Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time to fight job losses

It's a good few years since I was an economics student (I'm not nearly as young as I look in the profile picture) but I do remember a bit about what the Government should do in a recession.

Cutting jobs isn't it - so it is galling to learn that half of local authorities have cut jobs in the current crisis.

Reducing jobs in local government further reduces spending power in the local economy and thereby worsens the recession. What we need is a massive programme of public spending with increases, not reductions in public sector employment.

What we are getting from Tory dominated local government is a taste of the economic policies of what I fear may be our next Government.

Today I had the pleasure of speaking at the AGM of the Hammersmith and Fulham Branch of UNISON, where I heard the best speech I've heard in a while from UNISON member Dawn Francis, one of five women workers who face redundancy because of the hare-brained scheme of her wildly reactionary Tory employers to first privatise their caller centre and then move it to Rochdale.

The five workers have a total of 93 years service with the Council but face the sack on 15 March because they can't be redeployed. The meeting voted unanimously to request a ballot for strike action to defend these workers' jobs.

This is the sort of response we need to job losses in local government.

The demonstration on 28 March is an excellent opportunity for us to mobilise our response to the economic crisis - we also need to put our Union on a war footing to fight to defend our jobs, conditions, services and pensions.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Keep the Post Public - support Tuesday's lobby

It shouldn't be necessary under a Labour Government, still less in the aftermath of the collapse of the finance sector and the massive bail out funded from the public purse, but Mandelson and Brown still want to part privatise the Royal Mail.

It's easy to become punch drunk with the sheer reactionary stupidity of New Labour and to stop being angry that the Government is willing to drive a (part privatised) coach and horses through Labour Party Policy.

Happily - and understandably - the CWU are not complacent and are organising a National Rally and Lobby at noon tomorrow in Central Hall, Westminster.

Full details of the CWU campaign are online here, including a model motion and a link to an online petition. The CWU are affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee who are fully backing this campaign, as are the many MPs who have signed Early Day Motion 428.

This is a vital campaign for the future of the labour movement and deserves the support of all trade unionists.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Report from the UNISON Development and Organisation Committee

Half term is over now, so back to blogging...

Here is my personal report to Greater London Region UNISON Branches from the recent special meeting of the Development and Organisation Committee of the UNISON NEC.

Personal report from the Development and Organisation Committee 10 February 2009

The Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) held a special meeting on Tuesday 10 February to consider responses to consultation on Service Group and Branch Structures.

The Review of Service Group and Branch Structures

The consultation process had been deeply flawed and this was reflected in a very low response rate from branches. However, there had been some further consultation and this had been reflected in some changes to the proposals discussed previously.

In particular, the proposal to merge the Energy and Water Service groups, which had been opposed by those Service Groups has been dropped, at least for the time being, and the foolish proposal to move members employed in schools out of the Local Government Service Group has also been abandoned.

The proposals which were agreed by the Committee, and subsequently by the NEC, for submission to Conference fall into two categories. First there are Rule Amendments to vary our Service Group structures, creating a Water, Environment and Transport Service Group, a Community Service Group (for the community and voluntary sector); a Further and Higher Education Service Group and a Police and Justice Service Group.

It was reported to the Committee that members affected by these proposals were broadly in support, although I knew from branches in the Region that the position was somewhat more mixed and complicated that was being reported. It will now be for National Delegate Conference to decide whether to give a two thirds majority to these proposals.

The second group of Rule Amendments, which will directly affect all our members, relate to the respective roles of Service Groups and Sectors within the Union. The essence of these proposals are to delegate to Sectors the autonomy over pay and conditions currently delegated to Service Groups. Whilst these proposals do reflect developments in the Union since Vesting Day in 1993, and also the decisions of National Delegate Conference 2007, they create the potential for a democratic deficit, since Service Group Conferences would no longer be able to discuss pay and conditions issues (as these would be reserved for Sectors).

I proposed a Rule Amendment that would have introduced the possibility of Sector Conferences to address this deficit, but this suggestion did not command support. The Committee Chair and a majority of the Committee did accept some alternative and additional Rule Amendments which I suggested, giving Service Groups a continuing role in overseeing the work of Sectors and clarifying the powers of the NEC in relation to cross service group work and the democratic accountability of Sectors.

