Sunday, September 21, 2014

UNISON's election challenge

Labour has announced that we’ll increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 if we can get Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street.

The Trades Union Congress agreed Motion 25 (which you can read online here) which called for an increase to £10 an hour (and now, not in 2020).

UNISON is without doubt right to welcome this announcement nevertheless.

The difference which will matter to working class voters in next year’s General Election will not be that between the policy of the TUC and that of the Labour Party, but that between the Labour and Conservative parties.

We need a Labour Government (with apologies to those pursuing other political dreams).

We also need a trade union movement which will make better use of the link with the Labour Party which we (partially) defended.

We cannot afford to repeat the mistake of foolish timidity which meant that we failed effectively to oppose New Labour’s plans for foundation hospitals and tuition fees (thereby helping them to build the bridges over which the Tories have since marched).

This is part of the debate which we need to have, along with a debate about how we mobilise members to fight for our collective interests as workers and how we build our movement in these times.

UNISON has a unique opportunity to engage our members and activists in a debate about how we achieve all our objectives – because we have to have a General Secretary election which must start in the next few months.

The collective challenge which therefore confronts the members of UNISON’s National Executive Council (all of whom have, after all, chosen to put ourselves in this position) is to set out how we will enable this unavoidable election to help us achieve our objectives.

Those of us on the left will then face the challenge of what we do...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Trade union membership - running to stand still?

This week I attended a meeting of UNISON’s National Executive Council’s (NEC) Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee, at which we received information about recruitment into our trade union.

It’s not so much that we are running to stand still in terms of trade union membership in public services at the moment – it’s more like running up the down escalator.

UNISON’s clearer focus on recruitment is having an impact – and that’s not all. It’s not just that (across the whole Union) the recruitment in the three months from 1 March to 31 May 2013 (around the launch of the national recruitment drive) was 27% up on the corresponding three month period in 2012.

That same 27% increase in “joiners” (to use the correct internal terminology) is, coincidentally, seen when you compare the “joiner” numbers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland local government between 1 January and 31 August 2014, compared to a year previously.

The impact of a national pay dispute upon recruitment to the trade union can be fairly clearly seen in the current year’s figures. England, Wales and Northern Ireland (where we are in dispute and have taken strike action), where the figures exhibit this 27% increase. Contrast that with Scotland local government (where we are not yet taking action over pay). In Scotland there was a 4% decrease in joiners in the first eight months of 2014 compared to the corresponding period in the previous year.

I know that colleagues at the UNISON Centre intend to “drill down” into the data in order to look further at the differential recruitment experience between members involved in the pay dispute and those not involved (and that will be most interesting) but a crude assessment of the difference north and south of the border suggests that the 2014 pay dispute has brought a membership increment of perhaps 12,000 members thus far this year (the difference between the actual number of “joiners” in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the first eight months of this year and the number who would have joined had that number declined by the same percentage as it did in Scotland).

This compares with an incremental increase in recruitment of 8,400 (across the whole of Union) comparing the March to May period in 2013 with that of 2012 (and therefore arguably attributable in part to the recruitment drive). This probably shows that, in order to recruit in the current climate we need both a serious subjective focus upon recruitment and an issue-based approach in which the Union is taking up issues of concern to our members and potential members (or engaging in what we old-fashioned types still call “class struggle”).

In fact, we are recruiting well even when compared to the experience of the 2011 pensions dispute. Across UNISON as a whole, we recruited 13% more members in 2011 (when we were fighting for public sector pensions) than we had in the previous year. This impressive increase is dwarfed (proportionately) by the increase seen as result of the local government pay dispute this year (compared to last year).

The difference is that, whereas in 2011, that increase in recruitment meant that we were recruiting more members than were leaving the Union, the 27% increase in “joiners” in local government in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is more than matched by the similar 27% increase in the (larger) number of “leavers” in the same sector as members take redundancy or resign or retire from their jobs and are not replaced.

The increase in recruitment which is the fruit of our energetic approach and our correct focus upon members’ interests is not preventing an accelerating decline in membership in our core areas of organisation.

This is a serious crisis for our trade union.

UNISON needs to be led to inspire our activists to recruit members by fighting the Government and employers. The forthcoming General Secretary election needs to be used as an opportunity to engage our thousands of activists in a debate about how to achieve this.

People won’t keep running up the down escalator indefinitely without some such inspiration.

Building strike action over pay

Following the 68% vote for strike action by UNISON members in the English National Health Service (albeit on a very low turnout) the decision of yesterday’s meeting of the UNISON Health Service Group Executive is not yet on the relevant page of our website. An unofficial report plausibly indicates that four hours of strike action will take place on Monday 13 October. Given that other health unions are involved, an official announcement may await consultation between the unions (following the little local difficulty with the local government dispute earlier in the summer.)

If action does go ahead on 13 October, this will be the day before twenty four hour strike action is planned by UNISON in local government on Tuesday 14 October with the support of UNITE, the GMB and NIPSA in Northern Ireland. Members of lecturers’ union, UCU, in English Further Education will also be striking on that date (although UNISON members in the sector accepted a 1% offer with limited bottom loading, similar to the one rejected in local government). Teachers though will not strike on 14 October.

