Thursday, May 15, 2008

Leadership at the Regional Committee...

Today’s meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Committee ploughed through a fair bit of business. I will pick out a few important items here.

Industrial action ballots

One point about which I asked was the problem – long identified by the Regional Local Government Executive – of delays in approving requests from branches for industrial action ballots. A meeting between the Regional Secretary and the Chair and Secretary of the Regional Local Government Committee, which was due to take place after the last meeting in March, is still outstanding. The Regional Secretary was able to able to assure the Committee in response to my question that the issue of “perceived delays” would be discussed. I look forward to hearing more…

A number of branches have experience of excessive delays in the processing of requests for industrial action ballots, sometimes leading to the Union achieving a less satisfactory result of our members than if the requests had been dealt with more promptly.

Regional pool applications

I also asked about payments to branches from the Regional Pool to assist in recruitment and organising initiatives. Both of the co-Chairs of the Recruitment and Organisation Committee were swift to respond with assurances that branches should make applications – details are online here (soon to be updated). Branches should consider applying to the Regional Pool in order to provide a shot in the arm to their recruitment activities.

Public sector pay

The debate about public sector pay produced some interesting contributions from supporters of the Regional Council Officers elected in February. While a number of experienced Regional Committee members made balanced contributions reflecting on the challenge which is posed for the Union by the members’ rejection of the local government pay offer – others seemed hostile to strike action almost on principle.

The Deputy Regional Convenor said that health workers would not vote to strike, a view echoed (in relation to low paid members in his own branch) by a fellow Regional Committee member from the health service who was particularly agitated about calls for strike action being made by higher paid health workers, such as nurses. The Regional Finance Convenor reported that his shop were unanimously opposed to strike action, and the Regional Publicity Officer that she would take her mandate from the members of her branch who had voted by a majority to accept the employers’ offer.

Unfortunately none of those making contributions to the debate along these lines offered any suggestions for other strategies which could be adopted in order to prevent the Government and employers forcing through below-inflation pay rises which reduce our members’ living standards. In a lay led trade union those elected to leadership positions need to take their responsibilities a little more seriously.

It was left to Malcolm Campbell of the Croydon branch, in the final contribution of the debate on pay to make the obvious point that those who can least afford to take strike action are often also those who are least able to afford not to take such action. In the absence of any alternative strategy, those repeating the tedious mantra of opposition to strike action advocate by default doing nothing and watching the living standards of our members fall.

The London and local elections

The debate about the outcome of the London elections, kicked off by an overview from the Regional Secretary was also marked by widely divergent opinions.

In relation to the overall results, I expressed the view that the trade unions need to prepare for the unwelcome eventuality of a Conservative Government because – as Sonya Howard from true-blue Kensington and Chelsea pointed out – we have to work with whoever is elected in order to represent our members.

I argued that we should push harder for union policies in our arguments with the Labour Party and Labour Government both because those policies would be more popular – and more likely to lead to the re-election of a Labour Government – and because, if there is a change of Government, we might as well try to get as much as we can beforehand.

The Regional Finance Convenor, a zealous convert to the cause of Labour, felt that I was quite wrong and that the Tories were most unlikely to win the next General Election. He argued that we should avoid calling strikes, lobbies and rallies in order to help to assure this outcome.

As a Labour Party member of some twenty eight years standing I very much want to see a fourth term for the Labour Government rather than the only alternative Government on offer – which would be led by David Cameron. However the first job of a trade union is to stick up for our members. We can do this with industrial or with political action.

The prescription being offered by a number of colleagues today appeared to amount to opposition to industrial action with political action limited to support for the re-election of a Labour Government. I look forward with interest to the coherent articulation of this fascinating project by the Regional lay leadership.

While we are waiting for this I suggest that our priorities must be to campaign for industrial action over pay, and to organise maximum attendance at the TUC lobby of Parliament on 9 June. Those who know only what won’t work and can offer no positive suggestions will best serve the members by quiet contemplation.

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