Monday, June 30, 2008

No such thing as a free lunch?

One optimistic reading of the story in today’s Guardian – that UNISON’s key demand upon the Government is an extension of free school meals – is that we wish to intervene in the education of children in order to contest the received economic wisdom reflected in the title of this post.

I shall resist drawing too many judgements until I have verified the reports, but I am struck by the absolute necessity for the review of UNISON’s political funds as called for by our National Delegate Conference, which – thanks to the successful amendment from the NEC – is intended “to scrutinise and reform operations and functional processes to ensure the highest levels of transparency, participation and activity.” With luck we will be able to work out how the apparent priority for our Labour Party intervention has been set in the light of the agreed policies of our Union.

Our Conference agreed some key policy priorities just a couple of weeks ago. Under our Rules, UNISON Labour Link is not, of course, directly accountable to our Conference. However, Conference has previously expressed the view that there should be “an appropriate degree of accountability between the APF and the union's structures at branch, regional and national levels.”

Therefore, some of the demands agreed at Conference, in relation to (for example) economic policy or trade union rights, might be taken to be the priorities which our Union ought to pursue when an opportunity to influence the Party of Government presents itself to us. UNISON Labour Link should take these priorities into account when deciding upon demands to place upon a Labour Government.

I do not mean to denigrate the importance of free school meals (no one who spends time making packed lunches would do that). Adequate nutritious school meals are vital to the education of our children. But if we have decided that this is our number one demand of the Government at the present time, how and by whom was this decision taken?

If, as the Guardian suggests, we have pitched demands at a level which we don’t think will benefit the Tories (because they are so gentle that New Labour can accept them without too much trouble) then who decided that this was a wise strategy? There are others out here who want a fourth term Labour Government and believe that the only slender chance for this is if the Party takes a dramatic turn towards the interests of its supporters. The progressive policy agenda set by UNISON Conference is probably the only hope for a Labour Government in 2010 – but if UNISON Labour Link won’t push wholeheartedly and enthusiastically for that agenda what chance will we have?

There are those who want the review of the political funds to be a debate about whether we build, here and now, a political alternative to the Labour Party. Perhaps I have contracted poverty of aspiration from too close association with those determining the policies of UNISON Labour Link, but my personal objective is less dramatic.

I would just like to know why we fail time and again to make any effective use of our relationship with the Labour Party, and whether there are enough UNISON members who care about this to find a way to do something about it.

Otherwise, we’ll be selling our birthright for a mess of mashed potato…

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

UNISON agrees to review our political fund

The useful UNISON Conference database is obviously still being updated as this link does not (yet?) take you to Motion 63 (as amended), which was the motion around which National Delegate Conference spent much of its Friday afternoon.

I have made some general comment already about the wider political context of this debate, but I think it is worth being clear about what was agreed by the Conference following this debate. There have been other comments on the debate – some measured and responsible and some plain daft. Before considering some other Conference decisions I thought I should clarify what the outcome of the debate on Friday afternoon was (as opposed to how it felt).

Conference has instructed the National Executive Council to “carry out a full review of the political fund arrangements involving the affiliated political fund, general political fund, service groups, self organised groups, regions and branches, to scrutinise and reform operations and functional processes to ensure the highest levels of transparency, participation and activity and to report to Conference on this.”
Also thanks to an amendment from the Islington branch supported in a last minute U turn by the NEC, Conference has instructed the NEC to “include in the review, regional APF (Labour Link) structures and operation” and “also include in the review the set up of the two national political committees and consider expanding the directly elected seats and reducing the indirectly elected seats to the National APF (Labour Link) committee.”

In another last minute U turn the NEC also supported an amendment from Somerset County which reminded Conference of the decision taken three years ago to instruct the NEC to publish the voting record of the UNISON group of MPs. (I think that my NEC colleagues had better get on with the proper implementation of this particular decision before someone else embarrasses us by doing it for us!)

The two NEC U turns on these amendments were classics of their kind. At the NEC before Conference attempts from the left to secure support for these sensible amendments were knocked back. Labour Link Chair Steve Warwick notably commented in respect of the Somerset amendment that he knew what the Somerset County branch were like! Looking down at an angry Conference floor discretion rapidly became the better part of valour.

(As Rodney didn’t say ten years ago – if it looks like a chicken and it clucks like a chicken…)

Since the UNISON NEC has decided not to meet until October, the implementation of this decision will probably fall to the Objective Three Scrutiny Group. There may be some who will wish to give the implementation of this decision relatively low priority.

I hope they don’t prevail since from every point of view a real and thorough review of the effectiveness of our political funds would be a good thing. Obviously those who want to see disaffiliation will wish to express that view – but those of us who want the Labour Link to be more effective also have a vested interest in an effective review.

It would take a truly heroic refusal to face reality to view the decision of Conference to prioritise Motion 63 for debate as anything other than a vote of no confidence in the current conduct of the Labour Link – those who supported the NEC amendment did not do so by and large because they believe that we are getting what we should out of our relationship with the Labour Party.

There are structural problems (such as the method of election of our Regional Labour Link Committee, which was undemocratic when the Committee was on the left and remains undemocratic now that it is not). The most important problem though is political not structural.

Nominating Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership was craven stupidity. We have achieved precisely nothing as a result. Those who promoted this decision are notably silent at the moment, which is the most sense they have made politically for some time.

Rank and file UNISON members do not have to remain silent about the Union’s political work however. The review of our political funds which Conference has decided must now take place will be an opportunity for us to reconsider our approach to political campaigning.

Since branches, Regions et al will be involved in this review it is entirely sensible to start putting motions now to branch meetings and Regional Councils with proposals for how to participate in this review when, as it has been instructed to, the NEC sets out to involve other parts of the Union in the review.

If any of the supporters of Gordon Brown on the National Labour Link Committee would like to debate the way forward, you know where to find me comrades.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Conference Rule Amendment on legal assistance

It seems that my earlier optimism about the UNISON Conference database may have been premature, since the link to the rule amendment on the qualifying period for legal assistance is also not working (yet).

