Thursday, February 19, 2015

UNISON NEC - the other report

The link above is to the official report of yesterday's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC). 

It rightly focuses on the two most important topics which we discussed.

First, the coming General Election is perhaps the most important in a generation offering as it does a choice between the intensification or (modest) amelioration ‎of the current assault upon working people, our trade unions and our public services. The choice is simple for trade unionists. We need the Tories out and - everywhere other than a handful of constituencies - this means we must encourage a Labour vote.

Secondly, the current ("TTIP") trade negotiations represent a moment of choice between democracy and corporate sovereignty which may shape the future for another generation. UNISON has played a significant role, as an important part of the global trade union movement, in shaping and mobilising opposition to the corporate agenda being promoted by the USA and the Eurocrats.

In both of these defining struggles of our time UNISON stands on the side of our people against the ruling class.

Whilst many of us may query how firmly we have stood our ground in this Parliament (retreating too soon over pensions in 2011 and thereafter forever failing adequately to sustain mobilisation over pay), right here and now, UNISON is on our side in the run up to the General Election and in trying to influence the trade negotiations. It is right that we should highlight this now, whatever other criticisms we may have.

The brief "official" report can never cover the whole story of an NEC meeting - and that may be the reason why a lengthy discussion about the Government's attack upon civil service trade unionism (and related issues) is referred to only most indirectly.

There was a substantial amount of (at times) heated discussion, much of which was considered and informed (although there are, regrettably, always dunderheads prepared to denounce even the most measured criticism as disloyalty). All participants in this discussion shared an opposition to the Government's withdrawal of "DOCAS" (deduction of contributions at source) in the civil service - a transparent device to bankrupt the PCS union, which has been among the most trenchant critics of this most reactionary Government.

‎However, some NEC members were concerned that PCS might not feel supported by UNISON, having expressed concerns about UNISON seeking to organise in the civil service. I was one of those members.

Other NEC members were concerned that some PCS officials were making unjustified and intemperate criticisms of UNISON at meetings of PCS members, and that this was hardly conducive to unity in opposition to the Government.

I will blog further comment about this debate in due course, since it raises questions both about the approach of the two trade unions and about the boundaries and demarcation lines between union spheres of interest (which are raised also by the attempts of a teaching union to organise support staff).

These are important questions which call for serious discussion - but there must be clarity that the main enemy is the Tory Government and that the entire trade union movement should rally round the civil service trade unions who face a particular threat to their very existence at this time.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Great White Elephant on the Euston Road

‎Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) who have been disappointed by my recent silence (attributable to the volume of work some of us are facing at branch level) will note that - in the run up to tomorrow's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) I am blogging again with some enthusiasm.

I have been struck by the fact that tomorrow's (or - as I look at the time - today's) meeting will take place at the nearby headquarters of our sister union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Once more we find that the UNISON Centre cannot accommodate the ruling body of the Union which gives it its name.

I was on the NEC in 2004 when we voted to build the new UNISON Centre, and through all the years in which we received progress reports. I supported the decision and the process at the time.

With hindsight, I was wrong.

UNISON is saddled with an enormous building, standing on expensive land, which we fail to utilise effectively , having left two entire floors empty for four years.

As an organisation we have lacked even the wit or coherence to compel our London Region to occupy that empty space rather than squander the money of our low paid members paying rent elsewhere.

Such is our organisational commitment to this expensive white elephant that we compromise our commitment to equality rather than admit its shortcomings.

Since the right wing of our trade union (and their bizarre hangers-on in the wreckage of what was once the "Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)") are determined to use the occasion of our declining income as an opportunity to attack our union democracy by focusing on the cost of Conferences, it is about time that real trade union activists (and for that matter real Marxists) named the shame of the waste of members' money that is the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Priorities for public service unionism

‎In what we all hope are the last weeks of a Government which has shown a more consistently visceral hostility to trade unionism than any of its predecessors since the early nineteenth century, it would be wrong to think that they have taken their foot of the pedal (or, as they like to think, our throats).

Our brothers and sisters in the civil service trade union, PCS, face an almost existential threat from the arbitrary and unilateral withdrawal of "check-off" (or deduction of contributions at source, DOCAS) - the time-honoured system whereby workers pay union subscriptions by deduction from our salary, just like we pay our pensions, tax and national insurance.

It is a testament to the effort of PCS activists that, in a few short months, they have now signed 100,000 members up to the alternative route to paying subscriptions by direct debit (as illustrated by the link above). However, there can be little doubt that this politically inspired assault upon the right of workers to choose what to do with their own earnings will cost PCS thousands of members (and will cost those workers the protection of trade union membership).

UNISON members and activists (and NEC members and national officials!) need to recognise that whole swathes of our membership are as vulnerable to such an attack as are our civil service comrades. The health service could go the way of the Home Office by administrative decision - and local authorities could be constrained by statute from permitting check-off within a couple of years of a General Election.

Therefore enlightened self-interest, as much as solidarity, dictates that tomorrow's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) must make a clear and unequivocal statement of support for PCS. I hope to blog tomorrow about how this came to pass.

