Sunday, January 31, 2010
I'm now finally recovered from the swinish 'flu' and will get back to blogging over the coming days.
As well as the imminent opening of nominations in the UNISON General Secretary Election, this week will see the UNISON Greater London Region Annual General Meeting.
Last year this was affected by snow, a circumstance which may recur this year.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Today’s news that the Labour Group on the LGA think that at least the lower paid should get something may be no more than shrewd political positioning (It is much easier to be sympathetic from opposition…), but it does two important things.
First, it does invite a response as to what has been communicated between the Labour Group and the management side (though there is nothing online here yet).
Secondly, evidence of division on the employers’ side should always be accumulated as it can make a significant difference to the assessment our members may have to make of the worth of supporting any proposed action.
The initial case against a pay freeze was made in the immediate official response and has been elaborated by Heather Wakefield in her blog where she hints at the need – and possible appetite - for action.
UNISON Anonymous also includes an unusually worthwhile piece weighing up what the trade union response to the pay freeze should be. The full answer to that question inevitably depends upon a dialogue amongst the membership (into which at an appropriate point, it is the responsibility of leadership to put forward a strategy which we believe can win).
For now though, we need an early start to a campaign against the pay freeze “offer” from the employers. We need leaflets and petitions, model letters and an Early Day Motion and we need all these things now – and we need to start using them.
At some point we must begin to turn the ideological tide running so heavily against us (even in our own minds) – and the decision of the LGA Labour Group to break ranks with the employers’ side position is as good a place to start as any.
The new National Union of Healthcare Workers in the US (to which my attention was drawn recently by a UNISON colleague to whom, in deference to his career prospects, I shall anonymise my hat tip) broke away from our sister union the Service Employees International Union in a dispute (at least in part) about trade union democracy.
US trade unionists have to vote periodically for which trade union will represent them in contract negotiations with the employer, and it would appear that the NUHW have just won a small but significant victory in such an election.
UNISON is rightly trying to learn what positive things we can from the SEIU approach to organising – let’s hope we are not trying to learn about union democracy at the same time…
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
As our General Secretary has decided to submit himself for re-election it seems a good time to start assessing the performance of our leadership over recent years against our main objectives.
In this way it is possible to assess objectively whether Bob Oram's implicit call for a coronation rather than an election (casting our Deputy General Secretary perhaps in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury anointing the one true candidate once more to serve a grateful Union) has a merit which outweighs the democratic principles upon which our trade union was founded.
The first of our objectives relates to organisation and recruitment - and one of the easier ways to measure this (though not necessarily the most important) - is UNISON membership.
Trade union membership figures may generally be as much art as science but the quality of reporting on recruitment in particular has improved in my time on our NEC and from this I can generally vouch for the veracity of the following.
According to our last Annual Report membership stood at 1,315,000 although we affiliate to the TUC at the level of 1,343,000 which corresponds with our last published submission to the Government Certification Officer (and is 42,000 (3.2%) higher than the figure four submitted to the Certification Officer four years previously).
So UNISON’s membership has grown under our present General Secretary, but we have done this in a growing pool of public sector employment, so that our density (the proportion of the workforce which we have in membership) and therefore our bargaining power has been in decline.
Public sector union density fell from 60.3% in the fourth quarter of 2000 to 57.1% in the fourth quarter of 2008 (official stats online here). UNISON remains a trade union with nearly 90% of our membership in the public sector so that gives us some sort of benchmark – but it is hardly a good one.
The breakdown of union density by industrial sector (which overlaps private and public sectors and across which UNISON straddles several of the industrial sectors) has been as follows over the same time period;
Electricity, Gas and Water Supply from 57.2% to 41.7%
Public Administration and Defence from 59.3% to 55.8%
Health and Social Work from 46.9% to 40.7%
Education is an exception increasing (albeit barely) from 53.9% to 54.1% (but this figure is obviously influenced by the relatively high level of unionisation of teachers and the figure from this source cannot be disaggregated).