Other UNISON bloggers have reported on this as it was agreed, or commented since (accurately or otherwise) but it is an important decision and merits some further comment.

With effect from the end of this year’s National Delegate Conference, UNISON members need only four, rather than thirteen, weeks’ membership under their belt before having the full entitlement to legal assistance which is available to full members of the Union.

This rule amendment was put by the National Executive Council (NEC) in 2006 and was roundly defeated. Last year, Croydon branch led the charge and the proposal was only narrowly defeated. This year Glasgow Caledonian University branch won the two thirds majority which was required.

The intention of the rule amendment is to assist recruitment of new members. The core of the opposition to the amendment was the view that we ought not to be in the business of helping those “free riders” who avoid joining the Union until they need our assistance.

I think that the new approach, reflected in the successful rule amendment, is the right approach to suit the environment in which we are organising now, in the twenty first century. Union density in many public sector employers is below 50% - and we have to target employees of private contractors where density may be far lower, and employers overtly hostile.

In these circumstances we need to be able to use all the tools at our disposal as swiftly as possible to defend and promote the interests of our members. It’s no good marching in to an unorganised workplace and signing up the members if we then twiddle our thumbs for three months before taking any necessary legal action.

Now we need to turn our minds to how we subordinate our legal activities to our organising agenda – and whether the current approach of restricting tribunal representation to lawyers really delivers for us.

Legal action may be vital to protect the interests of an individual member, but to advance the collective interests of our members it ought to come a poor third to industrial and political activity. This Rule Change is not a short cut to recruitment and it will only help to build UNISON if we can make UNISON a Union our members want to build.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Union all over the news!

I was just going to bed when Heather Wakefield appeared on Newsnight speaking up for local government workers and that got me thinking about what we should be doing with this high profile.

Sometimes, clearly, you issue a press release and it gets covered.

Here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and – well you get the point I am sure.

UNISON has the opportunity to maximise media coverage because of the vote by our local government members in favour of strike action over pay in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I’ll be back to this topic again – for now I want to make the point that we need to step up recruitment activity among workers affected by this pay dispute. If you are a local government worker reading this and are not already a member – join now!

Democracy debate at UNISON Conference

Whilst the Conference database on the UNISON website now includes decisions of last week’s National Delegate Conference, the detail of Motion 45 on Democracy in UNISON is not yet up properly (but I am hoping that the link will work soon).

The motion was debated on Thursday afternoon and the outcome of the debate was moderately good for democrats in the Union.

The origins of this motion were, more than anything else, in the dissatisfaction felt by the Scottish health branches at the absurdity of the attempts in 2007 to threaten disciplinary action against branches making recommendations in a pay ballot in which the national leadership had refused to make a recommendation.

The main motion called for a review of UNISON’s democratic processes and an amendment from Lambeth which made it on to the agenda (as other amendments did not) sought to reinforce the rights of branches and other UNISON bodies (and members) to campaign, including making their own recommendations in such circumstances.

The NEC agreed to support (with qualifications) the amendment from the Lambeth branch, which was accepted by the Scottish Region in moving the main motion. The motion, as amended, passed overwhelmingly.

The NEC accepted that branches have the right to campaign (which is a significant step forward from where we were last year!) However, the majority of my NEC colleagues would probably endorse the qualification expressed by Chris Tansley, which is that the NEC don’t think that individual members of Service Group Executives should be permitted to campaign against SGE decisions.

There will now be a review of our democratic processes and activists need to engage with this review in order to press home the point about the rights of branches, and also to debate the question of “collective responsibility” as it applies to members elected to leadership bodies. I think it is reasonable to expect members of a Committee to explain the decisions of the Committee when reporting back, whether or not they agreed with them. However – as regular readers of this blog may realise – I also think it is OK to express personal opinions.

As busy as we should and will be fighting the Government’s pay freeze it is important that we do not take our eye off the ball of union democracy. I shall comment further after the meeting of the NEC Development and Organisation Committee on 9 July.

Adrift in a political storm?

The Conference database is online – so you can check out decisions from last week in Bournemouth as it is updated. I have been thinking a bit about the political context within which our discussions took place.

From one perspective the week at UNISON Conference saw a series of debates take place in which there was an underlying theme of delegates questioning the link with the Labour Party – and this theme finally found clear expression in a debate on the Friday afternoon in which the Conference narrowly accepted an NEC amendment to a motion from the Bromley branch in what was seen as a rebuff to those seeking disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

I think that this perspective sees less than a quarter of what was going on at Conference. The anger which certainly exists amongst UNISON activists is directed primarily against the Government and, for some, secondarily against our own leadership who are seen as not doing enough.

There are those who are angry with the Government and yet supportive of the leadership – and amongst those who are critical of the leadership there are advocates of disaffiliation, but also many (including many Labour Party members) who do not want to break the link with the Party but rather to use it more effectively. (Indeed the NEC would not have won their amendment on Friday afternoon without the support on this occasion of some of those critics, notably from the Scottish Health branches).

The long standing crisis of political representation of the working class becomes more pronounced with each passing year, and is expressed not only in the distance between the Labour Party in Government and millions of trade union members, but also in the withering connection between the experience of the millions and the articulation of that experience on our behalf by our leadership.

The anger expressed by Conference delegates was the product of the frustration of ordinary members experiencing a pay freeze in the context of privatisation, job insecurity, spiralling workloads and a workplace culture in which bullying is seen in too many cases as good and effective management practice.

This frustration on the part of hundreds of thousands of our members is given voice as anger by hundreds of activists particularly when we do not hear our leadership articulating these feelings unless they are gift wrapped in warm words about the many good things for which we have to thank the Government.

Time after time delegates came to the rostrum to express this anger and frustration, but the process whereby the agenda was constructed had left few points at which Conference could be invited to take a decision to express an opinion about the causes of this crisis – or about how the Union should respond in a general way.

