Tuesday, January 27, 2015

NHS strike suspended - what are the lessons from local government about consultation?


Ahead of Thursday's planned strike action, the NHS trade unions (led by UNISON) have suspended that and any further action whilst members are consulted on an offer which our Head of Health describes thus;

"This isn't a great offer".

At least it is an offer (and not just a set of proposals...)

I'll wait to hear from colleagues in health before commenting further on the detail of the offer itself, but I will express the hope that, in consulting members on the offer we learn some of the lessons from the recent local government pay dispute (which has prompted a Special Service Group Conference).

First, it's weak to consult members without a clear recommendation, whether to accept or reject, from the lay Committee to whom the negotiators are accountable.

Secondly, branches - and Regions - must be permitted to make, and campaign for their own recommendations.‎ This is a requirement of our Rules, endorsed by our National Delegate Conference.

Thirdly, if the negotiators have, and wish to express, an opinion about the scale of action likely to be required to secure an improved offer this should have a transparent basis in evidence.

I hope that, whatever the views of the Health Service Group Executive, and of the membership in health, UNISON can avoid some of the least attractive features of our recent local government fiasco.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

An alternative to austerity


Greece may have just elected an anti-austerity Government, but in the UK we have rather fewer Parliamentarians prepared to commit to oppose the "shrink the state" dogma which dominates the rest of Europe.

It is - therefore - welcome that fifteen of our Labour MPs have nailed their colours to the anti-austerity mast with the statement linked to above. Those in a position to do so should lose no opportunity to articulate the viable alternative to today's politics of despair.

‎The politics of austerity, to which Eds Miliband and Balls have committed our Party, drive the economy down - whereas investment in productive capacity and public services would generate income from which debt could be repaid.

This sensible alternative - which is reflected in the policies of our trade unions - is that advocated by the 15 left-wing MPs in the statement above. Trade unionists need to educate ourselves so that we understand why cutting public services is NOT the answer to deficit and debt, can explain this to our members and lobby the politicians whose views we need to change.

The Left platform being organised by John McDonnell, MP, on Saturday 7 February in London is a timely opportunity to develop our arguments for an alternative to austerity.

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The Greek elections and UK trade unions


The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (no less) posted the blog post to which I link above early last week in anticipation of what has now come to pass, Syriza's decisive election victory.

I'm not in Greece, nor am I an expert commentator on Greek politics, but - like any trade union activist in the UK - I welcome the rejection of austerity by the Greek people. The Greek decision seems to expose the really fundamental dividing line in global politics today (which the campaigning around TTIP also illuminates). That is the dividing line between democracy on the one hand and the interests of capital on the other.

‎Frances O'Grady rightly focuses upon the importance of our showing solidarity with the people of Greece at a time when Europe's financial and political elite will try to compel the Syriza Government to continue the troika's assault upon the interests of the Greek working class.

We must do all that we can to put pressure on our Government to respect the decision of the Greek people whilst at the same time seeking to draw relevant lessons from the Greek experience in the urgent discussion which we must have with our members about the political action we should take to promote our interests.

It would be overly simplistic (and Anglo-centric) to try to "read across" from Syriza's triumph (and the collapse of PASOK) to draw electoral conclusions for May 2015 - but the emergence of a Government of the anti-austerity left, which stands neither in the tradition of social democracy nor in the tradition of Leninism, does suggest that we all have some rethinking to do.

"Business as usual" for the leadership of the Labour Party and the trade unions no longer exists.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Solidarity with Charlotte Monro


Former Chair of Waltham Forest Health branch, Charlotte Monro, is in the employment tribunal this week pursuing her claim for unfair dismissal for having been dismissed for her trade union activity.

Last year's UNISON National Delegate Conference agreed a motion from ‎London Metropolitan University branch affirming the support which UNISON must continue to give to victimised activists.

Episodes of victimisation do not arise primarily from the malice of individual employers (though this can be a factor) nor from the particular excuses which such employers find to justify themselves (though activists have always to be as cautious as possible).

Victimisation intensifies‎ at a time when employers are under pressure to cut or privatise jobs and services. In these circumstances, the trade union can (and should) be an obstacle to these detrimental changes - and managers can seek to remove the more persistent of such obstacles.