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UNISON standing up to racism

It's good to see UNISON's high profile support for the forthcoming demonstration against racism, in London on 21 March. 

As the continuing crisis unleashed by the banking collapse continues to work itself out through a brutal assault on what is left of the welfare state, racism is on the rise in many European countries and beyond.

The trade union movement has to be the rock upon which the waves of reaction break - at least we have to try. The question of racism - and of opposition to racism - will be important in the General Election.

And beyond.

Therefore we need to consider how this question is debated at UNISON's Conference. I hope that My NEC colleagues‎ will consider submitting a motion which addresses this question (even if that means changing some of our minds tomorrow).

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Register the missing voters - mobilise our members to vote

This morning's meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Council has just agreed a worthy motion on mobilising for the General Election.

The first step must be to encourage voter registration given that a million voters have (as the Hope Not Hate survey to which I've linked above shows) ‎dropped off the electoral register in the past year (due to the switch from household to individual registration).

Beyond a voter registration drive we need to encourage our members to vote‎ and - as a thorough presentation from Assistant General Secretary, Liz Snape, advised delegates - our members will be more receptive to a message which is hostile to the current Government than to attempts to talk up the offer from Labour.

A Government of the right after May would pose a threat to ‎trade union organisation in the UK beyond anything we have seen before. Mobilising our members to make an informed choice in the election is rightly the highest priority for the next three months.

Whatever the result of the election we will need a quorum of delegates present at the May Regional Council to discuss how we respond to whatever world we will face after the General Election.

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Monday, February 02, 2015

The perils of blogging...

In the eight and a half years in which I have been interrupting your blameless surfing of the internet with my meanderings I have sometimes been made aware of the perils of blogging.

I have been warned off saying what I think by the leadership of my own trade union (and - less frequently - by other members of the same trade union).

I don't think though that I have ever been quite as gratuitously rude about fellow UNISON activists as was the unfortunate author of the link above.

Mind you, I was never a Liberal Democrat who joined the Labour Party in order to express support for the Iraq war. (Go back to the link above and ask it's author what he has to say about that).

Perhaps if I had such a confusing political heritage I could have found some way to describe John Burgess, Secretary of our highly regarded Barnet branch (and candidate for Regional Convenor) as both "ultra-left" and "evil."

On the other hand, having a - more or less - functioning brain, I doubt I could ever find a way to such a childish description of a fine and respected trade union activist.

‎Were I a Regional Finance Convenor - and UNISON NEC member - who owed my position entirely to the support of paid officials of our trade union I suppose that - as much as I would expect the continuation of such inappropriate patronage - I might try not to make my subordination so obvious.

But then not everyone has any decency.

And the author of the blog post to which I link above has none at all.

To be clear.

This blog post has (in one way or another) referred to two UNISON Branch Secretaries called "John" (with an "h").

Of the two there is one deserving of respect.

John Burgess is an exemplary trade union activist whose vigorous campaigning in recent years has led our movement.

The other one?

He isn't even worth naming.

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seeing through "transparency"

Tomorrow is the last date by which local authorities must publish certain data as specified in the Local Government Transparency Code.

"Transparency" is one of those words (like "modern" or "flexibility") which its users often intend to be laden with positive value judgments.

Who, after all, could be opposed to transparency?

(I suggest purchasers of toilet doors or bathroom windows?)

"Transparency" in Coalition Britain is all about a series of two way mirrors - the private sector must be allowed to see into the public sector‎ - but if we stare back we see only ourselves.

Local authorities are required to publish all manner of information - but the private corporations which rake in profits from an ever increasing share of public expenditure are not.

Whilst it is impossible to disagree that we should know about all those whom our local authorities pay more than one hundred thousand pounds a year (a sum beyond the maximum anyone could ever really need) - a genuine believer in freedom of information would think that all data on earnings of the high paid (in the private as well as the public sector) should be equally accessible. That's not our Government's view.

Having established the principle that local authorities (already the part of the public sector to whose information the public had the greatest access) should publish more information, last year the Government required that - from tomorrow - they publish information about trade union "facility time."

‎The purpose of this requirement is - appropriately enough - quite transparent. 

The Coalition Government wants to bludgeon ever more local authorities into the same single-minded drive to reduce time spent on trade union duties‎ that has been embarked upon in some Government departments.

Having failed to persuade enough local authorities to join their crusade against workplace trade unionism through force of argument, the Government is hoping that the most reactionary elements of public opinion, whipped up by the wannabe Tory MPs of the so-called "Taxpayers Alliance" will provide some helpful "argument of force."

The fact that a Tory/Lib-Dem Government has to circumvent even authorities controlled by their own parties in pursuit of this purely ideological goal demonstrates clearly that it has nothing to do with improving public services, or employee relations, or even with saving money.