When we got to Friday afternoon we had a motion which called not for disaffiliation but for a review of our political funds reporting back to Conference with a view towards a ballot of our members, which was amended by the NEC, not to express opposition to disaffiliation but to change the nature of the review which is now to take place. (The drafters of what was reasonably called a “wrecking amendment” may have intended when writing it to bury the review but politics has moved on and this will not now be possible.)

The NEC amendment was carried fairly narrowly with a majority of 60,000 on a card vote. The importance of the vote itself was largely symbolic and may have left a number of my NEC colleagues travelling home from Bournemouth feeling somehow vindicated in the political leadership which they may believe that they have been giving to our Union. This would almost certainly be unwise – it is certainly unjustified.

The political context in which UNISON Conference took place is one in which the candidate backed enthusiastically by our Union leadership for the leadership of the Labour Party has, as Prime Minister, turned out if anything to be worse for our members than his predecessor. The response of the Labour Party leadership to catastrophic election results, which almost certainly presage a Tory Government, has been to cling to the mantra of “modernisation” which means an intensification of the pressures giving rise to anger and frustration at the base of our Union.

The very limited material basis for a policy of rapprochement with the Labour leadership in return for occasional concessions and modest redistribution, which has been the hallmark of the past eleven years, is vanishing from beneath the feet not just of UNISON’s leadership but of the leadership of the TUC.

In these circumstances delegates could reasonably have expected to come to Conference to debate an Emergency Motion from the NEC on the outcome of the May elections and to be given a clear indication of a new direction for our Union to build our strength to defend our members against Governments of either colour and to campaign for our policies in a determined and energetic fashion, building alliances with those who agree with us rather than giving succour to those who do not.

Unfortunately all we were ever going to have was a statement from the NEC – and then we did not even have that. At Conference, the NEC was presented, at our 8.30am meeting on Wednesday, with what appeared to be an unfinished draft of a statement obviously based upon the earlier drafting of a motion which had subsequently been abandoned. Although titled – rather boldly – a “Plan of Political Action” it was in fact a rather short shopping list of demands to place upon the Government which did not even go as far as Conference policy already had.

As a sop to the floor of Conference it would have been a disaster so perhaps it is just as well that when the NEC was informed on the following morning (as if we had not always known) that under our Rules such a statement could neither be amended nor debated by Conference this was used as the occasion for the NEC to refer this sad little statement to our own Policy Committee meeting in July rather than embarrass ourselves by showing it to Conference.

In the absence of a keynote political intervention from the leadership of the Union, the simmering anger of the Conference was channelled into fairly sterile knockabout shadow boxing about the Labour Link, distinguished by anonymous red-baiting leaflets on the Conference floor and ersatz anger from our Deputy General Secretary.

Why, in these most difficult of times, is UNISON drifting rudderless into the coming political storm? I’ll be sure to ask at the next NEC meeting, just as soon as there is one…

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pining for an NEC meeting...

UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) – of which I am a member – is supposed to run the Union in between meetings of our Conference. In previous years the NEC has met in July and, as part of that meeting, has received a report noting the decisions of Conference and confirming to which of its Committees it is referring the implementation of those decisions.

This year, for the first time, the NEC will not meet after Conference until October, as a result of an earlier decision of the NEC itself (which I did not support).

Conference has agreed, by accepting Motion 63 as amended to review the operation of our political funds, yet the NEC as a whole will not have an opportunity to express an opinion about how to implement this decision until October. NEC members who are not members of that august body “the Objective 3 Scrutiny Group” may have little involvement.

Conference has agreed, by accepting Motion 45 as amended, to instruct the NEC to review our democratic processes and to report back to Conference 2009 - such a report would need to be concluded by February and the NEC as a whole will not be able to consider this matter at all until just four months before that deadline.

The work being carried out to review our branch and service group structures, following last year's Conference decision will be discussed by the Development and Organisation Committee in July, but not (as things stand) by the whole NEC until October at the earliest.

There will be no opportunity for the NEC as a whole to discuss or agree a timely contribution to the SOC Review of Conference, a great shame in the light of the interesting comments of the Chair of SOC in introducing SOC Report No. 2.

Overall, I think that many members would consider that the NEC are abdicating our responsibility to the membership by failing to meet - except to deal with Conference business at Conference - for four months between our June and October meetings.

I have commented recently about how it seems to me that the role of the NEC is being undermined at present. I have a bit of a sense of our Union as somewhat rudderless – it is the responsibility of our NEC to do something about this, and I hope that we will accept that responsibility and not leave it to a range of smaller and less accountable bodies.

Back from Conference

There are also a lot of official reports of the Conference which were coming out promptly during the Conference week. UNISON’s use of electronic communications is beginning to catch up with the twenty first century! It is a shame that there were not more television screens on which to watch the Conference around the Centre, as this makes it easier to do the necessary networking and other work without missing out on Conference debates.

With the benefit of hindsight of the week as a whole I will make some belated comments on particular debates over the next few days as I find the time, with a view to thinking about what UNISON activists need to do now in the light of the decisions which we have taken at our Conference.

Before I start thinking about the broader political lessons of the week, I’ll start with some observations about Conference procedure. The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) will be having their annual review of Conference – although the NEC won’t be able to make a collective contribution having decided not to meet now until October (about which more later). Regions will be consulted and branches who want to make their voices heard should check with their Region how the Region will be responding (but could also contact SOC members directly I am sure).

SOC – Pre-Conference procedure

SOC themselves need to address the problems reflected in the large proportion of motions ruled out of order – which in a small number of cases SOC recognised by changing their minds before and during Conference week. The Chair of SOC in introducing the second SOC report on Tuesday morning suggested that efforts might be made to find a way of giving advice to branches on how to ensure that motions and Rule Amendments are in order. As a colleague from the London Region said to me on Monday evening, UNISON provides training to help our activists in almost every area of Union activity, with the exception of training and assistance in the governance of the Union.

