Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Stronger UNISON" demonstrate their weakness

You might think that a group of members of our largest public service trade union, organised around support for the well-established leadership of the union, would have a robust self-confidence in their own position.

You might think that when a maverick individual blogger made criticisms of their (almost coherent) “Stronger UNISON pledge” they would be well able to rebut such criticism and would be proud to assert their confident defence of their own position.

You might think almost anything!

Best not though.

The feeble-minded adherents of the confused and confusing “stronger UNISON” pledge have three times deleted a link to an earlier post on this blog when it was posted to their Facebook.

What we can clearly see is that those lay members prepared to subordinate themselves to the (officer-led) “Team Dave”  and their recent electoral misbehaviour are not prepared to engage in dialogue with other lay members.

It is almost enough to make someone want to go into some detail in examining the records of the individuals who are so disrespectful of UNISON members and UNISON democracy.

Perhaps it is more than almost enough.

Perhaps that will be fun?

The status quo in UNISON is over.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Looking back in Lambeth

Next week I shall cease, for the first time in more than twenty six years, to hold a position as an officer of my trade union branch. Since I became Branch Chair of Lambeth NALGO in the autumn of 1990 I have always been part of the leadership of the branch and – since I first took up a position with full-time release in November 1991, I have had just two years “back at work” full time, and two years part-time (on each of the previous occasions, in 1994 and 2006, when I have tried to stand down as Secretary).

This is part of a deliberate process of disengagement from my UNISON responsibilities, which includes my decision not to seek an eighth consecutive term on the UNISON NEC (about which I am grateful for recent kind remarks). If you think I am trying to show people more important than myself that it is possible to plan succession and step back then (I’m afraid) you’re wrong (but I don’t object to the point being made). I am doing this for myself and my life (and in order to have time for those I care for – which includes myself).

To be a proper UNISON Branch Secretary is very much more than a full-time job, and I won’t really have time to take stock and decide what to do next until I have been able to draw breath, but – as the Annual General Meeting approaches inexorably – I cannot avoid looking back over many, often tumultuous, years of local government trade unionism.

I am a little bit more than one year older than the London Borough of Lambeth, which itself came into being in its current form in 1965. I went to my job interview in Lambeth from a picket line in Lewisham, where I was part of the five week long strike over health and safety in the Housing Advice Centre in late 1986. My first year in Lambeth was the year in which Thatcher won her third term in office, leading to spending cuts in local government, disputes within the labour movement and – a little further down the road – politically motivated “witch hunting” of the Labour Left.

Plus ca change.

I am not trying, in this blog post, to write the history of Lambeth Council from the perspective of the workforce over the past thirty years (which isn’t necessarily to say that I won’t ever do such a thing). I’m just reflecting (for my own amusement, which is the only good reason for anyone to blog) on some of the moments which will stay with me from the recent history of trade unionism in Lambeth Council, and from which I should probably try to draw some lessons when I am no longer getting daily requests for representation. Because I am, and have been, a trade unionist, all of these memories are of collective action, in which I have been but one participant;

