Thursday, December 27, 2007

Another death...

Today’s news is terrible – and not just for the victim of assassination.

All the world leaders condemn the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but this looks to me like the sort of event which will mark the “New World Order” of the twenty first century. One more death among many others.

There is some sensible comment on this event. I can’t help but step back and look at where we are and how we got here.

Imperialist adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, eagerly supported by daft cheerleaders in this country, have contributed massively to destabilising an entire region.

The United States sponsored political Islam as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and now wages a nonsensical “war on terror” whilst the “terror” against which “we” are at war appears to be armed materially by elements within the Pakistani security services (“our” allies) and ideologically by the those close to the Saudi regime (also “our” allies – though not ours!)

The “war” on terror provides the perfect enemy for the single global superpower, and its (latest) demented poodle. An intangible adversary gives every opportunity for unnecessary attacks upon liberty at home , asymmetrical warfare overseas and a context for domestic austerity.

We are reaping the whirlwind that was unleashed by the fall of the wall. I was no fan of the Soviet Union (and am in no doubt that it’s collapse was a long term consequence of the betrayal of the revolution by the Stalinists) (sorry comrades). However, since the global alternative to capitalism was squashed under the wheels of a convoy of westbound Trabants (and its own failings) we have seen what this unipolar world is going to be like. It's not looking good.

For us in the UK we have a declining trade union movement and a party of “the left” which is no longer of the left. Attempts to build socialist alternatives to the Labour Party are either tragic or farcical. It is easy to fall prey to despair.

There is hope in the world of course (and our movement globally is not in decline). We have to make our own hope too though. As we think globally we have to act locally – against attacks on our class and our fellow activists.

We have to build (and rebuild) a democratic movement of working class people not only because that is how we strive for dignity and justice in the workplace right now but because our movement is the last and only hope for the future of humanity.

Might take a while though…

Monday, December 24, 2007

Season's Greetings

Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year reader to all readers of this blog (that's obviously both of you - Sid and Doris Blogger of Neasden...)

We have loads to do in 2008 so if you don't mind I shall try to relax and unwind until the end of 2007... :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Here we go, here we go, here we go?

As we were told last week, yesterday saw the launch of the TUC’s coordination of a campaign to break the Government’s 2% pay policy – full details of which are online here.

I am of course a bit of a cynic but it does worry me to read that the TUC has “called on ministers to accept in full the next round of recommendations from the various pay review bodies, if they wanted to avoid a repetition of the anger that provoked a wave of strike ballots across the public sector in 2007.”

Personally I object to pay being set by “review bodies” which pretend to neutrality rather than by the process of collective bargaining – but I recognise that there are divided views on this in the movement. However, given that the whole point of our pay campaign for the coming year is to break the 2% norm I doubt the wisdom of simply tying ourselves to whatever is recommended by the pay review bodies.

Furthermore, I don’t think we will get very far by threatening a repeat of 2007, which saw a comprehensive failure to build a united fight on pay across the public sector.

It is much more helpful to read that “the TUC campaign will also call for pay increases to reflect the true cost of living in the UK. The government insists on using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which currently stands at 2.1% as its target for pay awards. Yet working people are currently facing real inflation levels of 4.1% according to the Retail Price Index (RPI). This measure, which includes housing costs, is a more accurate and realistic reflection of the rising cost of living than the CPI.”

Whilst there is strategic political importance in breaking the 2% norm, our members will only experience any pay settlement as a victory if it at least begins to reverse the decline in living standards over recent years – this certainly means a settlement above the increase in the RPI. The TUC have also issued a report rebutting the suggestion that public sector pay increases are driving inflation.

UNISON local government branches need to remember to return the consultation pro formas to their Regional office so that the local government pay claim can be formulated. We also need to get back on track with work at local and Regional level to build direct links with rank and file members of other Unions.

For those who don’t wish to navigate the obstacle courses which can be set in the way of such sensible initiatives by over rigid interpretation of relevant UNISON guidelines, it would be a good idea to get the local Trades Council to organise a meeting early in the New Year – and to set up a Trades Council if one doesn’t exist so that it is available to enable local rank and file coordination in future.

Officially the Union is set to focus, very sensibly, upon building alliances with the key unions in each sector on a sector by sector basis – this is crucial since it would weaken us if unions with significant membership in health or local government were not part of a united fight. Locally and at a rank and file level it is important that we make links with brothers and sisters in all public sector unions – this is a political fight against a political enemy and we need to maximise our forces to secure the best outcome.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

2008 pay fight starts here?

As reported by Dave Prentis to the last UNISON NEC meeting, it is reported in today’s Observer that the TUC will this week launch a campaign on public sector pay. Although not yet on the TUC website it appears that this campaign is going to borrow the badge of “Speak Up for Public Services” which was established around the official lobby of Parliament last January.

Of course that lobby was dwarfed by the 2,000 plus strong lobby organised by the Public Services Not Private Profit Campaign in July 2006. We do need the TUC to coordinate joint action on public sector pay – but history suggests we should be cautious about the leadership of the TUC, which will itself be ultra-cautious!