The position of the majority of the Committee was that it would be sufficient for the NEC to issue guidelines on the democratic accountability of Sectors. – a view which I do not share. Branches will be able to make decisions about this when we see the full Preliminary Agenda for Conference, and again Rule Amendments will require a two thirds majority.

Other issues

The Committee also agreed changes to the Regional Pool guidelines to align the allocation of funds to the joint region/branch assessments process. It was also agreed that because of delays in the consultation process on the Review of UNISON’s Democratic Structures an interim report on progress to date will be submitted to the Conference with a view to a full report and recommendations being submitted in 2010.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Put People First

OK it's a bit anodyne as a slogan - and reminds me of "Make People Matter" for those with long memories, but it's a good point really - the trade unions stand on the side of concern for the humans and not the markets.

Anyway, while you're waiting for me to find time to write up my report of the longest single day NEC meeting since I was elected in 2003 click here and find out about the TUC demonstration called to mark the arrival in London of the "G20" - and put Saturday 28 March in your diary!

We need to have a mass turnout to show that the trade union movement will be organising to try to prevent working people from being made to pay for a crisis which is not of our making.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Review of UNISON Bargaining Structures - the good, the bad and the ugly

This blog post is long and assumes a fair degree of knowledge of UNISON structures. This reflects the interests of regular readers (Sid and Doris Blogger) and also the fact that our bargaining structures matter a great deal to the effectiveness and democracy of our trade union. Those wanting more excitement may wish to look away now

The report on Service Group and Branch Structures Implementation going to Tuesday’s Development and Organisation Committee in respect of the review of UNISON’s bargaining structures (agreed by Conference 2007) could have been worse. It could however also be a lot better.

The good.

I'll start with the good points.

The single most absurd proposal which had emerged from Mabledon Place, to take schools staff out of the Local Government Service Group, has been abandoned. Equally the proposal to enforce merger upon the unwilling Energy and Water and Environment Service Groups has been dropped, at least for now, although this is still seen as an objective “once consensus is reached.” (It would be churlish to ask what will happen if consensus is not reached…)

What’s more – and even more importantly – the Committee is being recommended to propose to the NEC a series of Rule Amendments which, of necessity, have to be moved separately, which will permit Conference to choose to accept or reject particular proposals.

(The individual Rule Amendments do not depend upon each other and it would certainly be a very odd decision if the SOC were to decide that they had to be taken together just because they all come from the same report.)

Continuing with the good news, the proposal to create a Community and Voluntary Sector(CVS) Service Group is something we should almost certainly have done ten years ago. Mind you, looking at things from the perspective of the Greater London Region it is pretty clear that we need dedicated voluntary sector branches if we are going to organise CVS members effectively in many instances – and these branches will need a special funding regime if they are to organise effectively on a multi-employer basis across large geographical areas. A CVS Service Group Executive (and CVS representatives on the NEC) will be in a position to argue for this necessary approach.

Similarly the new “Police and Justice” Service Group, bringing together Police and Probation Staff, the new “Water, Environment and Transport” Service Group and the new “Further and Higher Education” Service Group all have an underlying logic and, given the support of the members concerned, represent sensible amendments to our structures.

The bad.

On the other side of the balance sheet, I don’t think that any of the proposed recommendations really go far enough yet to address the problem, identified in the report, of the democratic accountability of sectors within the Union. The report says that; “Democratic accountability of sectors needs to be strengthened and as part of the implementation process the NEC, in consultation with service groups, will issue guidelines to ensure consistency across the groups” but the draft Conference motion attached to the report fails to deal with this vital question (indeed as things stand I am not sure I see the point of the Conference motion at all).

In the absence of some positive proposals for accountability of bargaining units to the members they represent I am not personally convinced of the desirability of proposed amendments to Rules D.3.1.4 (concerning the role of Service Groups) and D.3.7 (on the role of sectors) as they are being recommended at present.

I think we run the risk of taking accountability for bargaining away from bodies which can at least be held to account (Service Group Executives, which are largely directly elected and accountable to their Conferences) and giving the responsibility to bodies which do not at present have collective channels of accountability (Sector Committees).

I am pleased to see that the report does not propose any specific enhancement to the role of the Service Group Liaison Committee but since that Committee, as presently constituted, also lacks any collective channel of accountability to our membership, I don’t think that leaving things as they are is satisfactory either.