The Trades Union Congress last week agreed Composite 7 (which you can read here online) and agreed, in particular agreed to call upon the General Council to; “coordinate joint campaigning over pay and pensions across unions representing public sector workers draw up a joint industrial action strategy amongst affiliates, coordinating strike action amongst affiliates who are in dispute with their employers over the course of the next year.”

This would seem to be a tall order given the difficulties of coordinating disputes within one union. It is not just that different sectors are planning action of different kinds on different dates, but that the way we have framed our pay disputes also differ. In the National Health Service we are fighting for “immediate payment of the PRB-recommended 1% on all hourly rates (and the Living Wage of £7.65 per hour minimum)” whereas in local government we are rejecting a 1% offer.

We do not have the level of engagement from our members, enthusiasm for our objectives or unity of purpose and in action which we had in the 2011 pensions dispute (nor are we seeing the same boost to recruitment). The way in which that dispute ended continues to cast its shadow. The timetable for action, leading up to the TUC demonstration on 18 October, is clearly founded on hope for the outcome of the General Election rather more than confidence in our own collective action.

Nevertheless, trade union members need a pay rise – and activists know that we must mobilise members as best we can. Whatever the date chosen for action in health we must do all we can to get members out in both sectors, and across all the unions taking action.

Friday, September 19, 2014

After yesterday - the answer to the "West Lothian question"

UNISON Scotland’s position of neutrality on yesterday’s referendum is arguably justified by a close (55%/45%) rejection of independence.

As an English socialist, I strongly support the Scottish people’s right to national self-determination but am quite relieved that they didn’t use it to consign me to a nation in which political debate was to be between David Cameron and Nigel Farage.


It appears we have to deal with the “West Lothian question”.

I have an answer to that question.


No – I don’t care that the MP for West Lothian might be able to vote about hospital provision in West Bromwich whereas neither she (nor he) nor the member for West Bromwich could vote about hospital provision in West Lothian.

It’s not just that I am much happier that votes should be cast by good socialists like Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, than my own local MP (a Tory) – although I am.

(It does bother me that pathologically loyal Scots Labour MPs forced through foundation hospitals and tuition fees in England at the behest of Tony Blair, even though Labour in Scotland opposed these reactionary measures – but that is a political problem about pusillanimity in the Labour movement and not a national question at all).

More importantly, I won’t waste a moment’s thought on the question of whether or not someone elected by Scots should vote on matters of concern to the English whilst our antiquated constitution includes an entirely unelected House of Parliament.

Unless and until we finally abolish a hereditary and appointed part of our legislature we really would be wasting our time bothering about which elected members should have a say over which parts of the country.

If – like a genuine democracy – we had an entirely elected legislature – we could entertain ourselves with questions about which elected representative could vote about what. For as long as we doff our caps to a system of Government in which accidents of birth or careers of brown-nosing can bequeath a seat in Parliament then I think that the “West Lothian question” is no question at all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

UNISON Active and activists

Some well intentioned souls have kept a blog going (albeit mostly anonymously) nearly as long as I have been bothering you here.

I’ve appreciated sincere flattery for a long time and – in particular – admire their regular publication of poetry. I simply can’t compete.

If we’re going to build the union we need for the twenty-first century then we’ll need skilful use of social media and “t’intraweb” – therefore we need to use the skills even of those who want to be members of a fan club. Except that we need them to get into building the Union (rather than advertising their political allegiance within that union).

I admire the genuine political organisation which inspires the authors of the anonymous blog. 

However the hundreds of thousands of members of our trade union need a rather more sophisticated analysis than that which is offered by those whose only knowledge appears to be that they must be loyal come what may.

UNISON’s leadership has led us to the point at which we now find ourselves. We don’t have to be grateful. They weren’t right (an alternative was offered).

Those of us who understand that the trade union must uncompromisingly be the expression of the class independence of workers (as opposed to the interests of employers) have a serious job of work on our hands. There is a struggle going on of which we must be part.

I reflect that I always wait for those who call themselves “activists” to join the struggle.

Hurry up.

Three Companies Project - a missed opportunity

Today’s meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) finally received a “lessons learned” report from the “Three Companies Project”. This was a project in which UNISON sought to build membership and organisation in three companies (Compass, Sodexho and Aramark) with the assistance of the US trade union the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) who, in their turn, hoped that their relationship with those companies US in t would benefit from our organising efforts in the UK .

It was five years ago that your blogger first expressed interest in the Three Companies Project, asking a few pointed questions (to one of which I did get a prompt response). The timing of the project unfortunately coincided with some controversy involving the SEIU but organising work nevertheless got underway. The end result of the project was that there was no clear benefit to the Union or the workers and no effective financial management of the project (leading to a massive unbudgeted spend, with expenditure incurred, and staff appointed, outside agreed procedures) – this was a consequence of the project having been initiated outside the NEC’s democratic structures for the lay governance of our Union.

