Thursday, April 17, 2014

UNISON must focus on the fight against the pay freeze


With consultation on the employers’ miserly pay offer to local government workers formally drawing to a close today in many branches it is clear that there will be a large majority to reject the offer and that we have no choice but to press ahead with a ballot for strike action. As I have argued in the past, it is only through national strike action that local government workers ever reverse the tendency for our earnings to fall behind the average increases across the economy.

The turnout in the consultative ballot will be lower than we would wish, and will highlight the enormous organising and campaigning challenge with which we will present ourselves by embarking upon the unavoidable strike ballot. It is to these challenges which activists must turn our attention, as we must consider how to use the elections taking place in many local authorities to our advantage.

It’s also vitally important that our Health Conference voted for an industrial action ballot. Health workers face a wholly unacceptable attack on living standards which compounds the impact upon their working lives of inadequate funding and impossible workloads. It’s good to hear that delegates at Health Conference were   united in their support for action – and we need to consider the possibility of coordinated action between our two largest sectors (in health and local government).

My dear friends and comrades at the UNISON Active blog give a fair report of the debate, marred only by knee-jerk hostility to those they describe as the “ultra-left” who “embroiled the Conference in a row with the Standing Orders Committee.” From what I saw from the gallery on Monday afternoon, it was the large majority of health delegates who disagreed with their Standing Orders Committee (SOC), and who then showed the wisdom not to pursue this disagreement. The role of our SOCs must be to facilitate our democracy and listen to our delegates.


We need a focus on the fight to defeat the Tory pay freeze rather than internal squabbling – but the choice about this is in the hands of those fair-weather friends of trade union democracy who like to demonise dissent and mistake critical thinking for disloyalty. Drop all this nonsense about biennial Conferences and branch elections comrades and focus our fire on the Tories and the fight against the pay freeze!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A healthy Conference

I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend UNISON Health Conference as a visitor, however briefly, to hear the debate on staffing numbers. It is a disgrace that committed health workers are being put in the position of caring for more patients than it is safe for them to care for, and I was pleased to hear our Head of Nursing express UNISON’s full support for members who refuse to tolerate this danger to staff and patients.

I won’t be around for the fringe meeting of the 4:1 campaign today, where that debate may very well continue. I was very pleased to be able to attend a fringe meeting to mark thirty years of work by Health Emergency and to hear John Lister express the absolute urgency of getting this Tory led Government out before they can complete their destruction of our health service – a discussion to which delegates may return at the Labour Representation Committee fringe meeting this evening.

It was good to hear of the constructive work done in the past between Health Emergency and UNISON, including in the Greater London Region – and to see an old friend, Geoff Martin, whose presence was a reminder of what our Region has achieved.

This morning the delegates at Conference will be debating pay (if they can resolve a difference of opinion between the floor of the Conference and the Standing Orders Committee (SOC), who were referred back more than once to consider a “grouped” debate between motions which (according to SOC) are counterposed). I hope that  delegates at our Health Conference are enabled to make a strong statement of opposition to the pay freeze. 

Good luck and best wishes to all delegates at Health Conference!

Defend UNISON Democracy

‎Below is the text of a statement being circulated by a number of members of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) in order to encourage branches to respond to an urgent process of consultation agreed last week by the NEC.


Defend UNISON democracy.

 

We, the undersigned NEC ‎members, oppose a series of Rule Amendments which have been proposed for discussion at our Conference in June as we believe they would undermine UNISON democracy.

 

The Rule Amendments in question are numbers 4, 7, 8, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27 and 28. All of these rule amendments seek to reduce the frequency of aspects of our trade union democracy (at national, regional and branch level) from annually to biennially (every two years).

 

We recognise that branches need support to enable the attendance of delegates at Conferences. We believe that it is important that there is no reduction in the frequency with which UNISON members can hold to account those elected to represent our interest.

 

The majority of our NEC colleagues have agreed to defer taking a policy position on these motions to allow for (very swift) consultation with Regions and Service Groups. 

