Monday, March 30, 2009

UNISON and the Peoples' Charter

I read with interest that both the South West and North West Regional TUCs have endorsed the Peoples’ Charter.

I am particularly intrigued to read that UNISON delegates in the South West opposed this, although UNISON nationally has not yet taken any policy position on the Charter, which has attracted support from (amongst others) the Morning Star. (It has been pointed out to me in comments on this post that the earlier wording of this post could have been read as suggesting that I thought our delegates in the North West had opposed the Charter. I apologise to anyone who was misled by this).

As I have argued here previously, the Charter largely reflects UNISON policies. More to the point, it is arguably less ambitious and less left-wing than the policy platform for Saturday’s “Put People First” demonstration, to which UNISON signed up wholeheartedly. That’s why I have signed the Charter.

There is no good reason why any UNISON official should oppose the Peoples’ Charter. The only arguments which I have been offered against the Charter are economically illiterate rehashes of 1940s Tory arguments against the welfare state (“we can’t afford to nationalise the banks because it will threaten our pensions” – d’oh!)

If there is motivation within in our movement to oppose the Peoples’ Charter it will arise from a misperception that the Charter is intended to pave the way for socialists to leave the Labour Party. It may well be that some of those who support the Charter wish this to happen, but socialists within the Labour Party are not so daft! Indeed it is Labour Party activists who are amongst the most active in promoting the Charter.

The Charter’s difficult and prolonged genesis (which was less inclusive than it might have been) may have given some hostages to fortune, but any sensible activist will read what the Charter actually says and make their mind up on that basis.

Twenty years of trade unionism teaches me that it is quite possible to work alongside fellow trade unionists who aren’t Labour Party members without being tempted to leave the Party oneself.

19 of the 24 MPs who support the Charter are Labour MPs which strikes me as a persuasive argument that supporters of the Charter need to focus upon the Labour Party if we want to achieve our objectives. However, I completely understand that many good socialists are outside the Labour Party and yet still want our trade union movement to fight for the interests of our members.

The Peoples Charter is an opportunity for UNISON’s leadership to live up to the best of our Union and to lead our movement. I hope that we will rise to this challenge. The opposition to the Charter within our movement seems to reflect the least intelligent elements of right wing loyalty to the Government before our members.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Put People First - what next?

Tired children and a very heavy banner combined to provide an excuse for myself and a couple of other comrades to leave fairly early from the excellent People Not Profit demonstration yesterday in Central London. It was great to be there though!

This was a consciously anti-capitalist protest, and was matched by protests elsewhere in Europe. As Le Monde points out the demands of yesterday’s demonstration were wide-ranging. Not only does this differentiate the demonstration from most mass London demonstrations which are generally built around a single unifying demand, it also demonstrates that the supporters of the demonstration are – in effect – already supporting the, if anything less ambitious, demands expressed in the recently launched Peoples Charter.

The alliance which was built around yesterday’s demonstration has an obligation to continue to work together in the face of an economic crisis which has barely begun to inflict its damage upon our communities, jobs and pensions. We have to seize this moment, when the prophets of free market liberalism have been widely discredited, to articulate an alternative which reflects the interests of working people.

As some UNISON activists were saying in today’s Observer, trade unionists also need to prepare ourselves to take whatever action is necessary to protect ourselves from the coming attacks. The alliances built for yesterday's demonstration will be invaluable - and the Peoples Charter may be a useful tool with which to work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Savaged by a dead sheep

Oh dear, I appear to have awoken the ire of the self-appointed spokespeople for all taxpayers by daring to defend the Local Government Pension Scheme and being (horror of horrors) a socialist.

With their wild-eyed right-wing co-thinkers at the Evening Standard busily trying to turn private sector and public sector workers against each other over the question of pensions, the TPA reveal their motives by describing taxpayers in such a way as to exclude public sector workers.

In fact of course public sector workers on PAYE are regular taxpayers just like other workers. The Standard stoops to a new low in the devaluing of an important word by describing the difference between pension provision in the public and private sectors as “apartheid”.

It is absurd to blame public sector workers for the decline of pension provision in the private sector. The fault lies with private sector employers and the reason that they have been able to get away with it says a lot about the relative weakness of trade union organisation in the private sector.

The crocodile tears of the Evening Standard would be plausible if I could remember a single time that paper has supported workers organising to better their lives. The idea that our pension schemes in the public sector cannot be afforded is nonsense. Economic output has nearly doubled in the UK in the last thirty years.

If as a society we chose to prioritise decent defined benefit pension schemes for all workers we could do so. We should. We don’t have to accept that this economic crisis means working people must pay for the crisis – instead this could be the occasion for us to articulate an alternative and do something about it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our pensions should be Standard!

I don’t often buy the Evening Standard as I find that most commercially available toilet paper is both softer and more absorbent.

Today however, the Standard is presenting press releases from the Taxpayers Alliance (a.k.a. the Tory candidates’ training ground) as an “exclusive” report on deficits in local authority pension funds.

The range of inaccuracies in the “reporting” from this “newspaper” will no doubt be exposed better by those with more expertise in this area. (I don’t think my GMB comrades will mind my pointing out that the Standard is wrong to describe their union as the “main local government union” for example!)


