Sunday, August 31, 2008

TUC to plan strike action shock?

I was accused of being naively overoptimistic (if not inebriated!) in relation to an earlier post when I suggested that the point of the TUC ought to be to coordinate workers’ struggles.

However, whoever has been speaking (anonymously) to the Observer from within the TUC reportedly says that this is what we will be doing in Brighton next week; “Union leaders have been discussing a joint plan of attack, bringing out staff across different public services on the same day, throwing schools, councils, nursing homes and other services into simultaneous chaos.”

Well, maybe.

According to the reports a UNISON insider says that it is difficult to coordinate industrial action (although the same – anonymous – commentator says that we have it on our radar).

We certainly ought to be planning such action but I am not yet convinced that we are. Certainly we seem to have a clearer vision of the obstacles than the objective.

PCS seem able to align strike action by sections of their membership in dispute with other public service workers taking action.

They do this because they have a sound analysis of what they are trying to do – which is to exert political pressure on a hostile Government - and they see that the maximum unity is the best available tactic to achieve this end. They don't start from the presumption that it is only unity within this or that "sector" that is important.

Our members certainly need a more effective public sector pay campaign from our trade union movement. If our leaders wished to announce that they should do so in public, and not by anonymous briefings to sympathetic journalists.

With little hope of a satisfactory settlement of the local government pay dispute in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I have a personal vested interest in getting this united action off the ground!

As rank and file activists return from our holidays we need to continue to build the unity of the members of the different unions at a local level.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Free speech on the internet - an issue for trade unionists

Blogging is fairly new. It may prove useful for trade unionists.

When I started blogging it occurred to me that, although I thought what I was doing – in reporting back on my role as a member of the UNISON NEC – was precisely what I should be doing, nevertheless there might be criticism. Therefore I set out a justification for what I was doing.

This blog does not set out to annoy or upset people (and to the extent that it may do so that is a consequence of their sensitivity rather more than the intentions of the blogger). However, anyone who uses the internet to communicate has an interest in protecting this means of communication.

Therefore I was alarmed to hear about the attack upon the blog “Harry’s Place” – the reasons for this attack (upon a blog with which I rarely agree) do not matter. What is alarming is that a political criticism of a blog can be used so easily to close down the blog, however temporarily. This is very similar to the attack which was made on Labourstart for supporting the Fremantle workers.

I have been one of those on the receiving end of some of the most scurrilous anonymous attacks, plainly written by insiders too cowardly to stand up and put their names to their criticisms. I wouldn’t seek to close such blogs – supporting free speech has to include supporting people who speak what you believe to be ill-informed nonsense. (Although I do note that they closed themselves down – presumably feeling that this would best protect their careers within our Union…)

Harrys Place generally publishes (IMHO)(as we say on t’intraweb) the sort of reactionary nonsense of which Nick Cohen would be proud. But they have the right to do so and they ought not to be silenced. Just answered.

In the mean time trade unionists need the freedom to express our views using all available technologies, even including blogs!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

TUC Agenda online

The Final Agenda for next month’s TUC is online. The Women’s Conference motion (number 19) is a defence of abortion rights, topical given the prospect of pro-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

The various motions on public sector pay, about which I have commented before have attracted only a couple of amendments – and the eventual structure of the debate will depend upon the process of compositing (or “grouping” as it is called at the TUC).

The TUC could be an excellent opportunity to organise a coordinated campaign against the Government’s public sector pay freeze. But with local government pay talks here and there, and an absence of talks in health, I am not sure how UNISON’s TUC delegation will focus on the fact that our Conference instructed our NEC to “continue a united campaign across the union and other public service unions to oppose the government's unjust and unjustifiable policy on public sector pay.”

I’ll let you know…

Thursday, August 21, 2008

TUC to forget auld acquaintance!

Amongst the many exciting perks of being a member of that august body, the UNISON NEC, is an annual opportunity to attend the Trades Union Congress.