  • ·         The ten week occupation of the Consumer Advice Centres in 1991, which saved one Centre from closure for several years – this is the sort of effective action, which we cannot even discuss within UNISON in 2017;
  • ·         Six coach loads of NALGO members departing the Town Hall to support the miners in 1992 on an unofficial strike for which we were “repudiated” by NALGO General Secretary, Alan Jinkinson;
  • ·         The “Section 5” report, the Appleby inquiry and the missing twenty million quid – the atmosphere of paranoia (not necessarily unfounded) and chaos which led to the “hung Council” of the mid-1990s;
  • ·         The defeat of 1996, in which workers in the Housing neighbourhoods lost sick pay for the first two days each time they were ill – a setback which it took us five years to reverse;
  • ·         The victory of 1997, when trade union unity successfully defended our Leave Code, our maternity package and our 35 hour week. In the twenty years since we won that fight we have given up none of our conditions of service;
  • ·         The largest privatisation in the history of English local government, also in 1997, which set up the soon-to-fail joint venture company “TeamLambeth”, the first of our many experiences of the failures of New Labour;
  • ·         The victory of the Onibiyo Family Anti-Deportation Campaign and the return of our member Abdul Onibiyo to employment with Lambeth Council following his unjust deportation to Nigeria;
  • ·         The march from Brixton to Trafalgar Square on May Day 1999 in protest at the Brixton bombing, led by a fabulous banner produced by our former Branch Secretary, Ed Hall;
  • ·         The publication, in 2000, of research commissioned by the Council (under pressure from UNISON) which showed that managers acknowledged that the ethnic origin of staff was a key factor in deciding on disciplinary action;
  • ·         Starting the picket line at 2/7 Town Hall Parade, protesting the dismissal of Alex Owolade in 2001;
  • ·         Giving evidence to the Lambeth Community Alarms Inquiry in the Assembly Hall in 2002, criticising the institutional racism of the authority and defending the trade union;
  • ·         Dozens of appearances at the Croydon Employment Tribunal between 1993 and 2006, when UNISON changed our approach, winning many thousands of pounds for trade union members;
  • ·         Hundreds of (disciplinary, grievance, sickness and appeal) hearings advocating for union members over more than twenty five years, in only one of which did “baked bean lasagne” feature as part of a disciplinary charge;
  • ·         More than three hundred meetings of our vibrant, diverse, lively and only occasionally infuriating Branch Committee at only one of which were we visited by a former Regional Secretary of UNISON;
  • ·         Welcoming the family of Jean Charles de Menezes to the branch office in 2005, as we assisted their campaign for justice – as we have stood, on far too many occasions over the years, with those contesting deaths in custody in Brixton and elsewhere;
  • ·         The campaign to give tenants a right to vote on whether or not there would be an Arms Length Management Organisation (which we won) and the fight for a “No” vote which we – so narrowly – lost in 2007;
  • ·         Our fight against the successive waves of cuts and redundancies which we have faced every year since 2010, as the Council workforce has been cut by something like 40%;
  • ·         The tragedy of the “early adopters” of the Cooperative Council, and the damage done to valuable public services, including the One O’clock Clubs, in the name of ill-judged ideology since 2011;
  • ·         The strongest strike action in years in Lambeth to defend our pensions on 30 November 2011 (and my being denounced as a “trade union bully boy” in the media and told off by UNISON) – and then having to campaign against an unsatisfactory settlement;
  • ·         Seeing the Chief Executive run out of a Council meeting after a UNISON deputation opposing race discrimination in the Housing restructure in 2012, leading to an independent investigation and defeating the threat of compulsory redundancies;
  • ·         Marking the demise of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2013 (with a banner and a bottle) – and getting into trouble with UNISON again for doing so;
  • ·         Campaigning for fair pay for local government workers in 2014, only to be presented with a settlement which was worse than the offer against which we had gone on strike;
  • ·         The strike action taken (unofficially in 2015 and then officially) by our members in libraries in defence of public services, which shows what local government workers will need to do in the coming years;
  • ·         The inspirational occupation of Carnegie Library by local people in 2016 – which showed that working class people can still take action even when working class organisations are prohibited from doing so.

I can see that there are a fair few things for me to think about once I have had the opportunity to recover from the impressive hangover which I expect to have after next week’s AGM.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Stronger UNISON pledge and what it really means

A small clique of supporters of UNISON’s current leadership are organising to try to keep UNISON in its current state of lethargy and its downward path under the somewhat implausible slogan “Stronger UNISON” – for the moment this relates simply to a Facebook page which appears largely to be a gurning competition.

However, having served alongside some of those adopting strange expressions on social media in this way, I have to observe that, to their modest credit, on this occasion they have at least tried to express some coherent common purpose, albeit one which depends largely on platitudes and tautology (and reveals more about them than they perhaps intended).