Although the Union (wrongly in my view) refuses to publish the more detailed density data which we have this bears out the contention that our density in many areas is appallingly low. Since most of our members pay their subscriptions by deduction from salary (by arrangement with the employers) the employers already know this information and there is nothing to be lost by sharing it honestly and openly with our activists and members.
In very many areas of local government for example our density is below 50% (indeed the average across Greater London is below 50% on the employers’ internal figures produced for their own use).
Although the spectre of derecognition probably haunts no more than a few home counties saloon bars where Tory Councillors do not actually understand how their authorities manage their resources, these density figures will be a hurdle to be surmounted in organising fights in defence of jobs, pensions and conditions of service over the next few years.
The situation in health is hardly better and there too the Tories will quite probably soon be in charge.
There have been some positive initiatives from UNISON in the last couple of years, including the dramatic success of online recruitment and the appointment of local and area organisers to assist branches.
Though both these developments were a long time in coming they are most welcome and need to be built upon.
They both also show that the Union, at its best, is a collective entity, a team of lay activists and paid officials working together to build a stronger union for the benefit of working people.
We don’t of course stand or fall by the one woman or man we put up to be our General Secretary, but leadership is not unimportant. In trade union elections, incumbents usually win, because they are known and because they have more power and influence than challengers, but incumbents also have a record by which they can be judged.
The questions which supporters of Dave Prentis have to answer (should they fail to achieve the coronation called for by Bob Oram) are these;
How can an administration which could not reverse declining density in the relatively benign environment of the past few years convince us that it can drive up union density moving into a harsher political and financial climate?
Is the leadership that could not build the union’s strength in a time of relative peace the right leadership to try to do so in the time of coming war?
One thing we should do more of is celebrate and learn from success – such as the Kirklees branch which has density in its main employer (the local authority) above 80%. This is a level of membership density most of us who are UNISON Branch Secretaries would kill for yet – even though the Secretary of the local branch, Paul Holmes, serves on our National Executive Council, there is little effort by the Union generally to spread the word about the methods whereby the Kirklees branch sustains this strong position.
Why is that?
Unfortunately plans are afoot to take a hatchet to public spending, which could all too easily push the economy back into recession. In London some bright sparks think that the "Total Place" approach to public service provision could have saved eleven billion pounds last year.
Allowing for the possibility of exaggeration arising from the use of extrapolation (a tool used by statisticians to make large and bold claims from smaller less clear data) this suggests both a massive target for public spending reduction in the capital and an outline agenda for how they would be made.
I'll comment again later about the problems with this approach for the services themselves (although I do sympathise with the view that public services should be under local democratic control even if the point is made by Tory controlled London Councils).
The point I want to make here is about the macroeconomic consequences of such significant cuts for the economy.
Eleven billion pounds in savings will mostly come from laying off workers in the public sector and organisations providing services to the public sector. Most of these workers will be working within the domestic economy, many of them in the immediate locality, and their wages and salaries will be spent in the economy, purchasing jobs and services produced by other firms and their workers. Sack them and their expenditure will fall, with knock on effects on unemployment, which themselves have further knock on effects (it's called "the multiplier").
Total Place would make some sense at a time of growth if it was used to reallocate public sector resources the better to meet social need, but in a time of cuts, it is far more likely to be a device to drive down employment and prosperity in our communities.
I have now finished my cup of weak tea and finished celebrating the end of the recession.
Monday, January 25, 2010
For the avoidance of doubt, since I am certainly not a potential candidate in the UNISON General Secretary election, this is not the first use of biological warfare within internal trade union politics in the United Kingdom.
Although I did wonder if that was someone brushing against me with an umbrella as I left Mabledon Place on Wednesday...
