Sunday, October 17, 2010

Personal report of the October 2010 UNISON NEC meeting

Here, all in one place, is my personal report to London branches from the last UNISON NEC which does bear some significant similarities with posts on this blog reporting from the meeting...

This is a personal report of the October 2010 meeting of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) intended for members and branches in the Greater London Region. An official report of the meeting is available online at http://www.unison.co.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=6374.

I am always happy to respond to questions about reports, or to attend meetings of branches or Branch Committees (subject to notice and availability). You can contact me at j.rogers@unison.co.uk or on 07957505571.

This is a personal report. It is not an official document nor is it intended to be a comprehensive report of everything which was discussed. The most important discussions, about defending public services, the National Health Service and public sector pay are reflected in a lot of content on the UNISON website, to which you should refer to for further information.

NEC meeting timetable

The NEC had not met between National Delegate Conference and early October. I had indicated before the meeting that I intended to raise my concerns about this, and I understand that I was certainly not the only member concerned about this long delay between meetings.

This meant that the full NEC had no say in UNISON's decision to vote for major constitutional changes at the TUC. It also meant that the NEC were mere spectators in a major reorganisation of our senior management structures. Most importantly, our NEC had failed to meet in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency Budget and the most important challenge UNISON has ever faced.

I am therefore pleased to report that the President, Angela Lynes, indicated that the future timetable for NEC meetings would be reviewed. I will report back on this in the future.

Organising report

As ever the meeting commenced with a report on recruitment and organisation. It was reported that we are growing at an annualised rate of 1.63% which means that - given a turnover in excess of 10% we are recruiting 12% of our membership each year. One in four of new applicants now join online, which means that the internet is now second only to national strike action in boosting our recruitment.
The Three Companies Project (about which the NEC is to receive a full report) has raised density on the ten contracts upon which it has focused from 21 to 55%. For privatised contracts these are impressive figures.

Public Sector Pay

Discussion on pay at the October NEC took place in the context of the decision, the previous day, of UNISON's National Joint Council to support a claim for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of "at least" £250 a year from 1 April 2011.

This claim, on behalf of workers in the largest single bargaining group in the economy, who last saw a pay rise on 1 April 2009 reflects the view, also prevalent at the NEC, that our members are not (yet) in a mood to fight over pay as they worry where the redundancy axe may fall.

The General Secretary made a more considered and far sighted contribution to this discussion when he observed that pay restraint always breaks down, but not normally in the first year.

Whilst this does not seem at all like the first year of pay restraint for local government workers, it probably is true that we need to focus on the medium term to pursue the objective of a fair pay increase.

I hope that at future NEC meetings we shall be considering pay alongside the defence of public services. The Government do not compartmentalise these issues and are as happy to cut the real terms pay of low paid workers as they are to savage the services received by our communities.

Under this item the NEC also considered the recent "leak" that the School Support Staff Negotiating Body may never now sit. The relevant sector Committee within the Local Government Service Group has called for a consultative ballot to consider national industrial action if the Government do proceed to abolish the SSSNB. Certainly the Government's approach of abolishing first and consulting later deserves a robust response. National industrial action by school support staff is an ambitious goal - but this is probably the only time when a national trade dispute around which such action could lawfully be organised will ever exist.

Equal Pay

The section of the NEC meetings at which we receive reports on Equal Pay remain confidential because of the volume of litigation involving the Union.

I can safely mention that UNISON will be complaining about the treatment of the Union in the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme.

Defence of public services

The major item for discussion at this NEC, led off by our General Secretary but also involving most of the other senior officers in the room in one way or another, was around a report entitled "Defending Public Services." Dave Prentis made clear that this should be viewed as THE priority for our Union over the coming months, and should provide the focus and direction for all the activities of every part of our Union. Probably because this was the first NEC meeting since Conference (and therefore also the first since the Emergency Budget) the combined length of the officer introductions to this 11 page report exceeded an hour, although as the report's author rightly pointed out; "UNISON must be judged by our actions in this period not the length and extent of our analysis." The report itself usefully summarised the attacks upon us from the Coalition Government and the response to date from UNISON and the wider trade union movement. Rather than repeat that here I will append the document to my report to London UNISON Branches. The key point from this debate was that our defence of public services must be the central principle around which we organise all our trade union activity, building towards the TUC demonstration in March (and various elections in May) on the basis of local anti-cuts activity. See the attached report for more information.