 

We believe that this year's UNISON Conference should focus on mobilising our members to fight the Government and employers on pay, jobs and conditions - and not on a destructive internal argument provoked by an attack on our union democracy.

 

So that our NEC colleagues can be persuaded to take the positive step of opposing these reactionary, right-wing rule amendments (to enable our Conference to focus positively on the interests of our members and the organisation of our Union) we call upon all branches of UNISON to agree motions along the following lines for submission to their Region and Service Group (copied to appropriate NEC members);

 

"UNISON Democracy

 

This branch opposes any suggestion that any aspect of our trade union democracy should be moved to a less frequent cycle. This should be addressed by the branch funding review.

 

We believe that the democratic accountability of UNISON representatives at every level is essential to the effectiveness of our elected representatives, and that any reduction of the frequency with which such accountability takes place would weaken our trade union.

 

We also believe that in 2014 our priority should be to mobilise and coordinate our members to fight for their interests, and that our Conference should be dominated by this issue and not internal issues.

 

We therefore call upon the NEC to oppose any suggestion that there should be any reduction in frequency (from annually to biennially) of Conferences or of Regional or branch level elections."

 


April Ashley, Dave Auger, Tomasa Bullen, Helen Davies, Suzy Franklin, Bernie Gallagher, Paul Holmes, Helen Jenner, Diana Leach, Vicky Perrin, Jon Rogers, Tony Wilson

 


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The choice facing UNISON

‎I'll blog a full report from today's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) shortly but my immediate reaction to today's interesting discussions are that we face a clear choice of direction, which will very much determine the nature of our forthcoming Conference in Brighton in June.

There is a positive choice which could be made.

And another choice.

The positive choice would be to focus on mobilising and uniting our members to take action against the attacks we face, including - crucially - the attacks on our living standards through below inflation pay increases.

With our Health Conference set to consider an emergency motion from their Service Group Executive (SGE) recommending action against the Government's response to the already intolerably inadequate recommendation of the Pay Review Body, whilst our local government membership are being recommended to reject an equally inadequate offer, we have the opportunity for UNISON to lead the defence of workers' interests.

If we make the seizing of this opp‎ortunity the focus of our Conference we will not only assume our rightful leadership of the opposition to the Coalition Government, we will also take the course most likely to sustain, and grow, the membership and strength of our Union.

Because, although we are recruiting hand over fist and surviving better than many other trade unions, the trend of our membership (and income) is down rather than up. There is a coincidence of interest between those whose first priority is to sustain the organisation and those of us whose first instinct is to fight to defend members' interests.

We share an interest in taking the positive choice.

‎The other choice - when facing the potential of decline - is to retrench. This other choice is reflected in particular in a series of Rule Amendments from branches who feel defeated and demoralised and who propose moving our Conferences, and our Regional and Branch elections, from an annual to a biennial cycle.

These expressions of despair from elements of the rank and file who feel isolated and exhausted have been seized upon by members of the National Executive who have long hankered after the less frequent accountability which is the experience of members of less democratic trade unions.

Lacking the confidence of their anti-democratic convictions, these individuals argued for the NEC to "defer" taking a policy decision on these proposals in order to consult within the Union. This seemingly democratic proposition won the honest support of others against the opposition of a minority.

If this rushed "consultation" suggests any support for reducing the frequency of any element of our trade union democracy, those NEC members who did not admit today their preference for a less democratic trade union will emerge from the shadows to argue that the NEC should support these reactionary proposals.

If this happens our Conference - which must inevitably spend some of its time on internal matters (such as branch funding) - will become a monumental exercise in navel-gazing, dominated by a set-piece battle between supporters of democracy and those prepared to use a potential financial crisis as an excuse to weaken democratic oversight with which they were never comfortable.

UNISON activists who want our Union to make a positive choice in favour of organisation, activity and growth (rather than a choice to descend into purposeless internal strife) can use the "consultation" which will now take place on the reactionary, right-wing proposals to reduce our democracy to impress upon the NEC majority the sheer idiocy of supporting such wanton defeatism.