If SOC met in December (say) they could consider motions submitted well ahead of the Conference deadline and, where these were ruled out of order, could give some general advice about how the movers might seek to achieve their objectives without being ruled out. This would only formalise and make more helpful the informal advice which is already given (although I have experience of submitting motions based upon informal advice given one year only to see them ruled out of order the following year…)

As I have observed before, the rulings of SOC have become more restrictive year on year. Debates which we had in the past (about the election of officials for example) would not now be permitted and – each year – new categories of “out of order” motions seem to arise. It is clear that SOC believe that the endorsement of an SOC report by Conference one year reflects a real and binding acceptance of their rulings, rather than simply a pragmatic and slightly weary attempt to get on with as much debate as is possible in unsatisfactory circumstances. Conference is supposed to run the Union, not to be an extended rally at which delegates debate motions supported by the NEC whilst making speeches critical of the leadership. Branches who are dissatisfied with the way things are going should engage with SOC over the coming year – it is no good waiting until we get to Conference next year to express our disappointment.

Rostrum Control and Speakers Lists
The procedures around rostrum control need to be reviewed if comments which I heard from a number of different delegates are to be believed. Keeping speakers lists for contentious debates is an accepted practice which has dramatically reduced squabbles at the front of the Conference about who is speaking when. However the practice only works if there is confidence that speakers are listed in the order in which their names are given in. Such confidence can easily (and probably quite unjustifiably) be shaken – particularly when there are very obvious attempts to “carve out” certain speakers…

Before I was elected to the NEC I was often involved in “floor organising” at Conference and – as a general rule – I found that the process of selecting speakers at UNISON Conference was fair and even (once you understood it) transparent. It would be a great shame if delegates came to believe that this had ceased to be the case.

Conference bulletins
Accepting that I may have a slightly jaundiced view on this, I was disappointed that the bulletins produced by the Regions for Conference delegates appear to be becoming increasingly anodyne as the years go by. This year the Young Members decided not to produce a bulletin. The London Region bulletin is a shadow of its former self, there being more controversy on most restaurant menus than in the pages of “London Calling”.

Over the years paid officials, acting on behalf of the NEC have successfully asserted authority over the lay officials, accountable to their Regional Councils and Committees, who produce the Regional bulletins. This is part and parcel of the continuing drive to turn Conference from a debating chamber into a “showcase” for the Union. I am not in favour of controversy for its own sake, and there are important issues on which we have a consensus that deserves to find expression in Conference debate. However, a Conference devoid of controversy would be a pointless event.

It is an amusing irony that dissenting messages have to be spelt out in code in Conference bulletins, but this ought not to be necessary.

Our members don’t, I think, want to bear the cost of a Conference at which we gather primarily to congratulate one another on the foresight and wisdom shown by our lay leadership in doing the bidding of the decisionmakers.

Debate in closed session
One thing that worked well was the closed session on Wednesday morning. Clearly we could have done this last year or the year before – and it is a sensible precaution to take when there is a fear that discussion may place the Union in legal jeopardy.

We should have a private session again next year since issues around Equal Pay won’t have gone away (and if we can debate branch funding for Equal Pay without the world ending we should be able to debate our general policy in the same way?) Of course there should be no live blogging during a closed session.

The cost of our Conference is worth paying if Conference is a genuine occasion for the membership of the Union to hold its leadership to account. However we cannot restore Conference to democratic life during a single week by the seaside.

UNISON members who believe that dissent, debate and disagreement are as much part of our trade union heritage as loyalty and solidarity need to engage, during the coming year with the various reviews which are now taking place, not least the SOC’s review of Conference.

Trade union democracy is for life, not just for Conference…

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Local Government Spending and Pay

Today is the first day of UNISON Local Government Conference at which I will be a delegate. I won't try live blogging today. This morning we debate local government spending cuts "efficiency savings", local strategic partnerships and shared services.

This afternoon we turn our attention to local government pay. In classic Conference style everything seems to be in one composite (Composite A) and so it is anyone's guess whether the real differences of opinion which exist within the Union will find expression on the floor of Conference.

Yesterday delegates arrived and had a series of pre-meetings. For me there were two highlights of the London Region delegates' pre-meeting. The first was the contribution from the Fremantle dispute. Maggi and Lango from the Barnet branch gave an impassioned plea for support for their long running fight for justice and against the consequences of privatisation.

The second highlight was - for me - a presentation by Malcolm from the Croydon branch to Jean Geldart, who is retiring as Chair of the Local Government Service Group. Some activists in the Region had taken the opportunity to offer Jean a small token of some of our appreciation for her 37 years of activism.

Jean referred to the Fremantle dispute as an example of the campaigning work of the Union of which she was so proud. I hope that this won't be the last reference to Fremantle during the course of both Local Government and National Delegate Conference.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A good result for European Workers

In the light of this news which is in line with the policies of UNISON and the TUC I just want to point out that my great grandmother came from County Cork and that for the duration of UNISON Conference I shall self-identify as Irish.

A Government which adopted the approach to management of the economy set out in Motion 49 to UNISON National Delegate Conference would rapidly run up against constraints imposed by our membership of the European Union.

The “European project” as it is now is a project to make a polity fit for global capitalism in which even mild social democratic policies are beyond the competence of national Governments. The left needs to find a positive alternative which transcends simple minded Europhobia.



Friday, June 13, 2008

Support the MPs who really deserve it

Rather than pay too much attention to some Tory with apparently genuine libertarian leanings, trade unionists should be supporting and congratulating those Labour MPs who stood up for what was right on Wednesday, rather than what was expedient.

Labour MPs who stood by the best traditions of our movement and did not vote to increase the powers of the state to deny people their liberty faced considerable pressure from the whips. While some serial rebels are pretty much immune to this pressure (or are ignored by the whips now!) others deserve our particular respect for sticking to their guns – and speaking up.

I sent the following message yesterday to members of the UNISON group of MPs who voted against the Government on Wednesday;

“Dear comrades,

I am writing to those members of the UNISON group of Labour MPs who voted last night to oppose the extension of detention without trial to thank you for your courage and determination in doing the right thing for the country, the Party and the labour and trade union movement.

