Saturday, November 29, 2008

Scottish water strike online

Having been thinking about good uses of the internet within our Union I have to mention reporting of the Scottish Water strike over at the UNISON Scotland blog. This is a good example of comprehensive reporting of the effectiveness of strike action spread over a large geographical area.

Some other Regions could learn a bit from this approach to communications – but also from the approach to industrial relations which is being communicated. Congratulations to the strikers – and to the blogger.

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's the economy...

It is impossible not to smile at headlines announcing a higher marginal tax rate for the rich – even if it won’t be introduced until after the next General Election and then only if we can do 1992 in reverse. Taken together with proposals to reduce the regressive Value Added Tax (VAT), whatever the economic consequences, the political feel is of a Labour Government treading tentatively leftwards.

Given the scale of the economic crisis unfolding around us, I only hope that the leaks from the Government deliberately understate the changes which the Chancellor will announce this afternoon – he needs to shock the Commons in the same way Geoffrey Howe did when he put VAT up to 15% all those years ago.

A massive fiscal stimulus (through tax cuts and increased spending) together with further reductions in interest rates clearly have the potential – if coordinated globally – to moderate the severity of the coming recession. This is worth supporting for itself, because each job that is not lost is one household saved from poverty – and because the slower and gentler the increase in unemployment and the swifter and faster the subsequent reduction the less the damage that is done to our bargaining position as trade unionists.

However, as trade unionists we need our leaders to resist the urge to act as cheerleaders for Labour Ministers. We need to demand, in response to the detail of the Government’s economic announcements, that the contours of the fiscal stimulus in particular support our members’ interests. We also need to raise our eyes beyond tomorrow’s – and next year’s - unemployment figures and develop and articulate policy demands to reshape our economy in the interests of working people. UNISON’s NEC began to rise to this challenge in the statement adopted in October – we need to build on and develop this work now.

The Government’s economic announcements should today respond to some extent to UNISON’s demand that “spending on public services must be increased to meet greater social need and counteract the downturn in the private sector. This will necessitate an increase in public debt, currently low by international and historic standards, and a rebalancing of our system of taxation so that corporations and wealthy individuals are required to pay their fair share.” This is welcome, but we now need to elaborate our demands.

In the immediate term, we need to point out that low paid workers have a high “marginal propensity to consume” and that a relaxation of the Government’s unjust public sector pay policy, particularly if it coincided with really significant cuts in VAT and continuing low interest rates would have a very positive reflationary impact.

There is no reason – apart from dogma and inertia – why, for example, the Local Government Employers, with Government support, should not now approach the arbitrators seeking to resolve the 2008 pay round in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and tell them that the employers want to give an immediate boost to the earnings of the lowest paid through, for example, an additional flat rate increase backdated to 1 April. The Government could fund this directly through the revenue account and meet the cost by borrowing, or it could allow local authorities to capitalise the expenditure. Similarly, the Government could tell the NHS employers that they should forget about arguing that they don’t have a recruitment problem and should agree that the pay review body considers an increase in the second and third years of the current pay deal – the terms of reference for pay review bodies may need to be addressed to enable them to take account of the macroeconomic impact of their recommendations.

However, even more important than what happens in the short term is that the trade union movement should express some opinions about the long term which reflect the interests of our members.

The UNISON NEC statement in October was clear that we need fundamental change in the finance sector stating that “intervention to secure the banking system should not merely “bail-out” those who have caused this crisis by socialising the losses and taking on unprofitable parts of the sector. Instead any public financial support for the sector should entitle the public to share in the benefits of any future recovery, and must be accompanied by an extension of regulatory controls to ensure that the excesses of the recent
period are not repeated or rewarded.”

I don’t think that now is the time for timidity in developing this policy further. Just as UNISON supports public ownership of our utilities or our transport infrastructure, so we should respond to the credit crisis and the consequent recession by demanding democratic public control of the banks, as a central element of our financial and economic infrastructure – and I agree with fellow UNISON member John McDonnell, MP that public control can best be ensured by public ownership. Nationalisation of the major banks is not now an unrealistic demand.

