Thursday, February 11, 2010

The thoughts of a Regional Organiser

What follows is the text of a message sent by a widely respected UNISON official to his colleagues in the Greater London Regional Office on the occasion of his retirement. I don't publish this lightly as it makes some implicit and explicit criticisms of a trade union upon the Executive of which I am proud to serve.

However I am also proud to know Tom Snow and I believe his views deserve our respect and attention. Our loyalty to UNISON must be loyalty to our members and must drive us to want to put right the things that are currently wrong.

Anyway here is what Tom had to say to his colleagues;

Where’s the real union?

Here’s an old git’s story. Heard from a ‘work study engineer’ on a TUC stewards course in Streatham in 1969. He’d been part of a team sent in to deal with low productivity in the GLC Plumbers Section. To cut it short, they couldn’t find the job tickets because there weren’t any. The level of complaints was so high that the whole workforce had been turned over to dealing with them. They responded to every single one right away. Things looked fine. The London Region is well down the road of the GLC plumbers. Complaints are already our unofficial Priority Number One.

I don’t know how many of us there are. We were once told it was 95 whole time equivalents. I have always been struck by the high motivation of new employees of UNISON. Somewhere, some time, most of us wanted to do a job which would help workers organise. But it is as if someone’s designed a system to make that impossible. Many never have any contact with members’ workplaces. Few of us have that privilege. Many jobs were badly designed long ago. Worse, some new jobs were badly designed last year. Some people’s work just helps the other 99 to tick over. The results are deplorable. The idealism is wasted, belief corroded, motivation ground down. What most want to do, most can’t. And it is all a direct charge on our members’ precious subs.

After a meeting in Merton just before Christmas, I had a CASE form and a wad of papers thrust into my hands without comment. I looked at it that night. It was from a 64-year-old member who was being manipulated into a post she didn’t want. She had to give an immediate answer. I phoned to reassure her that, for four separate reasons, any one of which would have been enough, she could reject the new job without jeopardising her right to redundancy pay. Anyway, I had been called to a meeting in the office next morning, “urgently”, to help sort out a complaint. On the way in, I bumped into a colleague who asked “did you phone my aunt last night?” Without that very rare coincidence, the only evidence of my call would have been a two line e-mail to the branch. The only community through which people can care about each other is the branch. It can’t be a Regional processing machine. I believe that’s where most of our own labour ought to be employed – where every working hour really can build the union.

A case of deskilling

I’ve known this member’s area of the law since winning a Tribunal claim many years ago, against a bunch of slick NHS managers. They too thought they could force someone to work for the cost of the redundancy pay she was entitled to. Later, the insurance costs of complaints rose to the point where it was cheaper to hand over tribunal work to lawyers. Fine. But what the union failed to do was ensure, from then on, that our RO successors got hold of the law in some other way, in particular, by proper training. We are now seeing the effects of deskilling. Every day, union members in trouble are losing out badly, through ignorance of their rights and how to secure them. This can’t be dealt with by a few stewards’ training courses, vital as they are. Every day, branches need clear, usable answers, often very quickly. We have allowed the necessary knowledge to be shut away in the offices of lawyers whose job is to crunch their way through mountains of casework when it’s all too late. If my member’s CASE form before Christmas had gone down this route, she’d just have started a year’s work she didn’t need to do - and with no remedy – while, no doubt, telling her story of the trade union help she didn’t get. As it happens she wasn’t forced into the new job but she wasn’t made redundant either. He situation still isn’t what she wanted. But the difference is important. Down the CASE form route it would have been our fault, not the employer’s.

Now, if you are taking the trouble to read this, consider how many of that magic 100 are likely to know the law well enough to help her. I’m sorry, but I do not believe all those whose job it is to know actually do know. And how many’s that? A couple of dozen ROs? Not so long ago, it took so long to order the latest edition of the only employment law handbook in the office, by the time it came it was nearly out of date. So while we waited, how were all the queries dealt with which were thrown up by changes in the law? The answer can only be a combination of high management input, endless calls to Thompsons’ duty line, booking into their advice clinic and plain avoidance. Those of us who do know the rudiments are heavily reliant on the lawyers too. But asking lawyers everything stewards needs to ask us cannot be a substitute for proper training.

I believe we’ve lost it. Any day now, a child will see right though the Kings New Suit of Clothes. If the union isn’t there when you need help, it’s a disaster which sends damaging ripples right through the workforce. And here we are, about to face a jobs holocaust. Complaints can only get more important.

No place for the low paid

A few years ago, UNISON in London was given a lesson by an outfit called London Citizens on how to organise low paid workers. With a significant component of Vicars, Pastors and Ministers of Religion, it focused on the pay of ancillary workers in three hospitals. Working with UNISON reps, they encouraged them to join the union and helped them put in pay claims to get above the National Minimum Wage. When the contractors said “Sorry chum, we’d love to pay more but we don’t get paid enough ourselves”, London Citizens lobbied the NHS Trusts who’d hired the contractors. Considering the narrow front of the campaign, the results were very, very respectable. UNISON should have been deeply ashamed at being caught napping. What did we then do? Very slowly we appointed organisers. Years later, in early 2008 a team of three began work in Merton Schools. The reception was especially good in the kitchens. Then, suddenly, they were whisked away, never to reappear. When I asked what had happened I was told they had been sent to work in Newham. What work, and why this wonderful initiative collapsed, neither the branch nor I have ever been told.