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
This inoffensive remark which was factually accurate was misread as an insult to NEC members, many of whom responded completely spontaneously to the officially unanticipated announcement by General Secretary, Dave Prentis, that whilst he would have been legally entitled to remain in office until retirement without an election he would nevertheless stand down and seek re-election in order to "renew his mandate".
Dave had written to the President to this effect and his letter awaited us in the Conference chamber this morning.
So there was nothing melodramatic about that and any reference to pantomimes would be utterly unwarranted.
Only cynics wondered why, since Dave had always been determined upon this course of action, we could not have agreed a General Secretary election timetable back in October (as had been done in 2004 and 1999). I can only imagine that Dave had been trying to persuade other senior officers that there should be an election, as they argued against him.
Of course, had that decision not in fact already been taken when the special NEC was first convened two weeks ago then there would have been no reason to convene the special NEC, but I am sure that it would be wrong therefore to assume that the whole thing was contrived.
Indeed not. Many NEC members felt immediately driven to compete for superlatives with which to describe our General Secretary (and his passionate and unswerving commitment to our democracy).
Dave was brave. He was brilliant. Bob Oram from the North West Region went furthest when he said that he hoped that there would not need to be an election as we would all unite behind Dave. (I have a feeling that that approach to socialist politics - one party which gets 100% of the vote - was tried somewhere in the twentieth century and did not get on too well...)
Leading NEC member, Paul Holmes made an obvious and important point when Dave left the meeting (not disappearing in a puff of smoke as this was not a pantomime). Dave had told us first that he would graciously permit an election, then that he would be a candidate, and then which timetable he felt we ought to have for the election.
Paul wondered whether there might have been a conflict of interest in the leading candidate for election to a post recommending the timetable for that election (but in any case the candidate had in effect determined that timetable himself by the timing of his announcement of his intentions).
Paul was also first to respond when our President, Gerry Gallagher, suggested that anyone else who might be seeking nominations should withdraw from the discussion. As Paul said, NEC members had had no notice of the decision of our General Secretary, and no one could yet know whether they would be a candidate.
The NEC went on to agree, by an overwhelming majority, a timetable for the election of General Secretary which will see the polls close just before our National Delegate Conference and the result announced just after.
Now that we know that there will be an election, those of us who believe that UNISON has been rudderless for some time and has failed to achieve the potential of our excellent trade union have very little time to consider the question of what should be done to seize the democratic opportunity which has been presented to us in such a way as to so benefit the incumbent.
Having got into such trouble for the slightest reference to a pantomime this morning I shall refrain from any comment about the closing date for nominations in this hastily called election.
Which is 1 April.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Whilst the absence of contention at the AGM may reduce the scope for ill-informed comment elsewhere in the blogosphere, it was good news for the branch, and I was pleased in particular at our decision to move a Rule Amendment to require an election for General Secretary every five years regardless of the age of the General Secretary.
Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Mabledon-Tank) will have spotted a slight obsession with this topic here in recent months. I think that democracy in our trade union does require that there shall be regular elections for General Secretary (and I would extend that principle further than our Rules presently do). At the moment our Rule Book only states that we elect our General Secretary in order to comply with the requirements of the anti-union laws.
Whilst many aspects of the anti-union laws put unacceptable burdens and constraints upon our trade unions (and all should be removed and replaced with a Trade Union Freedom Bill) we would not - I hope! - give up the practice of electing our General Secretary were the law no longer to require this.
Unfortunately under our current rules (which specify only that the General Secretary shall hold office for the the maximum period of time prescribed by law) were the law requiring elections to be repealed (as it should be) our General Secretary would immediately become General Secretary for life...
(Who knows? Maybe then we could move on to adopt a hereditary principle for succession?)
I hope that Conference will be permitted to debate (and will agree to implement) a Rule Amendment to specify a five year term limit for the future.