It is certainly astonishing that (presumably) well paid columnists think that police officers or teachers are paid out of the local government pension scheme (if public sector workers did as bad a job as Professor Philip Booth did in writing that article we would be dealt with under a capability procedure!)

The point I want to make here is that this report is an indication of the attacks which we can now expect upon all public sector pension schemes. The pensions of the highest paid are an easy target (and we might not worry to much if these were limited) but the reality of this is that the real attack is upon the pensions of the hundreds of thousands of local government workers who will get a small pension - not the small number who may get a hundred thousand.

We need now to prepare for the political and industrial action which will be required to protect our public service pensions, which should be a benchmark for workers in the rest of the economy and not an exception to be pilloried by Tory journalists.

If capitalism cannot afford decent pensions then the answer is not to get rid of decent pensions but to get rid of capitalism (sorry if that sounds a bit Dave Spart but it also sounds right).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rules for UNISON delegates

Whilst I realise that this may be fatal for attempts to establish this blog’s reputation as the premier home of cutting edge humour and excitement, I felt I should say something about some of the 21 Rule Amendments which are on the agenda for UNISON National Delegate Conference.

Please have your UNISON Rule Book to hand…

I won’t blog now in detail about the Rule Amendments ruled out of order but will return to that topic, particularly because the failure of the Rule Amendment which would have created the possibility of Sector Conferences to make it onto the agenda creates a real dilemma about a democratic deficit that I am afraid will otherwise be created by the Rule Amendments implementing the devolution of collective bargaining responsibility from Service Groups to Sectors.

Looking at what we do have, the first thing upon which to remark is that we may have a full afternoon of debating the Rules. I realise that not everyone will view this as an appealing prospect. There are however some important discussions to have and decisions to make.

Rule Amendment 17 may be among the most important since it seeks to tighten up the Rules that permit us to exclude members of far right political parties from membership. However the wording of the amendment is, on legal advice, a little opaque permitting us to exclude or expel “any individual who gives encouragement to or participates in the activities of a political party the objectives of which are contrary to the objectives of UNISON in particular those equality provisions set out in Rules A3 and/or B1.2 and/or B1.3 of the UNISON Rule Book.” I would have preferred a straightforward ban on BNP members being UNISON members. The counter argument was the fringe parties of the far right frequently change their names, and that the BNP is not the only such organisation so that a wider form of words is required.

The associated Rule Amendment 5 which deals with arrangements when members are excluded, removes the routine right of Branch Committees to refuse membership applications currently in Rule C.5.2 (clause (b)). Although that provision may have become a dead letter I think that this change will need some explanation, as will the arrangements for branches to consider representations from anyone we consider ineligible for membership.

Rule Amendment 18 will probably be uncontroversial. It implements a one off increase in the hourly rate of pay which we define as “low pay” for the purposes of Reserved low pay seats under our Rules from £7.49 to £8.50. Thereafter the amount will continue to increase in line with pay inflation. Attempts to clarify the meaning of hourly rate in the Rule Book were abandoned at an earlier stage in favour of the expectation that the National Executive Council will use its powers to interpret the Rule Book to arrive at a sensible interpretation (this is of particular concern in the Greater London Region where, in many cases, “London Weighting” payments are now rolled up into the hourly rate).

Rule Amendment 15 implements a prohibition on a single member holding more than one of the “top three” Branch Officer positions (Secretary, Treasurer and Chair) – although this may cause some problems in the smallest branches it does make sense that these different roles should be held by different individuals from the point of view of both democratic and financial accountability.

New Rule G8 brings in further change for branches as it introduces “Equality Representatives” into our Rules. I would particularly welcome the views of activists within UNISON’s self-organised groups on these proposals since self-organisation by members experiencing particular forms of oppression (whether in the workplace or the wider society) is core to UNISON and has been ever since 1993.

Most of the remaining Rule Amendments deal with different aspects of the Review of Structures, proposing the creation of new Service Groups and changes to the definitions of Service Groups and Sectors. Although in debate at the NEC we wrote back into the role of Service Groups that they should “oversee” the work of sectors I am nevertheless concerned that the devolution of autonomy to sectors in the absence of clear arrangements for collective democratic accountability of Sector Committees to a representative body of delegates would weaken rather than strengthen our Union.

New Rule D 2.9.13 clarifies the power of the NEC to issue guidelines on the democratic accountability of sectors, and since it is within Rule D.2.9 and therefore subject to the caveats surrounding the general power of the NEC under Rule D.2.1 (which subjects the NEC to “the policy of the Union as laid down by the National Delegate Conference”) it does make clear that Conference could issue instructions to the NEC about such guidelines. Whether or not the amendments to Rules D 3.1.4 and D 3.7 are agreed this year, Conference could therefore return to the question of the democratic accountability of Sectors.