Those of my NEC colleagues who honestly and sincerely supported the decision to defer taking a position on these catastrophic rule amendments need to wake up to the choice we face, and to the motives of some of those who seek to steer them.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.


Friday, April 04, 2014

UNISON Health Conference - time to fight on pay?

We’re now past the deadline for Emergency Motions for UNISON Health Conference.

I understand that the Service Group Executive (SGE) are rightly proposing an emergency motion on pay following the Government’s decision not even equitably to apply the real terms pay cut recommended by the Pay Review Body.

I don’t have the wording of the SGE motion (and I’m not sure that in this respect I am necessarily in a different position from all SGE members) but it is clear that UNISON’s Health Conference needs to take a strong position in opposition to the declining living standards of health workers and that this topic warrants debate at Health Conference.

Health activists in UNISON, as much as any other activists, need a network organised independently of (though not in opposition to) our official structures if we are to mobilise our members when we must.

Watch this space.

UNISON National Delegate Conference - what motions should activists prioritise?

It’s ten years since UNISON realised the problems with making the preliminary agenda for UNISON National Delegate Conference available freely online (when a particularly far-sighted South London branch sensibly called for the resignation of then Prime Minister Tony Blair). Nowadays you have to log on as a UNISON member to read the Preliminary Agenda.

It’s important to read the preliminary agenda for several reasons. First, it shows you (to some extent) the 44 submissions ruled out of order, as well as the 159 motions and rule amendments which together made it to the agenda. Only the branches (or other UNISON bodies) moving the “ruled out” business can appeal – and I shall refrain from comment on various issues pending consideration of several appeals.

The preliminary agenda is also the basis for the all-important prioritisation process which I won’t explain in detail as I have done so before. From an activist point of view, prioritisation is absolutely not about simply choosing and prioritising the most important issues.

As I explained back in 2007;
“The most important point to bear in mind about the prioritisation process is that only motions which attract at least one “vote” stand any chance of being debated at Conference. Each Region, the Self-Organised Groups, the NEC etc. get to “vote” for their top twelve motions and top six Rule Amendments.

The top priority is given 12 points, down to the twelfth which gets one point, and then the order of business at Conference is decided by the Standing Orders Committee broadly in line with these preferences. Motions lower down the order of business are available for “reprioritisation” for discussion on Friday afternoon (subject to the Conference not being closed early in error of course!) The reprioritisation process is one of the most democratic features of the Conference (which is why many people in UNISON devoted considerable energy in a doomed attempt to do away with it and are now trying to squeeze it out of existence by timetabling other business on Friday afternoon).

Motions which attract no support from anywhere in the prioritisation process are not available for reprioritisation and so will not be debated (the NEC will determine UNISON policy on any that are not withdrawn after Conference). Just because a motion gets some support in the prioritisation process that is no guarantee that it will be debated (which is why there is a reprioritisation process) – however missing out at this stage ruins the chances that a motion can be debated at all
Where motions have been proposed by Regions, National Self-Organised Groups or the National Executive Council, it is a pretty fair bet that those bodies will be prioritising those motions, so it is only worth branches giving added support to these motions in the prioritisation process either to make a particularly important point, or to try to nudge the issue up the order of business.”

What this means is that it makes little sense for branches to give our top priority to the most important of all motions (say Motion 5 on “Organising in the Fragmented Workforce”) because we can be reasonably certain the NEC will give it a high priority (and can be equally certain that there are many branches who will follow suit).

We need to consider prioritising motions such as Motion 53 on “Defending Trade Union Activists” from the London Metropolitan University Branch, which focuses on the case of my comrade Max Watson (and his fellow UNISON member Jawad Botmeh, and UCU member Steve Jeffreys) – also, in the key debate on branch funding, I would (of course) put in a bid for prioritisation of Lambeth’s Motion 118 which makes the key point that the Union needs to shift resources to its branches.

