Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Women with children worst off at work - official

It may be a statement of the obvious that mothers of young children face extreme workplace discrimination and disadvantage – this certainly rings true from my own experience of representing workers over 20 years. In spite of all the hype about family friendly policies and work-life balance, managers are often unenthusiastic to the point of hostility to staff who try to cope with their childcare responsibilities.

The answer must be both improved statutory rights and stronger union organisation to enforce those rights in the workplace (rather than the courts or tribunals). The present right “to make a request” is one of the more pointless rights we have…

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pensions dispute latest - not good news

Today’s meeting of the UNISON Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE) decided not to recommend any further fight with the Government over the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).

Although we have not secured the same protection for LGPS members as that offered to other public servants under the Public Service Forum deal in October 2005 the SGE are recommending that – once current negotiations are concluded – there should be a consultative ballot offering members the choice of accepting the current package or holding a ballot for serious and sustained strike action.

This seemingly democratic position is designed to deliver our acquiescence in the unacceptable Government proposals – since the SGE has no plans to campaign against the proposals and in favour of strike action. In general if you ask people “cold” whether they want to strike they won’t – and without a serious campaign to explain the shortcomings of the current proposals we will be inviting acceptance of a package which simply does not deliver what we set out to achieve.

The less convincing of the two arguments for the SGE position is that the current package is a “good deal”. This argument forgets that we have not achieved the specific demands for which our members took strike action in unprecedented numbers on 28 March 2006.

The more plausible argument for accepting that we must abandon the objective for which we struck last March is that the mood for action amongst our members is not there. This is plausible however only if we choose to ignore the possibility of a successful campaign to win our members to the need for further action.

I shall be supporting calls for a strike ballot at next Tuesday’s Special Conference and hope that rank and file activists will also be able to push onto the agenda a call for a campaign to reject the Government proposals in any consultative ballot. As a branch delegate I will be reflecting the unanimous views of 130 members at our branch Annual General Meeting who supported a strike ballot.

It is not fair that local government workers (and other members of our pension scheme) should be short-changed in comparison with other public servants and I fail to see why we should accept (let alone celebrate) this injustice!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Report from UNISON Health Service Group

I have posted bellow a Report from Nick Holden recently elected to UNISON’s Health Service Group Executive, given the original length I had to cut some of it, sorry.

UNISON calls a national demonstration in defence of the NHS

By far the most important item was the decision, by 16 votes to 6, to call a national demonstration in defence of the National Health Service. Karen Reissman from the North West region proposed the motion calling for a national demonstration on 7th July – the closest Saturday to the 'birthday' of the NHS. Speeches were made in support of the proposal by Mark Ladbrooke, Caroline Bedale, Harry Seddon and me. The point we all tried to make was that the SGE had a duty to call a demonstration, because we had been instructed to do so by last year's Health Conference, and that unless we did it at this meeting, we would have to go back to this year's health conference having failed to carry out the instruction. The situation in the NHS was worse than it had been a year ago, and all the reasons which led the health conference to call for a national demonstration remained. In addition, the involvement of so many UNISON members, and others, in local protests over the last year, suggested that we could easily have a very successful national demonstration, as people wanted to feel that they were not alone. Mark Ladbrooke, in particular, made a telling point – the cuts he said were being felt locally, but were being made in Westminster. “That is where the cuts are coming from, so that is where we have to go.” In contrast, Eric Roberts, speaking against having a national demonstration, said that we shouldn't do anything to alienate the other unions in the NHS Together campaign. We had to be either in the campaign or not in it, he said. Also, he believed more people would take part in local activity than would be prepared to travel to a national demonstration. Mike Folliard, also speaking against the proposal, said that those in favour of a national demonstration were “flogging a dead horse”, because there was simply no enthusiasm for a national demonstration on the issue of cuts and privatisation. This was a common theme for those against carrying out the conference policy, who repeatedly pointed to the consultation held in December over the activity to be held on March 3rd. These arguments were demolished by Harry Seddon, who ridiculed the idea that a ten-day consultation a fortnight before Christmas, in which two-thirds of the branches who replied had asked for a national demonstration could be used to justify not holding a national demonstration just because most branches had been unable to reply within the timetable. After the vote it was suggested that the date was not ideal, and a hurried discussion led to a change being agreed to 30th June. However, following the meeting, I realised that this is the date for this year's Pride march, and it would clearly be wrong to clash with that. Therefore there are currently discussions about the actual date, but the principle of UNISON calling a national demonstration in defence of the NHS has at last been won. Not bad for my first meeting!