At one time, anyone working in a school kitchen – or cleaning, or working in a care home or doing domestic work in a hospital, or any number of other public service manual jobs – was highly likely to be a union member. Indeed, they formed the greater part of NUPE. Now, nearly all the survivors are working for private firms. If they are getting more than £5.73 an hour, they tend to be older and doing a more skilled job. The impoverishment and de-unionising of this huge, mainly female workforce has been tragic. The London Citizens’ spectacular intervention showed how simply it could be turned round. But there is one tripwire we can’t escape. Nobody on the NMW is going to pay out more than £40 a year UNISON subs without being able to see the possibility of getting it back in extra pay. It sounds like a small sum. The lowest paid live on small sums. If a bunch of odd-balls can go in there for God’s sake and get them to join and pay these subs, why can’t we do it for the union? Why can’t we release the energy and enthusiasm in our own ranks, which is always there to be tapped, to make the whole union much, much stronger?

Black, living in London, short-listed, but going nowhere

Back in 2001 the Labour Government issued an Order under the Race Relations Act requiring public employers to publish their recruitment figures by race. They show black applicants for council jobs being appointed at far less than the rate of their white counterparts – from the same shortlists. So the queue of disappointed black applicants goes on stretching back down the street. Many senior managers think it’s their job to see that the proportion of black residents in the population is reflected in the workforce. But the number of black applicants exceeds the black proportion of the population. So here you have a formula for massive race discrimination at the point of selection. It is worth pausing to consider how serious it is. These shortlists are being drawn up, often colour blind, by the very same people who are then making discriminatory appointments. Some inner Boroughs have been appointing shortlisted whites at double the rate of shortlisted blacks – including Lewisham.

Unfortunately many colleagues have misunderstood the blunt significance of the figures. Why, they ask, pick on appointment statistics when there are so many others which affect unison members already in post? The answer is that those other figures are very important. But what they lack is the same clear, unambiguous proof of aggregate race discrimination – for which there aren’t even any possible, innocent explanations. From the level playing field of the shortlist, the only difference in the case of white candidates is that managers prefer white candidates.

This is a scandal of the first order which has yet to blow publicly. So what are we doing about it? London has the most racially diverse population of any great city in Europe. UNISON has the largest black membership of any union in London. This is a gift of an opportunity for us. The facts have been known for five years. To be generous to ourselves, we’ve got a project on it. What this really means is that it will be bogged down in bureaucracy until someone else makes the running. Nobody can accuse us of discrimination because we have no public profile about anything. What we must do is ask ourselves two questions. First, how much longer will it take before doing nothing becomes, purely and simply, connivance? Second, if we can’t pick this up and run with it, so central to the equal rights of our members, is there anything we are capable of doing? What is the London Region’s record of achievement?

Where respect belongs

It has always been important for those of us who work for the union to remember we aren’t it. Everyone else is. It is quite possible to work for UNISON without grasping that unions are always grounded in the collective strength of the members. The blood in the union’s veins is its branch activists and stewards. Why does it need saying? Because, sadly there is, in the union’s own hierarchy, a culture of disrespect for these incredibly important people.

What is special about our activists is that they have volunteered for what they do and have been elected to office to do it. An overwhelming majority are highly capable individuals with huge commitment. It is true that a tiny number are disinclined to do very much to build the union – an inevitable spin-off from a complacent regional machine. UNISON is wholly dependent on all those who don’t need to do work for the union if they don’t want to. It is courting great damage not to realise this.

When branches have achieved astonishing results, the Region’s administration has failed to invite their reps into the Regional office, so we, paid employees, could learn directly from them how they did it. Instead, we have all come close to falling asleep, gazing at unreal Staff Conference overheads, while our managers drone on as if they know it all. Branch activists are the union’s greatest resource, disgracefully wasted, even when they provenly have the answers to UNISON’s problems in London. It has been an inspiration to work with so many down the years. And the paid colleagues I most respect are those who go against the grain and give the elected ones their due.

Yes, I’m responsible too

“So what have you done about it, Tom?” Fair question. How many of us have said “well, if this is how they want it, it’s their problem” – “they” being our managers? I’m under no illusion that getting on with my job to the best of my ability was any answer. Nor that I offered to help where I thought my particular experience might be relevant. Nor that I made a fuss now and again. I didn’t make anywhere near enough of a fuss and I didn’t try hard enough to get anyone else to make it with me. Nor, above all, did I do a damn thing to help activists win effective, democratic control over us. Don’t wait for retirement to wake you up to your part in a regional machine which daily wastes your precious labour. My time’s run out. Yours hasn’t.

With thanks for past friendship and good wishes for a road ahead full of challenges.

Tom Snow

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