This is the so-called “stronger UNISON” pledge (which ironically – or not - offers nothing whatsoever in the way of suggestions to actually strengthen UNISON) and it has five points. I wouldn’t describe its adherents as Blairites so I suppose this mimicry of New Labour tactics (of five pledges) is less than completely conscious.

The first point is to “put UNISON members first”. At first glance this is platitudinous nonsense, but the subtext, which decries “the demands of any political party or other outside group” demonstrates the underlying red-baiting which is often used (rather as a border collie might be) to shepherd the majority of NEC members into unity.

The second point is to “build a union that looks after you”. This “pledge” might be seen as a bit rich coming from many relatively long-serving NEC members (including at least one former President) particularly since it can be read as suggesting that we don’t already have this – an implied criticism rather more severe than some of those which we on the left might make – but more than that, it reverses a decade of trying to build an organising union.

The third point, my personal favourite, commits signatories to “unite our union and reject the politics of division”, expanding on this with the wonderfully meaningless opposition to “divisive tactics designed to divide us”. This is in fact an expression of the horror of critical thought which is the hallmark of the UNISON Centre (and a vital part of the reason for our current decline).

The fourth pledge, to “fight cuts and austerity” is vitiated by the subtext which commits the signatory only to support “practical means of stopping cuts and austerity” which, coming from those who have opposed the 4 March demonstration in defence of the NHS and have consistently failed to find such “practical means” over recent years, suggests a fight which may entail many retreats (to put it gently).

The fifth pledge, to “grow our union” is no more than any union activist would say – and the subtext suggests that the authors of the pledge have no idea or imagination about how to give effect to this noble objective. It is instructive too that the only one of the five pledges which relates directly to union organising is not only the most vacuous but also the last.

Taken in the round, I would say that this “stronger UNISON” pledge, whilst an attempt to give some semblance of political justification to a group intending really just to keep things as they are, is actually – whether or not this was intended – a truly damning description of its adherents. The order in which they express their goals is both revealing and (to someone as naive as your blogger) quite shocking.

The first and third pledges tell us that signatories are opponents of both critical thought and the organised left. The second pledge tells us that they adhere to a “servicing model” of trade unionism which has, at its heart, the idea that the union is there to do things for workers, rather than enable workers to do things for ourselves.

Only after these key priorities have been expressed do the signatories remember that they ought to express, in the fourth pledge, a purely rhetorical – and practically meaningless – opposition to austerity and, in the fifth pledge, an entirely vacuous and hence utterly worthless commitment to union organising.

Truly those who would put their names to this nonsense deserve only derision from any good trade unionist. The true meaning of the “stronger UNISON” statement is to express unthinking loyalty to a leadership which leads nowhere and an opposition to any and all attempts to achieve change.

That said, after thirteen and a half years service on the UNISON NEC I can say that this is a good effort compared to most of what I have seen from the majority of that body over those years. Keep trying “comrades”.

Or don't.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

UNISON NEC elections - nominate the candidates seeking positive change!

This is one of those blog posts prepared without using UNISON resources, because it addresses the important question of internal UNISON elections – to our National Executive Council (NEC) – and so UNISON resources cannot be used to campaign in the election (that can get people into trouble!)

Diligent readers of this blog will know that your blogger is standing down after what will have been fourteen years on the NEC, having been given time off for good behaviour. In my absence (and I honestly don’t think that this is cause and effect) the rank and file left in the union probably has a good chance of increasing the numbers on the NEC who stand for an effective, campaigning and democratic trade union.

Supporters of all three of the defeated candidates in the last General Secretary election (who between themselves outpolled the successful incumbent) have come together with the shared intention of challenging all those who supported the failing status quo then and continue to do so now. The candidates seeking the necessary change in UNISON are organising under the banner of the UNISONaction Broad Left and the following statement of purpose;
UNISONaction Broad Left - What We Stand For

Over 400 conference delegates attended the launch of the group at National UNISON Conference in June 2016.

