Monday, August 31, 2009

The laziness of the bank holiday blogger

I should be drafting the branch response to UNISON’s questionnaire to branches on the political fund review – the deadline for which is Friday 4 September but can’t get round to it (anyone else who hasn’t done it yet you can complete it online here).

While I’ve been managing to avoid work over the bank holiday weekend other UNISON colleagues have not been so fortunate.

On the beach this afternoon I received a confidential email circular with good news from a senior national officer. I can’t say any more about it’s contents. Branches should keep up to date with developments in relation to Equal Pay on the website.

It’s not only our national officials at work on a bank holiday. My indefatigable counterpart in Barnet has been busy online responding to the craziness of his Tory employers as exposed in Friday’s Guardian.

I wouldn’t want readers to think that I have been doing nothing other than getting sunburnt today – I have been having a first read through of the papers for next week’s meeting of the UNISON NEC Development and Organisation Committee and can offer an exclusive preview of a late silly season story for September.

The Committee will receive a report recommending that “with effect from the next cycle of meetings, members of a committee may not challenge, speak against or oppose a decision or recommendation of that committee in full meetings of the NEC”.

With such major challenges facing our Union, readers will be pleased that we are prioritising the key question of trying to avoid too much debate and disagreement amongst our leadership. After all it has worked well before

(Oh no, hang on a minute…)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oi! What about the (social) workers?

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Mabledon-Tankie) will be aware that I am not reticent about criticising our national Union when the occasion demands.

However, when you catch a glimpse of UNISON at our best we are impressive.

Right now the General Social Care Council is catching up with a backlog of cases - which is a chilling thought for many who work in social care.

The GSCC has draconian powers to prevent social workers from working in response to a complaint about their conduct - and operates under Rules which give less protection to the rights of an employee than most internal disciplinary procedures.

Since bashing social workers is now a national pastime there is something close to a presumption of guilt when complaints are made.

So I am very pleased to have seen close up the excellent work of UNISON's Professional Services Unit protecting the rights of a UNISON member.

As the UNISON website points out the problems in social care are all about a lack of resources. We live in a society that won't will the means to protect vulnerable children (or adults) but still wants a scapegoat when the consequences of this lack of concern are manifest.

Of course we must look in to each and every tragedy and do all we can to safeguard the vulnerable - but right now there is no balance between these objectives and the rights of those who work in social care. If we keep getting this wrong no one will do the jobs that need to be done.

I am pleased to be a member of a trade union that can do such good work to protect members from the injustices which flow from the current moral panic - and I hope that the strengths we have will be preserved in any future relationship with any other body.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I've got a golden pension!

For those waiting for the next “bash the public sector worker” story intended to fill newsprint in the silly season whilst softening us up for the coming Tory offensive – today’s Times was a particular treat.

It turns out that that as a local government worker I have a “golden pension” - it almost makes me want to sing! - (though since I seem to recall that the average local government pensioner draws an annual pension around £4,000 I guess it’s only a very little bit of gold!) (Check this link to bust the myths around our pension scheme).

The Times also reports that somebody called John Denham who once left the Government with principles but has now rejoined is about to make some proposals to change the Local Government Pension Scheme.

I understand that civil servants are adamant that this story did not come from them and was not at all the beginning of an attempt to soften up the trade unions to accept some shabby compromise to defend bits of our pension.

So presumably this comes from (allegedly Labour) politicians who want to show that they can rein in public expenditure just like the Tories.

There are any number of words which I could use to describe such politicians – but this is a family blog and I would not want to shock regular readers Sid and Doris Blogger (nor their loyal follower) so I shall just describe whoever gave the Times this story as a

Pillock.

There is more political support to be lost than won in an attack upon public sector pensions. Since no one believes that there will be a Labour Government in office when the attack upon our pensions comes the preparatory work being done by (New) Labour ministers does seem to be as futile and counterproductive as it is misconceived.

Now that the contours of the coming attack upon public sector workers become clearer we must circle the wagons and prepare to fight back. Any politicians who want labour movement support should be on the inside of the circle shooting out!

It’s a good job that UNISON Conference policy on defending pensions has made it on to the TUC agenda. We need labour movement unity to defend all pension provisions in both the public and private sectors.