The most important things we need to do to prepare for the coming attack upon the Local Government Pension Scheme are;
- To recruit more members to increase our density;
- To build unity with the other trade unions at every level;
- To mobilise pressure on all candidates in the forthcoming elections to pledge to protect our pensions;
- To prepare our members (and our membership records!) for the likely necessity of strike action.
One way to contribute to overcoming this divide would be to lobby for an extension of "admitted body status" to open up the Local Government Pension Scheme to workers in the private sector generally.
Scheme members who are privatised can remain in the Scheme if their employers pay their share of the contributions - so why not open this up? Allowing wider scheme membership would not jeopardise the funds as long as employer and employee contributions were paid - and though few private employers might be prepared to make the payments it would be open to their workforce to pressure them to do so.
This idea is not a short term solution to anything at all, but the Lambeth Branch Annual General Meeting has instructed us to prepare and submit a Conference motion to try to get some discussion going about how we overcome the public/private pensions divide.
UNISON's victory over Sodexo in North Devon is an important step in seeking to bring to privatised workers the benefits negotiated for the core workforce. This is a vital element of our opposition to privatisation, which has generally meant profits made at the expense of low paid workers.
Following the victory before Xmas for the Leeds refuse workers these disputes provide a potent answer to those who think that strike action has had its day.
However, with the courts prepared to scupper strike action on technicalities and a would-be Tory Government gearing up to attack our right to strike we need both a political and industrial strategy to defend our members' interests.
It was reported to the LRC National Committee that the proposals from the Trade Union and Labour Organisation (TULO) for the Labour manifesto are predictably feeble, so I suggest we look elsewhere for our political strategy.
The question for UNISON members between now and Wednesday is whether there will be an election for General Secretary in which we can discuss these questions and - if there is - whether the National Executive Council will be bounced into a snap election.
Friday, January 15, 2010
It contains nothing that could not have been predicted.
The authors of the report seem to believe that the combined effect of our Rules, statute law and the General Secretary's contract of employment mean that Dave Prentis could choose to remain in office until retirement (which would mean an election for his successor would not take place until 2012 after one or more new Assistant General Secretary posts may have been created and appointed to...).
However, the authors don't seem that confident as they also think that if the General Secretary decides to carry on without an election then the NEC should endorse this. I am not persuaded that the Rule Book is so unambiguous that there is no need for the NEC to use its power to interpret the rules if it wants to achieve this end.
However Dave may decide that he needs to "renew his mandate" by seeking re-election (or he may decide to retire now) and the NEC will learn of this at the start of our meeting on Wednesday.
Should an election take place the Presidential Team are recommending a snap election starting virtually immediately with the NEC deciding its nomination (if any) on 10 February.
This recommendation is based upon the idea that a General Secretary election must not run through Conference week (an idea with no basis in the Rule Book or indeed anywhere else, but the sort of idea that will probably persuade the majority of NEC members to do as they are told).
The report acknowledges that there is another option - an election for General Secretary starting in July. This would be the most obviously reasonable and democratic course of action (and is therefore not the course of action being recommended to the NEC).
I am awaiting comments from London branches but my initial view is that I think it would be absurd if there were no election until 2012 and an outrageous move to run a General Secretary election through the period of a General Election in which UNISON needs to make our voice heard.
In deciding whether or not to seek re-election our General Secretary will no doubt remember who it was who pointed out (in criticising last week's failed coup within the Parliamentary Labour Party) that "neither Hewitt nor Hoon are standing for re-election, so they won't have to live with the consequences of what they have just done."
The election that matters to our members in 2010 is the General Election, not the General Secretary election, and I think we should focus on that now and run the election for General Secretary after we know which Government we are having to deal with.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
The only agenda item concerns options relating to the post of General Secretary and NEC members were told - last Wednesday - that a paper setting out these options would be circulated.
Not having seen this paper yet I have been asking after it. I thought I should share the helpful response of our President;
I've been away recently but understand you've been asking a number of colleagues about the paper going to NEC on the 20th of Jan.