UNISON and the other trade unions have clear policies in support of civil liberties. It is shameful that our Government has acted as it has.

It is only because we can point to principled Parliamentary representatives such as yourselves that those of us within UNISON who believe that the trade unions should continue fighting for our policies within the Party can hold our heads up.

Thank you.”

If you agree that the business of the labour movement should not be to empower the state to restrict our freedoms, why not send a message of support to those of our Parliamentary representatives who stood by us?

If it were not for people prepared to stand up and speak truth to power we would not have a trade union movement – and then all the UNISON delegates on our way to Bournemouth would be going for no more than the beach.

(Although of course if we did not have a trade union movement we wouldn’t have enough time off to go to the beach in the first place…)

And as for those UNISON-linked MPs who thought it more important to try to breath life into the political corpse that is Gordon Brown rather than defend the rights of ordinary people, well perhaps they should be detained in the Conference Centre after we all leave – for 42 days perhaps?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Regional Council highlights problems in London

It was disappointing (if not, perhaps, unexpected) that last Thursday’s meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Council was not quorate. When Geoff Martin was our Regional Convenor we regularly had quorate meetings of the Regional Council in addition to our Annual Meeting.

Since then (correct me if I am wrong) I don’t think we have had a quorum except at the Annual Meeting, which is far better attended than in the past. Last Thursday was no exception to this unfortunate rule.

The meeting nevertheless provided a useful opportunity to hear about the local government pay dispute from Jean Geldart, who is standing down as Chair of UNISON’s Local Government Service Group next week having been a leading figure in UNISON and NALGO for thirty years. An experienced and respected lay leader who can work with, but not under the direction of, paid officials has much to teach some of our leading lights today.

During questions to Jean it came to light that Greater London is one of two Regions to have omitted several non-local authority employers from the strike ballot owing to a misreading of a national circular. This sort of error is unacceptable and this one needs to be addressed urgently.

The meeting then heard from Labour London Assembly member, Joanne McCartney, who was keen to distance the London Labour Group from national policies, and from Jeremy Corbyn who reported from Parliament, including on his opposition to attacks upon our civil liberties.

The final speaker, Ben Thom from Press for Change gave a thorough and interesting overview of the current position in relation to the rights of transgender people in the workplace. It was unfortunate that the Chair refused to permit a representative of the LGBT self-organised group to make a brief announcement about how UNISON activists could carry forward the issues which the speaker had raised – an omission which I hope will be rectified very soon.

The lack of quorate Regional Council meetings is a symptom of the poor health of UNISON’s lay structures in the Region (as is disrespectful treatment of activists). This is, I am sure, a topic which activists will wish to discuss when we gather shortly in Bournemouth. Although should we meet in a coffee bar (or even a bar) to chat about anything at all we must remember that we will be doing so outside the Rules…

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Local Government workers - vote YES for strike action!

Rather than cross post the whole thing – here is a link to the Lambeth branch blog post on the strike ballot. Other branches are saying similar things (if rather better technically!).

Let’s all do whatever we can to get the vote out now. The official “Vote YES” leaflet is straightforward and persuasive – give out some more copies today!

Health service pay - why was that then?

Our members in health have spoken – and accepted the three year pay deal worth about 8% over three years.

If inflation exceeds 8% over this period then the “reopener clause” may be explored. However the Health Secretary who might refuse to reopen pay negotiations with health workers before 2011 is strikingly similar to the Education Secretary who refused to reopen pay negotiations with teachers last year, when asked to do so.

Most likely there will be no national pay negotiations – and no overall national pay disputes – in the National Health Service until the run up to 1 April 2011. I fear that health workers may be faced with declining living standards over this period.

I’ll be interested to read the views of fellow bloggers in UNISON and beyond about the reasons for this outcome, and will look forward to discussion with health workers at Conference. The differential outcomes of the consultative ballots in different Unions are worth further thought and debate.

In the mean time we have a strike ballot to get the vote out for in local government…

Update – Gill George, a member of the UNITE NEC has some interesting things to say about what health workers should now do about their pay.

UNISON NEC report

I have posted up most of my report to London UNISON branches in (more or less) bite sized chunks on this blog.

If any UNISON members in Greater London would like the full report contact me at j.rogers@unison.co.uk.

UNISON to appeal Certification Officer decisions

UNISON's NEC meeting on Wednesday did not have this item on its agenda - but questions were raised anyway.

It was reported to the NEC that the Presidential Team had decided to appeal against decisions of the Certification Officer in the cases of Yunus Bakhsh and Tony Staunton. I queried the rationale for spending money on these appeals in the specific circumstances of the cases in question. The NEC was treated to a robust response from the Deputy General Secretary who said that the Union was appealing on legal advice.

Coincidentally this will mean that any attempt to raise at Conference the important questions about the conduct of our Union raised in these cases will be given short shrift.

I will report further on this in due course.

Labour Party not bankrupt - official..

Discussion at the UNISON NEC has clearly put to rest all worries and concerns about the state of Labour Party finances.

A number of NEC members – myself included – had been asking about press reports concerning the state of the finances of the Labour Party, the potential legal liability of individual members of the Labour Party NEC and the implications for UNISON should we indemnify our members of the Labour Party NEC. In a nutshell what I was told was that the NEC would have the power to indemnify our members of the Labour Party NEC and would be recommended to do so should that ever be necessary but it never would be necessary as the whole thing was just misleading press reporting.

So that’s alright then?

Who runs our Union?

A couple of items discussed at last week's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council raised - for me - concerns about governance and accountability in the Union.

The Chair of the NEC Staffing Committee, Bob Oram, gave the NEC a verbal report which covered among other things, the recruitment of new organising staff.

I had queried why a detailed report on this appeared to have been given to the Service Group Liaison Committee in March but had not been given to either the NEC or its Development and Organisation Committee. The Chair of the SLGC (Jane Carolan) had already explained to me that the report had been received because the Committee had asked for it – which is fair enough.