New Rule D.2.9.6 is as much as is on offer to respond to the decision of 2007 Conference that the NEC should “ensure democratic accountability” in “cross service group working.” All it does is clarify that the NEC has the power to “oversee cross service group work” but, as with Rule D.2.9.13 this is at least clearly subject to Conference policy, so that a future National Delegate Conference could give the NEC some instructions about (for example) the role, composition and accountability of the Service Group Liaison Committee.

For those still reading this far down the post you now know what we have to look forward to on the Thursday afternoon of National Delegate Conference – this year won’t be the year to find other activities at that point.

What priorities for UNISON Conference?

Attentive observers of our trade union (Sid and Doris Conference-Anorak) will have spent their weekend poring over the recently published Preliminary Agenda for UNISON National Delegate Conference.

133 Policy Motions and 21 Rule Amendments have made it onto the agenda, from which 52 Policy Motions and 37 Rule Amendments have been ruled out of order. The next step in constructing the Conference agenda is the prioritisation process about which I have blogged before (ad nauseam). The gist of the previous posts for those who haven’t clicked those links is that branches need to consider which motions on the Preliminary Agenda to support for prioritisation bearing in mind that only prioritised motions can be debated at Conference.

I have only just started thinking about what we should be prioritising, but a few things do stand out. A number of motions deal in different ways with the problems posed by anti-working class Government policies and the shortcomings of UNISON’s relationship with the Labour Party from the point of view of our members.

The motion agreed at National Black Members’ Conference on the Labour Government and the Black Community appears on the Conference Agenda as Motion 102 (and also 103) – this makes the persuasive point that the current government has lost its way and that our Party is no longer a party for the working class and the vulnerable within our society, and commits the Union to campaign against the misuse of stop and search and anti-terror laws.

There are a number of good motions on the Economic Crisis, including Motion 56 and Motion 28 which points out that the threats posed to the viability of the Private Finance Initiative by the financial crisis and its knock-on effects “have decisively strengthened the union's historic criticisms of a programme that has resulted since the early 1990s in the privatisation of our members' jobs, threatened their terms and conditions, and acted as a subsidy from the taxpayer to the profits of construction industry consortia.” The motion goes on to call for a campaign for privatised services to be brought back into the public sector.

A lengthy motion from the Greenwich Branch (Motion 41) makes a strong case for a change of direction for the Union; “The correct political position is one based on prioritising our members and the services we provide. This is clearly not taking place at present. A change of direction is necessary if we are to create a stronger UNISON able to protect our members, our jobs, our pensions from the coming attacks.” I also rather like Motion 62 from Glasgow which states that “there is an economic alternative to free market capitalism based on the common and democratic ownership of the major elements of the economy, namely democratic socialism.”

Amongst the International motions I have a (branch) vested interest in promoting interest in Motion 85 “Hands Off the People of Iran” but activists also need to consider which of the various motions on Palestine and Gaza to prioritise. The NEC motion will get prioritised as will the sharper (and shorter) South East Region motion but if the wording of other motions is to be available for a composite they too will need to have been prioritised.

True Conference anoraks will have an interest in Motion 7 on Fair Representation in Conference delegations which will enable Conference itself to have the debate which is otherwise simply an annual feature of the October meeting of the NEC Development and Organisation Committee.

The critical question of our future structures – which will dominate the Rule Amendments on Thursday afternoon – is taken up in the NEC Motion (Motion 9) to which branches may wish to look to move amendments. Conference may of course prefer the approach of Motion 10 from Southwark which calls for adequate consultation on proposals for change. This is an area which requires further discussion ahead of Conference.

Finally (for now) I’ll plug Motion 11 from Lambeth which seeks to move the discussion of our future relationship with the GMB out of the TUC social and onto the floor of Conference.

I'll return to this topic later (but then if you were looking for fun you wouldn't be reading here!)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Remembering other election results...

I remember the reports received within UNISON when our candidate was pipped at the post some eighteen months ago in the election for General Secretary of the Public Services International.

In spite of the best efforts of our candidate he was defeated and I remember the report back from our General Secretary to the NEC in October 2007. He complained that, amongst other things, the paid officials did not appear to have been neutral in the election and that this had disadvantaged our candidate - who was plainly the more leftwing of the two.

For some reason I was put in mind of this as I listened to the election results at today's Annual General Meeting of UNISON's Greater London Regional Council. The incumbent officers were re-elected and their opponents, for whom I would have voted if I had a vote as an NEC member, were defeated.

I will blog a fuller account of our Regional AGM shortly, but for the moment I congratulate Gloria, Conroy and their team and observe that the coming year will pose challenges the like of which we have not seen in some time. The test which we will face as a trade union in Greater London is whether we can mobilise and organise our members to face the onslaught of job losses in Greater London.

Those of us who believe in regular Regional Council meetings need to book in our diary the date of 4 June when we will be attending the next Regional Council meeting and the date of 22 April which is the deadline for motions to the Regional Council. If any Greater London UNISON branch has difficulties securing the attendance of delegates at the 4 June Regional Council they should ask their Regional Organiser for assistance - let me know if you have a problem.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sign the Peoples Charter

As is so often the case I find myself persuaded by the arguments of John McDonnell.