We also need to develop a coordinated response including public-sector wide industrial action. The TUC is an opportunity for the formal and informal discussion which now needs to take place.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sean Rigg memorial protest

One year on from the suspicious death in custody of their brother, Sean Rigg, his family and their supporters marked the anniversary with a vigil at Brixton Police Station on Friday evening.

It was good to see comrades there from the RMT and PCS - and I have undertaken to raise the case within UNISON. Trade unionists have a compelling interest in civil liberties - and there are few more fundamental rights than the right not to lose your life in the custody of agents of the state charged with the protection of the public.

Follow the links above to find out more about the case.

A hat tip to Louise for pursuing this issue on behalf of the Labour Representation Committee.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It makes you sick

Having spent some time yesterday in a dismissal appeal under the employer's sickness procedure I was struck by the press coverage of figures for sickness absence in the National Health Service from the interim report of the Boorman review.

This is an important topic in employee relations, but one which is almost never covered sensibly or usefully when reported. Indeed the constant refrain that (on average) public sector workers have higher rates of sickness absence than private sector workers plays second (or maybe third) fiddle in the cacophony of general attacks upon us (over our pensions, or the myth of our relative job security). Whilst Boorman covers a lot of ground, the press coverage lends itself to headlines which focus simply on higher rates of sickness absence than the private sector and the impact upon the service from this.

Obviously there is a shared interest, between employees (and therefore our trade unions) and employers in reducing sickness absence. No one wants to be ill, and employers want to minimise absences for cost and service reasons. However, people will always fall ill (particularly you might think if they work in the health service and therefore come into contact with people who are using the health service because they are ill...) Some people will fall ill more than other people.

There are some positive things that can be done around employee wellbeing, and around good management to improve morale. However the reporting of statistics which we saw yesterday and today probably won't encourage these positive approaches - instead it will encourage those reactionaries in management positions who wrongly believe that a punitive approach to sickness absence can have a positive impact upon people and organisations. UNISON's response is sound, but we'll struggle to get sustained attention for a nuanced and positive response when it's so much easier to bash public sector workers.

To be honest I would be alarmed if rates of sickness absence in large public service organisations were as low as they are in parts of the private sector - because that would simply mean that workers were under the cosh to come in when they didn't feel well enough. If workers in better unionised areas, with civilised sick pay arrangements record more sickness absence than those working elsewhere that may be no bad thing.

If you don't feel well then you shouldn't be at work. And the job of the trade unions is, amongst other things, to protect our members when employers seek to adopt a punitive approach to sickness absence.

I may be some sort of dinosaur, but I would rather live in a world where you couldn't be sacked because of genuine sickness absence. Yesterday's press reports will give some unwelcome encouragement to those who disagree.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Representing low paid workers

One consequence of the unwise decision of my NEC colleagues to press ahead with controversial Rule Amendments for which the necessary political preparation had not been done at this year's Conference is that other Rule Amendments were not reached.

One such was the Rule Amendment that would have changed the definition of low pay for the purposes of election to "Reserved Seats" on the National Executive (and also on Service Group Executives, in Conference delegations etc.) The change (which we did not reach and could not therefore make) would have increased the hourly rate threshold by one pound.

This would have increased the proportion of UNISON's low paid women members eligible to stand for such seats. Given the general lack of competition for the Reserved Seats, and the consensus that the proposed change was sensible, I hope that we can prioritise this change next year.

Although I understand that the proposal to create the Reserved Seats emerged fairly late on in the negotiations which led to the creation of UNISON in 1993, whatever the intentions of those proposing this step, the principle that UNISON should fairly represent the large number of low paid women members in our leadership is now rightly entrenched.

A number of practical problems still need to be resolved (such as those which arise when workers hold more than one contract of employment, with different hourly rates in each, some in unionised areas and some in non-union employment). These issues are not new - they were on the agenda of Women's Conference 2003 for example.

However the main task facing activists in our Union is to encourage and facilitate activism by lower paid members.

Low paid migrant workers are currently bearing the brunt of an employers' counter-offensiive in London, as the bosses turn to the immigration authorities for revenge on workers who have won pay increases (such as June's disgraceful raid on UNISON members at SOAS).

Those who can get to Liverpool Street on Friday lunchtime can support the workers -at a demonstration for the payment of unpaid salaries and holidays of the detained cleaners on Friday 21 of Aug at 1pm at the Willis Building, 51 Lime Street, London, EC3M 7DQ. For those who don’t know the location, protesters will be at 12h30 in front of McDonalds at Liverpool Street station.