One counter argument to this demand, as expressed at last week’s UNISON Greater London Regional Committee by the Regional Finance Convenor is that “we don’t want civil servants running banks.” Leaving to one side the questions of whether disdain for public servants is welcome in officials of a public service union – and of whether bankers have shown themselves particularly adept at running banks in the recent past! – this is simply an argument against public ownership per se. We need a more mature debate about the contours of public and private ownership, and it is fairly obvious that recent events at least pose the question of whether exclusively private sector ownership and control of the banks is in the interests of our members.

Another counter-argument, echoing the words of the Tories before 1945, is that we should not want to nationalise “our savings and our pensions.” Now of course, nationalising an institution does not nationalise the deposits it holds (or no one would have any money left in Northern Rock). It may be a shame that for all the work that is done on capital stewardship, pension funds have yet to redirect the economy for the benefit of those on whose behalf they invest. However, such is the nature of a capitalist economy driven by profit. If we want a banking industry that works for the public good we need to place it under democratic public control.

We should not be afraid to argue for democracy in relation to our economy just as we argue for democracy in other areas of public life. A similar argument can be applied to further develop UNISON’s current demand that “interest rates must be cut as a matter of urgency, and the monetary policy pursued by the Bank of England needs to move on from an exclusive focus upon controlling inflation to one that also seeks to ensure high levels of investment and employment.”

What follows from this is that monetary policy should be restored to democratic control and the technocratic experiment in the “independence” of central banks should come to an end. This was only ever “independence” from popular pressure and democracy, never “independence” from the perceived interests of those with wealth and power.

Underpinning the belief in private ownership of the major banks and financial institutions, and in the “independence” of central banks, is a belief that ordinary people are not to be trusted to run our own economy. We are told that we need experts to do this for us.

On the contrary, now – when the “experts” who have been trying to sell us privatisation for a generation stand exposed as failures – it is up to ordinary trade unionists to have the audacity and the ambition to spell out an alternative.

This is why I hope that UNISON’s Greater London Regional Council will – in December - have the opportunity to debate the motion from the Lambeth local government branch which sets out to build upon and develop the policy agreed by the UNISON NEC in October.

This depends upon whether or not a quorum of delegates attend the meeting – so if you are reading this and are a UNISON member in Greater London, it is in your hands whether we have this debate, or leave it up to the “experts”…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

UNISON activists mobilise

I have just been at a well attended meeting of UNISON activists in Birmingham, discussing the various attacks upon socialist activists and the pressing need for a better and stronger Union to defend our members.

I will blog a full report later, but am enthused and encouraged that activists are mobilising now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

UNISON Regional Committee report

Tuesday's meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Committee was mostly uneventful. It is regrettable that what was described by a former Regional Secretary as the most important Region of what (I believe to be) the most important trade union in the country seems to be doing so little to raise our subterranean Regional profile. I shall mention one or two items worthy of note.

Industrial Action

I was pleased to hear from the Regional Secretary that guidance to branches on industrial action will be updated. UNISON takes almost no official industrial action in Greater London at the moment – and I wish I thought that was because all our members were so happy in our working lives that harmony has broken out in every workplace! No one is eager to strike – but we need to be prepared to take action when the occasion demands it. As a trade union we have to organise ourselves so that, when members take the difficult decision to withdraw our labour and lose pay, our bureaucratic machinery (which we must have to comply with hostile laws) is fit for purpose to help our members achieve their objective – as opposed to erecting hurdles in their way!

Newham branch

The report from the Regional Secretary and Convenor placed into the public domain the news that the Newham local government branch is now under “Regional supervision” (the UNISON equivalent of “special measures”). The Regional Organiser is acting as Branch Secretary.

We were told that the branch had been operating outside national rules “for some time.” Now, we were told, was the time for the Region to step in. Questions about the reasons for the timing of this action went – in effect – unanswered. Deputy Regional Convenor, Conroy Lawrence gallantly stepped in to tell the Committee that we did not want to go into detail but that everything would come out in time. As I said at the meeting, I do hope that this is true. Indeed I shall aim to ensure that it is.