There was some other discussion about fighting privatisation and cuts, but not much. We received a report from Karen Jennings about the work of NHS Together, and I asked about a leaflet and a supporters' statement for NHS Together which she said “UNISON and the TUC were putting together” for use on March 3rd. I asked if SGE members could see a draft of the text, but was told that “these kind of things” were done by the union officers, and were not for
SGE input. We could, though, see copies of the leaflet once it was written. That doesn't seem right to me, in a member-led union like UNISON, and I will raise this again at future meetings. There was also a brief report on the medical secretary's conference which was held late last year. There will soon be some guidance on fighting outsourcing of secretarial work, and a fringe meeting will be held on this issue at health conference. But there didn't seem to be much developed yet in the way of 'best practice' for how to win such campaigns, and clearly much more work needs to be done. In the East Midlands we've got a real opportunity to do some of that work when the next 24-hour health event takes place next month on this topic, and I would encourage every health branch in the region to make sure that you are represented at that event.

Manchester strike

Karen Reissman, from the North West region, reported on the strike by UNISON members in the Manchester Community and Mental Health branch. She said that they'd held two days of solid strike action so far, which had forced the employer to ACAS over their proposals to cut jobs and downgrade staff. 85% of the members had been involved in picket duty and leafletting, and she gave a clear indication of the benefits of a determined response to cuts: “Six months ago it was just an absolute fact that these cuts were going to happen. We refused to believe that. And we have now got maybe two-thirds of the way towards stopping them... The members in Manchester have shown that we can stop cuts, and that an active campaign can motivate members to take action in defence of their jobs and their services.” Further strike action may yet be necessary in Manchester, and the SGE agreed to ask that a request for solidarity donations be circulated in 'News from the General Secretary' and displayed on UNISON's national website. If your branch hasn't yet sent a donation, please consider doing so.

This Year's Pay Campaign

We were told that the Pay Review Body's report had been submitted to the Government. Now it is for the Government to issue a decision. Once it does so, there will be a meeting of the Pay Negotiation Council to press the union's claim for those staff not covered by the PRB, because management have said they wont negotiate on pay until after the PRB award is announced. The employers have already rejected our request to reduce the working week to 35 hours. And
they've also rejected our proposal to abolish band 1. There was no discussion about how we should respond to the employers' refusal to negotiate on these two issues, but Mike Jackson did promise a written report on them to the next SGE meeting.

Agenda for Change in private contractors

The Framework Agreement on Agenda for Change in private contractors is not delivering the improvements in pay for our members which they were promised. There are too many loopholes in it. Because of the slow progress UNISON has asked the Government to intervene. A letter has been sent out by Nic Greenfield, the DH Director of Workforce, urging Trusts and contractors to follow “best practice” which includes tri-partite meetings with the unions. If you've got private contractors who haven't yet implemented AfC, then this might help you get into talks.

New NHS Pension Scheme – already agreed, but still being negotiated

There have been further negotiations over the new NHS pension scheme. I found this disturbing, as I understood that we had already accepted the new scheme, and it seems wrong that we agree something and then finish off the negotiations afterwards. I thought this lesson would have been learned after Agenda for Change, but it seems not. Several SGE members reported that members in their branches “did not understand” the new scheme, which I think suggests that the ballot was held too early. We instructed the officers to urgently provide us with a report on the issues still under negotiations, as there was no written report to the meeting.

Learning lessons from the NHS Logistics dispute – next time

We received a report on the NHS Logistics workers since their transfer to DHL/Novation under the new name of “NHS Supply Chain”. The union is still denied access to the contract, and there are signs that the new management are beginning to flex their muscles over issues like sick leave and union facility time. Harry Seddon and I asked questions about learning the lessons from the dispute, and I also asked that we made a point of discussing the campaign we promised the NHS Logistics workers – to bring them back into the NHS at the earliest opportunity. The relevant officer agreed to prepare some information on these subjects for the next meeting, but did say that one crucial lesson was that in future disputes we needed to be better prepared for the Government's intransigence. “We needed more direct ways of influencing the Government, earlier in the campaign; dialogue didn't work,” he said. That's why some of us in the union were arguing to let the NHS Logistics workers take strike action earlier in the campaign, when it could have built up to have greater impact. If that lesson can be learned then it would be good for UNISON members in other services facing privatisation.

NHS Partnership Agreement

The NHS unions, employers and the Department of Health have just agreed a new 'Partnership Agreement'. I think such things are not worth the paper they are written on, since they tie the unions into lots of talking shops which have no bearing on our ability to organise members in the workplace, and are routinely ignored when management want to cut jobs or services. I raised a specific objection to the introduction to the document, written by Patricia Hewitt, which
said that the trade unions played a crucial role to give staff “reassurance” that “their voice is heard at a national level”. I pointed out that all the evidence is that our voice is not heard at a national level, and that the role of trade unions was not to reassure staff, but to organise them. Karen Jennings agreed to write to Patricia Hewitt, pointing out her mistake.

2007 Health Conference

The only debate was over an amendment proposed by the officers that would seek to delete a commitment to ballot members over the outcome of any pay determination in future years. Mike Jackson argued that our policy in the past has been to consult, but not necessarily to hold a ballot, and the majority of the SGE agreed to submit the amendment on that basis. I voted against, as I think the consultations held in the past have sometimes failed to adequately engage with ordinary members of the union, and we should give members the final say over
pay offers not rely on leaders trying to make the decisions for them. There were seven other amendments proposed by the officers, which were agreed without debate, as they were not controversial.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Special Local Government Conference - what shall we do?

I blogged the other day about the publication of the agenda for the forthcoming Special UNISON Local Government Conference on the LGPS dispute.

As I observed this agenda is likely to be overtaken at least to some extent by further Emergency Motions, particularly following the Service Group Executive meeting on Tuesday.

Since the SGE motion on the current Agenda (Motion One) has been considerably overtaken by events there must be some possibility that it will be withdrawn, although this will lead to all the many amendments which have been put to it falling as well.

By and large all of these amendments strengthen the motion in one way or another, although some are inconsistent with one another. (For example, if pushed I would sooner see a national demonstration on the second, rather than the first, day of a national two day strike, so that we could focus on picket lines on the first day).

If Motion One stays on the agenda, the sensible thing will almost certainly be to support all of the amendments in the order in which they appear and to live with any “consequences” one for another that the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) may determine.

Of the other motions there are some which deal with particular issues and three groups which are particularly significant for the whole dispute. One particular motion is Motion 14 (from both the Kirklees branch and the Greater London Region) which deals with what you might call “governance” of the dispute will attract opprobrium from the bureaucracy and their more embarrassingly inadequate hangers on but is worthy of support by all those who care about making our Union effective as well as democratic.

Motions 7, 8 and 9 all take in one way or another the “left” position (which I happen to believe to be right!) that we should be moving to a strike ballot since negotiations have demonstrably failed to achieve an outcome sufficiently close to the objectives which we set ourselves and which our General Secretary spoke for with such passion. These motions should be supported.

Motions 2 and 3 however both take what could be described as a “right” position (except that IMHO it is wrong rather than right) and argue for a ballot of our members on the Government proposals, rather than a strike ballot. This is the position adopted by those at the recent NEC meeting who believe that local government workers have changed our minds since March last year and no longer want to fight to protect our pension rights.

The SOC are proposing to composite motions 2 and 3 (along with the otherwise inoffensive motion 4) and also to composite motions 7, 8 and 9. If this is done two clear positions will be counterposed at the Conference – and the fair and democratic way to deal with this would be to have a “grouped debate” with equal time for each point of view (otherwise if the composites were counterposed but debated separately then whichever side had their position put first would have the advantage of a longer opening speech and an unopposed right of reply.