Independent trade unionism - giving voice to the interests of workers (which are separate from, different to and quite often in conflict with those of employers) - is the only effective guarantee of dignity and justice in the workplace, and that guarantee is worthless when employers can get away with victimising activists.

All UNISON members - and all trade unionists - should send solidarity to Charlotte Monro, whose case shows the foolishness of those who believe in partnership and collaboration with employers.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Unite the rank and file in the UNISON NEC elections to reclaim the union

It's commonplace on "the left" to remark that our trade union organising must be about more than just electing individuals to positions.

And of course it must.

What our union needs most of all is effective networking between activists to maximise support for those at the sharp end (Barnet branch spring to mind just now).

However, it isn't irrelevant who is elected to our Union's leading Committees - and (as nominations for the NEC elections are now open) we need to focus upon securing nominations for socialist candidates.

For me that does mean supporting comrades with whom I have profound political disagreements (as they do with me). I don't share the antipathy to the Labour Party exhibited by my friends in the Socialist Party (and I think they are wrong to keep pursuing the mirage of a "new workers' party" after two decades of dismal failure). Nor do I support the politics of comrades who retain their membership of the Socialist Workers Party (some of whose leadership might be more at home supporting the new "Justice for Men and Boys" party than the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).

However, we shouldn't vote, in union elections, simply on the basis of Party labels - and there are many good activists in each of those socialist organisations whom I would support as good trade unionists notwithstanding political differences.

What we need is more elected lay activists prepared to challenge and hold to account our national leadership and officials. My years of service on the UNISON NEC have taught me that the majority of my fellow NEC members have consistently misunderstood what it is to be loyal to the Union.

The majority of NEC members plainly believe that such loyalty requires uncritical support for the leadership. In fact loyalty to our members demands constant criticism of our leaders - as the Special Conference of our Local Government Service Group in a few weeks will again demonstrate.

It was our leadership, after all, who - a little over three years ago - took the critical decision to withdraw from the dispute over public service pensions without a victory. That decision, and its consequences,‎ have shaped the remainder of this Parliament (and in many ways account for the utter failure of trade union opposition to the pay freeze). NEC members who excused, applauded and apologised for that decision have little to offer our future.

Those candidates seeking nominations to stand in the NEC elections under the banner of "reclaim the union" are the choice of those of us who seek to challenge, change and improve UNISON.‎ That is why I stand amongst them.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

One step forward, one step back

‎I was one of more than 120 UNISON activists present at a "Reclaim the Union" meeting this afternoon at the Manchester Mechanics Institute, birthplace of the TUC.

Activists were present from every British Region of the Union, about a third coming from the North West, a quarter from Greater London and a fifth from Yorkshire and Humberside.

The meeting, called by the left caucus of members of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) and ably chaired by our Convenor, Max Watson, demonstrated the thirst for an effective left challenge in the forthcoming NEC elections, and the possibility of building greater unity on the left.

We took a step forward (or - rather - completed a step we had already begun) by receiving reports from ‎Regions and Service Groups as to the left candidates seeking nominations for the NEC. However much I may disagree with some of the politics of some of my comrades on the left (or they with me) it is essential that we challenge wherever we can those NEC members who seem content for our NEC to remain a "fan club" for national officials.

As one London Branch Secretary put it with characteristic passion, it's time to wrench our trade union free from the dead hand of the bureaucracy - and the aftermath of the catastrophe of the NJC pay dispute is certainly the time to do this.

A united approach to the forthcoming NEC elections, with capable candidates of the left standing wherever we can find them (and opposing each other nowhere) is the very least the 120 people in that room owe to the thousands who are looking for something better from UNISON.

Had the meeting finished half way through it would have been a useful and productive way to spend a couple of hours in Manchester (and also worth the travel time of the majority of those present who were from outside the North West).

Unfortunately, organising the left is - as an old friend once said of the Campaign Group of MPs - like herding cats. We therefore embarked upon an unnecessary, implausible and counter-productive process of "hustings" for a single "left" candidate in a General Secretary election which (whilst we know it is coming) has yet to be called. This then led to an outcome which no one will accept (who would not already have done so) and set back the necessary task of building unity. 