Although I am reassured that similar mistakes could not easily be repeated, I think that all trade unions (as political organisations) are vulnerable to the pressure to cut corners in order to deliver what is perceived to be a political priority for the leadership. UNISON can ill afford to waste a million pounds (as we did years before on CareConnect Learning) and members of our NEC need to remain alert in order to scrutinise the conduct of officials.

It is to be hoped that officials never feel that they have to "whistleblow" about such misbehaviour in future.

But if anyone does I’m sure they’ll know what to do.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Solidarity with “Your Choice Barnet” (YCB) care workers

UNISON members employed by "Your Choice Barnet" are striking today in opposition to the imposition of pay cuts caused by outsourcing and underfunding.

The Barnet strikers are setting an example to social care workers throughout the country. Without a concerted fight for decent living standards for care workers we face a future in which social care remains a sector dominated by poverty pay and precarious employment.

UNISON members should send messages of support - and join the picket lines if you can.

Good luck comrades!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, September 07, 2014


The link above (which, in its turn, links to a web address which is no longer active) reminds us all that UNISON's Rules require an election to take place for our General Secretary, since the incumbent's term of office comes to an end at the end of 2015.

This blog currently has a position of "armed neutrality" in relation to the next General Secretary election. ‎Having achieved a historic low share of the vote in such an election I feel free to comment upon future elections without the burden of ambition.

‎However, it is clearly considered rude to refer, within UNISON, to the inevitability of a General Secretary election in the near future. I would therefore be grateful if you wouldn't mention this blog post if talking to anyone in UNISON.

It may be that building an organisation around the suppression of dissent and the promotion of consensus doesn't bring on credible future leaders.

Still, best not mention that.

Move along now.

Nothing to see here.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Trade unions have to be prepared to fight the Tories. - inside or outside of the law

Since I'm unlikely to make it on to UNISON's slimmed-down delegation to the TUC again any time soon (having - as an honest, if not perhaps welcome, remark from a visiting retired member put it the other day - put on weight recently) I find myself following Congress from afar like most activists.

Hence I saw the link above, in which TUC General Secretary, Frances O'Grady makes a compelling case against the attacks on trade union rights which Cameron is preparing for the Tory manifesto.

It's clear that each time we retreat in the face of attacks from our enemies they advance further. Our collective failure to use the strength of our movement against the Coalition Government since 2010 has obviously given them great encouragement.

‎The legal position of trade unions is precarious. Common law doesn't like us - and the Taff Vale judgement expressed the class interests upon which our legal system is based.

‎From 1906 onwards we have pushed the legislature to create for our movement some exemptions from the raw class hatred which English law has for the collective organisation of working people.

Since the 1980s these exemptions have been so constrained as to have become almost worthless - and the enforcement of anti-union legislation has been very carefully placed in the hands of those who have a material interest in the financial well-being of our unions as institutions (over and above an interest in the financial well-being of the workers who created those institutions).

If a future Tory Government legislates so that lawful strike action becomes an impossibility we shall have to consider strike action nonetheless.

If there are those whose salaries and pensions currently depend upon our movement, and who would not, in those circumstances, support the taking of such risks, then I have a suggestion.

Go and get another job.

We have to be prepared for struggle. This awful century is set to get worse and we can't afford to be misled by people who won't fight when we have no alternative.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The complexity of unity and the problem of its absence

This link is to the blog of Martin Powell-Davies, a London member of the Executive of the National Union of Teachers and a critic, from the left, of the left-wing leadership of that Union.

I post the link not because I would necessarily share Martin's criticisms of that leadership, but because it's important to be aware of the news which he reports from today's meeting of the NUT Executive, about which I certainly share his disappointment.

By 26 votes to 12, the Executive agreed not to call their members out on strike on Tuesday 14 October alongside members of UNISON, GMB and UNITE in local government.

You can read‎ from Martin on that link the arguments which persuaded the majority of the Executive not to call for action alongside us on 14 October. Whilst I regret the conclusion arrived at, I think it is for members of the NUT to judge those arguments first and foremost.

There can, however, be no doubt that the decision‎ of the NUT Executive makes it more difficult for our action on 14 October to make the impact we seek, and more difficult for us to win members to taking that action. The hand of those who would like to avert further strike action has been strengthened.

There is no union whose members are eager to take strike action over pay - but there is also no union which ought not to encourage its members to take action if they want a fair pay increase. Only national strike action can possibly deliver that outcome for local government workers - and teachers are not in a different position.

The practical failure of the union leaderships to coordinate real action, on the eve of the Trades Union Congress at which delegates from all unions will vote (once more) for such coordination reflects the division and confusion which has been one of the regrettable hallmarks of our movement since the unity of the pensions dispute was broken almost three years ago.

Rank and file activists should also reflect upon our failure to create and sustain a genuine cross-union rank and file network. This is (sadly) an absence which cannot be corrected by initiatives promoted by one or other political party. We don't need rallies - we need to rebuild informal networks to try to avoid further division.

UNISON activists in local government must redouble our efforts to persuade members to take action on 14 October - ‎and UNISON still has the opportunity to unify the action of our members in both health and local government.

Building unity is a complex and difficult task. As rank and file activists we currently lack the tools to do this work, however, we have no option but to keep trying.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.