However, we do have the opportunity to confront the Government over its pay policy in 2008 in the interests of our members – and in a way which we have failed in 2007. We need to put our feet up, relax and party for a couple of weeks now because next year is going to be tough...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Strike action can get results

According to the UNISON Scottish Region website, striking daycare workers in Glasgow have narrowly voted to accept a settlement and bring to an end their eight week old strike. Critics of the deal put before the strikers believe that the strikers should have held out for more. It seems that a settlement which removes the need for pay protection depends upon agreement to changes in service delivery.

From hundreds of miles away I am not in a position to say if this is a good deal or not (although clearly the strikers themselves were in two minds about settling as the vote was very close). However, this development does show that the employers can be shifted by industrial action. I hope that this is good news for UNISON members in Newham gearing up for strike action on 13 December in opposition to the disgraceful victimisation of UNISON Branch Chair, Michael Gavan.

Good luck to Newham UNISON for tomorrow’s strike!

Report to Greater London UNISON Branches - support Newham strike on 13 December - defend Karen Reissman

This is the text of a report I have made today to branches in the Greater London Region of UNISON;

I attended last night a meeting at the House of Commons at which I gained some useful information about official UNISON disputes from speakers directly involved in those disputes. I am writing to pass this information on urgently to branches in the Greater London Region.

Newham branch strike action 13 December

UNISON members in Newham local government branch are on strike tomorrow – as you may have seen on the Regional UNISON website. This strike is part of UNISON’s official dispute with Newham Council over the disgraceful sacking of Newham Branch Chair, Michael Gavan, for having undertaken trade union activities.

A rally will take place from 11.30am at the Hartley Centre in East Ham. The address is 267 Barking Road, East Ham, E6. It’s five minutes walk from East Ham Town Hall and ten minutes walk from East Ham tube, which is on the District Line.

This strike comes a day before UNISON’s claim for “interim relief” for Michael and I hope that anyone who can possibly be in Newham to support Michael and the Newham branch will do so. There can be no more important priority than support for a fellow trade unionist who has been victimised. If you can possibly cancel commitments in order to be there tomorrow please do.

Karen Reissman dispute

As you may have seen on the national UNISON website, the appeal against the dismissal of Manchester UNISON health service activist Karen Reissman was dismissed yesterday. I heard yesterday from two of the striking members of the Manchester Community and Mental Health Branch whose members are determined to secure justice for Karen and who have the full official support of UNISON.

I attach a motion adopted by a meeting of striking members of the Manchester Community and Mental Health Branch yesterday which I know that the strikers wish to draw to the attention of UNISON branches, and which sets out their views as to how the dispute should now be carried forward. (If any UNISON member would like to see a copy of the motion contact me at j.rogers@unison.co.uk).

You can keep up to date with the campaign at the campaign website as well as in the regular bulletins which are being sent out officially.

Finally, if you would like to read a report from yesterday’s meeting (which was not an official UNISON meeting) a report is available online.

Both Karen and Michael have been sacked for being dedicated and effective trade union activists and for pursuing UNISON’s policy of opposition to privatisation, I hope that all branches in Greater London will be considering how we can help and support our victimised activists.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Local Government Pay 2008 - what to ask for and how to get it?

Hat’s off to my fellow NEC blogger John McDermott – who was in ahead of me with his NEC report and has blogged since about the local government pay claim.

UNISON branches are being consulted on the claim – though we have very little time in which to give our views I am very sympathetic to the need for early agreement on a claim so that it can be submitted quickly. The NJC Committee agreed there should not be a repeat of the long and drawn out negotiations over pay that occurred this year, and that the claim should be for a headline figure of 6%. They also agreed the claim should seek to substantially increase pay at the bottom end, with a view to making progress towards a minimum hourly rate of £6.75.

The GMB has already arrived at a settled view which is to call for;

* 7% or 75p/hour increase, whichever is the greater, for a one-year deal.

* A 35 hour week with no detriment.

* 2 days additional annual leave with no detriment.

* Improvements to car mileage payments.

* An increase to the night shift allowance to achieve double time over three years.

* An increase to the sleep-in allowance to £60 per shift.

The UNISON NJC Committee are recommending that the service conditions issues should be part of a separate claim as part of the joint review of the Green Book (the national agreement). The London Regional Local Government Executive discussed this earlier in the week as I reported earlier.

My friend and comrade Malcolm Campbell expressed support for a flat rate claim – which is what I shall argue for in my branch. I’d be interested to know what other branches are thinking of.

We also need to discuss tactics for strike action over the national pay dispute which we will inevitably be having next year. Is our objective to break the 2% norm or to achieve an above inflation increase? How do we motivate those who will be or are already on pay protection as a result of Single Status to campaign for a pay rise they may not see immediately (depending upon the status of their protection)?

There’s a lot to think about.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Equal Pay - where do we go now?

I really will get my report of Wednesday’s NEC meeting written up shortly!