The fault lies not so much with the organisers or the chair, but with the majority who voted (at the outset) to have a vote at an ad hoc meeting which had no democratic legitimacy or authority to take such a decision. Incidentally, whilst the NEC left caucus called the meeting, the decision to take that vote was purely and simply the decision of the 120 people in that room. It has no other authority, and members of the NEC left caucus are no more bound by this decision than any other UNISON member.

This regrettable process enabled us to rehearse every disagreement in the room whilst finishing with a vote which had no foundation and therefore no authority. As we approach a General Secretary election in which, for the first time, more than one paid official may put themselves forward (as the union "machine" has yet visibly to unite around a single heir apparent) it appears that the largest organised forces on the left in UNISON are united only in their determination to give comfort to that ramshackle bureaucracy - and cause activists to tear our hair - by doing all they can to ensure that there cannot be a single "left" candidate when the election takes place.

Three fellow NEC members put themselves forward in these hustings, all of whom making some claim to be the best standard bearer of the left. Roger Bannister made much of the proven fact of his track record as the least unsuccessful candidate of the left in the last four General Secretary elections. Paul Holmes rightly pointed to his impressive record in NEC elections‎ and as an organiser and campaigner. Karen Reissman quite understandably pointed to her track record as an activist.

General Secretary elections are generally poisonous for the left in UNISON because, whereas episodes of struggle require only that each group who believe themselves to embody the future of the global proletariat should compete to be "best" at solidarity, and elections to the NEC (and other such bodies) permit for a certain amount of "horse-trading" (although few like to admit that for what it is), in a General Secretary election we can have only one champion.

I can see that if I were a member of an organisation which I believed to be the hope for the future of humanity that I would easily be persuaded that a member of that organisation was the obvious candidate of the left to be General Secretary. Whilst members of both the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) may genuflect at the idol of unity, I take this with pinches of salt large enough to grit every road in Greater Manchester.‎ The SP has never backed an SWP candidate for General Secretary and the SWP only once backed Roger Bannister (and then only in a state of panic about the 1990s witch hunt).

As a former (and considerably unsuccessful) candidate for General Secretary I did my best to ask questions intended to challenge each candidate.‎ I asked Roger if he thought his support for the risible "TUSC" project would damage him as a candidate, and he made a joke of it. I asked Karen how she would handle the attacks she will face for having chaired the session of a Conference of her discredited Party at which a victim of rape was denied a platform, and she ducked the question. I asked Paul why he should stand again, having come third last time, and he focused on the positive reasons for his candidacy.

I make no apology for blogging all of this in public. Nothing I write here will not already be known at the UNISON Centre, and all those who put themselves forward as leaders have to be prepared to face public scrutiny. If a socialist candidate was anywhere near having a realistic chance of winning UNISON's General Secretaryship they would face a tsunami of hostility which would make this blog post look like a love letter.

The Socialist Party comrades made a point of abstaining from voting, stating that the decision making process was premature (although the comrade who pointed out that they did not think they could win a vote made a point which was not invalid). Roger Bannister said that he would stand as a candidate unless he was convinced that there was a better left candidate who could get more votes. Whilst this came across as quite as arrogant as it is, the faux outrage of members of the Socialist Workers Party was equally deplorable.

The SWP members (having counted heads and come to a conclusion which pleased them more than the conclusion drawn by the SP comrades)‎ pressed ahead with a demand for a vote, in the full and certain knowledge that - by so doing - they were ensuring that there could not easily be a united "left" campaign in the General Secretary election. (I appreciate that it may be unfair of me to attribute that "full and certain knowledge" to all the SWP members there present, since such knowledge would require a certain level of political understanding, which is not something generally encouraged in that organisation. The experienced comrades with whom I have worked for years knew what they were doing though.)

In the‎ end a narrow majority of the random souls present at the meeting "endorsed" Karen Reissmann's claim to be candidate for General Secretary, with the next largest bloc abstaining and a few of us voting for Paul. I cast my vote for Paul with a heavy heart, as I felt the process flawed beyond redemption - but wanted also to express my own opinion.

Neither Roger nor Paul indicated that they felt bound by this avoidable foolishness - and the "left" (such as we are) will need to meet again at National Delegate Conference to try to take the decision which we should not have pretended to take today.