Here will be a test of whether the SOC for Local Government Conference are prepared to be fair! I hope they will :)

Are there other positions which should be advanced in an Emergency Motion – or should we stick with the sensible and reasonable proposal to move straight ahead with a strike ballot? (Bearing in mind that if the prophets of doom are right then all they have to do is vote no…!)

As always (in fact, more than usually) your comments are welcome..

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Special Conference Final Agenda

I should have mentioned earlier that the Final Agenda for the Special Local Government Conference on Pensions is online now.

The strong likelihood of Emergency Motions means that “Final” Agenda may be a bit of a misnomer…

UNISON, Hilton Hotels and anti-Cuban discrimination

At yesterday’s meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council, the General Secretary raised the question of Hilton Hotels refusing to provide accommodation to Cubans (as a result of the impact of US laws on a boycott of Cuba).

The NEC agreed that UNISON will make no new bookings at Hilton Hotels, will seek a meeting with the company to express concern, and will be prepared to assist financially with any UK legal challenge should Cuban guests be turned away from a Hilton Hotel (as they may at our Conference in June since the NEC will be staying at the Hilton Metropole on the seafront!)

This was a good example of UNISON at its best.

General Secretary's report to UNISON NEC

As always major items of the work of the General Secretary had been covered earlier on the agenda by the time yesterday's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) reached the report of our General Secretary, Dave Prentis.

He pointed out that alongside the key priorities of pensions and equal pay the Union was very busy with a range of other activities, including;

The TUC lobby of Parliament over Public Services, about which the General Secretary gave a very positive and upbeat report;

UNISON’s Climate Change Conference on 17 January, which represented a positive new development of UNISON activity;

The launch of the “water at work” campaign, which led to UNISON doing away with bottled water and having jugs of tap water at the NEC;

A joint seminar between UNISON and Compass (a “soft left” Labour think tank) on public services;

The Black Members Conference at which the General Secretary had faced robust questioning and offered assurances about taking forward issues raised with him;

The strike action by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) on 31 January during which our General Secretary had addressed the main strike rally;

The threat of public sector pay rises being held below inflation – in relation to which the NEC agreed a strong statement to be issued to the press warning the Chancellor that we will not accept public sector pay falling behind.

Equal Pay discussion at the UNISON NEC

I can’t report in detail in writing about our discussion on Equal Pay at yesterday’s meetinf of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC). Official reports and briefings will be issued.

I think I can safely touch on one or two important points which are already in the public domain. The Employment Appeal Tribunal hearing in the case of Allan –v- GMB has taken place, but a judgement is not expected until the end of the March at the earliest.

Chris Mullin MP forced an “adjournment debate” in the House of Commons on the issue of Equal Pay and Single Status, which led to the Minister, Phil Woolas indicating that the Government might consider legislating to address some of the problems which are being experienced. Though it is difficult to see what legislation they might be thinking of...

I therefore asked at the NEC about the problem which is posed by the advice issued to branches that we cannot discuss equal pay at UNISON Conferences because of pending litigation. I pointed out that this could inhibit debate about any proposals for legislation from the Government and was assured that the advice in relation to discussion at Conferences is to be kept under review in the light of legal developments.

I shall not report any further on this issue here and now – but would urge all UNISON branches to keep abreast of the circulars and briefings on equal pay issues which are being produced by the Union. I very much hope that by the time we reach our Conferences in the summer we have found a way in which we can discuss this critical issue - the position in which we find ourselves unable to talk at our Conference about such an important question is not tenable.

Recruitment - and the threat of competition

It was reported to yesterday’s meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC) that UNISON had grown by 29,000 member (2%) in 2006.

Every Region except Greater London experienced net growth (although London is actually the best recruiting Region, it has the highest turnover of members.

General Secretary Dave Prentis expressed concern under this item about the merger of T&G and Amicus (the new union is provisionally entitled Tea and Jamicus I understand…)

Dave was concerned that the new Union would aim to compete with UNISON for recruitment in the public sector in order to compensate for the continuing decline in trade union density in the private sector. Whilst this is no doubt true, I can’t help feeling that the big challenge to our movement is the majority of workers who are not members of any trade unions.

Mind you, I hope that the new union does focus on organising the unorganised rather than squabbling with other unions over the minority of workers who are already organised!

UNISON NEC Conference motions for 2007

The UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) yesterday agreed its motions and Rule Amendments for submission to Conference. If any London UNISON branches would like to see the text of any of these (which will of course shortly be published in the Preliminary Agenda) then please get in touch.

The motions deal with the following subjects;

· Learning and Organising
· Organising and Recruitment
· Organising Migrant Workers in the UK
· Review of Branch and Service Group Structures
· UNISON Equality Scheme
· Public Services in the Developing World
· Trade Union Rights under threat
· Child Poverty/Anti Poverty Strategy
· European Union and Public Services
· Leitch Review of Skills
· Marketisation of Public Services
· National Health Service
· Spending Review and Efficiency
· UNISON Commitment to the Environment

As there are fourteen motions and the NEC can only prioritise twelve motions for debate at Conference there is no guarantee that all of these will be debated. I queried the wording of a couple of the motions and did succeed in removing a bit of awful jargon from one (which then led to a national official pointing out to me later in the meeting that I use a fair few clich├ęs myself…)

The NEC Rule Amendments deal with the following Rules;

D 2.4 Additional Members Seats (this renames the Additional Members Seats on the NEC as Black Members Seats)
D 3.2 Service Group Conference
D 3.7 Sectors
D 6 Retired Members Organisation
Q Definitions
Sch B 2 Rule Book Benefits

The NEC also considered the plan for Conference. Likely guest speakers are Baroness Scotland (on domestic abuse), Ashok Sinha, Director of Stop Climate Chaos and Annie Geron, President of PSLink from the Phillippines as the international speaker. I welcomed a suggestion that consideration would be given to a speaker on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Taking the Michael...?

Just when it looked as if we might be able to get a principled and consistent socialist candidate who supports trade union policies onto the ballot paper in the Labour leadership election – this happens!

I remember voting for Michael Meacher once before – more than twenty years ago, but he simply fails to excite or enthuse me as a standard bearer for the left. I hope he thinks again – and backs UNISON member John McDonnell the socialist candidate for Labour Leader.

John's campaign offers a way to put union priorities firmly on the political agenda - which is why I think it is important that all trade unionists get involved in the campaign and the debate which it can inspire.

Update on Thursday evening – this was as predictable as it is sad! However with one of only two MPs who accompanied Michael Meacher at his campaign launch announcing that he won’t vote for him you do have to hope that he will see sense and stand aside.

LGPS "a good deal"???

I’ll write up my full report of yesterday’s meeting of the UNISON NEC later, but I think it is worth mentioning right away the gist of the discussion on the Local Government Pension Scheme.

The Head of Local Government reported back on the detail of discussions with the Government during the current consultation period, and confirmed that proposals to attack redundancy entitlements were to be dropped.

There has as yet been no movement on the question of contributions from part time employees, although the Equal Opportunities Commission have now weighed in on the side of the unions (which, we were told, effectively means on the side of UNISON as it is UNISON that is making all the running and doing all the work in the discussions).

However, on the question of protection of the rights of those who have lost out with the abolition of the “Rule of 85” our objective was described simply in terms of increasing protection and, it was reported that an extension of protection in full to all those who will turn 60 by April 2020 “would be a minimum for us.”

I think it is fair to say that no UNISON body has ever agreed that this is any sort of bottom line and I, for one, was a little angry. I expressed my view that if the final settlement of the LGPS dispute was on the basis of 2020 then this would have been a defeat – in effect we would have failed to achieve protection for the younger half of the scheme membership when that was precisely the issue on which we mobilised support for strike action last March.

This argument, and similar points put by colleagues on the NEC including John McDermott, Glenn Kelly and Roger Bannister drew two lines of response. On the one hand there were those who said that there was no “appetite” for further industrial action amongst the membership. Chris Tansley said that this was the view in Nottinghamshire amongst local government workers, whilst Gerry Gallagher reported that no police staff branches want to take further action and Stephen Mead indicated similar views amongst members in Higher Education.