Those who have taken this action can be confident that their actions will be scrutinised.

Hammersmith and Barnet branches

I asked the Regional Secretary and Convenor to consider giving some publicity
to the conduct of loony Tory Councils like job-cutting Hammersmith and “if it moves, privatise it” Barnet. We seem to be missing a trick when it comes to pointing out that Tory Councils in London are showing us all what a Tory Government would be like.

It is a failing of the Regional Labour Link Committee that UNISON is not doing more to expose this nonsense (incidentally I did ask what motions UNISON were putting to the Regional Labour Party Conference on Saturday and was told that there was one on capital stewardship and another one – but no one present could remember what it was...)

With luck UNISON will publicise the campaigns being waged by our members in Barnet and Hammersmith on our website.

Regional Council

The Regional Committee decided (by 9 votes to 8) to oppose a motion from the Lambeth branch on the global financial crisis. I should declare an interest in the Lambeth motion (of course) for which I advocated that the Regional Committee should support the motion.

Opposition was led by the Regional Finance Convenor who worried that nationalising the banks would mean nationalising our pensions and savings. I'll blog further about the arguments for and against this motion.

For now it is up to activists in UNISON branches in London whether or not there is a quorum at the Regional Council on 9 December...

See you there?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Public sector workers need unity

Mixed news today on public sector pay – UNISON members in Scottish Water have voted to strike against a 2.4% offer, and UNITE members in the Health Service throughout the UK have voted to strike against the three year pay deal which the other unions are trying to reopen from the second year onwards.

However, UNISON members in Scottish local government have voted – narrowly – to accept their employers’ two year offer. This may reflect some of the reservations about striking for pay in the current economic climate which appeared to influence the closeness of the recent strike ballot in the NUT.

Against this mixed backdrop I have read criticisms of the decision of the PCS Executive to suspend strike action in response to an offer of negotiations over pay from the Head of the Civil Service. I would have liked to have seen effective united strike action by the public service unions (in line with the policy of the TUC). In the absence of that unity everyone has to make tactical judgements based upon the position in which they find themselves.

As the threat of increasing job cuts compounds the reality of real terms pay cuts for public service workers what we now need more than ever is unity.

Friday, November 07, 2008

PCS strike action suspended

PCS have suspended Monday's strike action in response to an unprecedented offer of national negotiations with the Government (who have agreed that PCS can extend the validity of the mandate for strike action pending these negotiations).

This is a positive sign and is a tribute to the approach of the PCS leadership, who are making it clear that this is only a suspension and that strike action is still on the cards.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Picket lines for Monday morning

Here, for those who can support them on Monday morning, are details of PCS picket lines for the pay strike on Monday 10 November.

I am sure that PCS will welcome other trade unionists - and am equally sure that UNISON will express our full official support for our civil service comrades.

These are the details I have been given;

PICKETS IN Central London -

on Whitehall SW1A- the HQ's of MoD, DEFRA, Cabinet Office, HMRC, Treasury, Department of Health, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, British Council, Department of Culture, Media & Sport

on Victoria Street SW1 - the HQ's of BERR (ex-DTI), MoJ, Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yd)
Victoria station area - Identitiy & Passport Service, Department for International Development, Department for Communities & Local Gov

Great Peters St/Marsham St SW1 - HQ's of Department of Children, Schools & Families, Home Office, Prison Service, Department for Transport


OTHER LARGE WORKPLACES -
Health & Safety Executive (2 Southwark Bridge, SE1), HMRC/ACAS Euston Tower (Warren St tube), Office of Fair Trading (2-6 Salisbury Square, EC4Y 8JX), Royal Courts of Justice (The Strand), Food Standard Agency (125 Kingsway WC2B 6NH)

Museums and Galleries - National Gallery (Trafalgar Square), British Museum (Bloomsbury), V&A/Science Museum, Natural History Museum (South Kensington), British Library (St Pancras), Tate Modern (Southwark)


Croydon - Home Office (Whitgift Centre, Apollo & Lunar House - all Wellesley Road CR9)
Hastings - Child Support Agency