‎Whilst I think that the truth about the position of the SP is that it is more important to them that they should be the "leaders" of the left (in the sense of running the candidate who gets the most votes on the left) than that the left should win, I have to concede that they have empirical evidence in support of their contention that Roger Bannister is the best candidate of the left.

As for the SWP, I fear that (as much as they deny that anyone cares about the rotten corruption of their leadership's defence of sexual harassment) it may be more important to them that they stand a "comrade" with a "United Left" badge even that there should be a genuinely united candidate of the left. As the decomposition of this once significant political group proceeds apace there may well be internal pressures to show that "the Party" is still seen as the leadership of the rank and file (however far that may be from the truth). When such a foolish candidature is savaged on all sides over the oppressive and reactionary conduct of the SWP misleadership (which would be seized upon opportunistically by the right wing) Party loyalists would console themselves that the derisory performance of their candidate was the product of a right wing "witch hunt" rather than the casual misogyny of their bankrupt political organisation.

In these circumstances, I can hardly criticise my friend and comrade Paul Holmes for not retrieving his hat from the ring into which he has propelled it.

So there we have it. Our step backwards has been a large step, and I regret it is - after this afternoon - difficult to find any optimism about what we might do in an election for General Secretary from the ranks of those of us in what we sometimes (perhaps misleadingly) refer to as the "organised" left.

Nevertheless, there is still time to do something else. There was no need to take a decision today about the General Secretary election - and no one emerging from this afternoon's meeting with their critical faculties intact believes that any meaningful decision was taken.

We must remember that we also took one step forward, and focus on the NEC election in which there is some prospect of positive outcomes. It is just possible that none of us on the left have all the answers, that none of our General Secretary candidates are therefore "obvious" standard bearers, and that we should try to work together with some humility in the hope of finding a way forward.

I'll be at the back of the "humility" queue I suppose (but maybe fourth from the back).

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

UNISON support for PCS - now is the time!


Regular readers (Sid and Doris Blogger) will know that I am never wrong.

Sometimes, however, in my eagerness to share my views I can omit context as I may have done in the link above.

In the case of the decision by our comrades in PCS to delay their annual elections I still disagree with that decision. It was wrong.

However I have to accept that my critical comment on that decision must be read in a context which that comment did not provide. It can also be read as a personal attack upon Mark Serwotka which I never intended (and never would).

This Government is seeking to destroy PCS.

It seeks to do this by preventing the collection of union subscriptions from salaries from 1 April.

This would devastate the income of any trade union.

This is vengeance from the Tories for PCS having stood up to them over the attack on public service pensions.

Supporters of UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis, must be mindful of the risk that he may be portrayed as an accessory to such vengeance. I am sure they will be alive to the importance of rebutting any such suggestion.

It is deeply unfortunate that Tory Minister Francis Maude dictated that UNISON should be give negotiating rights in the civil service in circumstances in which this could so easily be made to appear a reward for UNISON having done the employers' bidding over pensions. (We don't need such rights and ought really to repudiate this unwelcome offer).

I am sure we in UNISON never meant to make ourselves look like Tory stooges in this way!
Now would be a good time for us to make our support for PCS crystal clear.

What good luck that we have an NEC meeting so soon at which Dave will be able to express his unequivocal support for PCS and unconditional support for their response to Tory attacks!

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Let's not perpetrate a fraud upon members involved in the single fraud investigation service transfer!

I’ll try to catch up with blogging issues from Tuesday’s UNISON Regional Committee, Wednesday’s meeting of the UNISON NEC Development and Organisation Committee and today’s meeting of the Executive of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Committee as time permits. As you can imagine I am ecstatic to have had three such meetings on consecutive days.

One issue which cropped up today was the transfer of staff from local authorities to the Department of Work and Pensions as part of the Single Fraud Investigation Service transfer from local authorities to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). This is an entirely foolish Government initiative which makes no sense and will do no good (so much like most things our employers get up to).

Whilst UNISON’s national officials have given good advice and helped many branches to deal with the issues raised by this transfer (in which responsibility for the investigation of some fraud will pass from local authorities to central Government) it is regrettable that, from time to time, it has been suggested that we should be seeking UNISON recognition with the DWP and encouraging members to remain with UNISON to the exclusion of joining the appropriate recognised trade union.