The life of our trade union is in the rank and file and the branches, and it is there that we are in the front line of attacks from the employer (such as those being experienced by comrades in Barnet). UNISON must be transformed from a national organisation with branches into an organisation of members organised locally from the bottom up, with our UNISON Centre understanding its role as the servant of the local activists who will sustain and develop our trade union over coming years.

What UNISON activists need is a network independent of (though not in opposition to) our formal official structures (hidebound as they are) so that we can share our views on democratic questions such as the prioritisation of Conference motions.


Watch this space.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The appeal on employment tribunal fees

http://www.unison.org.uk/news/unison-announces-appeal-over-employment-tribunal-fees

It's good news that UNISON's appeal against the judgment dismissing our attack on the introduction of employment tribunal fees has been lodged.

The original judgment all but begged for such an appeal if official statistics bore out fears that the imposition of fees would choke off tribunal claims - and then those statistics showed that such fears had (if anything) been understated.

The ability to bring a claim before an employment tribunal is a poor and inadequate opportunity to seek redress for injustice in the workplace. It is, however, the opportunity which workers have.

To put in the way of tribunal complaints fees which are simply prohibitive for many workers was always no more than a transparent attempt to discourage workers from seeking justice.

Win or lose, UNISON's appeal is made on behalf of all workers and, however much we should have no illusions in the efficacy of tribunals in remedying injustice, we must all wish it well.

Lambeth College - no attacks on workers' contracts!

Full respect to members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) at Lambeth College for a solid strike on Tuesday.

The dispute (of which UNISON is also very much a part) concerns the employers’ attempts to drive down conditions of service (initially for new starters).

Lambeth College management apparently fancy themselves as the shock troops for a national assault on conditions of service in the Further Education sector.

It is a crying shame they don’t choose instead to reflect the best traditions of one of the very best localities – and build better public services by working with their workforce (rather than against them).

Trade unionists in Lambeth will always be available to deal pragmatically with employers – but never on the basis of concession bargaining which reduces living standards in an area of great social need.

Senior managers at Lambeth College could seek to build reputations by embarking on a fight which will destroy them – or they could step back and work with the elected representatives of their workforce to really improve education in the borough.

The challenge for them is whether they are all about themselves as individuals or whether (like their workforce) they really care about Lambeth and its people.

Conciliate early. Conciliate often.

Having overcome the trauma of envelope stuffing for the consultative ballot on the local government pay offer (of which more later) I can snatch some moments to blog – and to consider next week’s launch of the new early conciliation from ACAS.

In many ways there is nothing new about pre-claim conciliation, it has been a sensible (and free) step available to employers and employees for the quarter century that I have been using it (and before).

Asking ACAS to help resolve a dispute keeps the work of dispute resolution in the public sector, saves the employer the £350 plus VAT which solicitors charge to tell workers about the rights which a Compromise Agreement signs away and (for UNISON branch activists) avoids the needless form filling associated with a Compromise Agreement.

As of Sunday however, there will be an added benefit to seeking ACAS involvement – if the act from which a tribunal deadline is calculated (such as dismissal) has already taken place then involving ACAS will “stop the clock” for up to 28 days whilst a conciliated settlement is sought.

By the time you get to this point, a conciliated settlement is almost always going to be in the worker’s interests. Trade unions were not created, and do not exist, to give individuals their “day in court” but to organise, and achieve justice, for workers. (“Almost” always because sometimes we are fighting for principles – but usually we’re fighting for recompense).

Of course a conciliated settlement depends upon a realistic offer from the employer – and so “stopping the clock” on a tribunal deadline can helpfully add to the pressure on the employer for such an offer (particularly by keeping them guessing about whether there will be legal support for an eventual tribunal claim).

A shortcoming of our current (unavoidable) approach to tribunal representation (about which I have blogged before ad nauseam) is that it has become easy for experienced employers to work out when we won’t take a claim all the way, with all that implies for their bargaining position in that case.

