Friday, August 27, 2010

Critical Engagement? No Thanks!

Brendan Barber's introduction to the General Council's report to the forthcoming Trades Union Congress (http://www.tuc.org.uk/congress/tuc-18386-f0.cfm) characterises the response of our movement to what he describes as the "onslaught" from the Coalition Government as one of "critical engagement."

This, he says, has two strands. The first is to engage with Ministers to put our arguments, as when the Equality Minister faced questioning at TUC LGBT Conference. The second is to publicise our criticisms of Government policy.

Neither of those strands of activity are wrong of course, although the latter strand should be going further faster to mobilise the mass opposition to what certainly is an onslaught on the working class and the Welfare State.

However, the political thinking expressed in the description from the TUC General Secretary of how these two "strands" are woven together into a "strategy" reeks of a wholly anachronistic corporatism completely at odds with the reality which now confronts us.

"Critical engagement" reminds me of 1980s debates on the local government left about how to respond to the then Tory Governments Civil Defence Regulations which compelled reluctant local authorities to waste time and money preparing plans to keep services running after a nuclear war.

Lacking the political weight to deliver a policy of (unlawful) outright non-compliance with these daft Regulations, the anti-nuclear local authorities generally adopted a policy of "critical compliance" - engaging in implementation whilst criticising what was being done in private and in public.

The "Nuclear Free Zone" (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear-free_zone?wasRedirected=true) local authorities of the 1980s were forced into "critical compliance" because they were politically and constitutionally subordinate to the Government, junior partners in the administration of the state.

The mentality that seeks now to characterise how the trade union movement should respond to the ConDems with the phrase "critical engagement" is one which sees the TUC as subordinate to the Government, essentially a junior partner in the regulation of employment.

This is not the TUC we need. Nor is it a role for the TUC which is on offer from the Government of Millionaires. We now need a trade union centre which sees its role primarily in terms of coordinating the organisation and mobilisation of trade union members.

The Government are not waiting to attack us and the proposal to leave a national demonstration until the spring shows no understanding of the problems we face (of course there should be a national demonstration in the spring - but it shouldn't be the first one we organise between now and then!)

We need to move on now from "critical engagement" to "creative confrontation" if we want to use our real power to best effect to limit the damage from the Government's attacks.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Using legal action against the cuts

Full marks to UNISON for launching a legal challenge to ConDem plans for the break up of the NHS (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=1958). Its good to see a combative approach to a reactionary Government which won't even pretend to listen to us.



At this relatively urge stage in building effective opposition to the anti-working-class policies of the Coalition legal challenges may buy a little time and gain publicity (sounding warning bells for those not yet sufficiently alerted to what is coming).



The Fawcett Society's welcome legal challenge to the Emergency Budget for breach of the gender equality duty (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1165) clearly comes into the same category.



Ultimately however legal challenges to an elected Government are unlikely to prove more than, at best, a delaying tactic. They may slow the Government down and shake its morale. They may also weaken the Coalition.



What is most important is that we mobilise effective campaigning activity locally and nationally, including preparation for industrial action against the impact of cuts.

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Good work by the IFS poses a challenge to the TUC

Good for the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) for debunking Tory claims that the Emergency budget was not distributionally regressive (http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/5245). In Plain English the IFS show that the ConDems are hitting the poor harder than the better off with June's changes to tax and benefits.

They contradict the Government by taking out of their assessment of the impact of budget measures on different income groups those measures already proposed by the last Government - and by taking account of the impact of measures which the Government conveniently ignored.

The full research is online (http://www.ifs.org.uk/pr/progressive_budget.pdf) and is receiving positive media coverage.

One important factor taken into account by the IFS is the plan - from April 2011 - to uprate benefits and tax credits (as well as occupational pensions) in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI), which will cause benefits to decline in value by an increasing amount each year. This is clearly a regressive measure hitting the poor harder in absolute as well as relative terms.

Here is a simple issue around which to unite, not only those, working and retired, who have seen the value of our occupational pensions attacked but also all those whose living standards will start to decline from April as the uprating of benefits and tax credits is depressed.