We most certainly should not. 

We have a sister trade union which organises in that area – PCS. When PCS had members transfer to local government they quite properly arranged for them to transfer into UNISON. We should do the same not only out of simple decency (although that is a consideration our leadership ought to take account of) but because we – as a trade union – are not as capable of representing members transferred to the DWP as are PCS.

Our branches and activists have plenty to do organising the fragmented public service workforce without wantonly taking on representation of members for whom a perfectly satisfactory alternative trade union exists, with recognition we do not have and organisation in that sector which we cannot match. To encourage such would indeed be to perpetrate a singular fraud upon the members involved in the single fraud transfer.

I’m sure the suggestion that we keep members in UNISON was just an excess of otherwise entirely laudable enthusiasm to recruit and retain members and in no way an attempt to join the undermining of PCS by the Tory-led Government. It is contrary to UNISON Rule B.1.4 to encourage members to remain (exclusively) members of UNISON in such circumstances where to do so fails to promote their interests.

UNISON should no more be organising civil servants than we should be organising teachers or firefighters. It would be a good idea if we put a clear stop to any such nonsense.

Now would be a good time.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015



‎I am gutted, today, to learn of the death of a great socialist, Mike Marqusee. I met Mike many years ago when he was editor of Labour Briefing and though his decision to leave the Labour Party took him along different political paths, the inspiring example which he offered, alongside his impressive body of work as a journalist and political thinker has long influenced me and many others.

Since Mike's partner (Liz Davies) and his family ask that donations in his memory be sent to Medical Aid for Palestinians, I am confident that he would approve of the fact that the tragedy of his passing causes me to think a little about the politics of how we respond to death.

I'll be honest. 

Mike's death makes me sadder than the brutal killings at Charlie Hebdo, because I knew Mike and he touched my life.

And I think that's ok.

He was closer to me and means more to me.

That makes sense.

‎And that doesn't mean that I don't hate and deplore the killings in Paris. I do.

But I do notice - as I imagine that Mike would were he here to comment - that the world seems to have paid a lot more attention to 17 murders in Paris than it did to 2,000 murders‎ in Baga, Nigeria by Boko Haram.

I think death is a bit shit really.

It comes to all of us in time, and that's just mortality, but when it comes too soon - particularly to those we love - we are - quite rightly - distressed.

The world lost Mike Marqusee at the early age of 61 and that's wrong. There's more he should yet have written about that we shall never be able to read.

Every one of the seventeen victims in Paris also had more that they could have contributed to our shared experience. The premature ending of their participation in our shared humanity is a grievous loss.

As is the greater loss of 2,000 lives in Baga. ‎We don't know if any of those 2,000 might - in time - have grown to write with the passion, clarity and determination of a Mike Marqusee. We don't know how many of them might have wielded a pen with the same skill as the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

What we do know is that all human life is of equal value. 

There are not many people who helped to shape my socialism and I think that Mike Marqusee was one of them.

When we lose a truly great comrade we must redouble our efforts to build the world in which they believed (and we continue to believe).

I think that, in this moment, that means we stand firmly for equality and for socialism - a unity of the working class and never of "the nation".

I prefer life to death and I regret that Mike is no longer here with us.

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The view from the Clapham omnibus (not)


As a worker in Lambeth I am often - literally - the man on the Clapham omnibus (whose views are an established benchmark of reasonableness!)


No bus will form any part of my journey to or from today's meeting of UNISON's Greater London Regional Committee (of which - perhaps - more later). Anecdotal evidence of my own eyes attests to the effectiveness of today's 24 hour walkout which supports the legitimate demand for a single rate of pay to be paid across London by the various contractors who extract profits from our city's public transport network.

Solidarity and good luck to the UNITE members taking action.

This is precisely the sort of strike action which the Tories would seek to prohibit, on the grounds that not enough union members voted for the action in the pre-strike ballot.‎ On Planet Cameron in 2016, today's strike would entitle employers selectively to dismiss strikers without fear of legal repercussions and would enable any employer, or random reactionary to sue UNITE.

I've blogged before about how the unions should respond to such legal restrictions should they be imposed - today everyone who supports the bus workers needs to understand just how important it is that the Tories do not form the next Government.

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