With early conciliation, from Sunday, if – when you initiate early conciliation – you are within one month of a tribunal deadline the clock doesn’t simply stop. When it starts again you have 28 days to the deadline (even if you had less than that when conciliation started).

UNISON activists will recognise that this is exactly the same minimum period before a deadline by which we are (now) required to get all papers to our Regional office so that support for a tribunal complaint can be considered. At the worst, early conciliation buys time to get the papers in order.

Much better though is the opportunity to negotiate a settlement on the best possible terms before the lawyers tell you that the case won’t be supported. Remember that the employers get the same cautious advice that we do – and are often more afraid of a tribunal claim than you would think if you relied only upon the cautious advice the worker had received.

Lay activists who know the employer with whom they are negotiating are often best placed to get the best deal for members, better than a paid union employee without that continuing relationship, and better than a lawyer constrained to view each case on its individual legal merits, outside of that continuing relationship.

ACAS early conciliation cannot take us back to the 90s, when we were free to take cases on a pragmatic (rather than legalistic) view – but, properly used and understood by confident lay activists with a broad view of our role, it can empower us to do better for workers than we have been doing for some time.

What UNISON activists need is a network independent of (though not in opposition to) our formal official structures (hidebound as they are) so that we can share our practical experience of early conciliation and how to use it to benefit workers.


Watch this space.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Barnet - Not an April Fool

‎Not everything which happens at the start of the "cruellest month" is an April Fool.

In particular, the assault upon Barnet UNISON is no joke.

A madcap Tory-right administration obsessed with privatisation (and facing the possibility of losing control) is lashing out at its most effective opponents.

The imposition of unworkable, ideologically driven, reductions in trade union "facility time" (as advocated by the failed "Trade Union Reform Campaign" on the wilder reaches of the political right) isn't the half of it.

The employer has focused it's attack upon the leadership of Barnet's vibrant and effective UNISON branch (and it must be shaming for the senior officials who are allowing themselves to be used as political tools in this way).

As of tomorrow, in what may be the last weeks of Tory Barnet, the attack moves up a gear - the response to this attack from our movement also needs to step up.

This is a test we must not fail.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Local government pay - reject 1%

http://www.unison.org.uk/news/unison-to-consult-members-over-meagre-pay-offer

The 1% pay offer to local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was entirely predictable (as were the modest additional increases on the lowest pay spine points to keep ahead of the minimum wage).

UNISON has to give a clear lead to members to reject this further real terms pay cut if we are to stand a chance of securing the support of our members ‎for the action which is necessary to force a decent pay rise out of the employers. 
The run up to the 2011 pensions strike demonstrated the capacity of our Union, acting together, to mobilise members for action. ‎We need similar well-resourced determination if we are serious about ending the pay freeze that has been holding down the living standards of our members for years now.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Breaking the Taboo - the failed war on drugs is an issue for the labour movement

http://www.breakingthetaboo.info/

I was pleased recently to see the excellent film, "Breaking the Taboo" which exposes the comprehensive and total failure of the "war on drugs" declared by Richard Nixon and still being fought in spite of overwhelming evidence of its futility.

The showing of the film (which you can find on YouTube and which I thoroughly recommend, was followed by a panel discussion at Komedia in Brighton, in which Green MP Caroline Lucas reported on the success of an e-petition which will now lead to a debate in Parliament‎ on the entirely sensible proposition that the Government should gather and consider evidence on the effectiveness of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

The failed policy of prohibition criminalises those with a health problem (addiction), underpins the business model of organised crime and ruins (and ends) lives. Many UNISON members - and other trade unionists - see the devastating social consequences of the continuing failure of a misconceived policy of repression both in our union work and our working lives.

If we are to shift the United Kingdom in the direction of a progressive policy on drugs we need to move the Labour Party in that direction. I suggest that trade union activists watch the film - and reflect upon what we can do in that cause.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.