Monday, August 17, 2009

High Pay Commission?

Compass have done well with some publicity for the letter in today's Guardian calling for a "High Pay Commission".

It is possible to quibble about the details, but in essence this is a good demand. One of the most important functions of a trade union is to seek to regulate the employment relationship for our members, including our pay. In doing this we are often trying to "buck the market" - and our support for a Minimum Wage is also support for the idea that the income and living standards of human beings should not be set simply by reference to supply and demand.

Those who defend the exorbitant rewards for the super rich on the basis that the market demands adequate reward for those wealth creators who might otherwise go elsewhere are generally the same people who support a punitive welfare benefits regime to motivate the poor to work. A good example is John Redwood's attack today upon the detail of attempts to regulate high pay. This from a legendary opponent of the welfare state. On Planet Redwood (where Dave Cameron comes from too) to motivate the wealthy you must reward them but to motivate the poor you must penalise them.

More important than any institutional outcome of this campaign will be the success of the left in defeating the Thatcherite dictum that you cannot buck the market.

The signatories to the Compass letter also appear to be an attempt to get started on building cross Party opposition to the easily anticipated excesses of an equally easily anticipated Tory Government, which may also be a good idea.

(It would of course be both churlish and childish to remark upon the irony of a letter which starts by stating that the crisis we find ourselves in is "one significantly caused by greed" bearing the signature of Margaret Moran so I won't...)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Timetables...

As a regular rail commuter I have a natural interest in timetables.

A little less than five years ago UNISON was gearing up for a ballot on the retention of our political fund – and also for the election of our General Secretary (having myself achieved the worst result of any candidate in such an election I do tend to remember these things!)

Five years ago the NEC set the timetable for the General Secretary election at our October 2004 meeting, although the General Secretary’s term of office at the time did not expire until 1 January 2006.

This broadly followed a precedent set five years previously, ten years ago now, when Rodney Bickerstaffe announced during the summer of 1999 that he would not seek re-election to continue in office after the end of 2000.

In accordance with our Rule Book elections for the post of General Secretary take place as required by law. Under Rule E.3.2; “The General Secretary shall be elected and shall hold office for the maximum period of time prescribed by law.”

The relevant law is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, section 46(1)(b) of which sets the maximum period of time as five years. However, section 58 provides for exemptions for persons approaching retirement (so that if a General Secretary is within five years of retirement at the point at which their term of office expires they can lawfully remain in office without the need for an election).

Information in the public domain suggests that section 58 is relevant to UNISON as we approach the end of the General Secretary’s current term of office on 1 January 2011.

Watch this space?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Who's afraid of national pay bargaining?

I am indebted to a an anonymous comment on a recent posts for these news links, particularly since reading the Municipal Journal is not one of those things that I generally give higher priority than the Morning Star.

The MJ report that Labour led Barking and Dagenham are among those thinking of breaking from national pay bargaining - which rather contradicts the statement made by all London Labour Leaders critical of the statements made by Merrick Cockell attacking the national pay offer.

It seems that some unnamed "source" within London Councils is jumping on the real bandwagon started by Tory Birmingham in order to suggest that the London employers could take on pay bargaining from national level. Since it is individual authorities which are members of the National Joint Council, rather than any cohesive London block, this is not really something which is within the limited competence of London Councils to deal with.

This London dimension has the hallmarks of a silly season story - although Councils are now complaining about the cost of a miserably low pay settlement (which we have not yet accepted) - they all set aside more money in their budgets than they are now being asked to find. The case against this offer on the employers' side is implausible.

Birmingham's Tories are disappointed that the national employers did not seek to humiliate the trade unions and force a national dispute. That's fair enough if Councillor Rudge and his colleagues want to play politics with pay negotiations.

However Labour Councils (in London and elsewhere) need to make clear now that there will be no cross party support for attempts to break national pay bargaining.

There's a storm coming

It's clear from news reports while I was away on holiday that storm clouds are gathered over the heads of local government workers.

Whilst I am guilty of imagining that Tory County Council leaders must mostly be chubby red faced squires who ought not to be taken too seriously(most probably bewhiskered and prone to fox hunting) I don't think we can simply view with derision their plans for massive spending cuts.