The meeting was convened to discuss the lack of effective leadership throughout UNISON at National level in most union structures.
UNISON is meant to be a lay led union but currently the majority of the NEC, most service group national committees and the national Labour Link Committee are dominated by the internal aims of some national officers rather than led to the needs of UNISON members.

This lack of effective leadership is one of the central factors behind the inability of the union to seriously challenge the continued destruction of our public services, the cut in our real earnings of over 25 % in the last 8 years and the escalating attacks on our pensions.

These issues are absolutely central to our members.

Yet even where members voted for action on pay and pensions that action was undermined by prevarication, delay and the overwhelming desire of officers, supported by the majority of the national leadership of our union, to end the disputes at the earliest opportunity rather than seek real improvements for lay members.

That lack of real leadership has cost our members dear.

Activists who seek to challenge this position are increasingly threatened with individual disciplinary action to silence them and warn off others.

Our UNISON democracy is circumvented in some ways and grossly abused in other instances.

UNISONaction Broad Left believes this situation cannot continue and the union needs to be cleaned up.

To do that means electing an alternative leadership throughout our structures.

UNISONaction Broad Left is composed of a wide range of activists of different views on some issues but who are working together to bring about positive change in our union to benefit our members.

Wherever possible UNISONaction Broad Left will seek to get agreed candidates to stand for all national lay posts in future with the aim of electing a new national lay leadership to bring about the changes needed.

We would welcome UNISON activists to join us and we have contact groups in every area which you can be involved in.

All personal contact details will be confidential and kept securely and clearly no UNISON resources will be used in our activity

A national UNISONaction Broad Left site is being developed to update activists and assist in work to replace the majority of our national leadership.

If UNISON is to even try and fight to represent our members interests there is no option but to change our national leadership who year after year have failed our members.

Please consider joining us and playing your part in building a more democratic stronger union and ensure we achieve a national leadership capable of delivering that.
As things stand, it is reported that the following candidates are seeking nomination in the following seats for the National Executive Council elections;
UNISONaction NEC Slates

Service Group
<£9.42 per hour
Kieran Grogan
Janet Bryan


Neil McAllister
Jordan Riviera
Roger Hutt

Sandy Nichol
Kath Owen
Local Govnt
Paul Holmes,

Jane Doolan
Andrea Egan
Paul Gilroy
Police and Justice
Declan Clune (SE)

John Jones

National Seats

Black Members

April Ashley
Hugo Pierre

Young Members
Josie Cartwright
National Disabled  Seat
Roger Lewis (Gt London)
Pam Howard (NW)

Regional NEC Seats


Jonathan Dunning
Pauline (aka Polly) Smith
East Midlands

Gary Padgett

Gt London

Sonya Howard
Helen Davies
Sean Fox


Northern Ireland

North West
Tony Wilson
Evelyn Doyle
Karen Reissmann
Steven North
Natasha Hall

South East

Jacqui Berry
Diana Leach
Dan Sartin

South West

Berny Parkes


Mia Hosling
Mark Evans

West Midlands

Dave Auger
Shazziah Rock
Yorks and Humberside

Greta Holmes
Sarah Littlewood
Adrian Kennett
Vicky Perrin
The online presence of the UNISONaction Broad Left is expected soon and I will post a link here as soon as I can.
In the mean time, UNISON activists who want UNISON to be the better trade union which it has the potential to be should try to get appropriate candidates from the lists above nominated by their branch.
Each branch can nominate for candidates in their own Region, and in any Service Group in which they have members, as well as making nominations for the “national” constituencies for black members, disabled members and young members.
UNISON resources may not be used for campaigning – the election procedures are available online on the UNISON website as is the nomination form (also in word format) (if you are nominating more candidates than can fit on one form you need to complete and submit multiple forms).

Good luck to all those candidates seeking nomination in the hope that they can help UNISON realise its potential!