However I am concerned that important areas of the NEC’s overall responsibility for management of the Union are slipping away into other less accountable forums.

The Service Group Liaison Committee, consisting of Service Group Chairs and a small number of leading NEC members is one such body, another is the regular forum for Regional Convenors and Regional Secretaries, of which our President commented that upon being invited to that meeting she had learned things that she hadn’t known – but then she is only the senior lay member of the Union…

Happily the Chair of the Staffing Committee said he would be only too pleased to provide written reports.

Another issue raising questions of governance in the Union is the current review of UNISON’s service group structures, discussed at Conference last year, which will not be on the agenda for this year’s Conference – but there will be discussion at the Development and Organisation Committee in July and the NEC in the autumn. This will follow on from discussion within the Service Group Executives. There has also been consultation with Regional Convenors so we can anticipate some discussion at the Regional Committee.

Options under consideration include eliminating Service Groups from our structure all together and also rearranging our service group structures in ways which merge smaller service groups and reduce the size of the local government service group. Whilst no one thinks our current structures are perfect, no particularly coherent argument has yet been advanced for any of the competing options under discussion.

Branches should probably be alert to the possibility that next year we will see an attempt at an “enabling” Rule Amendment which would permit the NEC to restructure the Union, although this idea will probably have met well-deserved oblivion before we get to Conference 2009.

UNISON's TUC delegation to be better behaved in future...?

The NEC received a report dealing with the composition and conduct of our delegation to the Annual Congress of the TUC.

This dealt first of all with the question of whether or not seats on the TUC delegation should be open to job-sharing. The NEC agreed a recommendation that this should no longer be possible on the grounds that if all the seats were job-shared the expense would be considerable.

The NEC also agreed that – in future – individual members of the TUC delegation will not be permitted to propose motions or amendments for consideration by the delegation for submission to the TUC. Motions will now only be accepted from “constituent bodies” of the TUC delegation (i.e. the NEC – who will delegate this to the Policy Committee, the Regions, Self-Organised Groups and Service Groups).

As a serial offender when it comes to the crime of submitting motions to the TUC delegation I will be disappointed if this move leads to the TUC delegation becoming as lively as the NEC. However I suppose the challenge to those who want to see positive development of UNISON policies is to ensure that the constituent bodies of the TUC delegation are alive to the importance of engaging with the discussion about what items are put before the TUC in our name. From the point of view of the Region it is too late to address the question of what to submit to this year’s TUC but in future years we could mandate our members of the delegation to pursue particular issues of concern to our members.

Keep the NHS Working Campaign

The UNISON NEC on Wednesday received a report on campaigning activity in defence of the NHS during 2008 which covered, among other areas, the following;

NHS Next Stage Review – UNISON submission

In January, UNISON provided written evidence to Junior Health Minister Lord Darzi’s NHS Next Stage Review. The response highlighted a number of practical solutions to problems around issues such as Agenda for Change and the implementation of the Knowledge and Skills Framework. It also included more ambitious recommendations, such as reintegrating purchaser and provider functions, and alternatives to markets in primary care. In addition, officers have taken a number of opportunities to engage with the review at stakeholder events, NHS values seminars and private meetings with Lord Darzi.

The submission also addressed the issue of an NHS constitution, which is an increasingly likely prospect as we approach the 60th anniversary of the NHS. UNISON argued that the constitution has the potential to be a useful device for restating the founding principles of the NHS in a modern format, but that, for it to be a truly worthwhile exercise, it needs to be legally binding on all providers of healthcare. This would give patients, staff and the public the confidence that their NHS remains sacrosanct even when reforms are taking place, and would provide a bulwark against any initiatives to break up the NHS that future governments might embark upon.

NHS Constitution Survey

In an initiative to engage with UNISON members over the future of the NHS, we undertook a survey to canvass members’ views – both as NHS workers and as NHS users. The survey asks members to comment on the key principles that they would want included in an NHS constitution. It was launched at health conference and closes at the end of May. An analysis of the responses will be the subject of a briefing and press release at National Delegate Conference. The results will be used as evidence to support UNISON’s position when lobbying government and employers to secure adequate protections for health workers faced with reorganisation or upheaval due to the impact of continuing NHS reforms.

NHS 60th Anniversary – UNISON campaign to Celebrate and Defend

This year sees the 60th anniversary of the founding of the NHS on 5 July 1948. The 60th anniversary is a citizenship issue, of direct relevance to the whole membership and UNISON both at national and regional level, is undertaking a range of activities to acknowledge this important milestone.

UNISON commissioned a commemorative booklet - “@ 60: What is so Good about the NHS?” produced by the NHS Support Federation and copies were sent to all branches.

A national recruitment campaign has been launched and will run for a number of weeks leading up to 5 July. Adverts will appear in health-related journals and on websites. Campaign posters and birthday cards are being produced and will be available for branches to order from end of May.

We are sponsoring a limited edition re-print of Nye Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’ with a new foreword by Gordon Brown, PM and a message from Dave Prentis. The book sets out the arguments for creating a free NHS, and the principles it adheres to are still as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

We are working jointly with the Nye Bevan Society to hold a seminar to mark the 60th anniversary, which will look at the founding principles of the NHS, how it has progressed since 1948 and what the future holds. Speakers include Karen Jennings, UNISON’s Head of Health, Alan Johnson, Health Secretary, and a speaker from Breakthrough Breast Cancer to give a user perspective.

Branches have been provided with key campaign messages to assist them with local publicity and awareness-raising. In addition, articles and features will be placed in UNISON’s internal publications (E-Focus, InFocus, U Magazine, Labour Link News) as well as a range of external health and occupation specific journals. There will also be a dedicated UNISON web page with information, resources and helpful links.

Separately questions were asked at the NEC meeting about UNISON’s continuing support for victimised health service activist Karen Reissmann – I am looking forward to hearing Karen speak at our Conference in Bournemouth as her commitment to our Union in continuing to be active in spite of having been unjustly dismissed for opposing privatisation of health services is an inspiration.