General Secretary’s Report

By the time we got to the agenda item for the General Secretary's Report we had already covered a lot of ground, but Dave asked the Head of Health to report on our response to the NHS White Paper. We were told that UNISON's legal challenge to the White Paper (over the inadequacy of consultation) had sent "an almighty shudder through the Department for Health."
However, the best that this legal challenge can achieve will be delay and so we also need a campaign which must go beyond being a campaign "in" the NHS (though it must be the greatest of those there has ever been) to be a campaign "for" the NHS. Once consortia of General Practitioners, expensively if not ably assisted by private consultants, start purchasing healthcare provision on the market, the "renationalisation" of the health service would probably require withdrawal from the European Union and abrogation of international treaty obligations. The White Paper goes far further than any previous attempt to open up healthcare to private profit and would replace the National Health Service (in England) with a national healthcare market "free at the point of use" but increasingly prone to the development of two-tier provision as providers try to turn a profit. For UNISON this is a great challenge to us to see to it that all our Service Groups and all our branches (even all our NEC members) are fully engaged in a struggle, which is in all our interests, to preserve the single greatest achievement of our movement.

At the tail end of the General Secretary's Report (which is an opportunity to ask about anything at all) I asked some questions prompted by information from some London Borough branches. I asked about the perceived tardiness of legal advice to branches facing significant challenges. I was advised that this was the first our General Secretary had heard of such a problem and that further details would elicit a further response. I will pursue this. I also advocated our writing to members resident in the area of any local authority attacking our members, urging them to lobby Councillors against such attacks. I was advised that we do use this tactic but that its expense means that we employ it sparingly. I concur with the views of the London Branch Secretary who felt that we should look at how to moderate the cost to the national union of this sensible tactic - by, for example, branch funds paying the postage and branch activists stuffing the envelopes.
NUC

Towards the end of a long NEC meeting we got on to the NUC (NUC = New Union Centre, the somewhat delayed building rising on the site of the former Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital which will be our new HQ). We were presented with recommendations from the Finance Committee that, rather than sell the freehold of Mabledon Place once we have vacated it, we should lease the site to a developer on a long lease in return for a cut of the rent which the leaseholder will receive from the tenant when the building has been refurbished. My concern - which was met sufficiently that I voted for the recommendation - was that we should regularly consider selling the remaining freehold interest in the site. I was persuaded that we would have the flexibility to do this at any time when it was financially advantageous - and was swayed by the fact that the £13 Million we will get up front for the lease will pay off the loan we took out to build the "NUC". Other NEC members raised the sound point that we could face problems if the leaseholder rented out a site which we still owned (as freeholder) to a tenant whose business was at odds with our aims and values. Branches may wish to consider a Conference motion instructing the NEC to dispose of the freehold as soon as is consistent with the duties of our trustees (who appeared not to have been kept completely in the loop). It makes sense to sell a leasehold interest in the property right now, but a trade union should probably not aim to hold its reserves in freehold property in the long term. We don't always do well when we do things beyond our basic functions as a trade union.

Staffing Committee report – appointment of Assistant General Secretaries

I supported an attempt by North West Region NEC member Roger Bannister to move reference back of the report of the Staffing Committee. Roger was addressing the manner of the announcement to NEC members of the decision to recruit additional Assistant General Secretaries (AGSs). Roger queried both the need for additional posts at this level and the decision to proceed with such an important decision without a discussion at the full NEC.

President Angela Lynes ruled that we could not "refer back" a report of the Staffing Committee because of its Rule Book autonomy from the NEC (which may be debatable) but permitted a vote on whether or not to receive the report (a proposition eventually agreed by a convincing majority).

The debate saw a spirited defence of the decision from Dave Prentis and a reasoned intervention from lead North West Region NEC member Bernie Gallagher who highlighted the fact that attempts to debate the election of officials at Conference are ruled out of order for fear that they could breach the contracts of staff, yet here we were happily appointing new staff without even considering the option of electing to the newly created posts.

I asked about the fact that Dave's original letter on this topic had said that "As part of a restructuring process, the new posts will be ringfenced to existing staff and members and advertised internally..." I pointed out that I had had correspondence with the Chair of Staffing querying the wisdom of this approach.

Dave Prentis told the NEC that since his letter in August the Union had thought again and that the posts were now being advertised openly.

Although I would personally support the election of these senior officials, if they are to be appointed at least we now know that anyone can apply and that the appointment panel can choose from the widest pool of talent.

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