Dave Prentis, on the other hand, offered a more upbeat route to a similar conclusion. He said that he was proud of the achievements of our negotiators and that the “deal” on the LGPS (i.e. the current proposals) was the best deal done for any of the public service pension schemes in the last three years.

So now we can see the shape of debate at the 6 March Special Conference. Those of us who think that we should be fighting for LGPS members to be treated no less favourably than members of other public service pension schemes will be told, on the one hand, that members do not want to fight on this issue and, on the other, that we are disgracefully undermining our negotiators and our Union by failing to laud the great achievements reflected in the proposals for the “new look” LGPS.

Of course there are significant positive aspects of the “new look” LGPS. The retention of a final salary scheme with improved accrual is a good thing. However it does seem to me that it would be less than honest to dress up as a victory an outcome which falls well short of the equitable treatment for current scheme members which has been a central demand.

Equally we have to accept that not all members are necessarily going to be gung ho for further strike action. Indeed it is never easy to persuade members to make the sacrifice of strike action. However, members were mobilised on a massive scale on 28 March last year. UNISON is more than capable of mounting the vigorous campaign amongst our own membership which would be required to secure support for the further substantial strike action which can win fair treatment for LGPS members.

The Kirklees branch have very sensibly arranged a fringe meeting on the evening of 5 March at which delegates from branches whose members do want to continue the struggle to defend pension rights can discuss how we go forward. This dispute needs to be put into the hands of the membership.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Defending the NHS without blinkers

It’s good to see Dave Prentis writing in the Morning Star this morning, promoting the activities on 3 March being organised by NHS Together.

Everyone who can should support one of the many local events which are being organised around the country on 3 March by the unprecedented coalition of all NHS unions.

However, Dave isn’t giving the whole picture when he says – in support of the events of 3 March that “Gone is the blinkered view that London is the only place to be if you want to protest. A demo-fatigued capital is being given a rest in favour of vibrant, local, inclusive events that are easy for people to get to and where families and local people can come together to make their voices heard.”

This really is a false dichotomy. There is no choice between local action and national events if we want to save our NHS – or mount any campaign to influence Government policy. We manifestly need both.

Indeed, Dave Prentis reported to the UNISON NEC in October that it was intended that there would be a national demonstration early in 2007 following on from the NHS Together lobby of Parliament on 1 November last year.

To quote from our website; “the lobby will kick off a winter of campaigning, leading to a national demonstration in February next year, the NEC heard.”

Plans for the national demonstration were abandoned because of a poor response to consultation with other Unions and within UNISON. We should be honest with ourselves that this was a setback – it means we have more work to do to get the campaign to where we want it to be. It does not mean that we are no longer in favour of national demonstrations!

The inevitably uneven nature of the crisis affecting our health service does make it difficult to mobilise for national action in every area – but if we seriously want to make the Government change course then part of what we need to do is march in our thousands down Whitehall. A national demonstration is not a “be all and end all”, but it will be part of a successful campaign.

That’s not a blinkered view, it is the view that was put to the UNISON NEC by our General Secretary last year. The Greater London Regional Council is to put a proposal for a national demonstration to UNISON’s National Delegate Conference in June. Let’s hope that the 3 March helps us build up a campaign which really can shift the Government.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

UNISON MP backs GMB strikers

I’m glad to see John McDonnell MP, UNISON member and Labour leadership contender, piling in behind striking GMB members in Enfield.

Seventy, mostly North African migrant workers who are members of GMB Union and who work for National Car Parks (NCP) on the parking enforcement contract in Enfield held a third day of six days of strike action on Saturday 17th February 2007 - and organised a stall in Enfield town centre to lobby residents over the NCP's refusal to recognise GMB for bargaining on pay and conditions.

John McDonnell supported the strikers in person last Wednesday and reported on his blog that “support for the strike was 100% solid - the workers had voted 100% for strike action on an 85% turnout - and this was evident in the great atmosphere of solidarity on the picket line.”