The long awaited Peoples Charter is online now - and will be coming to a workplace and to a street stall near you soon. The organisers of this initiative hope for a million signatures in support of some elementary progressive political demands.

It's clear that the economic crisis which will be presented by some in our movement as a potent argument to moderate our demands ought rather to be seen as the occasion and opportunity to step up our demands for a change in the ideology of market worship which has been dominant for a generation.

In the absence of a credible left of centre political party to articulate the interests of working people an initiative by rank and file socialists, supported by a number of leading trade unionists and MPs has the potential to put socialist politics back on the agenda just now when we need them.

It seems to me that the Charter restates a number of UNISON policies and that therefore UNISON nationally should endorse this initiative. If you don't believe me about the UNISON policies you can check for yourself. This is the text of the summary of the Charter, with a few links to UNISON Conference policies...

A fair economy for a fairer Britain

Progressive taxes without loopholes or tax-havens. We must own and control the main banks. Guarantee all pensions, mortgages and savings. Tie pensions and benefits to wages. Give Pensioners free transport and heating. Increase the minimum wage..

More and better jobs

Protect existing jobs. Reduce hours, not pay, to create more jobs. Make a massive investment in new jobs, particularly in green technology, for our children's sake..

Decent homes for all

Create 3 million new publicly owned homes. Stop the repossessions. Control rents.

Save and improve our services

Energy, Telecommunications, Post, Water and Transport to be owned by all of us. Remove profit making from the NHS and schools. Support our public service staff..

For Fairness and Justice

Equality for all. Together against all racism and discrimination. Equal pay for women. End child poverty. Give young people a future. Free child and youth facilities, education and training for all. Repeal the anti-union laws to fight poverty and inequality..

A better future starts now

No more blood and money for war. Bring the troops home. No more £billions for nuclear weapons. We want massive investment for a greener, safer world. Get rid of the debt economy in Britain and cancel the debts of the poor of the planet.

The Uses and Abuses of Union Disciplinary action

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will know that I sometimes criticise actions taken officially on behalf of the Union, on the National Executive Council of which I have the honour to sit, and that I sometimes get involved in trying to change things. This sometimes confuses and upsets people.

If there is one issue calculated to raise the blood pressure of some fellow trade unionists it is the suggestion that our internal disciplinary procedures are occasionally used (wrongly) to settle political differences. I do sometimes suggest this, but I do so because of my own personal experience some years ago. That's also why I don't condemn trade unionists who feel compelled to bring complaints to the Certification Officer.

I faced the threat of disciplinary action (and possible expulsion) as a result of a tribunal case in which a white male UNISON member won a claim of race and sex discrimination against UNISON. The tribunal found against the Union because they believed that I would have taken complaints of race and sex discrimination from a black woman more seriously than I took those from a white man. This was not the most expensive legal mistake in which I had been involved, nor the first time I had been accused of discrimination in legal proceedings but it was the one that, as an insider warned me at the time, a hostile official thought he could get me expelled for.

I had no problem with the fact that the Union conducted a disciplinary investigation in response to an adverse tribunal judgment in a discrimination case but I was angry when I learned that whilst the investigating officer had not recommended disciplinary action against me, such a recommendation was added by a national official. Why did this happen?

Well you would have to ask him yourself to get his answer, but I can speculate.

I had upset people on the right-wing of the Union (who are sometimes unhappy to be identified in that way) by supporting the Hillingdon Hospital strike during my year as Deputy Regional Convenor in 1996/97. I had also been outspoken in opposition to what I saw as the political witch hunt undertaken during the tenure of the previous General Secretary. I had taken on representation of leftwing activists facing disciplinary action within the Union.

Whatever the reasons for this action, it was plainly politically motivated abuse of internal procedures as was recognised when a wiser official and his deputy put a stop to it all once they had the opportunity to do so.

Having previously been on the receiving end of an attempt at politically motivated misuse of our disciplinary procedures I am aware that this can happen, and that those who believe this to be impossible are simply wrong.

Trade unions are democratic organisations and we need to find a way to accommodate disagreement and dissent without the use of disciplinary procedures. After all, UNISON managed to get along ok without expelling me :)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prefer to remain anonymous?

I allow anonymous comments on this blog because I understand that many people find it too complicated to give themselves an online name.

I also know of bloggers who keep their real identity concealed for good reasons.

Although I don't post online anonymously I do not therefore criticise those who do – but there are exceptions to this rule.

I think it is unacceptable to use the cloak of anonymity to make personal criticisms of identifiable individuals.

I suppose I should declare an interest as I have been on the receiving end of some anonymous online vitriol in my time (albeit it has been pretty amateurish and poor quality stuff).

When I failed to persuade comrades to back my preferred candidate for Regional Convenor in October 2005 and therefore stood myself in February 2006 I was the target of an intemperate anonymous email.

A good trade unionist who withdrew their nomination as a Regional Council officer that year rather than be associated with such tactics told me then who was behind it. My ill-advised candidacy as Convenor was not a success. The achievements of the successful candidate are well-known and indicate only too well the likely outcome of anonymous vitriol.

