestic spin on international syndicalism. In another part of our marvellously diverse trade union movement, the considerably smaller Association of Local Authority Chief Executives (ALACE) suffered a 6.8% decline in membership during 2013.


All of which observations probably only go to reinforce the views of some regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Cynic) that my blogging is no more than a non-bovine equivalent to the necessary prerequisite to the work of the admirable ASI.