Around outer London areas and South-East England towns -
all local Tax Offices,
London Met Police stations
Job Centres & Benefit Processing Centres,
Magistrate, County & Crown Courts,
Driving Test Centres,
prisons,
Army, RAF and Navy bases/barracks,
Land Registry.

ports and airports - Coastguard stations in Solent, Dover, etc, Customs (HMRC) and Immigration (Home Office) in Heathow, Gatwick, Dover, Portsmouth, Southampton, etc,

Why we need joint union action over pay

Inflation may yet turn into deflation, but right now the living standards of public sector workers are dropping like a stone as our miserable pay rises of the last few years fall ever further short of rising prices.


The decision of the Executive of the NUT not to call further strike action in the light of the narrowness of the majority for action in their national ballot leaves civil service union PCS almost alone as they embark upon national strike action over pay this coming Monday.


The
ballot result of health service members in UNITE will not be known for a few days yet - but the large majority of health service workers are now focused on next year's pay claim (as we are in local government).


Reports from NUT meetings show that appeals to "belt-tightening" as recession bites will have some purchase amongst trade union members, and need to be countered with positive arguments about the macroeconomic impact of raising public sector pay, as well as appeals to justice and collective self-interest.


However, I remain convinced that the decisive reason for the real terms pay cuts experienced by local government workers (including teachers), health workers, civil servants and others over the last while has been the deliberate refusal of the trade unions to take disciplined and united action.


We need to find a way build this unity at a rank and file level if we are to achieve our potential and protect the interests of our members.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

MPs let down trade unionists

While the world was watching the US elections last night, Members of Parliament were debating the Employment Bill.

John McDonnell tried to introduce some additional protections for workers taking industrial action – but had to withdraw in the face of Government opposition and a guillotine motion on the Bill.

He did push to a vote on a reasonable proposal to require employers to assist unions in balloting for action.

I thought yesterday that votes on this Bill would test the support for trade unions in Parliament.

We lost by 53 votes to 408. You can see how MPs voted online.

In further debates, the Government also refused to support the placing of trade union environmental representatives on a statutory footing – meaning that we don’t have legal back up to develop this role in the workplace. More worryingly the Government also refused to change the unworkable provisions of the Bill intended to permit trade unions to expel fascists.

US Unions are busily welcoming the election of a President who makes no pretence to be part of the workers movement. In this country we notionally have a “Labour” Party – but our unions cannot get that Party in Government to take even modest steps to assist us.

This is a serious problem and it is getting worse rather than better.

BALLS!

I have not yet had a chance to repair the broken links in recent posts but I could not resist this title for a blog post.

UNISON has condemned Ed Balls, Children’s Minister for his attack on the London Living Wage.

Since Tory Mayor Johnson has been forced to continue to support the London Living Wage – introduced by Ken Livingstone under pressure from London Citizens – it is ironic at the least that a Labour Minister is attacking this progressive policy.

It’s good to see UNISON speaking out on an issue of importance to Londoners, and particularly noteworthy that this is being led by our General Secretary at national level.

UNISON activists in the Region will be waiting to hear what is being done about this at Regional level and how our Regional office will work to build a constructive relationship with London Citizens in the interests of our members and all Londoners.

Blogging links!

Thanks to the reader who pointed out that the links in the last few posts aren't working. Sorry folks - I'll fix it later.
(Update on Wednesday evening - I think I have done now...)

Local Government Pay Euphoria (or not)

Well there we are then, the trade unions in local government (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) have agreed proposed terms of reference for the arbitrator to whom the Executive of the NJC trade union side decided to refer our current pay dispute nearly two months ago.
We are going to agree not to take further action and we expect the employers to agree to implement the arbitrators decision.
Since this is precisely what binding arbitration means it is difficult to view this development as progress in any meaningful sense.
At least we are getting the 2.45% before Christmas.
Try not to spend the back pay all at once folks!

Watching paint dry...