I'm afraid I don't see any point in engaging in a dialogue on this in advance of the paper being sent to the whole NEC.
To do otherwise would be inappropriate and unfair to the rest of the NEC.
At least I can be assured that all members of the NEC are being denied information equally...
Since the limited range of "options" are fairly obvious to anyone possessing a law book, a calendar and a brain I have offered to help whoever is drafting the report. As yet my kind offer has not been accepted.
We need this report soon if our NEC is not to be seen as a pointless talking shop.
We would not want anyone to think that an attempt will be made to bounce the NEC into a General Secretary Election before the General Election (nor even to agree an interpretation of our Rules which would avoid any election this year for fear of such avoidable ill-timing).
Once we see the report we can explain the good reasons for convening a special NEC meeting three weeks before the scheduled meeting and reassure UNISON members that our democratic structures are not being manipulated.
I am sure the report will soon be circulated.
I am an optimist.
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London Underground plans to close or cut most of its ticket offices, and to reduce station staffing by over 1,000 staff.
To provide customer service and safety, tube stations need more staff not fewer.
Popular opposition stopped planned ticket office closures in 2008; now we need the same popular opposition to stop them again.
The RMT has set up a petition against the job cuts on the 10 Downing Street website. It will take you just a minute or so to add your name, and give a big boost to their campaign to save jobs.
Click here: http://petitions. number10. gov.uk/StaffOurS tations/
The petition reads: We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Stop plans to close ticket offices and cut staff on London Underground.
Details at www.rmtplatform.org.uk/SOS
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Monday, January 11, 2010
The rally will take place on Saturday 16 January, from 12.30-1.30pm at Barnstaple Town Square.It will be addressed by the Lord Mayor of Bideford, a senior medical consultant, a striker, the hospital's 'league of friends' and a UNISON speaker. They will be releasing 1,111 balloons to represent every day they have not been paid their wages and terms under Agenda for Change.
Full details are on the Unison website at http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=5848.
This important dispute may have significant ramifications for the three companies organising project as the private employer in this case (Sodexo) is one of the targets of that campaign.
Messages of support and financial donations can be sent to the branch at UNISON branch, North Devon District Hospital, Suite 2, Munro House, Raleigh Park, Barnstaple EX31 4JB email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thursday, January 07, 2010
I'm sorry to have lost two uncles over the past week or so. Though one died younger than he should both had lived full lives, worked hard, contributed to society and seen their children grow up. Both were also, in their time, public servants.
Jean Charles, on the other hand, died as a young man thousands of miles from home and did so at the hands of police officers whose job it was to protect him.
While the Government may have felt it right to honour the officer responsible for this tragic outrage, the mosaic provides a lasting opportunity for local people to remember, and honour the memory of, a young man cruelly killed by the police.
Details at http://readingpsc.org.uk/convoy/
Whilst the priority of our Government now appears to be changing the law to guard against the possibility that our Israeli "military allies" could face justice if the visit this country, our trade union movement needs to do more to help those in the Middle East who need and deserve our support.
(Returning to the parochial question of when we in the ice-bound south can expect a thaw, I did see a couple of large drips yesterday - but they turned out to be half remembered Blairite former Ministers.)
Update at 2pm - you can watch a film of the arrival of the convoy on the Grauniad website.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
The agenda is to consider future options for the post of General Secretary.
If Dave Prentis serves a normal five year term this will end on 31 December.
I was told, ahead of December's NEC meeting, that the Presidential Team thought I was wrong to perceive any ambiguity arising from the combined effect of the Rule Book and the law (which allows in certain cirumstances an extended term of office where a General Secretary is approaching retirement).
I therefore look forward to sight of the paper on "options" which has not yet been circulated.
How refreshing that in our lay led Union the elected lay Executive receive a full fortnight's notice of such a meeting (even if we don't yet know what "options" will be put before us).