This year I am the lucky recipient of an electronic bulletin to delegates, from which I learn that a couple of traditional elements of the Annual Congress are coming to an end.

This will be the last year in which there will be a speech from the media to Congress – since so few papers now bother to have industrial correspondents as our movement no longer seems powerful and important.

And, for the first time, Congress will not finish with an embarrassing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from a largely empty hall – instead, we are informed, Congress will end with a video reprise of some of the highlights of the Congress, both on and off platform, to a musical accompaniment.

Were this blog not so resolutely serious I would start a poll for readers to choose the musical accompaniment. Perhaps delegates will be asked (polls of delegates have sometimes got it more right than our leaders have managed!)

Since we won’t be watching many of the General Council get lairy I regret we can rule out the Kaiser Chiefs “I Predict a Riot” – although Alistair Darling is speaking on Tuesday afternoon and so could excite a passionate response...

Perhaps Oasis “Don’t Look Back in Anger” would be an appropriate sound track for the General Council to sing to public sector workers wondering why last year’s fine words about unity have yet to lead to concrete results?

Billy Bragg might be a safe option with Power in a Union – although if you listen to the lyrics, which talk about standing together, these might be thought embarrassing to some brothers and sisters (even in our own Union).

Thinking more politically, there will be those on the floor of Congress (and amongst the General Council) who would go for a bit of Soviet nostalgia – but today’s left wing is a bit more internationalist.

I have a horrible feeling we’ll end up with something which sums up the experience of being at the TUC, some barely political 70s nostalgia which will be consistent with the complacent consensus dominating the leadership.

Tinkering with the traditions of Congress as the General Council continues to manage the slow decline in power and influence of Britain’s trade unions seems fairly pointless.

If we are going to forget auld acquaintance though, perhaps that should be an occasion for a fundamental rethink of what the TUC is for? How about a trade union centre which coordinated workers’ struggles? (or is being on holiday just leading to hopeless optimism of the will?)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A message to Scottish readers

Good luck to all the members of UNISON, GMB and UNITE striking tomorrow against a three year pay offer to local government workers of just 2.5% a year for three years. Also to those PCS members also taking action tomorrow.

The offer to local government workers is just half the current rate of inflation, and although it is a princely 0.05% higher than the offer to most English, Welsh and Northern Irish local government workers, it is tied to a multi-year pay deal.

UNISON policy in local government is, very sensibly, to oppose multi-year pay deals, which seek to shift uncertainty arising from the variability of inflation from public service budget holders onto the shoulders of low paid workers managing rather more limited household budgets.

Which is something for negotiators generally to bear in mind.

Victory to the striking Scottish workers!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Update from the local government pay negotiations?

It is to be expected that reports from the early stages of negotiations will be like clothing designed to make the wearer alluring, vaguely encouraging but concealing rather more than is revealed.

Really all we know after yesterday’s negotiations is that there will be more negotiations on 22 August. As to “nothing ruled in and nothing ruled out” this is generally just the sort of meaningless formulation which enables both sides to offer hope to their respective constituencies. Except that if either side have revealed their longer term objectives you have some idea of what it is they don’t want “ruled out”…

Since we know that the employers have some unpalatable plans for the future, activists in branches need to prepare for the prospect that we do not get a satisfactory outcome from these negotiations. As things stand, in the light of the impact of the strike action on 16 and 17 July, which was not coordinated effectively with other public service unions to maximise its political impact, the employers are not likely to offer a significant increase unless this is linked either to changes in the national agreement or to agreement on pay increases for future years (and most probably to both).

We considered the employers’ plans for the national agreement at last year’s Local Government Conference and agreed our policy – we rightly thought “unrealistic the suggestion that major changes of the kind outlined in the employers reports can be achieved within the context of the 2008 pay negotiations”. This remains the case. This was in the context of clear policy agreed the previous year – to “take all steps necessary to avoid multi-year deals.” This continues to be UNISON policy.