Regular readers (Sid and Doris Blogger) will have noticed a few posts in the last little while. This is because I am sitting up waiting for the results of an election an ocean away...
I can’t decide whether I am watching this because a competition between two fairly right-wing parties neither linked to the organised working class is a vision of our future (or perhaps our present), or because the probable election of a charismatic liberal candidate from an ethnic minority background reminds me of one of my favourite TV programmes.
Thus far the viewing is not yet gripping...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Trade union test for Labour MPs

The main focus of news coverage of the union-backed amendments to the Employment Bill being debated today has been on the attempt to enable trade unions to expel active members of far right political parties. This important question is also the main focus of what UNISON is saying on our website.
However, as others are pointing out, there are other amendments being debated, all of which would in one way or another weaken the constraints on the taking of lawful industrial action. These are all pretty modest.
Preventing employers seeking injunctions for technical breaches of industrial action balloting requirements if they have failed to cooperate with related information requests would level the playing field just a bit.
Tightening restrictions on the use of agency workers to strike break would even things up very slightly (since of course we cannot lawfully call out our colleagues who are already agency workers, we just have to rely on the best of them to respect picket lines).
Making it harder for employers to sack strikers – and giving workers the right to reinstatement if sacked in these circumstances would also moderate just slightly the imbalance in power between employer and employee – and help to address the breaches of international human rights treaties in current UK law.
The United Campaign have issued very straightforward briefings. MPs who support trade unionism will back these amendments to the Employment Bill.
Those who vote against will not deserve the support of trade unionists in any future election.

Barnet UNISON facing the future

Barnet UNISON are facing up to the threat of wholesale privatisation from their madcap Tory employers – their major rally on 11 November is now just a week away.
Barnet call it "future shape" but what it seems to be is an abandonment of direct public service provision (an essentially nineteenth century model).
The trade union rally takes place on Tuesday 11 November 2008 in Conference Room 1, Building 2, North London Business Park at 7pm.
This is a meeting which will be worth a journey into the wilds of North London!
Speakers will include Dexter Whitfield of the European Services Strategy Unit, Nigel Behan from Somerset UNISON and Barnet UNISON Branch Secretary John Burgess.
Whilst the ideology underpinning privatisation has been completely discredited that doesn’t mean that our politicians will easily abandon an approach to public services which opens up new opportunities to make profits from public funds.
Barnet’s meeting is a fine example of the sort of joint union campaigning which is needed. Any UNISON – indeed any union – activist (or official) who can get to Barnet next Tuesday evening should do so. (Unless you are already going to be somewhere else...)

Tories attack workers rights (no change there then)

The Tories have opened up a bit of “clear blue water” with a daft attack upon the miserably few rights individual workers have.

The odious Alan Duncan has pleased the management stooges at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) with an attack on the employment tribunal system.

Duncan thinks it is too easy for workers to get into the employment tribunals. He also seems to think that the tribunals never award costs against an unsuccesful claimant, proving I suppose that Cameron hasn’t stopped the Tories being “the stupid party.” Since 2001 tribunals have had powers to award costs if a party - or his/her representative - has acted "vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably, or the bringing or conducting of the proceedings by a party has been misconceived”.


The CIPD jokers reckon that employers should behave well because it is good for business and not because they are required to do so by regulations. This only goes to show that pretend academic disciplines such as “Human Resource Management” aren’t good for developing intellectual rigour. There are different approaches to management out there in the world and plenty of employers are maximising profits by attacking the interests of their workforce without reference to CIPD notions of “good practice.”

There are good employers and good managers out there who want to do right by their workforce in spite of operating within a system that works in the opposite direction– but there are plenty of the other sort of employers, managers (and HR professionals!) out there. I encounter them regularly – and if you are a Union activist or officer doing your job then you do too.

The problem with employment tribunals is not that it is too easy to get access to them but that it is too difficult for workers to get access to the advice and representation that they need to enforce their rights against hostile employers.

Workplace organisation, backed up where necessary by industrial action, is a better guarantee of our rights than litigation, but workers need the capacity to enforce our legal rights. In UNISON we need to reconsider the overly cautious approach to bringing tribunal applications about which I have blogged before.

Under any Government we need unions which will use every tool to defend our members.