Since Conference instructed the NEC to “ensure democratic accountability” in cross service group working this is a problem as there is no meaningful accountability at present, and this has been reflected (in my view) in our failure adequately to protect members of the Local Government Pension Scheme and our failure to secure pay rises above the rate of inflation for most members over the past two years. This isn’t only my view, Local Government Conference said much the same about the pensions dispute a couple of years ago.

From the point of view of the NJC Sector (UNISON’s majority part of the largest single pay bargaining group in the UK economy) the existing, wildly imperfect, structures have enabled the Local Government Conference to hold the pay negotiators to account and to issue them with instructions about the future conduct of negotiations. The changes proposed at the moment would remove from the Local Government Service Group Conference the authority to take such decisions, without giving that authority to any similar body of delegates elected by, and accountable to, the members in the bargaining group. A cynical reader of the report might almost think that officers don’t welcome criticism from the Local Government Conference.

The draft Conference motion puts it quite accurately when it expresses the desire to give equal roles and responsibilities to all who bargain on behalf of our members. Without specific proposals to ensure the collective accountability of the negotiating body in each sector to the membership upon behalf of whom they negotiate this aspiration to equality for our negotiators doesn’t offer much of value to our members, if that equality is an equality of distance from accountability to the elected representatives of the members upon behalf of whom they are negotiating.

The ugly.

The process leading to the last minute submission of this report to a Committee meeting the day before the NEC meeting which will have to agree submissions to National Delegate Conference following a "consultation" process in which a document was issued to branches with no information about how to respond, to whom or by what deadline was not pretty.

I have previously expressed my dissatisfaction with the way in which members have been consulted on these proposals. My provisional status as a “grumpy old man” on this issue has probably been assisted by receiving the report to Tuesday’s meeting on Friday evening. If I tried to put a major report to my Branch Committee at that short notice the Chair would rule it out of order.

I really have no idea why we have to do things at the last minute when we are a national trade union with considerable resources which is supposed to be implementing Conference decisions more than eighteen months old.

Tuesday’s report comments, somewhat defensively to this reader, that the consultation on new configurations is “overdue rather than hasty” whereas I think the point is that it is both at once.

It is tempting to oppose everything when it is put before decisionmakers at the last minute and on the basis of deeply flawed consultation.

However I think that it makes sense to start from the interests of UNISON members and to accept or reject each specific proposal based upon this benchmark and upon the success or failure of the report in meeting the instructions given to the NEC by Conference 2007.

I’ll blog further about this important question after Tuesday’s meeting.

After the Employment Appeals Tribunal decisions - what next?

I have blogged before about UNISON’s decision to appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal against rulings against the Union in cases brought against it by Tony Staunton and Yunus Bakhsh.

The appeals are listed to be heard tomorrow – Monday 9 February.

The decision to lodge these appeals, originally taken by the Presidential Team, was endorsed by the Development and Organisation Committee, of which I am a member. Although I still believe the decision to appeal was wrong (and will hold that belief regardless of the outcome in the tribunal) I am not blogging to repeat arguments made elsewhere.

I am however thinking ahead about how we, as a Union, may respond to EAT decisions in these cases.

In a nutshell, the point the Union lost in the Bakhsh case concerned the Union’s right to suspend a member from office without first bringing charges against the member. If the EAT finds in UNISON’s favour in this case, the National Executive Council(NEC) (meaning in effect the Chair of the relevant NEC Committee) will have the power to suspend a UNISON member from holding office although they face no charges. Although the suspension is carried out in the name of the NEC, the NEC as a whole does not receive details of the reasons for the suspension, other than a brief written summary on which individual NEC members can ask written questions but which cannot be debated or discussed.

In another nutshell, the point the Union lost in the Staunton case concerned the Union’s right to ban someone who had been suspended from holding office from being a candidate in an internal Union election. If the EAT finds in UNISON’s favour in this case the Union will be able to advise the returning officer that any candidates nominated in (for example) the current elections to the NEC who are suspended from holding office are ineligible to be candidates. Nominations close on Friday 13th and there is no provision of the election procedures to reopen nominations should a candidate be ruled out in this way.

Therefore, if UNISON wins both cases, it would be possible for a candidate for election to be suspended from holding office (even though they faced no charges) and therefore to be disqualified as a candidate although they had been found guilty of no offence. In practice the decision could be taken by one NEC member on the recommendation of one officer. There would be nothing anyone could do about this (within the Union) even if the suspension were later lifted and all charges dropped (or dismissed at a subsequent hearing) as the election would by then have taken place.