With inflation on the increase the pressures on our cost of living are getting worse (we should of course continue to refer to the RPI and not only the CPI). The likelihood that we can get a satisfactory settlement from the current negotiations without further effective action is negligible. It is therefore important that we turn our attention to an honest discussion of how to take the dispute forward. There were those who were promising us a “Plan B” but they have failed to deliver on this, so I think we have to work out a strategy for the dispute which includes further national industrial action as part of a political plan to influence our employers and the Government.

I am sure that there are plenty of activists in UNISON with even better ideas that those of the Lambeth Branch – and hope that the national union will encourage branches to debate strategy so that these ideas can find expression. Getting a decent pay rise for the largest group of UNISON members (and the largest bargaining group in the economy) ought to be the very highest priority for our Union.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Better late than never...

This is the report which I have just circulated to London UNISON branches of the meeting of the UNISON NEC Development and Organisation Committee meeting last month. I will blog again about some of the more important topics discussed at that meeting over the summer for the benefit of those who have left their holiday reading in the hotel ;)

Personal report of the July 2008 D&O meeting

I am sorry for the delay of almost one month in circulating this report from the 9th July meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee, on which all four of our Greater London Regional NEC members serve. Official reports will be made to the Regional Committee and Council in due course. This is a personal report (if anyone would prefer not to receive my personal reports please let me know).

The delay in preparing this report is due to the local government strike and the hot weather! However, I am pleased to be writing around to branches today so that I can draw to your attention the relaunch of the valiant struggle of the Fremantle workers to restore their terms and conditions. Check out this story on the Barnet UNISON branch blog and send your messages of support to the Barnet branch. You will see that there will be five picket lines to support on Thursday lunchtime for anyone who can get to Barnet at that time.

The D&O considered some major reports on serious issues and I would urge branches to put some of the items which follow on the agenda of your own Branch Committees at the earliest opportunity, as UNISON is a lay led union and our members at branch level are the people who should direct our future development.

Service Group and Branch Structures Review

The Committee received a report from the North West Regional Secretary, a former Chair of the Committee, on the work being undertaken to review our branch and service group structures. This is an issue of considerable importance to the future of our Union.

Branch Assessments

As part of this process next year will see the introduction of “joint Branch Region assessments” – a sort of “annual appraisal” for UNISON branches. This could be a valuable tool to assist branches in moving forward on our organising agenda, identifying areas for improvement and further work and enabling Regions to prioritise support to branches. However it also has the potential for disagreement and to invert the approach of our Rule Book which makes clear that officials are accountable to members and not the other way round.

The assessment process will be monitored by the D&O Committee and if any branches have questions about this process or would like to see the reports which we as NEC members have received please get in touch.

Your NEC members will also be available to assist in the implementation of these assessments and the Regional Convenor will have a role in helping to resolve any disagreements independently of officials.

Review of Service Group structures

Another major issue under this general heading is the review of service group structures, in relation to which the Committee finally received (officially) a report which had been in circulation (unofficially) in the spring.

This is a report which is a discussion document setting out three options for the future service group structure of our Union.

The first is a “minimal change option” (although including terminating the Transport Service Group on grounds of its size).

The second is a “moderate change option” which largely involves taking members out of the Local Government Service Group, by putting schools members into a new Education Service Group and probation members into a group with police staff, whilst consolidating Energy, Water, Transport and other private sector members into a Business and Environment Service Group.

The third, “High level change” option involves doing away with Service Groups altogether and relying upon existing sectors as the core building blocks of our union at a national level.

Branches should certainly timetable discussion of this issue for autumn Branch Committee meetings as there is to be consultation with Regional Secretaries on 4 September and Regional Convenors on 15 September and 22 November.

What appears to be an obscure issue – the structure of our Service Groups – may well have major implications for the effectiveness of our union in defending our members interests and for lay democracy and member control of UNISON.

There is to be consultation with branches starting from 16 September and, since this may lead to proposals for Rule Changes at next year’s Conference, it is important that branches timetable discussion in October. You can of course contact any of your NEC members if you want a more detailed explanation at a Branch Committee meeting.