We need unity between different trade unions to take on anti-union employers, and I wish the GMB members good luck in fighting for their rights.

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.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

LGPS - the detailed impact on the individual

UNISON has produced an excellent ready reckoner which members of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) can use to compare their pension entitlements under the proposed new LGPS. Check the relevant page on the website for guidance on using the ready reckoner.

This is a valuable resource but of course it does tend to make you look at the dispute from an individual rather than a collective perspective, as no socialist ever should (but of course I have…)

So if I have worked it out right this is what it means to me personally…

If I retire at 60 and choose to take the same lump sum as that to which I would otherwise have been entitled, my annual pension will be reduced by more than 10% for the rest of my life compared to what I would have had had I been protected.

If on the other hand I work until 65 I can earn the same lump sum as that to which I would otherwise have been entitled I will get a pension 4% higher than under the old scheme. I have to work until at least the age of 64 in order to be better off than I would have been prior to the abolition of the “Rule of 85”.

Of course I am old (well middle-aged). Were I a 20 year old who had started in local government on my eighteenth birthday I would stand to lose more than 20% of their pension on retirement at 60 under the new scheme, compared with what their entitlements would have been under the old scheme with the Rule of 85.

Current members of other public service pension schemes were protected and we aren’t being. If we settle for this we will be letting down our younger members in particular (including those as youthful as myself…)

Hands up again those who think this is a good deal?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Redundancy payments saved - maybe - so who cares about our pensions? (erm, well we do...)

Well it is good news that the Government are redrafting the LGPS Regulations to restore (with some caveats) entitlement to an unreduced pension if dismissed on redundancy grounds above age 55 (age 50 for current scheme members until 2010). As to the caveats, we shall wait and see...

This gratuitous assault upon the rights of older workers facing redundancy was an outrage. It was also an outrage which had not been sought by the employers. If we allow the withdrawal of this recent outrage to become justification for settling for a deal which fails to protect the pension rights of all scheme members we will be letting down the man who rightly said that;

“Members of every other public-sector pension scheme have had their pension contract honoured - why should local government workers be treated any differently? Teachers' contracts honoured but not teaching assistants; police but not police staff; civil servants but not dustmen; and social workers that work in hospitals but not those social workers who work for councils.”

The deal offered at the Public Services Forum in October 2005 to the other public service schemes was a victory for a firm negotiating position adopted by those who simply weren't prepared to accept the "compromise" of protection for those who would turn 60 by 2018 when others were prepared to settle for that.

Let’s hear who says what at the Special Conference

Saturday, February 10, 2007

LGPS - 2020 is not enough!

I wish I had been wrong about this, but I have to point out that you read it here last year. The union side objectives in the dispute over the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) appear in danger of shrinking before our eyes.

Expect any day now to start hearing from some in our Union that if we could only get protection of pension rights extended from those who will be 60 by 2016 to include all those who will be 60 by 2020 then that would be great.

You know what? It wouldn’t. If we accept that we will badly let down our members who took strike action in March.

The Government may be about to back off from an attack upon redundancy rights which the employers had never requested. But that is no reason for us to accept a worse deal on protection of pension rights than that which was offered to all other public service pension schemes!

I was unimpressed when the Service Group Executives agreed not to go ahead with a strike ballot last month. I am even less impressed by the continuing delay agreed last week.

Delay and timidity is justified as ever by a process of “consultation” intended to enable members to reflect back at the leadership the feelings of uncertainty which have been engendered by the doubtful tactics which have been the hallmark of the dispute to date.

The Special Conference on 6 March may be our last chance to take this dispute back for our members. The deadline for Emergency Motions is first thing on 28 February and the Service Group Executive meets on 27 February so if anyone in local government has a Branch Committee meeting on the evening of 27 February then please get in touch!

Defend the NHS on the 3 March

Everyone should be planning for how to maximise the impact of the day of activities to defend the NHS on Saturday 3 March.

What a shame that a downbeat approach to consultation produced the expected outcome so that the leadership of the various unions could decide not to go ahead with a national demonstration. So we have to make the most of the events which are being organised.