And whilst the proposal for local variations in benefits rates from the loony right in Essex does seem completely daft, so did the Poll Tax until it happened.

In London we've seen Hammersmith giving us a flavour of what the Tories are going to be like in national government - cutting services to keep taxes down, whilst in Barnet the imaginative and determined response of the trade unions and community is all that is fending off wholesale privatisation.

We need to step up national and Regional support for our local government branches, to facilitate campaigning (including necessary industrial action) and to prepare for the conflict which is going to engulf much of local government over the next couple of years.

Those of us with the relative good fortune to retain Labour Councils are hardly immune from the pressure for spending cuts and privatisation - indeed the test for any Labour candidates who want trade union support will be whether they can convincingly pledge to support us in our resistance.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Privatisation blues

I've spent chunks of today listening to managers and consultants trying to justify to our members why they want to privatise particular services that they don't believe themselves capable of managing effectively.

I'd hazard a guess that most readers of this blog (i.e. at least one of Sid and Doris Blogger) have a fair bit of such experience yourselves. It's not much fun.

I think it shows something of the scale of Thatcher's triumph (and the utter inadequacy of New Labour's response to this over the past decade) that managers and their consultants feel free to assert the superiority of the private sector as an article of faith. As everyone with the partial exception of Richard Dawkins knows, there is no point trying to argue with faith...

Locally, we're getting together tomorrow with our excellent consultant from the Association of Public Service Excellence to review what can now be done.

Nationally we certainly need to build the Million Voices for Change campaign, though I think we should also be putting UNISON's weight behind the People's Charter when it comes to the vote at the TUC.

We need to prioritise political support for those prepared to stick up for public services.

Back before our change of heart as a trade union we failed to back labour movement initiatives which we saw as too left wing.

I hope we don't repeat past errors.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to work :(

Regular readers Sid and Doris Blogger (together with their kids Dave and Selwyn) can relax on the sun lounger as your humble blogger is back from holidays.

Today - following a meeting of our Convenors Committee in the branch - I sent the mailshot for the pay ballot to the print room and - following a meeting with the soon-to-be-former manager of Strategic Human Resources - I got to a version of a redundancy policy I can recommend to our Branch Committee. So with that and 700 emails while I was off it's all just a regular day in the life of a lay union activist.

This year's pay ballot is interesting. Our Branch Committee is - rightly - recommending rejection of a pay offer which is less even than our employers budgeted for. However the national recommendation to accept (which branches should certainly communicate to members along with any local recommendation IMHO) will carry weight too. A decent vote to reject the offer would be a good start to the campaign that does need to be waged now in anticipation of next year's pay round.

The divisions on the employers' side are also remarkable. The risible ranting of Merrick Cockell (Tory leader of the London Council's group) suggesting that London might break away from national pay bargaining because they oppose the derisory national offer is surely just posturing. If it's not then he's got a pretty limited grasp of economics (though I suppose membership of the Conservative Party often indicates that!)

We may not have the union density of the Scots, Welsh or Northerners but trade unionists in London local government are in the middle of economic and demographic pressures which mean that London level pay bargaining could not but be more expensive for the employers' in the long term.

Socialists should nevertheless support national pay bargaining because we should consider the interests of our class as a whole rather than any local or Regional sub group. Even in the strongest branches in Inner London we are better off as part of a national Union - because only a national Union can wield national political power in the interests of our members.

Leaving of course, only the question of whether we will do so. The challenge facing our Union now is whether we will follow through with the logic of what Dave Prentis said at Conference. The first thing we must do is to support the CWU at the TUC .

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wish you were here :)

The great thing about being on holiday is that you can find things worth so much more than a one per cent pay increase.

Whether you want to accept or reject the pay offer – we all need to consider the point raised with me recently by a diligent activist from amongst dreaming spires.

If we end up with a pay rise worth barely more than 1% from employers who have on average budgeted for twice as much, how can we then try to get the benefit from a one day increase in annual leave?

Most of us have locally agreed leave codes which exceed the national agreement. An increase in the national agreement will not automatically increase the leave entitlement of those of us with better local agreements. That will be for us to negotiate locally.

How can we use this proposed settlement to get an extra day’s leave for all our members?

After all, we can do much more with leave than with money!