Later that year, very obviously from the same stable (and – perhaps flatteringly – after I and other socialist comrades within UNISON had begun blogging) elsewhere the anonymous blogger shut up shop. Since that time some of the same venom has emerged in anonymous comments on other blogs.

To use the cloak of anonymity to make personal attacks against political opponents is the hallmark of the witch hunter. It is in particular the hallmark of those witch hunters whose conditions of employment preclude public attacks upon lay trade union activists.

It is worthy of note that there are strange (formerly) political sects who operate almost entirely anonymously (whilst energetically supporting bureaucratic manoeuvres against other socialists who have the confidence to identify themselves with their beliefs). It is of course no more than a coincidence that one particularly strange bunch share Europhobic prejudices and poorly argued antipathy to national industrial action with a number of right wingers within UNISON's Greater London Region.

These anonymous enemies of socialism and trade unionism are however as nothing to the anonymous critics of socialist trade union activist, Yunus Bakhsh, who connived and conspired to secure his dismissal whilst concealing their racist motivations. The shocking case of Yunus Bakhsh very much underlines the reasons why it is unwise to rely upon anonymous testimony which cannot be tested by cross examination.

As the next round of NEC elections approach within UNISON it is to be expected that those who lack the honesty and self-confidence to identify themselves in public with their own views will step up their vitriol against socialists who seek a more effective trade union to defend our members' interests.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Organising in the private sector?

UNISON is a public service trade union but we have thousands of private sector members and thousands more work in the private sector delivering public services outside the trade union movement. When those workers do come the way of the Union it is often as isolated individuals needing servicing and support rather than as an organised collective group. UNISON activists have seen this problem for years and have been debating what to do about it, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

At UNISON National Delegate Conference 2005 we noted that “since 1993, when UNISON was established, the delivery of public services in the United Kingdom (UK) has been subject to widespread change and restructuring.” The previous year’s Local Government Conference had recognised that the preceding few years had witnessed some key changes in how services are being delivered.

Conference 2005 therefore instructed the National Executive Council(NEC) to undertake a review of service group structures and branch organisation, in consultation with branches, regions, service groups and self-organised groups, and young members, and report back to conference in 2007 with rule amendments if appropriate. This was reported on in 2007 when National Delegate Conference took further decisions following on from the National Executive Council's report on the Review of Branch and Service Group Structures.

I have blogged before about the Rule Amendments which will be put to this year’s Conference by the NEC. There is more to be said about these proposals, which create new Service Groups and devolve bargaining responsibilities to Sectors, but perhaps the most significant thing about the proposals which we will be debating is what is missing.

Recommendation 7 of the 2007 report identified members employed by private contractors as one of the groups in respect of whom the NEC would undertake further work, including local consultation with these groups of members, in order to identify what additional structural changes may be needed at national, regional and local level.

The 2004 Local Government Conference had noted that Large scale transfers have been witnessed in Lincolnshire, Blackburn and Liverpool with private companies providing many of those authorities core administration and financial services, whilst the 2005 National Delegate Conference decision had noted the impact of privatisation on our Union organisation.

This is not a new problem – I got myself and the Union into a deal of difficulty more than ten years ago trying to organise and secure recognition for workers in a private care home. A decade later and our Union still has not developed a sensible structure to organise members in the private sector. The losers from this include the enormous workforce in the burgeoning private care sector in particular, working largely without union protection.

The report considered by the Development and Organisation Committee in January concluded that “there are a number of different solutions to the representation of Private Contractors in UNISON. In health, there is an overwhelming wish to remain in health due to the strong NHS identity; however, other groups such as Vertex have a far stronger identity in their own right and see little link back to public services and therefore will benefit from an enhanced sector identity.” Since this says precisely nothing about branch structure and organisation it says little that is relevant to the experience of organising our private sector members.

It is ironic and more than a little frustrating, if perhaps understandable, that the most intractable of our organisational dilemmas is precisely the one which the NEC is completely failing to address in the proposals coming before Conference. I think therefore that activists at branch level need to take this debate forward. Our private contractor organising work at national level quite sensibly focuses upon large contractors who bid for major local government contracts. It barely touches the workforce in the private care sector.

What is to be done?

Amongst the very least helpful contributions to the debate which hardly takes place at NEC level about how to address this organisational shortcoming are the ill-informed whinges about branches who are happy to take members subscriptions but do not wish to service private sector members. I fear that those NEC colleagues who express such opinions illustrate only their own ignorance of conditions at grass roots level in our Union.

I know from personal experience and from discussion with other Branch Secretaries that in fact what we are doing at branch level is fire fighting as we try to service private sector members whom our branches generally lack the resources to organise effectively. Yesterday I spoke to a committed organiser who is one of our most energetic and effective Branch Secretaries. He said that, in the absence of organising support from Regional level he would not be accepting into membership employees from private sector organisations in which the branch did not already organise.

There is an urgent need to find a better answer to this problem.

Fight the victimisation of UNISON activists

As I am on leave for the day I have been thinking about fellow trade unionists experiencing enforced leisure thanks to their victimisation by the employers. I’ve blogged before (and soon will again) about the long running case of victimised nurse Yunus Bakhsh, sacked on trumped up charges which have already been discredited.