At the UNISON Greater London Regional Council AGM on 1 February only four delegates opposed a call for a national demonstration in defence of the NHS. That call will now go forward in the name of the Greater London Region to our National Delegate Conference. Our union needs a leadership that has the confidence to lead in a time of crisis - and to give a lead to the enormous tide of opposition to attacks on the NHS.

I was pleased that our Regional Council took the decision to call for a national demonstration, and look forward to debating this call with my opponent in the forthcoming NEC elections. I won’t mention the identity of the four delegates who disagreed with the decision, as I am sure that they were simply abiding by a branch mandate…

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Only guilty of undermining our education system...

It must be good news for Des Smith that he won’t face charges under the “cash for honours” probe – no doubt others closer to Blair hope for the same outcome. It’s just a shame there is no law against recruiting private sponsors to run Academy schools and undermine comprehensive education, contrary to UNISON policy.

Because as far as that goes Mr Smith, and New Labour, are bang to rights.

Monday, February 05, 2007

So, was it a good deal between the T&G and BA?

I blogged a while back asking if anyone could point me in the direction of a site where I could see what cabin crew in the TGWU employed by British Airways made of the settlement of the recent dispute.

The TGWU website is unequivocal and quotes several newspapers in support of the Union’s claim that the settlement is a good one.

Perhaps it is because the Indy isn’t quoted that they have today run a story suggesting that not all members are happy with the settlement. Only members may access the website of the TGWU section representing BA members – so I have no idea whether or not to believe the report in the Independent. Comments can be found in the blogosphere here and here. (The latter link comes with a health warning as it is a libertarian/anarchist site with a fair amount of ill-informed anti-union ranting…)

We need more opportunities for debate between rank and file members of different trade unions if activists in one union are to have a real understanding of what is going on in another, which is why I was so pleased when the RMT sponsored the launch of the new National Shop Stewards Network. Without an organised rank and file movement across the various trade unions we will never mobilise our collective strength as effectively as we might.

Calls for Blair to go straight?

I see from today’s Grauniad that an unnamed backbencher calls for the Prime Minister to go straight after the May elections.

That seems a little unfair as it seems to assume he will be found guilty of some misdeed and have to go straight upon his subsequent release.

Still at least his mate John will press ahead with privatisation of the criminal justice system so he can enjoy both competitive incarceration and rehabilitation should it come to that.

Of course, if I have misread the punctuation and the comment is simply about the timing of Blair’s departure then I would simply observe that the Labour Party won’t benefit from that unless we also see a change of direction.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The scandal in the papers and the real scandal

I read it at Dave’s Part rather than in the News of the World but I still learned that one school of thought is that there could be charges in the “cash for honours” inquiry. Another view, in the Observer, seems to emanate from Downing Street and is that the police inquiry is unnecessarily prolonged.

For once I can see the Blairite point of view. This is a bit of a sideshow. The real scandal is the wholesale privatisation of health, of housing, of education – and the hijacking of the party of the left by advocates of right wing policies.

Compared with all this damage to our Party and our movement the suggestion that the Government might flog off the odd peerage seems pretty small beer.

I can’t help feeling it must be time for the trade unions to punch our weight with the New Labour Government. Some of our fellow trade unions seem to have the right idea. We need more politicians who will support our unions.

Support the rights of agency workers

It is good to see UNISON supporting The Temporary Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill. Agency workers need improved legal rights – and clarity about their legal position. According to the TUC on average an agency worker earns about 70p for every pound that a permanent worker earns for doing the same job. That’s what the employers can get away with when the legal status of workers is uncertain.

The problem is that our leadership seem keen to back Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair – and Gordon is on the record in support of flexible labour forces – the acceptable code for this sort of exploitation. (Mind you he seems not to favour competition for one job in particular – of course I think UNISON would do better to encourage that competition!)

There are a number of legal changes we need – starting with the Trade Union Freedom Bill – and Gordon Brown will offer us none of what we need. Mind you, if he gets to be Prime Minister it looks increasingly likely he will be a temp…