Hard Work Hidden Lives

The UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) on Wednesday received copies of the short version of the report of the TUC Commission on Vulnerable Employment of which our General Secretary was a member. Dave gave a heartfelt introduction to the topic, addressing both the gains reflected in the recent Government announcement in relation to the rights of agency workers and also the need for the unions to reach out to and assist those even more vulnerable and exploited workers who will not benefit from this. A full version of the report is available online here.

I would encourage all branches to read this report and consider how our Union can respond to its recommendations at every level. For those of us who believe that trade union activity is about the broader interests of all working people the report challenges us to think about how we can bring the benefits of union organisation to those workers who need this most of all.

We can expect to hear a lot more about this report in the General Secretary’s speech to National Delegate Conference and in the debates on motions 57 and 78 which will follow it.

Public Services - UNISON's vision

The UNISON NEC on Wednesday received an advance copy of a new publication which will be launched at Conference as part of UNISON’s positively public campaign. This is heavily marked “pre-publication advance text not for circulation or quotation” so I shall resist the temptation to cut and paste.

This is generally a very good presentation of our basic policy position of support for public services to be delivered on the basis of the public service ethos and not for private profit and I would urge branches to ensure that their delegates bring copies back from Conference and use it as a basis for campaigning and lobbying locally.

I'll review the publication properly when it is published.

Pensions report at the UNISON NEC

The UNISON NEC meeting on Wednesday received a helpful update about the (not so helpful!) developments in relation to the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), from which I shall plagiarise…

LGPS - Extension of full protection

Following Local Government Minister John Healey’s announcement that he would consider extending full protection to 2020 once the 2008 triennial valuation reports had been received and analysed, Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) civil servants have now carried out the analysis to establish the likely impact and cost. Our negotiators are awaiting the written report summarising that analysis, but were verbally advised at the Policy Review Group that the cost would be 0.1% of pay bill – as previously predicted by the Government Actuaries Department (GAD). Further negotiations will then follow on means of meeting that cost and extending protection to 2020. Therefore the limited extension of the limited protection for the “Rule of 85” which was hinted at at the time of the special Conference in March 2007 is still dangling in front of us like a rather old carrot…

LGPS - Ill health retirement

Considerable activity has taken place over the ill health retirement Amendment Regulations which came into force on 7 May. These confirmed the three tiers of ill heath retirement benefits, previewed in the Benefit Regulations. However, the qualification criteria and limited third tier benefits – not previously discussed with the trade unions - have given rise to considerable concern. UNISON and the Trade Union Side are working hard to get them improved. Lord Campbell Savours sponsored a debate in the House of Lords and representations have also been made to the House of Commons Administration Committee over the ‘workability’ of the new Regulations.

First tier benefit will apply for life. It was outlined in the Benefit Regulations 2007 and will apply to those with no reasonable prospect of obtaining gainful employment before retirement age. Service is increased by 100% of potential service to normal retirement age. Second tier benefit is for those who cannot obtain gainful employment within a ‘reasonable time of leaving’, but who are likely to obtain gainful employment before normal retirement age. Third tier benefit – for those deemed able to obtain gainful employment within a ‘reasonable period’ of leaving service - was unexpectedly restricted to three years in the Amendment Regulations, irrespective of whether the member is able to obtain gainful employment. There will be a review after 18 months and there is no automatic requirement to move a member to a higher level if s/he becomes unable to undertake gainful employment.

LGPS - Cost sharing

The NEC was advised that the Trade Union Side has continued to assert that no cost-sharing formula should be applied to the LGPS within the Policy Review Group. There is increasing pressure from CLG, the LGA and the employers to limit employer costs. At the same time, separate discussion is taking place amongst the LGPS unions over what an acceptable sustainability strategy for the scheme might look like. It is felt strongly that it should be one which reflects the need for efficient administration and investment procedures, transparent governance and equality principles. I asked whether a sustainability strategy might lead to union acceptance of cost sharing and was mostly reassured that that is certainly not the trade union side objective.

LGPS - Governance issues

Separate work is underway within UNISON and the Trade Union Side to press for strong union member representation on LGPS fund trusteeship bodies. We are arguing for full voting rights, 50% of seats by 2009, full equality proofing and training and facility time for reps. Our campaign is underpinned by European Directive 41/2003 which requires proper control and investment of pension funds.

Updates are available at the pension site online.

Equal Pay debate at the UNISON NEC

As usual Wednesday's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) meeting received a confidential report on Equal Pay focusing largely on the continuing developments of case law in this area and the very great volume of litigation now under way across the country.

For legal reasons I cannot cover the detail of that report in this report. Branches should keep a close eye on the website and in particular should draw to the attention of local MPs UNISON’s response to the review of discrimination law.

I have expressed before my concern that the advice that we should not debate equal pay in our Conferences because of the avaricious attentions of the profit-seeking No Win No Fee solicitors is leaving us unable to debate policy on equal pay.

We can however debate equality issues more generally and it is encouraging that Motion 57 on Challenging Inequality is timetabled immediately after the General Secretary’s speech on Tuesday afternoon at Conference. Branches with something to say should get their name down at rostrum control to speak in support of the motion.

UNISON NEC - leading the fight on pay?

The NEC meeting took place ahead of the outcome of the consultation on health service pay (about which more later) so the main focus of discussion at the meeting was on other pay claims and disputes.

The factual basis of the reports that were given will be familiar to members in the respective service groups and sectors. Members in OFSTED are still in dispute, members in Further Education have rejected an unacceptable offer and most local government members in England Wales and Northern Ireland are being balloted for strike action – with members in Scotland likely to follow shortly.

In response to questions about coordination within UNISON and between UNISON and other Unions the General Secretary emphasised the frequency of his meetings with the General Secretary of PCS and the Acting General Secretary of the NUT, both of whom led strike action on pay on 24 April.