Unfortunately in recent weeks three more good UNISON activists have shared his fate. My fellow UNISON NEC member John McDermott has been sacked by East and North East Leeds Housing and – in a worrying indication that other new providers of social housing also want to pick a fight with their staff, respected Tower Hamlets UNISON activist Debbie Cordroy has been dismissed by One Housing Group. It tells you all you need to know about John that he was speaking in support of Debbie the evening before he got the result of his own case. UNISON members in Leeds have taken strike action in support of John and members in Tower Hamlets will be balloting for action to support Debbie following a very effective public meeting.

This week Jose Stalin Bermudez, Chair of the UNISON Branch at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and leading campaigner against low pay and for justice for migrant workers, has been sacked. SOAS boast on their website of “a long and distinguished history of widening the horizons of its students and helping them gain the skills needed for careers in an increasingly international environment” – happily the students have had their horizons widened enough already to be supporting UNISON and UCU members who want to fight this victimisation. The UNISON branch will be seeking a strike ballot and I am sure that action will be taken if SOAS do not back down.

In all these cases employers will claim some spurious justification for what is really an attack upon vocal and effective organisers. The employers will seek to pursue these cases behind the closed doors of disciplinary and appeal hearings and cajole the Union into settling at best for paltry compensation. UNISON needs to stand firm against these victimisations or in the coming year of recession we will see many more such cases.

We need public campaigns in which we make clear that we will not bow to bullying from the employers.

What should be done about witch hunters?

It's good news that the Information Commissioner is closing down a company running an illegal service to enable construction sector employers to avoid employing union activists.

There's nothing new about employers cooperating to keep such information - the Economic League did so for most of the twentieth century.

When the Economic League was finished off in the early 90s it would now appear that its most active customers in the construction sector found an alternative.

The company will close, but what about its customers?

How many managers in the customers of this organisation knew what they were doing and that they were breaking the law? How many will be disciplined or dismissed for this deliberate law breaking?

UNISON's often low paid public service members are subject to all sorts of Codes of Practice and - in the past year - I have represented workers sacked for breaking laws quite unrelated to their job.

If only they had been well paid HR managers deliberately breaking the law to wreck the lives of good trade unionists. They would still be at work today.

Update on Friday evening you can read interesting comment from Gregor Gall and Dave Osler online.

We need to articulate some demands in response to this news, and to the increase in victimisation of trade union activists. How about compensation from the construction industry for those on the covert database? An increase in resources for enforcement of data protection legislation? Reversing the burden of proof in trade union victimisation cases so that employers have to prove, if disciplining a representative, that they are not victimising them?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

O.3% better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick...

We now have news of the ACAS arbitration award. We are welcoming the extra 0.3% and the employers are unhappy. That last is probably the best indication that we ought to be pleased (with apologies to any employers' side colleagues reading this of course!)

The employers say; "We are extremely surprised and disappointed by this outcome, which runs counter to all the evidence we submitted in written and oral presentations to the panel." However the fact that arbitrators arbitrate should hardly come as such a surprise and I hope that some of the more intemperate language in the employers' circular ("We are of course aware that the experience of the last few months has led some to question the value of the relationship with trade unions and how it affects national bargaining.") is just raw red meat for the true blue shires.

I still believe that arbitration was a mistake, albeit one which we had little choice but to make by the time the decision was arrived at in September, and that we could have done better than 2.75% if we had been able to unify all those public sector workers with pay disputes in 2008.

However, this arbitration award nevertheless demonstrates that taking action and pursuing a dispute can produce a positive outcome. Was it worth it?

For those of us who lost two days pay of course we lost more than 0.3% of our annual salary in doing so (depending upon how the calculation was done the amount is about 0.75%). However that was a one off cost - whereas the extra 0.3% is now consolidated into our future earnings for the rest of our time in local government and will be a part of the final earnings on which our pension will be calculated.

Even on the basis of a narrow financial calculation therefore, those of us who took strike action last July were justified in doing so and have been vindicated. If those who crossed the picket lines (but will now also benefit from our action) had stood by us we would have course have won more and sooner.

With local government facing a toxic mix of financial pressures, dogma-driven privatisation and threats to our pension rights we need our Union to give a fighting lead to win the confidence of our members to take action in defence of our interests. We also need to enthuse our activists at every level behind a campaigning approach to the unavoidable defensive struggles which we now face.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Oppose Welfare "Reform"

UNISON is supporting tomorrow’s lobby of Parliament on Welfare Reform, called by our sister union, PCS.

PCS are opposed to plans to privatise the public employment service and social fund.

They argue that the flexible new deal tendering process and the proposals contained in the bill should be abandoned. It is wrong to allow organisations to make profits out of the sick and unemployed.

They want to see the government focus on safeguarding and creating jobs instead of punitive sanctions and increased conditionality for claimants.

It seems ironic that the Government should step up the pressure to force claimaints into work just at the point at which the recession means that there are fewer employment opportunities – but this is not ironic at all.

During an economic crisis employers will seek to restore profitability by reducing labour costs and measures which increase labour supply, and encourage those thrown out of work to accept lower paid employment contribute to this objective.