The trade unions can lead a campaign to reverse this measure in the name of equality as well as enlightened (and entirely legitimate) collective self-interest. This would fit perfectly alongside existing campaigns - including UNISON's Million Voices (http://www.unison.org.uk/million).

The TUC General Council has the power to do this - but only if we start taking action. It is a shame that proposals for a demonstration on 23 October were scuppered at the July General Council but at least those of us in London can consider marching to the lobby of Parliament which is being arranged.

Before the autumn everyone should invest in some comfortable and robust footwear as we will be doing a lot of marching, lobbying and protesting (ideally being led by our leaders).

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Labour leadership preferences...

In a moment snatched from dealing with the current reality of redundancies I have contributed to an email discussion between members of the Labour Representation Committee about the Labour leadership election and - since work pressures restrict blogging just now - thought I would inflict my meandering upon you, dear reader.

The LRC has rightly supported Diane Abbott as the candidate for whom Labour Party members should cast their first preference vote. This sensible decision reflects an appreciation of the fact that her vote will be read as an index of support for broadly socialist policies amongst rank and file Party members and trade unionists.

However, the question then arises as to whether to cast a second preference vote between the two disappointing sons of a good Marxist father who seem likely to make it to the final round of voting.

I agree that there isn't much in it between any of the four white male fortysomethings in suits but I do offer this observation.

A problem for some years has been the unwillingness of the leaders of the biggest trade unions to exert effective political pressure on the Labour leadership.

This refusal has its roots in the "division of labour" between the political and industrial wings of the movement. One of the things I think we created the LRC for was to try to transcend this historic weakness of Labourism (whether left or right, "old" or "New").

Given the support for Ed M from these same leaders is it not worth considering the possibility that it may be - at least - marginally easier to argue with them to place demands on the candidate they have endorsed and supported?

I don't claim that this is a vital point but it nudges me in the direction of thinking that, whilst I will cast my first preference vote, if not enthusiastically then at least in a determined way for a (deeply flawed) candidate of the left, I shall (holding my nose) cast a second preference for someone we should consider not endorsing in any way but supporting "as a rope supports a hanging man"

That said it is far more important, I think, that LRC members discuss how we build working class opposition to the Government (and those who do their bidding) - and pressure on trade union leaders to support this opposition.

I will vote not on the basis of the merits of the candidates but on the basis of a decision (which may be right or wrong) about how the voting in the election will impact (to however limited an extent) upon these more important issues.

We desperately need effective opposition to the ConDems - and the trade unions need to use every tool we have, including our influence over what ought to be the Parliamentary opposition to an unprecedented assault on the Welfare State.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Unity is strength

It is the middle of the summer holiday - but that doesn't mean redundancy threats have gone on holiday - even those applying to workers whose conditions of service mean they aren't here to defend themselves in August.



I spent some time today (in a joint union capacity) filling in for NUT comrades who are - quite reasonably - on leave. I was arguing with management in attempt to save some teaching jobs from redundancy.



I don't know whether we'll win the argument but I do know that everyone whose job we do save (and we can count dozens already in the current restructure of Lambeth's Children's and Young People's Services Directorate) will be the beneficiary of trade union unity.



At a local level the members of each union are strengthened by unity and cooperation between all unions. Whilst there can and will always be room for healthy rivalry and competition this is far less important than unity.



This observation must surely be even more important at a national level.



In common with other delegates to this year's TUC I got my first electronic mailing for next month's Congress this afternoon.



This will be the last Annual Congress - from now on - for the first time since 1868 - Congress will be a Biennial affair, signalling the scaled down ambition of our leaders.



This could however be a Congress that matters more than for many years - if it puts into practice the unity in action which so many of us apply daily at a rank and file level in order to mobilise our millions against the Government of Millionaires.



Our pensions have been cut, our pay frozen, our jobs threatened and our services face devastation. Six and a half million members of TUC affiliated unions have the power to stop this - if we act in unity.



Will we use our power?

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Equality, cuts and contradictions

I’ve blogged before to welcome the admirable legal challenge from the Fawcett Society to the ConDem Emergency Budget for breaching the Gender Equality Duty through a complete failure to assess (never mind attempt to redress) the disproportionate impact of deficit reduction measures on women when compared with men.

Having this evening represented Lambeth’s Joint Trade Unions at a meeting of Lambeth’s Equality Panel, reviewing the equality impact assessments of controversial proposals for spending reductions I am more certain than ever that UNISON activists need to get to grips with the application of the statutory equality duties in a time of cuts.

These laws are no more a panacea than are any other laws, but just as trade unionists willing to put in the graft can make use of the redundancy consultation requirements of Section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act in the noble cause of damage limitation, so we can and must use the statutory equality duties wherever they apply.

There is a contradiction between seeking to implement public spending cuts and seeking to promote equality of opportunity - yet public bodies aiming to do the former retain a statutory duty to do the latter.

Our job is to get inside that contradiction and use it to defend jobs and services – and hasten the political crisis which the ConDem Government deserves.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flying piggy banks

You have to wonder what is going on in the minds of those trade unionists engaging in the Hutton review of public sector pensions as if it was a genuine exercise in assessing how to maintain fair and affordable pension provision for millions of public servants.

It's not. It's a softening up exercise ahead of a further assault on our living standards in retirement - and we shouldn't be flagging up elements of our own pension scheme to encourage that assault.

According to the Municipal Journal (http://www.localgov.co.uk/index.cfm?method=news.detail&id=91022), the GMB are backing a career average rather than final salary future for the Local Government Pension Scheme - with support from the employers and (at the least) no opposition from Unison. (That part of the story I am chasing up).

Now I am not opposed to a career average pension in principle. In the abstract it is fairer than a final salary scheme and if we were designing a scheme from scratch on a blank piece of paper it would have much to commend it.

However, we don't live in an abstract world and the concrete reality is that the ConDems don't start with a blank piece of paper but with a straightforward desire to save money and attack our living standards.

According to the MJ "GMB pensions officer Naomi Cooke, said the union would only tolerate a switch to career average-linked retirement pots if the overall value of the LGPS – currently regarded as the 'gold-standard' public pension because of its final-salary structure – remained the same – around 20% of pensionable payroll."

We might as well say that we make such suggestions only on the basis that future pensions are paid from flying piggy banks.

Wake up comrades! The Government have already made a very serious and significant attack upon all our public service pension schemes (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2010/06/unisons-retired-members-under-attack.html). Year on year the switch from uprating pensions in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) will depress pensions and reduce the cost of the scheme. Although this scandal gets a mention on the TUC agenda our trade unions are doing far too little to alert our members to this lifetime reduction in our deferred pay.

The ConDems aren't wondering about how better to share out a fixed pension pot, but how much they can steal from that pot - as indicated by the fact that they have already started.

Rather than offer them suggestions which they will take as cuts (a switch to a career average could be an opportunity to level down pensions in order to align the mean pension with the median rather than the other way round) the unions need to be campaigning urgently amongst our members for the unified national strike action which alone can defend our pensions.

The longer we leave it to take on this Government the better prepared they will be and the weaker we will be. Trade unionists need a boost to our confidence to mount the "fight of our lives" - the discussion we need to be having about pensions is not with Hutton but with our own members, gearing up to fight.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hands Off Our Pensions

I think that when the leading independent money saving website tells me that someone is nicking money off me I ought to pay attention.

At our National Delegate Conference our General Secretary told us he would lead a fight against attacks upon our pensions. A massive attack has now taken place. The fight back is awaited.

If anyone in the trade union movement is looking for a dispute which will unite our members in opposition to a Government of scoundrels I suggest we have the issue right here.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Four more voices for public services...

With an impressive 17,315 names signed up to UNISON’s “Million Voices” campaign in defence of public services, today brought the news of four more voices soon to be added (or at least increased in volume).

At twenty to seven on a Friday evening in early August, members of UNISON’s National Executive Council received a letter from our General Secretary informing us that the current establishment of three Assistant General Secretary posts in UNISON (two of which have been vacant for some years) will be increased to five.

This widely anticipated move (which some informed sources say reveals much about earlier decisions around the timetable for the recent General Secretary election) will add four more AGSs to complement the current incumbent, Bob Abberley.

Our General Secretary points out, in his letter, that “UNISON will begin the move into its new national centre at the end of the year. We have an opportunity to combine this with a new senior management structure in place to support our work. A new centre and a new start”. Having voted – against the incumbent General Secretary – for a new start for UNISON earlier this year, I was interested to hear about this “new start” from the successful candidate of the status quo and take this opportunity to share some further information.

The NEC Staffing Committee (which has a high degree of autonomy from the NEC as a whole, to which it is not collectively accountable) has agreed the following responsibilities for those whom Mabledon Place insiders are reportedly already referring to as the “Famous Five”;

The AGS for Organising and Recruitment will have responsibility for UNISON’s national and regional organising strategy and will lead a new National Organising Unit. The postholder will provide a strategic overview of the union’s learning and activist training services.

The AGS for Bargaining, Negotiating and Equalities will be responsible for helping to set and deliver the union’s wider bargaining agenda. The postholder will have overall responsibility for service groups and will lead and manage a number of specialist units for procurement, bargaining support, equal pay and local government and public sector finance.

The AGS for Communications, Campaigns and Policy will have responsibility for developing UNISON’s campaigns, external profile, influence and policies. The postholder will ensure strategic planning and co-ordination of key campaigns to build effective participation at national, regional and branch level.

The AGS for Organisation and Resource Development will be responsible for resource, ICT and systems management, financial management, staffing and management of the national centre. The postholder will lead and champion internal management of change through a new Change Management Unit.

The AGS for Regional Management and Governance will have responsibility for strategic management of the regions to ensure effective implementation of the union’s organising, campaign and policy objectives. The postholder will oversee governance to ensure partnership working with lay structures and be the voice of the regions in the national leadership.

Public service workers will of course be familiar with the idea that the way to respond to challenging circumstances is to appoint more senior managers. This approach does not universally find favour with UNISON members when it is applied by our employers. Had the National Executive Council of our trade union received any detailed report in advance of this decision having been taken I could perhaps explain its rationale and let you know about the other options which had been considered and rejected. As it is I can’t.

I’ll happily share the letter with UNISON members in the Greater London Region on request and understand that it will be issued to all staff on Monday.

For those with time on their hands to speculate as to who will get these jobs, NEC members have been told that “As part of a restructuring process, the new posts will be ringfenced to existing staff and members and advertised internally through In Focus, the website and eFocus. Appointments will be by the usual Staffing Committee processes, aiming to get the new secretariat in place by late Autumn.”

Many of us who are lay UNISON activists will be familiar with arguing for “internals first” or “internals only” recruitment to avoid redundancies (although not normally to give restricted access to significant promotion opportunities). However it appears that we are not simply restricting this recruitment to our current staff (which – since our finances are sound and we are not looking to make redundancies – is comprehensible), we are also including our 1.3 Million members within the ring fence for these four new posts of Assistant General Secretary.

This is a rather large ring fence, the dimensions of which may perhaps have been influenced by some rather dispiriting content in that part of the General Secretary’s letter to the NEC dealing with the background to these proposals, in which he commented that; “over the next few years, thousands of UNISON members stand to lose their jobs, including many of our key activists.”

Obviously it’s as well to be prepared for the worst, but I would rather hope that our Union might be in a position to resist some of the job losses which the ConDem Coalition have planned for us. In fact, I know we can resist job losses because, at a local level, this is what effectively organised UNISON branches already do.

Furthermore, whilst being a UNISON activist is no passport to job security, it does seem to me to be a counsel of despair to anticipate that we will lose “many of our key activists”. (One might almost think that the real import of the letter was to prepare for one or two “key activists” to be lost to activism through appointment as an Assistant General Secretary – but lay activists don’t generally join the organisation as employees at such an exalted level)(yet?).