When I do I won’t cover in full detail the longest discussion at the meeting, as I have been able to do now for the last couple of years. That’s because the lengthy discussions on Equal Pay (including the implementation of Agenda for Change in the Health Service and Single Status in local government) concern an area in which the trade unions (not just UNISON) are embroiled in so much litigation. We are running thousands of legal cases and are also responding to a smaller – but still large – number of cases in which Union members are taking action against their Union (assisted and encouraged by a growing band of “No Win No Fee” solicitors).

The legal advice is that anything said officially by or on behalf of UNISON could end up being used – unpredictably – in evidence against the Union. It is all unpredictable because the case law in this area is continually evolving and so what it is reasonable to do one day may turn out later to have been unreasonable and wrong as the courts decide that the law always meant something different.

One consequence of all of this is that the Union isn’t really able to communicate effectively about the vast amount of work which is being done in relation to equal pay – and is also very reticent about publicising the various local disputes which have been springing up. We are also not really pursuing our campaigning agenda with the vigour that is called for, both I think because of the sheer scale of Head Office resources tied up by the litigation but also because I am not sure anyone in the union movement, or in Government, has a ready solution to the problem.

Of course we do know part of the solution – Government funding on a sufficient scale to fill the gender pay gap, providing recompense to those who have lost out and levelling up rather than down. This is the policy of UNISON and of the TUC and our Local Government Service Group lobbied Parliament along these lines in the summer. All we got was a little extra “capitalisation” (authority for local Councils to go further into debt to fund the costs of implementing Single Status).

Another bizarre consequence of the current wave of litigation is that, on legal advice, we cannot now formally debate Equal Pay at our decision making Conferences (for fear that a resolution drafted in clear and unambiguous terms could come to be evidence against the Union in a case in which, of necessity, we have had to settle for less than our initial demands). As we wait for cases to make their way to Europe this self-imposed silence is set to last for several years.

Now even our ability to communicate with our members at branch level is being inhibited. Such is the all pervading influence of the culture of litigation upon the Union that it is quite possible now that branches negotiating the best deal that they can get with an employer can be told that the Union will recommend members reject that deal, even though we have no viable strategy to improve it, because a cautious reading of developing case law suggests potential legal liability for the Union were it to recommend the deal.

I am generally among the first to criticise the recommendation to members of unsatisfactory settlements – but the place to resolve differences of this nature is within the Union movement through our democratic structures.

We have now reached a point at which, in relation to a central issue for our Union affecting many thousands of our members in a very direct way, we can do almost none of the things that a Union should do without first asking a lawyer and waiting (and waiting) for their advice.

We need to find a way out of this impasse that does not involve waiting for the end of all the litigation, otherwise we are simply failing to act as a trade union should in relation to one of our own key priorities.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Regional Local Government Executive Report

Today’s meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Executive witnessed a particularly lengthy debate around the Secretary’s report on industrial action in London local government.

Two visitors from the Barnet branch kicked off a positive discussion about support for the long running Fremantle dispute. The Committee agreed to congratulate the branch and the strikers on sustaining their dispute and to call for support for the rally at the House of Commons on 11 December and for Early Day Motion 276.

The Committee also discussed the disgraceful victimisation of Michael Gavan, Chair of Newham UNISON local government branch. It was reported that Michael’s claim for interim relief at the employment tribunal will be heard on Friday 14 November and that the Newham Branch Committee will this evening be considering whether to call for further strike action in advance of that hearing. The Committee gave its full support to UNISON’s campaign for Michael’s reinstatement and gave in principle support to any further requests for strike action which the branch may make.

The Committee also agreed to encourage a positive approach to identifying ways in which financial support can be given to victimised activists.

The Committee went on to debate the process whereby requests from branches for industrial action ballots are considered. This is clearly unsatisfactory and gives rise to avoidable delays and the Executive agreed to refer the question to the UNISON Greater London Regional Committee. Time will tell whether this will lead to any positive progress. Branches may need to consider how to put motions to National Delegate Conference to expedite industrial action requests.

The other main item of business which I should report in the time available concerns our pay claim for 2008. Branches should shortly receive a draft claim agreed by the UNISON National Joint Council (NJC) Committee on 28 November, this is for 6% and substantial progress to achieve UNISON’s (national) objective of a minimum hourly rate of £6.75 (obviously this would be higher in London). A separate claim for improvements in various service conditions would be submitted as part of the review of the Green Book which has been jointly agreed.

Branches will have a short period to consult upon the offer and may wish to consider whether a flat rate claim would not be better than a percentage. A flat rate increase of £1,400 would pretty much achieve the uprating of the minimum hourly rate whilst distributing the benefits to all lower paid workers not just the lowest paid.

Whatever claim we settle upon the good news is that the intention is to lodge the claim in January with a view to taking a decision on the employers’ offer after 31 March. So we need to be preparing for strike action now.

Finally, congratulations to Croydon UNISON and their Branch Secretary Malcolm Cambell for securing an agreement on the pay and grading review (and to David Eggmore, Chair of the Executive for getting us through most of our Agenda this morning!)