This has nothing to do with modernising public services, except in the sense that the New Poor Law represented “modernisation” in the 1830s. There is further online comment here.

For those of us who cannot make it to the lobby of Parliament tomorrow – there is an online petition to sign.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

UNISON NEC report to London branches

This is the text of my report to Greater London UNISON Branches from the February meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC). It's a bit on the long side so make a cup of tea before settling down to read this...

Conference Business – Policy Motions

The meeting began by discussing the NEC’s motions and Rule Amendments for this year’s National Delegate Conference. These will appear in the Preliminary Agenda for Conference in a couple of weeks, but if any Greater London Branches would like sight of the text of the motions as put to the NEC please let me know.

The topics of the motions are as follows;
Organising ;
Learning and Organising;
Improving UNISON Structures;
Climate Change
The Economy
The Housing Crisis
New Challenges for the NHS
Public Services
Welfare Safety Net
Cuba
Rights of Public Service Workers to Organise and Collective Bargaining
Palestine;
Funding the Equal Pay Challenge.

There was some discussion of amendments to the motions at the meeting and the greatest controversy surrounded the motion on Palestine, which had been agreed by the International Committee but which a number of NEC members (myself included) felt did not adequately reflect UNISON’s established position of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The Chair of the Policy Committee proposed a number of amendments to the motion from the International Committee, most (but not all) of which were agreed by the NEC against the opposition of the International Committee.

Alongside this discussion, the NEC also considered a separate item outlining the work which had been undertaken in response to the recent Gaza crisis. UNISON had been well represented on the London demonstration on 10 January.

The Palestinian trade unions had been invited to Health Conference and Dave Prentis had turned down an invitation to the Congress of the (Israeli) Histradut Government Employees Union citing the failure of the Histradut to condemn Israeli military action.

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (general)

The NEC also agreed Rule Amendments for submission to Conference as follows;
Schedule B (bringing the Rules on Benefits into line with the Rule Change on Legal Assistance agreed last year which reduced the qualifying period of membership from 13 to 4 weeks);
New Rule G8 (introducing Equality Representatives)(in relation to which I think that there may be need for further consultation with our self-organised groups);
New Rule G.4.1.6 (this prohibits one person holding more than one of the offices of Branch Chair, Secretary and Treasurer – the original incentive for this amendment comes from instances of fraud perpetrated against the Union by individuals who were both Branch Secretary and Branch Treasurer);
Rule Q (this changes the definition of “reserved seats” to increase the hourly rate of pay for eligibility for these seats to £8.50. I had raised concerns about how to give effect to our intention of excluding London Weighting from this definition and this will now be dealt with by subsequent interpretation of the Rules).

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (UNISON structures)

The following additional Rule Amendments were agreed arising from the discussion at the Development and Organisation Committee on UNISON Structures;
Rule D.3.1.1 adding a new “Community” Service Group and deleting Rule D.3.7.4;
Rule D.3.1.1 replacing the Higher Education Service Group with a new Further and Higher Education Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.1 replacing the Police staff Service Group with a new Police and Justice Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.1 merging the Water and Environment and Transport Service Groups into a new Water, Environment and Transport Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.4 changing the functions of Service Groups consistent with the proposed amendment to Rules D.3.7.1 and D.3.7.2;
Replacement rules D.3.7.1 and D.3.7.2 giving sectors autonomy over bargaining and industrial relations issues;
Rule Q (new definitions of Sector and Occupational Group);
Rule D.2.9.6 clarifying the power of the NEC to oversee cross service group work;
Rule D.2.9.13 giving the NEC power to issue guidance on the democratic accountability of sectors.

There was considerable debate around these Rule Amendments reflecting the debate which had taken place at the Development and Organisation Committee on the previous day. Several NEC members felt that the consultation process had been rushed so that, for example, the Higher Education Service group had agreed to oppose the previous proposal (which would have included members in schools in an all embracing “Education” Service Group) and could not commit to support the new proposal as this had not been discussed with the Service Group.

I did not oppose the proposed creation of new Service Groups, although I know that there is not a complete consensus amongst those affected by all of the proposals on the basis that there will be further discussion between now and Conference, and that it would take a two thirds majority at Conference to agree these.

I did however oppose the proposed changes to the roles of Service Groups and Sectors because I fear that the current proposals create a democratic deficit which they do not then address. At present Service Group Conferences can hold Sector Committees to account over their conduct of bargaining over important industrial relations issues. Because the NEC is not proposing to create the possibility of Sector Conferences, but is devolving accountability from Service Groups to Sectors, these proposals would remove from effective democratic accountability some of the most important work of our Union. This debate will now continue with consultation on NEC guidelines on the democratic accountability of Sectors, about which I will circulate a separate report to UNISON branches in Greater London in the near future.

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (BNP membership etc.)

