Thursday, February 11, 2010

A goodbye call to arms

Tom Snow, a Regional Organiser widely respected amongst UNISON activists, who has just retired, passed me the following text of a message to UNISON activists in the Greater London Region and I reproduce it here because I think it offers us some important suggestions to improve our trade union;

A goodbye call to arms

The problem: We were told a couple of years ago that the London Region employed 95 whole time equivalents. I don’t know what it is now. I’m aware of several new posts created and none abolished. In time they will join those whose purpose has vanished. Anyone can see that this huge human resource is almost completely wasted. There is massive duplication of work which is or could easily be done elsewhere, especially the big, well-organised branch offices. Very little takes the form of specialist help across all branches. We have no pubic profile. The workforce is so large that a good deal of its work is directed at servicing itself. Some people undoubtedly work far harder than others. It is difficult to think of any successful regional initiatives. It is slightly easier to think of the small number of initiatives which began and have either failed or are, to be delicate about it, on hold. There has been serious deskilling, with no steps to put it right. There is no esprit de corps. It is difficult to define what the Region has actually done for UNISON members in London. It is little more than an office, a large one, containing many highly committed people, all unable to escape a very tight strait jacket. When branches have found ways to organise significant numbers of new members, their activists have not been brought in to tell us how they did it. That is a waste - symptomatic of managerial hubris and gross disrespect for activists.

A failed solution: UNISON designed a top-down reorganisation which, on the face of it, might have transformed London. Those of us with negotiating, organising and advocacy experience were going to manage organisers in small teams. The first steps were taken. These showed that the changes in job content required of some were formidable. All credit to the many who applied for new posts because they were willing to make those changes. But the “how” of making them was never properly thought through and there was little back-up. I was involved in a pilot exercise in schools. But before the vital shift from office work to organising had been achieved, and with no explanation given then or since, my three colleagues were whisked away to run the Newham Branch office. The only course for retraining those doing the RO job turned out not to be designed for the purpose and was anyway two years ago. The reform presupposed some existing level of effectiveness. From day one in 1993, we’d never done corporate effectiveness.

London is different. London’s big and generally well organised local government branches always meant that the union centre of gravity, particularly in NALGO, was local and not Regional. This set the scene in the run-up to 1993 for most new UNISON Borough branches to be highly autonomous. It has made it possible for them to get on with the job and survive without an effective regional machine. But things cannot be left as they are because of privatisation and other changes on the way. The Region’s proven inability to organise change makes it unwise to wait for someone else to do something. They may not. And, if they do, it is unlikely to help.

Reverse re-org. Luckily, there can hardly be a bunch of people with more experience of “reorgs” than UNISON branch reps in London. It’s a case of using every channel of the union’s democracy (the Rule Book is packed with powers), to get the precious resources locked up in the Regional workforce redistributed into the branches. They are desperately needed there – to organise unorganised workplaces and provide representation in privatised workplaces too small for anyone to acquire the necessary skills from within. A completely reasonable objective would be to get an additional union worker into every branch, leaving a leaner, strategic Regional machine with such duties as servicing the democratic system, leading any London negotiations, organising training and only stepping in where branches are in trouble - and say so.

Multi-employer, Borough branches. Whoever wins the election will go for productivity gains by combining functions across existing employer boundaries. To meet this, there is a need for each of the existing 32 Borough branch offices to become the core of a new branch. They will have no alternative but to cater for all. It will in some cases mean the loss of existing office premises. The union will have to spend more money on rent. But the resources are there, tied up in a high value office where some ROs have the privilege of driving across the Congestion Zone to a WC1 underground car park. A slimmed down Regional machine could be tucked into a corner of the new head office - with bike rack!

Multi-skill, pay and conditions. The need, to be able to cross employer boundaries, where paid time off cannot go, to recruit and represent, can and should be met by the same person. Anyone who does one task needs a feel for the other. There is an employment status precedent in the few remaining Branch Employed Staff, who have their own union to negotiate for them. Secondly, this combined job is already called organising! They must be part of the local team. They cannot be managed from the Region. The recent past stands as proof. Nor is paying someone to travel across London, perhaps to visit one school or undertake a routine disciplinary, a responsible use of precious work time.

Filling the training deficit. For existing Regional staff who want to do this, training will be an immediate issue. Observing, mentoring, tapping into the skill and experience already in the big branches will be essential. One of our past failures has been the absence of a general traineeship and the fact that Regional Organisers have been appointed without training which they could so easily have had while employed in other posts. However, designing and organising the training will have to be done centrally.

Cut out the gatekeeper. The most expensive UNISON employees in London (apart from managers of course), the Regional Organisers, are heavily tied up with unnecessary legal casework. When the CASE form comes in, they wade through the documents. If they can see a fighting chance of winning at a Tribunal, they send their analysis to a manager who then repeats the exercise. If both say yes, then it goes to a Thompsons lawyer and finally to a Thompsons supervisor. This crazy system is crassly wasteful and cruel to people when they’re down and, in most cases, have no chance of redress. We have failed to provide the training needed by the ROs whose job, on paper, is to make the initial judgement. Those of us who got hold of our now completely inadequate employment law from running Tribunal cases are taking such skill and knowledge as we still have with us.

Get the lawyers into the branch. The large Thompsons’ workforce tied up with UNISON work in London, should be redistributed to work directly with branches. Doubtless, many would leap at the chance. They should make regular visits to discuss casework – as indeed their Personal Injury colleagues already sometimes do - and, most important, take part in training branch activists. The tragedy of much of our legal work is that it is too late. Employment law is needed in the workplace at the outset, not in the few days before a statutory deadline expires. We are depriving members of their rights at the time when they need to know them. Sorting this is not rocket science. Enough training to be able to make use of Tamara Lewis’s superb handbook (edition 8 now out!) would meet much of the vast amount of need. For the rest, lawyers have to be integrated into branch work. That’s the logic of past neglect. And given that ROs who do not know the law are paid more than Thompsons’ lawyers who do, there are substantial savings to be made, especially because so many cases are rejected by the existing, costly meat grinder. Without it, much of the lawyers’ current work will vanish. They will be able to provide answers in time to avoid those countless situations in which union members throw away their rights, slip into disastrous confrontations they can’t win, or plead their cases by digging a deeper hole. And a good few more will win too.

The hard bit isn’t so hard. By neglect, we have created a monster. Ultimately, all union members are paying for it. But the solution stares us in the face. A good first step would be to offer immediate, pro-tem branch secondment to those prepared to move there. Where union employees do not want jobs where the real union work is done, no activist needs to be told that this calls for the most humane and favourable of redundancy arrangements. But, equally, a union with such needs as ours, and a membership base in such need of repair, has no right to provide a nice WC1 working environment for those trapped in unproductive work. By redistributing the precious resources they represent, branches would stand a realistic chance of building back to where we were when two thirds of Borough workforces were organised instead of one third. A leaner Region would be more democratic and more able to provide the oomph and leadership which London members need. There was never a better cause.

Tom Snow
Jan 2010

No comments: