Sunday, February 28, 2010

2004 - a missed opportunity?

If we are to believe today's "Observer" Tony Blair came close to resigning as Prime Minister in 2004.

I remember that at UNISON National Delegate Conference 2004 the Lambeth branch called for Blair's resignation. This proposal was well and truly squashed thanks to the opposition of General Secretary Dave Prentis who feared that the Union would be marginalised by opposition to the Prime Minister of the day.

No one can say whether, had we been better able to mobilise trade union support for Blair's departure in 2004 he could have been forced out, though it seems now to have been more likely than we thought then. Had we done so I believe that a vacancy for leader created by struggle from below rather than promises in a restaurant ten years previously might have produced a contest in which a left challenge would have been a possibility.

That in turn could have opened up a much more significant space for trade union influence over a Government and Party which badly needs such influence from rank and file trade union members.

Whereas, as we know, UNISON eventually backed a fait accompli and the coronation of Blair's successor.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A tale of two elections

In UNITE the prolonged election for the first single General Secretary of the UK's largest trade union is producing numerous candidates. UNITE members seem set to have a wider choice, and more time to make a decision than we will in UNISON.

One candidate Les Baylis is standing with the support of Workers Uniting plainly a "right-wing" group within the Union though describing itself as "a broad based left-progressive organisation" (where have I heard that use of "progressive" before...?) and making imaginative use of the name of the official joint venture between UNITE and the United Steelworkers of North America.

Len McCluskey is standing with the support of the United Left and the enthusiasm of the Morning Star. Other officials standing as candidates include Paul Reuter and Gail Cartmail.

Jerry Hicks is a rank and file left candidate offering the sort of distinctive critique which it is hard to make of an organisation whilst employed by it.

Now one observation I could make in contrasting the election in UNITE with that in my own Union is that UNITE members appear to be heading for a wide choice of paid officials as candidates in the election - whereas in UNISON we are offered a more restricted menu.

However, UNISON members currently have a wider choice of rank and file candidates!

UNISON does also appear to lead the field in anonymous blogs making scurrilous attacks upon rank and file workers who dare to challenge for the position of General Secretary though - whether that is the slightly upmarket and mostly anonymous blog written largely by staff or the rather more downmarket version which specialises in hatchet jobs on the candidate I support.

Since the anonymous bloggers are certain that none of the rank and file candidates have any mainstream support you have to ask yourself why they devote such energy and venom to their attacks? Is the Prentis camp worried that a significantly lower number of branch nominations than their man secured last time will indicate growing dissatisfaction at the base of the Union? Do they worry that the fixed smiles and half-hearted (near) unanimity at national meetings may be seen through?

Or is it just all down to a hatred of "factions"? (excluding some factions obviously...)

Is it that Dave Prentis cannot restrain the excesses of his supporters (whose support is so deep and proud that they are mostly anonymous online!) or is it that he shares their desire to denigrate anyone who would oppose him (and perhaps his chosen successor)?

I remember Rodney Bickerstaffe's 1998 Conference speech in the debate on democracy (to which you can still find reference online here) in which he said; "What's a faction? If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a bloody duck, it is a duck. I know what a faction is. You know what a faction is." Well Rodney left us in no doubt on matters relating to aquatic birds!

But what, I wonder, is it if it looks like a duck, limps like a duck and it quacks like a duck?

Fight the cuts in Higher Education

UNISON members in Higher Education are gearing up to fight the cuts proposed by the Government - and are rightly calling for trade union unity in this struggle.

Joint union action online is good news - joint action in the workplaces, on the streets and - if it comes to it - on picket lines will also be required.

This is not just an issue for workers in the sector. It isn't even an issue only for those of us who (as parents or grandparents) have an immediate personal interest in access to higher education. This is about the sort of society in which we want to live.

The Rule of Law

Ministers rushing to defend the Security Service from judicial criticism (http://m.guardian.co.uk/?id=102202&story=http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/26/binyam-mohamed-torture-ruling-government) are behaving in a way which is as predictable as it is disappointing.

You might hope that leading representatives of a labour movement which has too often itself been the subject of dubious - if less horrendous - treatment from the same source (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/mar/06/britishidentity.tradeunions) would be keen for more effective scrutiny of MI5.

However people in positions of power will almost inevitably protect those to whom they delegate dirty work whilst protecting themselves with "plausible deniability."

This is particularly likely to be true when those whose rights are being abused are part of a demonised minority (those for example whose views may be deemed not deserving of respect).

In these circumstances - whilst it shames labour movement leaders not to have uprooted malpractice having had the power to do so - democrats can only welcome the paradox that it sometimes needs the (unelected) judiciary to protect democratic rights.
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Friday, February 26, 2010

A legal victory for UNISON members

The decision of the Certification Officer in the case of Bedale -v- UNISON (which has now been promulgated and can be read online here whilst its official publication is awaited) is a good result for UNISON.

UNISON members now have clarity that, apart from the specific exemptions set out in our election procedures, the resources of the trade union must not be used to campaign for candidates in internal trade union elections (whoever these candidates may be!) After an earlier attempt to bring such clarity was abandoned this is good news.

This prohibition on the use of UNISON resources is fair since - were it permitted to use the resources of the Union to campaign for particular candidates this would be bound to benefit incumbents. Incumbents (myself on occasion included!) tend to win trade union elections because of the obvious electoral advantages of incumbency.

Democracy in trade unions is important primarily because it offers the opportunity to hold office-holders to account by threatening to unseat them. Accountability is all about the ability to sack someone! Therefore, all we can do to level the playing field between incumbents and their challengers we should do as best we can as this is in the interests of democracy and our members.

I will return to the detail of this important decision but for now, I hope that all those who care for UNISON, our Rules and our democracy will welcome this positive decision in the interests of our members.

When is a trade union not a trade union?

The trouble with being directed to the website of the Certification Officer is that you can be distracted and start wondering about a question about which you first blogged nearly two and a half years ago!

Now a trade union is a proper trade union if it is affiliated to the TUC.

If you work for a trade union you are - of course - still eligible to be a member of a trade union since (as an employee) you may need trade union representation.

Whether or not the rules of the trade union for which you work permit you to be a member of that trade union, it makes a certain amount of sense to be a member of another trade union for the purposes of representation.

But surely, if you are committed to the trade union movement, you would want to be a member of a TUC affiliated trade union? Not to an organisation outside the TUC?? (Even if they affiliate to the General Federation of Trade Unions)

It seems more than 300 UNISON employees disagree with me!?

Update on Saturday 27 February following comments on this post;

If as has been reported SUE did try to affiliate to the TUC and were blocked then that is a disgrace. Other unionised employees of trade unions are members of TUC affiliates and the TUC ought to be open to all independent trade unions (exceptional circumstances aside such as the role of the EEPTU at Wapping in the 1980s!)

Since UNISON recognises SUE (as well as UNITE) to represent our employees we ought surely to support SUE in lobbying for admission to the TUC. It was and is a strength of our movement that we have a single trade union centre, and I certainly don't apologise for a prejudice in favour of TUC affiliated organisations.

If this information is correct then the answer to the question above is "when Brendan Barber won't let them into the TUC...)

Certification Officer - who he?

A hat tip to MJ at Union Futures for being ahead of official publication with some important news about a breach of UNISON's Election Procedures to which I shall return soon.

The Certification Officer is a Government official whose role to certify the independence of trade unions (from the employer) pre dates by many years the Tory anti-union laws (some of the provisions of which it now falls to the Certification Officer to enforce). These anti-union laws have of course remained in force through all the years of a Government we have supported. I know that there are those who think that there are no circumstances in which one should complain to the Certification Officer of a breach of the rules of the Union. I disagree.

Another recent Certification Officer decision provides a cautionary tale for UNISON branches about the importance of not using ordinary branch funds to support a political party. (It may also give rise to some questions about the consistency of the approach taken by our Union to allegations of political misuse of our resources...)

With a General Election looming activists need to be very careful to ensure that our general funds are not used for party political purposes.

I look forward to discussion of these decisions at the appropriate NEC Committee (and hope and trust that any decisions which need to be taken will not be taken ahead of such discussion!)

Support PCS to defend public servants

Good luck to PCS members striking on 8 and 9 March in opposition to the attacks upon their redundancy entitlements.

There is no doubt that the Government wants to make it cheaper to sack civil servants in anticipation of mass redundancies as - whoever wins the election - politicians cave in to the demands of the bankers who caused the crisis in the first place and hack back services to close the deficit.

151 MPs backed the demand of Katy Clark that the Government think again about this attack upon the rights of its employees - but to no avail.

Following the report of our General Secretary of proposals for joint working with PCS this strike is the first opportunity for UNISON members and officials to support our brothers and sisters in PCS by joining them on their picket lines.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sack the expensive consultants!

I'm grateful to the Guardian for allowing myself and a good comrade to respond on behalf of our Unison branches to last week's story comparing Tory plans for EasyCouncil with Labour's embryonic co-operative alternative (http://m.guardian.co.uk/?id=102202&story=http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/25/council-cooperative-privatisation-barnet-lambeth).

I am particularly pleased that the paper has picked out the phrase "sack the expensive consultants" which I shall encourage shop stewards to photocopy and stick on every noticeboard they can find.

Whilst it may be true that our working life is one long mixed-ability lesson, the wealth and diversity of knowledge and talent in the workforce of any local authority is such that there is never an excuse to use consultants who cost anything up to (and sometimes beyond) a thousand pounds a day.

If our public service employers would trust the workforce - individually and collectively - and offer us the security which could unlock our ingenuity there is much that could be done.

The same lesson, in respect of lay trade union representatives, could of course also usefully be learnt on the first floors of both Congress House and Mabledon Place.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We can fight back

This afternoon I was proud to have been invited to speak to Unison members in Cambridgeshire who are fighting back against proposals for massive job cuts (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/8518240.stm).

It was really useful to be able to refer to figures from Unison's alternative budget (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=1670) to explain why there is a viable alternative to cutting public spending.

The fact is that this country can afford the public services we need if we would only implement some modest tax increases on those best able to pay and collect all the tax already due to us.

Whilst this is not done we can and should support all measures increasing transparency and accountability in relation to public spending - and defending our services against cuts!
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Hear no witch hunt; see no witch hunt; speak no witch hunt

This morning it was my honour to attend a lobby to express support for excellent trade unionists facing disciplinary sanctions out of all proportion to their alleged misdeeds.

Most unfortunately these sanctions have been imposed not by the employers but by our own trade union.

I have blogged in detail about this problem recently enough (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2010/02/unison-should-stop-attacking-our-own.html) and won't therefore go on at length.

However it is worth saying that you don't have to share the politics of victims of misuse of our disciplinary procedure in order to believe that they are entitled to justice.

And that fine trade unionists such as Brian Debus, Onay Kasab, Glenn Kelly and Suzanne Muna deserve to be respected rather than castigated.

Anyone would think that our leadership were confused and disoriented politically and therefore driven by fear and venom to castigate, isolate and demonise those whom they perceive as opponents.

Surely not.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Total Rubbish?

The frequency with which unfounded claims are being made for "Total Place" - the job cutting wheeze dreamt up by academics at Warwick - would now almost warrant a blog of their own.

Today John Denham joins in, having digested the reports of the Total Place pilots (http://m.guardian.co.uk/?id=102202&story=http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/feb/21/denham-targets-20bn-council-savings).

Denham concludes that;  "An average saving of around 5-6% just through better use of assets across the pilot suggests that this could potentially save in the region of £20bn nationally."

So, someone somewhere undertaking a pilot project (a major objective of which is to save money) has estimated that more efficient use of particular assets in particular circumstances might save 5-6% (guesstimated perhaps?)

This is then generalised to produce a nice round headline grabbing figure. No one knows whether the particular circumstances of the particular pilot could really be "grossed up" in this way.

There are many factors which might impact upon this projected saving. To the extent that savings were to be achieved by co-locating services and vacating surplus premises (in principle an entirely sensible proposition) then if this were to be done simultaneously across the public sector the flood of property into a largely stagnant economy could make it very hard indeed to achieve savings from the disposal of surplus assets.

Its fairly obvious what drives this wishful thinking about "pain free" public spending cuts. Its the same force that drives the dreams of EasyCouncil and the "John Lewis local authority" - politicians are looking for ways to hack back public spending without devastating vital front line services.

It cannot be done - and it isn't needed. If a Government wished to reduce the deficit when (in the future) it would be prudent to do so, the largest part of this could be done by reducing tax avoidance.

Some savings programmes could be cut (Trident for example - why not fund that as a mutual venture where only those who want it pay in?)

Some savings could be made (stop paying consultants hundreds of pounds a day to tell us what we already know or would be better off without!)

There are, however, no massive savings to be made without significant and detrimental effects on public services. The answer to this dilemma is to make a positive political choice in favour of public services and the interests of working people - not to pretend to have found the holy grail of savings which aren't cuts.

The Peoples Charter, supported by the TUC, and Unison's "Million Voices" campaign both offer an alternative vision - where are the Labour politicians who will support this? (Clue - http://www.l-r-c.org.uk)
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conference deadline Tuesday!

UNISON branches need to get motions for our National Delegate Conference in by noon on Tuesday - and these have to be submitted online.

This year's Conference will come after a General Election, though the motions have to be submitted before the election - and will take place after the close of the ballot in the General Secretary election but before the declaration of the results.

It will therefore have the same absolutely normal feeling as it always does...?

Personal report of the UNISON National Executive Council Meeting 10 February 2010

This is the personal report of the February meeting of our National Executive Council (NEC) meeting which I have sent somewhat belatedly to UNISON Branches in Greater London. An official report is online at http://www.unison.org.uk/activists/pages_view.asp?did=10707. Please feel free to pass this report on to any UNISON members in Greater London.

General Secretary Election

The NEC meeting commenced with consideration of the General Secretary election. Vice-President Angela Lynes proposed that we nominate Dave Prentis, local government NEC member Glenn Kelly proposed that we nominate Roger Bannister and South East Region NEC member Mike Tucker proposed we nominate Paul Holmes. There were 38 votes for Dave, 5 (myself included) for Paul Holmes and 4 for Roger Bannister. If any London branch would like me to account for my decision to vote for Paul please contact me.

National Delegate Conference Business

The NEC agreed to submit motions on the following topics to National Delegate Conference;
Review of Political Fund Effectiveness (see below);
Organising;
Learning and Organising – Empowering members;
International Action on Climate Change;
Palestine;
The Economy;
The Future of the NHS;
Defending the LGPS;
Public Services and Taxation;
Social Care;
Total Place;
Trade Union Rights;
Workplace Consequences of the Recession.

If any London branch wants to see the text of one or more of these motions before they are published in the Preliminary Agenda please get in touch. The same goes for the Rules Amendments which the NEC agreed to submit as follows (some of which are left over from last year);
Rule C.5.2 (this is a revised attempt by the NEC to find a formula which Conference will agree in order to facilitate action to expel members of far right political organisations. I supported this revised form of words);
Rule D.3.1.1 (this Rule Amendment will create a new Service Group for Higher and Further Education);
Rule G.4.1.1 (changes the title of Branch Equality Officer to Branch Equality Co-ordinator);
Rule G.4.1.6 (prohibits one member holding more than one position as Branch Chair, Secretary or Treasurer);
Rule G.8 (creates the role of Equality Representative in the Rule Book);
Rule I.3 (this accompanies the amendment to Rule C.5.2 and deals with the same issue);
Rule J (there are some minor amendments to addresses);
Rule Q (this increases the maximum hourly rate for Reserved Low Paid seats from £7.49 to £8.75);
Schedule B (there are several amendments to uprate member benefits and apply the four week rule rather than the thirteen week rule for access to benefits).

The NEC also discussed the report of the Review of Political Funds initiated following debate at National Delegate Conference 2008. The report will be published and presented to Conference. The report itself will not be open to amendment but the motion which accompanies it will be open to amendment (though branches will need to bear in mind the ways in which Rule J restricts debate on political funds in drafting any amendments).

Members will be able to form their own judgement on the report soon (and if anyone would like a copy in advance of publication please let me know). I expressed the view that it could well be titled “Keep Calm and Carry On” since it concludes that our political fund arrangements are largely working well with high levels of transparency, participation and activity (although these – as well as our effectiveness – could be further improved).

Pay Negotiations

The NEC received an update on pay negotiations involving UNISON members. Members in the NHS are in the third year of a three year deal, but members in local government (now including Scotland) face a proposed pay freeze. The Head of Local Government reported that the National Joint Council Committee had agreed proposals to commence campaigning against the pay freeze.

Equal Pay

As usual a confidential and legally privileged paper on Equal Pay was tabled at the NEC meeting. One item of news on Equal Pay which can be reported is the subject of a UNISON press release (online at http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=1727).

The Court of Appeal backed UNISON’s claim that women working for Sheffield City Council are entitled to the same bonus payments as men, in a groundbreaking equal pay case; Gibson & Ors v Sheffield City Council. The decision opens the door for thousands of women across the country to claim against their council in a similar way.

A Million Voices for Change

The Acting Head of Policy gave a verbal report on the Million Voices campaign. One third of branches had signed up as at 10 February and the Union hopes to increase this to one half shortly. The next phase of the campaign will, subject to the approval of the General Political Fund Committee, involve media advertising and celebrity endorsements.

Management Accounts

It was reported to the NEC that the revenue results for the Union in 2010 were better than budget with a net surplus of £5 Million from an income of £115.7 Million. The Chair of the Finance Committee reported that it should no longer be necessary to “top slice” branch funding to contribute to funding Equal Pay litigation and that this matter will be reported to Conference as part of the Financial Reports.

Staffing Issues

The Chair of the Staffing Committee reported on the staff pay claim and staff pension recovery plan and on the implementation of the “Meeting the Organising Challenge” project in the Regions. I asked whether there were any proposals to change the Union’s current practice of enforcing retirement at 65 and was assured that there are no such proposals.

General Secretary’s Report

The General Secretary gave a verbal report covering the following issues;
The successful Devon strike against Sodexho;
The demonstration called by the National Pensions Convention on Saturday 10 April;
Issues around governance of the Local Government Pension Scheme and proposals for legal action to seek judicial review of a local authority which has made loans to itself from its pension fund;
The importance of campaigning for the cancellation of Trident nuclear submarines in order to save money to protect public services;
The TUC is setting up a “rebuttal unit” to respond to hostile media coverage on public sector pensions;
A meeting had taken place the previous day between UNISON and PCS at a senior level to discuss joint campaigning.

Other issues

The NEC confirmed a decision of the Services to Members Committee to spend £1 Million developing a hotel at Croyde Bay. This item gave rise to a question about the new NEC policy on collective responsibility of Committee members in circumstances where an NEC member is a member of two Committees which arrive at different decisions on an issue (and is therefore required to support two contradictory positions at the NEC meeting…)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Defend UNISON activists

A hat tip to MJ at Union Futures for getting online with the details of Wednesday's lobby of the final, mitigation, hearing for the four UNISON activists now reaching the end of 32 months of disciplinary action arising from a leaflet produced at UNISON Conference in 2007.

I certainly hope that the appeal panel consider reducing - indeed eliminating - the sanctions which have been imposed in these cases which are (at the very least) grossly disproportionate to the alleged offence. Those who agree can gather outside the Hotel Russell in Russell Square from 8.30am on Wednesday 24 February.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Institute for Stating the Obvious

Breaking news! Cutbacks are biting in the public sector and our managers are seriously worried about the scale of further cuts to come. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8523144.stm)

What a good job we have a high powered Institute (of Leadership and Management no less) to find this out for us (http://www.i-l-m.com/research-and-comment/7750.aspx) - though I seem to remember reading about this regularly on our Unison website for months now.

Still at least this research wasn't launched at an expensive lunch! No, there was a "breakfast briefing" with a "high-level panel debate" with a "select group of senior public leaders."

Qu'ils mangent de la brioche?
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Computerised Conference seems to be working?

As promised earlier in the week I can report modest success with UNISON's online Conference system. The deadline for motions for National Delegate Conference is imminent so I hope other branches have found the same.

I accessed the system easily enough via "my unison" and was then able to submit the motions and Rule Amendments agreed by my branch. It is slightly irritating to have to enter the branch details afresh for each submission but a colleague with better understanding of information technology tells me that it would require quite a lot of a system to remember my details like that. (I hope that whoever does the submission of the dozen motions and several Rule Amendments agreed by the National Executive Council took adequate breaks whilst typing the same information over and over again!)

As well as an email receipt to myself other branch officers also received notification of the motions and Rule Amendments submitted. The wording of these notification emails (which don't require any action and are just there to make sure a Branch Secretary doesn't submit something which the Chair knows wasn't agreed by the branch) could - and I hope will - be clearer, but the basic idea is sound.

The Standing Orders Committee have not yet been computerised so the wait to see how many of our submissions make it as far as the Preliminary Agenda remains reassuringly twentieth century - and there is no automated system for ruling motions out of order. Nor any plans to introduce such.

I hope.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Total Place - there is such a thing as a free lunch!

Today's news (http://www.localgov.co.uk/index.cfm?method=news.detail&id=86556) is that a Conference is taking place to announce that a 1% saving in public expenditure in the borough of Westminster would save £20 Million - because that is 1% of public spending in the borough.

This is no more than speculation. Maybe bringing "back office" functions together will save money. Maybe it won't. One thing I do know is that our public sector employers will pay through the nose for expensive consultants to try to achieve these hoped-for savings.

That won't be the only money wasted.

Whilst low paid workers facing a pay freeze and job losses have been getting on with the delivery of public services today some of their managers may have been taking in the PowerPoint presentations at the Conference.

Total Place may cost a lot of jobs but it will generate some agreeable lunches on the way. Senior officials attending this Conference will have been able to claim expenses (if not fed suitably at the event).

There is therefore such a thing as a free lunch. Just not for us.
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John Lewis on the South Bank?

Please excuse a moment's parochialism but I've just read that I'm working for (and helping to represent the crew of) a "flagship" local authority. (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/shwZrHD-cyWjrrz3VgWirMw/view.m?id=326430&tid=120787&cat=Search).

Lambeth is going to be the "John Lewis" local authority - a neat allusion to a co-operative enterprise with a reputation for quality (but one which may offer hostages to fortune).

My initial reaction (like any sane local government union Branch Secretary) is that it worries me when the media show an interest in my employer. There are too many complex things that can go wrong in a local authority and bad news always makes better headlines.

That said I think Lambeth's Labour Group do deserve some credit for - in effect - thinking ahead about how a Labour Council will deal with year after year of Tory spending cuts.

After the defeat of the struggle against rate-capping in 1986 all we had by way of Labour policy in local government was Neil Kinnock's "dented shield" - an attempt to be less bad than the Tories that posed no challenge to a Government attacking public services.

If some flesh can be put on the bones of the "John Lewis" approach then perhaps it offers a qualitatively distinct social democratic approach to local government rather than one which aspires simply to be quantitatively less bad than the Tories(and perhaps we could find a better name?)

One thing is certain - workers in Lambeth will need union organisation to protect our interests in uncertain times!
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unison should stop attacking our own members

Regular readers (Sid and Doris Left-Reformist) will know that I sometimes blog about what I see as the political misuse of UNISON's disciplinary rules.

For those who may be persuaded that the current UNISON administration is of the "progressive left" and deserves uncritical support I thought I should bring together a few points worth thinking about.

As I have made clear in comments on this blog before I was once myself the subject of a disciplinary investigation by UNISON (under the previous General Secretary).

I had been found by an employment tribunal to have discriminated on grounds of race and sex against a white man whose complaints of race and sex discrimination (the tribunal found) I treated less seriously than I would have had he been black or female. Though I had denied this with the support and advice of the trade union, the tribunal found against us.

No sane person would have thought that the Union would attack me over this - but I am a bit of an awkward cuss sometimes and not every union official thinks that is a good thing...

An officer conducted the subsequent disciplinary investigation into me and did not recommend that I should be disciplined. Another officer then changed the recommendations of the report and a disciplinary investigation would have commenced against me had a - then - newly elected General Secretary not intervened to stop this.

That newly elected General Secretary is our current General Secretary and for the first few years of his tenure the blatantly politically motivated misuse of the Union's disciplinary procedure ceased. Unfortunately that has changed.

Tony Staunton was expelled on the basis of allegations of misappropriation of UNISON resources. (Not all cases of misappropriation of resources are dealt with quite so severely). Tony of course had the misfortune to be both a member of the Socialist Workers Party and am electoral threat to a prominent member of our National Executive Council.

Another Socialist Workers Party member, Yunus Bakhsh, was expelled in circumstances which cast very grave doubt upon all those who acted against him. Like Tony, Yunus (a former member of our National Executive Council - NEC) was an electoral threat in that he might well have been re-elected to the NEC.

Four members of the Socialist Party have been the subject of a quite high profile case of disciplinary action over the production of a contested leaflet - and, whilst the final outcome of this is awaited I should point out that one of the four, my friend Glenn Kelly, is a current member of the NEC.

Now there are those with influence in our trade union who may not be that troubled to see people whom they consider "Trotskyists" getting a bit of stick - but then this sort of intolerance doesn't stop once it has got a few "trot" scalps. People who have been on the bad end of witch hunts need to recognise them when they stare us in the face.

Independently minded left wing activists such as Caroline Bedale and Alan Docherty have been banned from holding office for long enough to take them past retirement because they have offended influential supporters of the current UNISON leadership.

I deeply regret that our current General Secretary (whom I personally like and respect and always have) has plainly signed up in support of this approach to internal UNISON discipline and has therefore abandoned the person he was when he stopped the unjustifiable attack upon myself.

UNISON's internal regime in recent years brings no credit upon anyone.

Anyone who thinks that they can describe themselves as part of the progressive left and wants to express their support for the current leadership of our Union needs to explain how they justify the villification of activists such as Caroline and Alan (not to mention the other comrades).

I believe that all thinking socialists know that this cannot be done.

The time for change has come.

Will comrades from positive and progressive traditions support what we know to be right or prop up a lame duck leadership in order to hold on to some individual positions in a structure which delivers too little too late for our members and the working class?

Bonuses for bankers - pay cuts for the poor

Low paid public servants - members of our sister union PCS - at the National Gallery were yesterday forced to take strike action over pay - as many earn less than the London Living Wage right in the heart of London.

This happened on the day that inflation went up to 3.5%. This won't worry everyone since it was also announced yesterday that well paid bankers will pocket massive bonuses.

Local Government workers facing a pay freeze (and therefore a real-terms pay cut of 3.5%) need to take heart from the courage of our comrades at the National Gallery as much as we feel rage at the bankers' bonuses. I see that the Kirklees branch are taking a lead.

Darlington - fighting cuts with one hand tied behind your back?

Respected UNISON activist Alan Docherty is co-ordinating the campaign to resist swinging cuts from his employer, Darlington Borough Council, that intends to cut non- education budgets by 25% over the next three years and to cut immediately low paid, mainly women workers’, in caring, leisure, and catering jobs, pay by up to 10%, by abolishing premium payments.

The branch has waged an active campaign in the media and encouraging members to attend consultation meetings en masse, to make their views known to the Council. This has had some limited successes so far, particularly a victory saving the Early Years Inclusion Service, and eleven jobs, which gives support to disabled children ages 3 to 5 to help them into nursery schools, which the Council had planned to axe in its entirety.

Last night over 100 members turned out to a lively demonstration to lobby the Labour Cabinet to drop their plans to cut pay. This rally, addressed by Unison NEC member Hannah Walter, and Trades Council Secretary, Pat Buttle, was so successful that the leaders of the Labour Group came out of the town hall to enter into a dialogue with the protesters.

Unfortunatley both Hannah and Pat also had no choice but to criticise the Unison leadership for its attack on Alan. Unison has banned Alan Docherty, Darlington LG’ s Branch Secretary, for 3 years from office. His crime was defending himself from attack over his involvement in the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) as the Tees Valley Secretary of the NESSN.

The complaint that has led to Unison’s sentence to ban Alan from office arises from a year ago when Alan stood for the NEC as a ‘Reclaim Our Union’ candidate against incumbent. The complaint arose Alan rang another activist to ask why he was proposing a motion through his branch seeking punitive action against officers and members of the Shop Stewards Network who he claimed were bringing Unison into disrepute. Alan then circulated the motion to those implicated.

This motion was backed unanimously as a statement by Unison’s Northern Regional Committee. No further discussion on this statement was then allowed within the union on the basis it contravened confidentiality under disciplinary procedures.

A NEC disciplinary committee upheld the view that Alan broke several rules associated with democratic procedures and had brought the union into disrepute and hence should be removed from office.

Alan intends to fight this decision just as he is fighting the cuts in Darlington.

Send messages of support to the Darlington branch fighting the Council cuts to;

Unison Darlington Local Govt Branch, Room 115, Town Hall, Darlington, DL1 5QT, (01325) 388270

To protest at UNISON's attacks upon Alan Docherty contact;

Dave Prentis, General Secretary, Unison, 1 Mabledon Pace, London, WC1H 9AJ.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Total Place - another warning

Public Finance today carries an overview of emerging lessons from the Total Place pilots.

Scroll down and you get to the reality; "if the initiative is beginning to feel like a magic wand that can easily be waved to painlessly remedy the public sector deficit, one passage from the Birmingham report might give optimists pause.

Under the heading ‘delivering major cross-sector efficiencies,’ the report argues that multiple back-office functions ‘are luxuries we can no longer afford’. It resolves to ‘deliver radical cost savings through rationalisation in these areas’.

The report was sent to PF the day after Birmingham City Council published its 2010/11 financial plan, which included a likely cull of up to 2,000 posts.

Local unions are already gearing up to fight the plans. The completion of the Total Place pilots could well signal the start of a new era of efficiency and effectiveness in public services. But it could just as easily mark the beginning of a long and convulsive period of large-scale public sector reorganisation."

UNISON activists need to climb out of our Service Group bunkers to deal with the "long and convulsive period" ahead of us.

Missing near Mabledon Place - a Labour Party card?

I have been struck by the similarity between the online biography of our General Secretary, Dave Prentis, published on the UNISON website, as UNISON copyright (published at UNISON expense using UNISON resources) and the biography on Dave's campaign website

Now whether one should cut and paste from the UNISON website electronic information which is UNISON property in order to reproduce it on a campaign website is not a question for this blog.

The question that I do want to raise concerns the one sentence which appears on the UNISON website but has not been reproduced on the campaign website, concerning the positions Dave holds in the Labour Party;

"He is a member of the Labour Party's economy commission and the Labour Party joint policy committee."

Dave's membership of the economy commission is confirmed on the Labour Party website as well as by the UNISON site. Why then is this missing from the campaign website?

Positive campaigning in an election means giving the electorate (and nominating bodies) a full and clear picture of what candidates stand for, their record and aspirations.

I know it can be tough to own up to Labour Party membership sometimes but I don't think those of us holding Labour Party cards should be ashamed to own up to our Party affiliations - not as long as we are fighting for policies in the interests of trade union members.

There is even a road back to the Labour Party from the Socialist Party!

Perhaps Dave can draw confidence from another candidate who is not ashamed of his Labour Party membership?

Numeracy Hour for the negative campaigners

I am sure that UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis is ashamed of those of his over zealous supporters who have allowed their vitriol at rank and file challenger Paul Holmes to spill over into untruthful attacks upon Paul's Kirklees Branch, thereby bringing our Union into disrepute.

The blog set up to attack Paul in Yorkshire claimed that the UNISON Density in Kirklees is only 58% and that this refutation of claims for the Kirklees branch was a blow to Paul's candidacy.

The attack was then picked up anonymously by factional blog "Unison Active" who repeated this nonsense.

Unfortunately none of those gleefully attacking UNISON in order to attack a rank and file worker with the temerity to put himself forward to lead our Union bothered to remember that a meaningful fraction needs an accurate denominator as well as a numerator.

The Kirklees branch has around 8,600 members employed by their main employer.

Of the approximately 15,000 jobs in the Council, 4,000 are held by teachers and 500 by craft workers. UNISON is not recognised to negotiate for either group and to calculate UNISON density by including these groups in the denominator is to deliberately understate the strength of our Union. I can see why the employers might do that, but not genuine trade unionists.

There are around 10,200 workers holding the approximately 11,000 jobs in respect of which UNISON is recognised (since some 400 workers have two or three different jobs with the Council) so that figure should provide the denominator, with the membership figure as the numerator.

Now, bearing in mind that all these figures are approximate, I reckon that's a UNISON density figure around 84.5%.

It may be that instead of counting teachers as part of the workforce UNISON should be organising the authors of these attacks upon UNISON ought to have had a word with one or more teachers of mathematics?

I can at least categorically refute the rumour that the London Region Finance Convenor was involved in any of the calculations!

Charities pension crisis and the future of the LGPS

The news of pension fund shortfalls for major charities (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/s70rgIJR3lLQPSkOd_cicLg/view.m?id=324213&tid=120787&cat=Search) raises a couple of issues for members in Unison's new Community Service Group who will soon be electing their first Executive.

First, the problems facing those larger voluntary organisations who have made some pension provision for their staff serves to highlight the plight of many voluntary sector workers whose employers have done far less.

Secondly, since even the largest charities are small players in the world of pension funds, this crisis underlines the desirability, from every point of view, of opening up "admitted body status" in order to broaden access to the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).

When Unison members see the Preliminary agenda for National Delegate Conference they will (subject to the will of the Standing Orders Committee) see a motion from the National Executive Council in defence of the LGPS.

This proposes, amongst other things, that we advocate the merger of the many separate funds at national level (there would be one fund for England for example). The logic of this proposal (which would need very careful handling to avoid redundancies!) Is that larger funds are cheaper to administer and more secure.

Extending access to the LGPS is very much in the same spirit - and could also help to break down perceived divisions between public sector workers and our colleagues in other sectors where pension provision is less secure.
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Monday, February 15, 2010

There may be trouble ahead...

Today's news (http://m.guardian.co.uk/?id=102202&story=http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/feb/15/public-sector-job-cuts-cipd) from the people trying to turn Human Resources into a profession (http://www.cipd.co.uk/default.cipd) is a further indication that Peter Mandelson is getting his Blairite way and public sector job cuts are in the pipeline even ahead of the General Election.

Incidentally, the news that public sector pay is anticipated to lag well behind private sector pay at the same time as jobs are cut illustrates that pay restraint is no easy path to job security.

The head of the public sector at KPMG reportedly says that "it's only a matter of time" before the worst public spending cuts anyone can remember. News reports do not tell us whether he was salivating at the thought of the lucrative contracts all this "downsizing" and reorganisation will bring for companies like his.

It's not a matter of time though is it?

It's a matter of political choice. If we want to let the bankers whose industry the taxpayers bailed out cajole us into deficit reduction at the expense of vital services rather than ourselves taking ownership and control of the financial sector that's up to us. It is we who permit the bankers to be our masters rather than our servants.

Unison's excellent alternative budget proposals (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=1670) demonstrated clearly that other political choices could be made. It is now up to us to fight for those choices.

It is because we need a debate and discussion about how to do this that I welcome the opportunity of the Unison General Secretary election (in which I support rank and file challenger Paul Holmes) - but it's as important to remember the deadline for submission of Conference motions comrades!

Now more than ever is the time for open and challenging debate.
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Conference enters the twenty first century?

In common with all other UNISON Branch Secretaries (at least those with branches keen enough to submit Conference motions) I shall have to get to grips with the online submission of motions via myunison and the Online Conference System.

I'll blog in a few days to let you know how I got on. Wish me luck!

And I wish luck to my fellow Branch Secretaries - let's not leave it all to the last minute and crash the server or the poor old Standing Orders Committee will be tearing their hair out...

A lecture from Uncle Joe

For those with time on their hands to follow the sectarian obsessions of a small group of full-timers in the Union, there is more to enjoy online now.

I cannot but be reminded of the historical origins of such criticism.

Away from the feigned unanimity of the UNISON machine members in branches will be debating to whom they should give a nomination in the election for General Secretary, as well as dealing with all the other issues confronting our members.

We don't need negative campaigning but we do need to challenge candidates - and in particular the incumbent, whose record deserves scrutiny. UNISON members have now been promised an election - and elections with only one candidate (leading to a coronation) aren't in the best traditions of our movement!

Clarke wants even more cuts - what should we do?

Ken Clarke is clearly competing with Peter Mandelson to sound tough on spending. He admits that if the Tories get in the cuts will be worse than under Thatcher. A cheery thought over our Sunday breakfast. Not.

We need to step up support for those Members of Parliament and Candidates who will stand alongside the working class in opposition to the coming attacks on public services.

We also need to campaign for alternative policies for the Labour Party and for the Peoples' Charter, as a set of demands, endorsed by the Trades Union Congress, around which to unite opposition to twenty first-century monetarism.

UNISON members and branches should be signing up to the Million Voices campaign - and working alongside colleagues in PCS in particular in the run up to the election to put pressure on candidates seeking our votes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dense about density

A rare signed article on the blog set up to support Dave Prentis manages successfully to demolish a straw man of an argument.

In attempting pointlessly to obscure the clear evidence that Kirklees UNISON (the Branch of which rank and file General Secretary candidate Paul Holmes is Secretary) has a very impressive membership density in its lead employer, the blogger concludes that there is no general evidence that leftwing branches have higher membership density.

That's not the point. There are a wide range of factors which influence the variability of membership density between branches and workplaces, including Regional variations, variations between Service Groups, the presence or absence of other trade unions etc. Since the Union refuses to publish the detailed density data we do have its hard to get very far in assessing the different impact of these various factors.

All that supporters of Paul Holmes have been saying is that he leads a strong branch in which the large majority of employees of the lead employer choose to be members of UNISON. That's a point in his favour and no amount of online obfuscation can change that.

It's reasonable to assume that the branch leadership are not irrelevant to the strength of the branch - as to why that might be, I would refer to what the Secretary of the Leeds Branch has to say (in his personal capacity);

"I'm supporting Paul Holmes because he is an uncomprimising fighter for the working class. There is nothing "new", gimmicky, trendy or slick about Paul. What you get is someone who stands for, and espouses, good traditional socialist and trade union values and principles. He practices what he preaches. During our recent 11 week long Refuse and Street Cleaning workers strike in Leeds to protect pay and privatisation, Paul was the first to visit our picket lines to offer support; his branch was the first to send much needed money for our hardship fund; he attented and spoke inspirationally at several mass meetings and rallies during the 3 month struggle; he lobbied nationally for greater support within UNISON; he was there at the victorious end. Even after the strike was over Paul was organising branches in Yorkshire and Durham for money to buy Xmas toys for the strikers' families, providing over £2,000 worth of new toys, something for which our members were extremely grateful. Supporting workers in struggle will always be 1st, 2nd and 3rd on Paul's agenda, no other considerations will ever come in the way of that, and that's what is needed in our General Secretary."

Maybe inspirational leadership helps to build trade unions?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A General Secretary in a Total Place?

It's a good few weeks now since I first blogged about the threat to our members from the "Total Place" programme.

At that time I pointed out the response of the Total Place website to a search for the phrase "trade union" returns the response; "No posts found. Try a different search?" It still does.

Total Place is taking off as the form which reductions in public spending (and consequent job cuts) will take. The shared services which Total Place requires will provide rich pickings for the private sector - and offer the dole queue to many workers.

The ideas underpinning this attack upon public services were set out in the report "Whole Systems Go" written by a couple of academics from the Warwick Institute of Governance and Public Management (IGPM).

Our current General Secretary is an adviser to the IGPM - a fact about which his supporters boast on his campaign website. Is that wise comrades?

UNISON members whose jobs are threatened by Total Place (which is all about "better for less" and achieving savings) may not be that impressed by this association. Maybe it's something to ask the candidates about at hustings meetings?

Perhaps UNISON should consider trying to get better for less by electing a General Secretary on a workers wage?

Mandelson lets the cuts out of the bag

Peter Mandelson's characteristically high handed attack upon those protesting at proposed spending cuts in higher education included confirmation that the rest of the public sector can expect the same soon (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8511638.stm).

Anyone reading local authority budget papers could tell you the same.

So, if the Government get their way, there will be cutbacks in essential services - which will also have negative multiplier effects on wider economic activity and employment.

If only the Government would listen to Joseph Stiglitz (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/swKYeW1PW8EUPSkOd_cicLg/view.m?id=320693&tid=120787&cat=United_States) they might see the macroeconomic folly of cutting back at a time when this could tip the economy back into recession.

However now that the ideas of those who led us into this crisis appear once more to be guiding policy makers we clearly face warmed up Thatcherism from whoever wins the election.

The trade unions must raise our game, confront those like Mandelson threatening our economy and society - and rally to the aid of those left MPs and candidates upon whom we can rely.

That's why I am supporting the challenge by Paul Holmes in the election for Unison General Secretary. Paul's candidacy shifts debate from the sterile argument for or against Labour Party affiliation - and on to more challenging terrain, asking what we are actually doing with our relationship with the Party and how we get the best we can for our members now by applying our influence to end the obsession with spending cuts.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Holmes' campaign has momentum

A hat tip to MJ at Union Futures for posting the video of John McDonnell's endorsement of Paul Holmes as candidate of General Secretary of UNISON.

Paul also has the support of a candidate who won election to sit on the UNISON NEC in his own Region of Yorkshire and Humberside. In that case an interesting precedent was set in that the candidate who came second was declared elected (an approach not likely to be applied in the General Secretary election).

Paul's campaign has already made waves in Northern Ireland and will increasingly come to the attention of UNISON members throughout the nations of the UK. Paul offers UNISON members the opportunity to vote for a rank and file worker capable of leading our Union, enthusiastic to do the job, willing to serve a full term and with no agenda to push someone else into the job to follow him.

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

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
28.01.10.

Joint working with PCS

Dave Prentis reported in some detail to yesterday's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) on a meeting he had held the previous day with Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

PCS members working in public services face the same challenges as we face in UNISON and it is good news that we will be seeing joint campaigning, joint leaflets and other materials and coordinated political lobbying.

I asked about the possibility, further down the road, of coordinated industrial action over the linked issues of pay, job cuts and attacks on pensions. Dave emphasised the difficulties of coordinating industrial action but indicated that if there were common issues we would see in future the sort of coordination that we saw over public sector pensions a few years ago.

Watch this space?

Equal pay victory

Normally I cannot report anything about the discussion at the National Executive Council on Equal Pay for the very sound reason that the Union is engaged in so much litigation (sometimes as a respondent). Public comment could prejudice the position of the Union.

However, I can draw to your attention this good news from Sheffield. I hope to be able to link to further good news soon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pay freeze threat to national bargaining?

Today's NEC meeting received a full report from National Secretary, Heather Wakefield, on the employers' proposals for a pay freeze for UK local government workers.

The Union has written to Councillors and MPs. Regions will be able to publicise to branches the replies we receive so that before we cast our votes in local or national elections we know the stance adopted by candidates on the pay freeze.

Interestingly the General Secretary intervened to express the view that we need to campaign around the issues of pay, jobs and pensions. This is the approach which PCS have adopted to mobilise members to take national action and I hope Unison will try to learn from this example.