We certainly face the threat of a great many job losses. Our struggle can make a difference to how many jobs are lost, and to where they are lost from. As a Branch Secretary as well as an NEC member, I start with the position that we will resist every job loss and that we will in particular resist the threat of compulsory redundancy of any of our members. I also expect our Union to protect our activists. My time for the next few years will largely be taken up defending jobs and services and I shall certain consider it a failure if, locally, we lose “many of our key activists” to redundancy.

I think therefore that I will rule myself out of contention for any of the AGS jobs (however much my application would have been welcomed by regular readers of this blog, Sid and Doris Mabledon-Leninist). There is a lot of work to be done by trade unionists in the next little while, almost all of it by the rank and file at local level.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Absence makes the heart grow fonder?

I make a point of trying to enjoy every one of the 34 days paid leave I get - since several of them are the direct product of an important trade union victory thirteen years ago - when the joint trade unions in Lambeth Council saw off an attempt to attack our conditions of service.

Since that victory, thousands of workers have between us enjoyed tens of thousands of days of paid leave which we would otherwise have lost. (That's several lifetimes of cumulative leisure!)

We won then because of three factors. The first was unshakeable trade union unity. The second was a credible determination to take united action. The third was an active engagement of the union membership, reflected in over a thousand individual responses to the Council's "consultation" on conditions of service - 98% of them supportive of the trade unions and critical of the employer.

These factors contributed to the employer backing down before a single ballot paper had been issued.

We may face similar challenges all over the country now as a result of the "Reducing Workforce Costs" document issued by the national employers in local government -concerning which the Trade Union Side has now registered a dispute (also covering the failure of the national employers to make a pay offer this year).

The trade union side aren't (probably wisely) threatening immediate national strike action over pay and conditions. Instead they hope to use the arbitration clause in the National Agreement.

Given the response of the London employers when we tried to use the arbitration clause to resolve the London Weighting dispute (and the employer-side anger when ACAS gave us an extra 0.3% recently), it will be interesting to see how the national employers respond, and what that means for national bargaining.

At local level - in our branches - we need to see threats to conditions as a challenge and a (potentially unifying) opportunity to build and take united action. Whereas job cuts always fall unevenly and tend to divide workers, attacks on conditions fall more evenly and make it relatively easier to build united opposition.

For myself, I shall go back to enjoying the holiday won for me and defended by trade union action (secure in the knowledge that - while I have been away - my branch appears to have won a reprieve for the jobs of 65 front line workers. Perhaps if I took a longer holiday even more jobs would be saved?)

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Equality impacts on ConDems

Local cuts had already focused my attention on the equalities dimensions of the coming attacks on jobs and services (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2010/07/cutting-away-at-equality.html) so I am incredibly pleased at the news that the Fawcett Society, having considered the disproportionate impact of the unnecessary "Emergency" Budget on women (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1164) are to launch a legal challenge (http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gmg/op/szY1DW7s1YX1_ev4Q2pP53Q/view.m?id=522316&tid=120787&cat=Politics).



The Fawcett Society challenge focuses on blatant non-compliance with the Gender Equality Duty by the Treasury who apparently failed to assess the gender impact of the Budget before putting it before Parliament. This breaches Section 76A of the Sex Discrimination Act.



As we face cuts on a scale reminiscent of the 80s and early 90s it is all to obvious that in some ways (trade union density, trade union law) we are weaker and more constrained now than we were then.



However, we also have some new tools to test in defence of public services. The statutory equality duties which are the fruits of generations of struggle can now be pressed into service to resist cuts which impact disproportionately on the already disadvantaged.



Legal action is no substitute for industrial action, nor for the political pressure which is the ultimate objective of both. However, the Fawcett Society are about to help us all find out what can be done with these legal duties.



The TUC should take note - and all of us who are trade union activists need to brush up on the equality duties (and on tests of statistical significance!)

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