A health sector official was fairly critical of the balloting techniques of those health unions whose members had rejected the health service pay offer. Now that we know that the offer has been accepted there would appear to be some work to be done to repair relations with other unions who felt excluded from the way in which UNISON and the RCN negotiated with the Government.

Dave Prentis summed up our objective as a national Union when he said – in his contribution to this debate – that we must break the Government’s pay policy. I think many of our members would add that in doing this we need to try to secure pay rises above the rate of price inflation!

If we want an overarching debate on pay at our National Delegate Conference we will have to reprioritise Motion 15 - which I hope the Newcastle City branch will leave on the agenda to give Conference that chance.

How do we grow the Union?

Wednesday's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) received an impassioned report from our Head of Recruitment, which prompted what was the best and most interesting debate on recruitment which the NEC has had in the five years I have been representing you. I tend to agree with my fellow NEC member from the Eastern Region, Pete Gaskin, who expressed the view that the NEC Development and Organisation Committee is not functioning effectively as it has not had a debate of the quality and seriousness about recruitment in the recent past.

UNISON has gained members over the past ten years whilst much of the movement has stagnated or lost members and – given that we need to recruit about 140,000 members nationally every year in order to stand still in membership terms, there are no grounds for despair or despondency. Equally however there are no grounds for complacency.

With overall union density below 50% in many public sector employers and the likely prospect of a Tory Government in the next couple of years we could face new challenges, including threats of derecognition and legal bans on strike action by public servants – to meet these challenges we need now to enthuse our activists to prioritise recruitment of members. Indeed as our General Secretary Dave Prentis pointed out, we don’t need to wait for the next General Election to get on with recruiting and raising union density.

Paul Holmes, nationally elected NEC member representing local government, made the most important contribution to the debate, speaking from the perspective of the Kirklees branch who have 86% membership density in their lead employer.

No London branch comes near that level of trade union organisation – and whilst the geographical differences in trade union history and consciousness may mean that we cannot attain that level of union density it does at least give us a target to aim for.

What encouraged me about the debate at the NEC was that some of the participants were actually listening to each other and getting beyond the sterile argument between those who see recruitment in terms of the union being active on issues (such as pay) and those who emphasise the importance of enthusiastic engagement by activists in recruitment as an end in itself. For those who will be at Conference there will be opportunities to find out more from the Unizone.

UNISON NEC debates Conference amendments

Much of the discussion at Wednesday's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) was in preparation for UNISON National Delegate Conference in Bournemouth next week – all delegates should how have a copy of the Order of Business for Conference (details of which are also online here).

The NEC agreed its policy on amendments submitted to motions on the Conference agenda, which had previously been discussed by the relevant NEC Committees. If any London branches want advance notice of NEC policy on any amendment please email me.

In general the NEC is supporting most of the motions, amendments and composites on the Conference Agenda and taken as a whole the motions set out a positive and progressive policy agenda which amounts to an alternative to the reactionary policies of the New Labour Government.

In order to be accountable to London UNISON members I will focus here on the contributions which I made seeking to change recommendations from NEC Committees, where I disagreed with the policy being recommended to the NEC.

I opposed NEC policy to oppose Amendment 15.2 which urges branches to make links with other trade unions in campaigning on pay. The NEC policy, which was agreed, seems to be based upon the view that our priority must be to talk to our own members before talking to other Unions. Since nothing in Amendment 15.2 contradicts this anodyne statement of the obvious the Bromley branch may have a fair chance of persuading Conference that the NEC is misguided on this should Motion 15 be reprioritised for debate on Friday afternoon.

I also disagreed with NEC policy of opposition to Amendment 38.1 on Housing from York City. However now that the amendment is part of Composite H which will have the support of the NEC that disagreement will not find expression on the floor of Conference.

I predictably disagreed with the decision of the NEC to ask Lambeth branch to remit Amendment 45.1 and, if the branch refuses, to oppose that Amendment, which is timetabled for debate on Thursday afternoon. The Amendment simply elaborates a little on items to be included in a report which Conference is being asked to call for from the NEC, seeking to reaffirm the rights of members, branches and other representative bodies to campaign for their policies in member ballots. The rationale for NEC opposition to this amendment as advanced at the NEC was that the amendment is in error since individual UNISON members do not have the right to campaign. Since this argument contravenes UNISON Rule B.2.5 I imagine someone will have to think a bit harder about this before Conference, although the majority of my NEC colleagues were easily persuaded of the rightness of the policy of opposing the Amendment.

I disagreed with the policy of opposition to Amendment 63.3 from Somerset which (as delegates will see) does no more than restate the facts about a previous Conference decision. Conference instructed the NEC to publish the voting record of MPs in the UNISON group of MPs and the NEC acquiesced in the decision of the Labour Link Committee to comply with this instruction simply by placing a link from our website to other sites where you can monitor the activities of MPs. This is all a matter of historical record, but the NEC is opposed to Conference reminding itself of the truth about this. Debate on this motion was enlivened by the observation from South West Regional NEC member Steve Warwick (who also chairs the Labour Link Committee) that he “knows what Somerset County are like”. Motion 63 (from Bromley and entertainingly titled “New Labour – What Do We Get For Our Money?”) will only be likely to be debated if it is reprioritised for debate on Friday afternoon.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Apologies for delay!

Outrage amongst readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) has led to me receiving literally one enquiry about where my NEC report is...

I'm afraid I am well behind with my reports this week. A well attended Branch meeting Tuesday kept me from most of the Development and Organisation Committee, at which I arrived just in time to be in a minority in a discussion on whether to appeal some recent Certification Officer rulings.

Wednesday's NEC lasted the full day (because we are already pining for this year's President and didn't want the meeting to end...) and I would have got on with my reports from those meetings today had it not been for the (sadly inquorate) meeting of the Regional Council, from which I hurried off to Lambeth Council's Joint Strategy Forum.

So rather than update the blog right now I think I'll get some rest. In the mean time, if you are a local government UNISON member remember to post your ballot paper - having voted "YES" of course!