Worryingly there were reports from Yorkshire of a threat to national pay bargaining - coming from employers who want to offer a pay rise and oppose the pay freeze!

In a strong defence of national bargaining, Paul Holmes made the point that Unison must rise to the challenge of defending national bargaining by making it work for our members.
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NEC nominates Prentis

Today's meeting of Unison's National Executive Council predictably gave its nomination to incumbent General Secretary Dave Prentis.

There were 38 votes for Dave, 5 (myself included) for Paul Holmes and 4 for Roger Bannister.

The NEC has agreed its submissions to Conference, including a report on the political funds about which I will blog separately.
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Growing support for Holmes

A hat tip as usual to MJ for the news of growing support for leading rank and file candidate for Unison General Secretary, Paul Holmes (http://unionfutures.blogspot.com/2010/02/press-release-john-mcdonnell-mp-backs.html).

Whilst Paul's candidacy continues to engender real enthusiasm that of his main challenger, incumbent Dave Prentis, continues to inspire ritual professions of half hearted loyalty from those who now swallow the discontent previously expressed about the lamentable succession planning which has been the hallmark of Mabledon Place in the twenty first century.


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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Zero time for zero hours

Today's Morning Star reports on Unison's fight against private care firm "Choices Care at Home" over the imposition of zero hours contracts (http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/86570).

A zero hours contract may be appropriate for casual employees (for example "pool" workers who may be available to provide relief cover without obligation on either side).

However the imposition of such contracts on employees providing a regular and continuous public service is nothing more nor less than a deliberate - and outrageous - attempt to circumvent the few legal rights of employees.

From recent local experience I have seen the unaccountable power such contracts give to managers, who can lawfully stop offering work to an employee on a whim, sending them home without pay - and without effective legal redress.

Building union organisation in such circumstances of casualisation requires that activists risk their employment in an environment in which the legal and procedural rights relied upon by public sector workers are a distant dream.

It is a disgrace that public authorities give work to firms that want to take employee relations back to the nineteenth century.

Good luck to the South Lanarkshire branch in taking this fight on.
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Monday, February 08, 2010

Unison General Secretary election - main challenger emerges

Discussion amongst rank and file Unison activists has begun to indicate a clear preference amongst the ordinary workers who are seeking to emulate Mark Serwotka and be elected as General Secretary.

Paul Holmes - who today won the backing of Unison United Left - offers a clear and credible alternative to the inadequacy which has been the recent hallmark of the national leadership of our Union.

Paul has a proven track record of taking on and defeating those who do not believe that our Union should be run by our members. He proved my world weary cynicism wrong when his branch won the Special Conference on Local Government Pensions!

Paul also has the advantage of having been Branch Secretary of an excellent union branch. Our current General Secretary lacks that experience and - whilst there is surely a place in our movement for those who come straight from college to work for a union - maybe our leaders should rise out of our own ranks as have all the union leaders whose names are more than footnotes in our history. Those who join us straight from college may serve us but may not be the best to lead us.

Some things I think we know that Paul won't do include;

Paul won't manipulate the timing of future elections, whether to influence succession or for any other reason.

Paul won't work with any academic institution which helps to develop plans for the Government to attack our members' jobs.

Paul won't accept invitations to questionable international union events and then make commitments which require the reallocation of Unison resources to please his hosts;

Paul won't give the green light for the settling of political scores against activists with minority opinions;

Paul won't pretend to influence he does not have over Government Ministers.

Then again, I know enough about Paul to know what he will do;

Paul will lead and inspire our members with both genuine enthusiasm and experience as part of the rank and file;

Paul will speak to our members directly as he speaks as one of us, living on a worker's wage - and will continue to do so;

Paul will stand up for our members without fear.

In the light of the foregoing I can report, as promised, on the emergence of the main challenger in the Unison General Secretary election.

Dave Prentis has now emerged as the main challenger to Paul Holmes.
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Anonymous attacks upon UNISON activists from tedious sycophants?

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Union-Blogger) will know that I am rarely impressed with those who blog (or indeed comment) anonymously.

It is a shame that so much of what is sometimes a quite well written little blog (Unison Active) is anonymous - and it does make me wonder whether some of the "Unison activist" bloggers are perhaps in fact employees of the Union.

Certainly a recent vitriolic attack upon the three rank and file challengers for the position of General Secretary does reinforce the cynical view that the blog was set up to support Unison's establishment come what may.

I get some stick for being openly critical of the Union leadership (and fair enough) but I don't sink to the level of personal attacks which you would expect to find in the playground (or on the Unison Active blog).

I don't accept the counsel of despair which says that a rank and file worker cannot aspire to be the General Secretary of a trade union. Mark Serwotka seems to do a pretty good job.

Nor do I think that the campaign for the re-election of our General Secretary is being carried forward on a wave of sheer enthusiasm - not when many of those expressing their heartfelt support know more than they are saying about why there was such a delay in agreeing the timetable for the election.

Now is not the time for loyalty to UNISON to prevent us from voicing legitimate criticisms of shortcomings in the Union. Nor is now the time for rank and file workers to shut up, know our place and tug our forelocks to the staff we employ (even if some of them have taken to blogging anonymously and attacking lay activists who have the temerity to believe that they could lead our Union).

Higher Education in the firing line

Here we go.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England wants to take £449 Million out of higher education, threatening thousands of jobs (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/sxhgLJHmi3H7R-DQO91AOkg/view.m?id=316271&tid=120787&cat=News).

As the economy crawls out of recession this is not only an attack on jobs - and on the educational prospects of thousands. This is also deflationary and flies in the face of the need to sustain demand in the economy in order to support employment and economic activity.

That this is happening now illustrates all too well the power of the neoliberal consensus which dominates the thinking of the leadership of all three major political parties - and which is contrary to the interests of Unison members and the policies of our Union.

Where the Higher Education sector is heading today shows all public servants our future (whichever major party forms the next Government).

We should of course all be aware that the Tories will be worse, cutting deeper and faster (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/sxhgLJHmi3H7R-DQO91AOkg/view.m?id=316248&tid=120787&cat=Politics) - but the most important role trade unions can play in the run up to the General Election must be to maximise the all too small number of genuine allies we will have in the next parliament.

We need to work with the Labour Representation Committee (http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/ge2010candidates) and abandon remaining illusions in New Labour Ministers who are now overseeing massive attacks on Higher Education.
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