Sunday, February 18, 2007

Equal Pay on the telly but not at UNISON Conference?

I can’t remember who it was who once described UNISON Conference socials as being, by and large, like a bad family wedding. Our Union is now taking on more of the characteristics of a difficult family get together in that there are more and more topics which just must not be mentioned.

One – of course – is the Labour leadership. That’s because there are some who want to offer tacit support to Gordon Brown (in return for the same “influence” which has served us so well under the current Prime Minister) whilst at the same time maintaining our support for progressive UNISON policies which are poles apart from the policy agenda which would be supported by a Prime Minister Brown. Therefore no one may mention the words “John” and “McDonnell” in the same sentence in any submission to a UNISON Conference they hope to get on to the agenda.

The other great unmentionable topic is Equal Pay. I notice that the gremlins which afflict discussion of the topic of Equal Pay appear now to have afflicted the BBC website. After watching a reasonable report on the problems of implementing equal pay in local government on the Politics Show this afternoon I found the link to the story itself to be broken. (I have included it here in case it gets fixed).

Equal Pay is a major item for debate at every meeting of our National Executive Council and issues relating to Equal Pay are taking up the majority of the time of our senior national officials. However, the following advice has been issued to UNISON branches about discussing Equal Pay at Conferences;

“As you are aware, the Union, its dedicated activists and staff and other unions are now under challenge by a small number of no win no fee lawyers who are contesting the union’s equal pay strategy. The union and a number of named activists and staff now face over 1850 claims. The first case to be heard by a tribunal – involving the GMB union – was decided on 6 June 2006. The GMB was unsuccessful. The GMB have appealed the decision of the tribunal and the appeal is to be heard at the Employment Appeal Tribunal on 12 and 13 February 2007. The EAT decision may have implications for UNISON as the claims made against UNISON arise out of similar facts as those in the GMB case.

As a result, it is crucial, now more than ever, that the union not allow any motions relating to equal pay on the agenda at conference pending the decision in relation to the GMB’s appeal. This is because the no win no fee lawyers are able to gain access to everything which is said in union forums and use this to further their claims against the union, our activists and staff. The union’s legal advice is that our defence of these claims and protection of the activists under attack may be seriously weakened if there are speeches impinging on current litigation. For this reason all SOCs are advised not to allow any motions relating to equal pay on the agenda. The legal position will however be urgently reviewed following the outcome of the GMB appeal.”

This advice is available to all on the UNISON website, but there’s not much more that I – as a member of the NEC – can tell you. I can refer to the updated guidance to branches on Equal Pay.

The guidance is useful – and the regular briefings at Regional level at which we share information between branches in different local authorities are also very helpful. But when the Coventry Branch set out to convene a meeting for branch representatives to discuss the implementation of Single Status, about which they have a long running industrial dispute they had to call it off.

To quote from the Coventry Branch site; “Whilst we regret that this meeting must now be pulled, we still believe that something needs to be done in order to resolve problems that branches are facing with single status. Both Dave Prentis and Heather Wakefield have agreed to meet with us therefore we would welcome any comments or concerns you have so we can put them forward. We would like to ask branches to email us with any experiences or general comments regarding the issues surrounding single status.”

Full marks to Coventry for taking an initiative. I hope that at Wednesday’s NEC meeting we shall have some idea of what is going on with the Allen –v- GMB case at the Employment Appeals Tribunal and that it will be possible to reconsider the advice that we cannot discuss Equal Pay issues in our democratic decision making machinery.

What if a case is appealed from the EAT to the Court of Appeal, or from there to the House of Lords, or even to Europe. It could be years before we abandon the self-denying ordinance and talk again about Equal Pay.

No one wants to help the no win no fee solicitors. Individual (or even group) litigation is no way to design a fair and equitable pay structure. The litigation against trade unions places the whole workforce in great difficulty, because it means that the only effective and democratic tools which we have built to defend our interests are placed in jeopardy.

However, trade unions have no way to decide our policies and practices other than by debate through our agreed democratic structures. We cannot leave it to unofficial websites to host the discussions and report on the disputes which should be reported officially.

On the Politics Show Phil Woolas, Minister for Local Government, just said that he was prepared to legislate to try to prevent litigation disrupting negotiated settlements on equal pay in local government. This follows a debate in the Commons on 8 February in which the Minister made the same point under determined questioning from Chris Mullin.

Woolas said;

“The important point to emphasise and to record in Hansard is that the Government do not rule out a legislative route, because we understand the point that my hon. Friend makes so powerfully about the unintended impacts of the collective bargaining agreement, which has been detrimental to some. We recognise the importance of the issue, and that the problem is not confined to one region. We are prepared to legislate if that is desirable, both in terms of the protection of collective agreements and in itself.”

My concern is this. How will UNISON decide what our view is on any proposals for legislation if we do not allow ourselves to discuss this topic in any of our decision making bodies?

One option would be to leave the decision making to a few wise souls at Mabledon Place – but look where that has got us in relation to the Local Government Pension Scheme!

I hope to be in a position to report something more positive after Wednesday’s meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council.


DM Andy said...

Come on Jon, you're going overboard with the John McDonnell conspiracy theory.

At the moment, Blair hasn't gone (sadly for the party and the country) so there's no election and there's no candidates yet. I have sympathy for McDonnell's candidacy, but it is way too early for any UNISON body to say who we should be supporting.

At the South West Labourlink Forum last Saturday, there were two motions, one to urge support for John McDonnell and one to ensure that all candidates are invited to speak to UNISON APF members in the region. The first fell, the second passed, that's not a Gordon Brown supporters stitchup, it's just about not making any view until we know who's standing.

I've got respect for you Jon, but save your fire for things that truly deserve them.


DM Andy said...

Jon, on reflection I went overboard with the "conspiracy theory" tag and I apologise for that.

It's not only MPs who crave patronage, senior paid officials and lay activists have often moved to Parliament from UNISON The thought to support the person that everyone thinks is bound to win anyway must be strong.

But my point remains, there's no election yet and with Blair now saying he wants to continue until all hospitals meet the 18 week target that might be further off than we think. It doesn't matter if every trade unionist in the country supports McDonnell, if he doesn't get 45 MPs to nominate him then he's not going to even be on the ballot.

marshajane said...

Andy 'At the South West Labourlink Forum last Saturday, there were two motions, one to urge support for John McDonnell'

Glad to hear that it was allowed to be debated andy - as what were increasingly finding is that motions wih the words John and Mcdonnell in are not allowed on any agenda's not even labour links (and thats not just in london apparently were having similar troubles in the south eastern region)

Im glad that your region passed a motion to hear all candidates speak.

But we have work to do before we get to that stage and that involves lobbying MP's to support John - UNISON have a sizeable number of MP's linked to us and we should be calling on them to nominate John to at least enure that our members have the opportuniy to decide on the future of our party.