Further Rule Amendments were also agreed which are intended to update our Rules in relation to the power of the Union to exclude or expel members of the British National Party or other far right organisations in the light of Section 19 of the Employment Act 2008;
New Rule C.5.2 which states that members of political parties, the objects of which are contrary to the objects of UNISON are not eligible to be UNISON members;
A replacement for the existing Rule C.5.2 and a new Rule C.5.5 which removes the requirement for new members to be approved by a Branch Committee and gives potential members who are to be excluded the right to make representations;
A replacement for Rule !.3 consistent with the proposed new Rule C.5.2.

This subject had been discussed at the Development and Organisation Committee but the wording of these Rule Amendments had not been available until the NEC meeting itself. I would have preferred a more straightforward Rule Amendment dealing with the British National Party by name, but can understand the argument that far right organisations frequently change their names and that there are other fascist groups members of which we may wish to exclude from our Union.

I opposed the removal from the Rule Book of the right of Branch Committees to reject applicants for membership which is presently in Rule C.5.2 and which these Rule Amendments would remove. Conference delegates probably now need to take the time which the NEC did not take to decide whether we have got these particular Rule Amendments right (although of course we can always make further amendments in future years).

After a number of years in which the Thursday afternoon of Conference (when debates on Rule Amendments traditionally take place) has been quiet and the Standing Orders Committee have been able to timetable policy debates in the expectation that the Rules debate will not take up an entire session, this year branches will need to set aside some time to discuss Rules Amendments and to mandate delegates in what will be a series of important debates.

Recruitment

It was noted that UNISON membership had increased by 1.5% (or 19,000 net) in 2008 as we recruited a total of 156,000 people. Given the recruitment of over one hundred local and area organisers and the introduction in the coming year of the facility to join UNISON on the website we may have the scope to increase membership growth in the coming year.

Public Sector Pay Negotiations

The General Secretary reported that there had been little change since the previous NEC meeting. The Union is pressing employers in Further Education to implement last year’s pay award. The Head of Local Government reported on the arbitration hearing at ACAS the previous day, details of which have been circulated to local government branches.

Equal Pay

As has been the case at each NEC meeting for at least the past three years, the NEC received a confidential and legally privileged report updating us on developments in legal cases and their implications. Individual NEC members are asked not to report in writing on this item in view of the possibility of such reports being used by “no win no fee” solicitors taking action against the Union. Branches should contact Regional Organisers and check the website to be kept up to date on this issue.

Industrial Action Handbook

The NEC endorsed a revised version of UNISON’s Industrial Action Handbook which had been agreed by the Industrial Action Committee. The revised handbook will be re-printed and published on the website. This continues to affirm the right of branches to appeal to the Industrial Action Committee where the Regional Secretary does not agree to authorise a ballot for action.

UNISON Response to the Economic Crisis

The NEC received a useful report summarising aspects of UNISON’s response to the Economic Crisis. The General Secretary made clear that it will be a priority to maximise the turnout on the “Put People First” demonstration on Saturday 28 March (details of how to order additional leaflets are on the website).

General Secretary’s Report

The General Secretary reported that some NEC members had complained about other NEC members having written an open letter to him about an issue.

An NEC member from the Northern Region made clear that it was Northern Region NEC members who were complaining about an open letter expressing concern about the case of Yunus Bakhsh (of which I am very happy to have been a signatory).

In response, I asked for, and received, an assurance that UNISON is investigating evidence of BNP involvement in an internal UNISON disciplinary matter in that Region.

Campaigning against the BNP

The NEC received a report dealing with plans for anti-BNP work in the run up to June’s European elections. UNISON will continue to work with a range of partners including, the TUC, Searchlight, Unite Against Facism (UAF), the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR) and Show Racism the Red Card. The Policy Committee and General Political Fund Committees have agreed to prioritise Searchlight’s “Hope Not Hate” campaign.

Social Care

The NEC was updated on work on children’s social work following the Baby P case and on the personalisation of Home Care. Branches will be aware that UNISON made detailed submissions to the Laming Inquiry and that one our our national officers has been appointed to the Social Work Taskforce created by the Departments of Health and Children, Schools and Families. 80% of Home Care is now delivered in the private and voluntary sectors, and there will be a session on personalisation of home care at Local Government Service Group Conference as well as a joint meeting of the Health and Local Government Service Groups to address this and other issues. Further information is available on the website.

Review of Political Fund Effectiveness

The NEC noted a report on (limited) progress in implementing last year’s Conference decision that the NEC should “carry out a full review of political fund arrangements” – there will be a seminar for members of the Political Funds Committees and the Policy Committee in Manchester in March to be followed by a questionnaire on political organisation, lobbying and campaigning for branches and regions in the spring, leading to an interim report to Conference 2009 and a final report the following year.

New Head Office project

The budget for the building of the new UNISON HQ building, work on which has now commenced, has increased from £70 Million to £72.5 Million. The Finance and Resource Management Committee is receiving regular reports on this project. Further information is available online.

UNISON Disciplinary issues

I was one of a number of NEC members who voted against accepting the routine report on UNISON Disciplinary matters. I did this because it is the only means available to an NEC member wishing to express formal opposition to the conduct of any particular case. Any Greater London Region UNISON branch wishing to ask for an explanation of my vote (or indeed to ask about any matter covered in or omitted from this report) please get in touch.