Staffing and the Organising Challenge

The Committee received a detailed report from Bob Oram, Chair of the Staffing Committee, based upon a report given previously to the Service Group Liaison Committee.

This dealt with the staffing changes which are underway with the creation of the roles of Local Organiser and Area Organiser alongside the redefined role of Regional Organiser.

The Union is seeking to shift the emphasis of the work of our staff towards building up our organisation by creating more organising jobs (with fewer clerical and secretarial roles) and by redirecting the energies of our Regional Organisers. If the change from Regional Officer to Regional Organiser is more than just a name change this may be a very positive step.

Reserved Low Paid Seats

The Committee received a report recommending consultation on a potential change to the definition of “low pay” for the purposes of reserved low paid seats. These seats which (on the NEC and Service Group Executives) have seen few contested elections since vested day are now increasingly vacant as activists are regarded through Single Status and Agenda for Change.

Consultation on whether to raise the level of “low pay” for these purposes will be with Regions and Service Groups rather than branches – so branches will need to make their views known to members of the Regional Committee (or of course your NEC members). Of course the Regional Committee could decide to consult branches.

Whereas the Committee was presented with some radical and far reaching options on the future Service Group structure of the Union, the only concrete proposal on which it is proposed to consult in relation to the reserved low paid seats is whether to increase the relevant rate of pay.

Branches under Regional Supervision

The Committee receives a regular report on all branches placed under the supervision of their Regional Office (for a variety of reasons). I am pleased to report that as at 9 July no London branches were under Regional supervision.

Certification Officer cases

The Committee received an update on the appeals by UNISON against rulings of the Certification Officer in cases brought against the Union. A previous meeting of the Committee had endorsed the decisions to appeal in two recent cases (a decision which I had opposed).

Review of Democratic Processes

The review of UNISON’s democratic processes agreed by National Delegate Conference this June is to take place between September and next January, according to a report endorsed by the July D&O and also by the Policy Committee, which will share responsibility for the review.

It is not yet entirely clear how branches will be “engaged with” this review (although the report asserts that this will happen). There is to be a survey of branches in relation to attendance at Conferences which will be led by the D&O Committee. The Policy Committee will lead on the issue of making recommendations to members.

This was the area which gave rise to concern and to the relevant Conference decision, when branches seeking to make positive recommendations in last year’s National Health Service pay ballot were threatened with disciplinary action on the basis that, the Service Group Executive having agreed not to make a recommendation, it was a breach of UNISON policy for anyone else to try to do so.

This absurd decision is now clearly not the correct approach, as UNISON Conference has endorsed, with the support of our NEC, the right of branches to make and campaign for recommendations in member ballots. Those who believe in trade union democracy need to engage with this review of our democratic processes in order to ensure that there is no backsliding from the Conference decision to protect branch rights.

The NEC will be considering this review of democratic processes further at its meeting on 4 October so if any branches have particular views or issues which you want raised please contact one of your NEC members.

If you have any questions about this report, or would like copies of any of the papers considered at the meeting, please contact me at j.rogers@unison.co.uk.

Friday, August 01, 2008

A healthy decision on pay

It is greatly to the credit of the elected lay Health Service Group Executive that they are calling for a reopening of the debate about health service pay.

UNISON will work with the other health unions to submit new evidence to the NHS pay review body making the case for reviewing the 2009/2010 pay rates.

Should the PRB approach the Government proposing to reopen consideration of next year’s pay and the Government were to refuse, the union could declare a trade dispute and ballot for industrial action.

Were the PRB to refuse to approach the Government, the union could also declare a trade dispute and ballot for industrial action.

In neither case – of course – would the trade dispute be with the PRB. A trade dispute must always be with the employer (or with a Minister of the Crown acting as the employer). Regardless of the existence of a Pay Review Body, a trade union can always have a trade dispute with an employer about pay.

It’s called freedom of association…