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010
The industrial action, voted for by 97% of members on a 71% turn-out, follows on the heels of the workers organising themselves to campaign for what they're owed over the last few months.
UNISON membership has risen from 45 to 213 between June last year and the end of 2009, and the workers have an organising committee of five stewards.
This sort of action arises from the spread of privatisation in our public services and shows the folly of delivering public services for private profit.
Messages of support and financial donations can be sent to the branch at;
UNISON Branch North Devon District Hospital Suite 2 Munro House Raleigh Park Barnstaple EX31 4JB
Details on the Unison website
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Firstly can I thank all those who supported me in the recent by election to the Local Government Servive Group Executive (LGSGE.) I was honoured to be voted to succeed David Eggmore and will do my best to represent all our members in the Local Government Service Group in Greater London. Please feel free to contact me about issues that you need to be pursued at the Local Government Service Group Executive.
However before I have the chance to attend my first meeting I must write to ask again for your nomination for the elections for the LGSGE for 2010 - 2012. The nominating period is now open and closes on February 12.
With the General Election now looming is is clear that the two year term of the next LGSGE will be a critical period for Local Government.
With all the major parties projecting a period of sustained cuts in public services to reduce the deficit created by bankers greed every aspect of our jobs and services will be under renewed threat.
A pay freeze has already been proposed by Alastair Darling, barely a day passes without talk of attacking our pensions, and we know we face the prospect of massive cuts and further privatisation.
I believe we need a fighting leadership in Local Government that is prepared to give a lead in insisting that we will not pay the cost of a crisis created by the greed of bankers and big business, and to support branches that are resisting the attacks on us.
I also believe that is time that UNISON stopped wasting our resources on witch hunts of activists and instead dedicated all our energy on defending our members jobs and conditions and the services we provide.
I have a long track record of organising resistance to these kind of attacks in Tower Hamlets, and of working to build unity with other unions, service users and community organisations.
I have also played a leading role in Local Government in London as a member of the Regional LG Executive. I believe these experiences will enable me to provide leadership and support for branches.
Good luck John!
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In our public services management by pressure leads to a deterioration of interpersonal relationships, particuarly up and down management lines, and managers who were not at the front of the queue to get "people skills" can all to easily manage staff in a way that staff experience as bullying.
The constant assaults upon public sector workers in the media (and by our enemies such as the CBI) help to legitimise such bullying conduct (often from managers imported to public services from the private sector or working as consultants). There is a wrong headed perception that public service workers are feather-bedded and don't work hard enough.
There is however an unhelpful lack of clarity around bullying. A necessary victim-centred approach can lead to a conflict of perceptions. Staff can see bullying where more senior managers see only robust management. These differences in perception have their origin in the different interests of managers and staff.
In a recession, with public spending cuts to come, managers will face pressures to get rid of staff as cheaply as possible. Watch out for attempts to renegotiate sickness and capability procedures as cut price alternatives to redundancies (and for a less tolerant approach to disciplinary matters). Bullying is one, fairly extreme but not uncommon, response to these pressures. The problem is not with individuals but with an economic system based upon competition.
Workers who want to tackle the culture of bullying need to understand that individual complaints can, at best, only treat the symptom in one case. Somehow we need to rebuild trade union density and collectivism so that progressive peer pressure can be brought to bear to regulate conduct in the workplace.
Union activists must avoid being submerged by individual casework if we are ever to reverse the tide of workplace bullying.
Monday, January 04, 2010
Whether this will make for more frequent blogging remains to be seen.
It may however encourage brevity which should please at least one other blogger in my Unison branch.
Amongst treats to come this week we have the coming AGM of UNISON's Greater London Regional Council and elections to our Service Group Executives.
Unfortunately I won't have time to wonder why the (semi-official and often anonymous) Unison Active blog posted; a story criticising people who send their children to private schools right now.
This year may of course see a significant election in Unison also.
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