The Government's motives are themselves transparent. First, they hope to find a stick with which to beat some Labour authorities (perhaps with the added bonus of provoking some Labour-union dissension). Secondly, they want to weaken and disrupt workplace trade union organisation as an end in itself (and regardless of the consequences for public services, employee relations or even local authority budgets).

The Coalition can find many allies in this cause from the ranks of simple-minded conservatives, for whom the conclusion of the Donovan Commission that shop stewards were "lubricants" rather than "irritants" in industrial relations always seemed like Bolshevism. 

The idea that a worker might spend the whole of their working week representing their colleagues rather than doing "their job" is anathema to members of a Government who represent the interests of those who have never had, or ever needed, such a job. To the Eric Pickles of this world it seems like Communism that people such as your blogger (a "full-time" lay trade union Branch Secretary) should exist.

In fact, the concentration of trade union duties in the hands of a smaller number of elected representatives, therefore spending a larger proportion of their time on such duties, can be as much in the interests of sensible employers as of the workers and their trade union.

Unless we are going to abandon all hope that workers should have an expectation of dignity and justice in the workplace we need to retain at least the minimal rights we have at present. These include the right to time off work for our elected representatives to carry out their trade union duties. The sensible management of such time off includes full and part-time release for senior elected representatives whose duties are such that they would otherwise spend a great deal of their time asking for such time off on a daily basis.

‎The idea that trade union representatives should have reasonable paid time off work was commonplace when we - trade unions - were commonplace. As we have retreated so the popular support for such common sense has retreated.

A hostile Government is trying to mobilise right-wing populism against us under the banner of "transparency".

All that is transparent here is their hostility to the only movement which could prevent them from following through their all-out assault upon our welfare state and civil liberties.

We need a change of Government, but we also need a change of approach from the leadership of our trade unions if we are to confront the hostility to our very existence of which this aspect of the "Local Government Transparency Code" is merely a recent expression.

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Greece and the 1953 agreement on German debt

Generally speaking this is a niche blog of interest to the handful of us who are fascinated by what is happening in our workplaces (particularly in the public sector) and to our trade union and labour movement.

However, our local action takes place in a global context and – just now – it is impossible not to be concerned with the plight of the Greek working class and their Government.

If the Syriza-led Government can achieve positive results for the workers who elected it it will embolden all those of us seeking an alternative to austerity. The finance ministers of the European Union don’t want to see that.

Yet a little over sixty years ago a debtor nation at the heart of Europe saw more than half of its debt written off and – as some of the more insightful citizens of that nation acknowledge – that was the foundation of the postwar German “economic miracle.”

The British negotiators in the 1950s wanted to see maximum repayment of German debt, but the United States got their way, facilitating the rebuilding of the German economy both as a market and as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

From the point of view of the capitalist economy, writing off the debts of debtor nations can be a very rational way to support economic development (and with it opportunities for the profitable investment which capitalists always seek).

The writing down of German debt in 1953 was a largely forgotten moment in the development of the post WWII “long boom” which saw unprecedented stability and growth.

Further debt write offs in the here and now (whether for the Greeks, or other, far poorer nations) could easily be accommodated within the framework of a global capitalist system.

Indeed such an approach might even stimulate trade and growth far more effectively than the global elite’s preferred route of continuous deregulation (which is clearly very unpopular in Europe).

However, capitalists (and their political hangers on across all political parties) are interested in their own power and control rather more than the general welfare of society as a whole.

This is particularly true given that the circumstances of the post WWII long boom were also circumstances in which the share of wages in the national income grew alongside the strength of the labour movement.

A route out of austerity which included writing down Greek debt would make perfect economic sense, but less political sense for an elite which is wedded to shrinking the state and growing inequality, since it would empower those of us who will stop them.

That the guiding forces of global capitalism reached a different conclusion in relation to Germany in 1953 than that which they prefer for Greece in 2015 is not due to the nations involved but to geo-political circumstances.

Sixty years ago the elite feared a global alternative to capitalism and was willing to concede a welfare state, and give ground to our movement, in the face of such a threat. Today it fears no such challenge. We need to find a way to reawaken their fear.

Therefore, we, in all the other advanced capitalist countries in particular, have an obligation to express our solidarity with the Greek workers and their Government, to expose the fallacy of the arguments of “austerians” and to remember 1953 and the agreement on German debt.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Civil service trade unionism under attack - public service trade unionists should respond

The Tories (supported by their Lib Dem hangers on) are rehearsing - in the civil service - for the onslaught they intend to unleash upon all public sector trade unionists should the electorate leave them in charge of 10 Downing Street this year.

The removal of "check-off" (the efficient and well-established process whereby union subscriptions are deducted from pay) seeks to starve the union of resources and divert union activists from all other work into ensuring the union's survival. At the same time management in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have been exposed actively trying to undermine the union.

It would be a serious error to think that this could not happen elsewhere - indeed everywhere - in the public sector under a Government with sufficient determination.

I once witnessed the General Secretaries of UNISON and PCS jointly signing an agreement on working together. 

That came to nothing - but it is not too late for UNISON to mobilise our members in support of our civil service colleagues.


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