Whether or not you agree with the Certification Officer about these two cases it is not difficult to agree with the view expressed in the Bakhsh decision that;

“A discretionary power to suspend a member from an office to which he or she has been elected is a very significant matter”.

It is also hard to argue against the following statement drawn from the decision in the Staunton case;

“the right of a union member to stand for election is an important right of membership, as in any democratic organisation, and should not be taken away unless the members have so decided in a clearly expressed rule to that effect.”

Were the Union to be successful in both these cases a heavy burden would be placed upon the shoulders of those charged with exercising the discretion of the NEC under Rule C.7.4. No one in UNISON, I am sure, wants to see the use of administrative means to stifle political dissent.

How then are we to protect UNISON from the perception that the power of suspension could be used for political advantage in order to disqualify candidates who might succeed in being elected to the NEC?

What safeguards exist?

Do our existing procedures, in which the NEC does not receive full information about such decisions taken in its name, provide sufficient protection?

I don't think I am the only UNISON member worried about the answers to these questions.

Update on Monday evening - the EAT have reserved judgement.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Open letter to the General Secretary

The following letter was sent yesterday to UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis by several members of UNISON's NEC;

Dear Dave,

The UNISON Northern Region website had a news report dated 29 January 2009 concerning the investigation into racist activity on a social networking website by a former UNISON member, who has resigned from UNISON.

This former member was one of those whose complaints led to the suspension of leading black UNISON activist Yunus Bakhsh, whose complaint that his suspension may have been motivated by racism was dismissed by UNISON.

Information has now come to light which suggests that supporters of the far-right in the North-East were involved in promoting and encouraging complaints against Yunus, leading to his suspension from UNISON and by the employer and to his dismissal from his job.

UNISON is rightly proud of our opposition to racism in general and our opposition to the far right in particular.

It is not acceptable that UNISON should devote our members' money to an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal in defence of a suspension which we now know was tainted by racism.

The exceptional circumstances of this case require a thoroughly independent and impartial investigation. UNISON members, trade unionists and anti-racists will expect nothing less of us.

Kate Ahrens, NEC; Roger Bannister, NEC; Bernadette Gallagher, NEC; Helen Jenner, NEC; Glenn Kelly, NEC; Diana Leach, NEC; Emma MacBeth, NEC; John McDermott, NEC; Karen Reissmann, NEC; Jon Rogers, NEC; Jessie Russel, NEC; Mike Tucker, NEC

Monday, February 02, 2009

Regional AGM postponed

Though this news is not yet on the UNISON Greater London Regional website, the following message is circulating from the Regional Secretary;

"Unfortunately I must advise you that the Greater London Region Council AGM and other service group AGMs, scheduled for Wednesday 4 February 2009, have had to be postponed.

This arises due to the severe weather conditions that have developed, resulting in continued Met Office severe weather warnings, Transport for London advice about passengers’ safety, delegates facing difficulties with childcare due to school closures and mounting pressure on delegates from Health and Utilities Branches over time off in these conditions.

A number of branches have advised today that delegates are anticipating these difficulties will continue into Wednesday and will therefore be unable to attend.

It is not possible to guarantee the proper functioning or quoracy of these AGMs in these circumstances, and therefore it is with reluctance that they are postponed in the interests of safety of delegates and the democratic participation of Branches.

I would be grateful if you would advise your delegates as a matter of urgency.

Staff are already working on securing room bookings for rescheduled meetings as soon as is practicable, and it is hoped information can be circulated as soon as possible once the Regional Office has fully reopened."

This is not something about which there was any consultation with the Regional Committee. I note that the message does not say that this was a decision of the Regional Convenor.

Whereas when football matches are postponed through bad weather the pools panel come up with notional results, the UNISON Regional AGM will need to be reconvened so that delegates can elect the Regional lay leadership.

The Regional Rule Book indicates that delegates are entitled to a minimum of seven working days notice of the meeting date (which is in any case common sense if delegates are to negotiate time off work).

If we are to avoid half term (the week of 16 February) and also want to meet before the deadline for motions to National Delegate Conference (noon on Tuesday 24 February) it will be fairly tricky.

Whether Wednesday's forecast sleet necessitated this unprecedented step, it is done now. Branches will need to be alert to the possibility of having to substitute delegates for a new date.

Update on Tuesday morning – the news is now online officially.