Wednesday, November 30, 2011
This close to the action in a major strike any assessment of what we are achieving can only be both parochial and impressionistic. On that basis I stand by what I said in Windrush Square in Brixton just before noon.
This has been our strongest strike in 25 years. Whilst we have areas of weakness - and much work to do before the further action which is an inevitable consequence of our seriousness about this dispute - we have brought out more strikers, and mobilised more pickets, than for many years.
Let today be the turning point that it has the potential to be!
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Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Local people with no direct stake in our pension schemes have shown a clear political understanding of the importance of our dispute to the overall balance of what we 80s lefties still refer to as "class forces".
Some of our officials (having been brought up on the wrong side of the icepick as it were) have fits of the vapours at the thought of non-members joining picket lines - particularly if (horrors!) they may have "their own political agenda".
Everyone has "their own political agenda" and the world is divided between those who recognise and are honest about this and those who don't and either aren't honest or simply do as they are told by others.
Those whose "political agenda" is to defend the Welfare state and trade unionism are our natural allies. Their agenda is, in essence, the agenda of the trade unions.
This dispute is therefore very much a dispute for every "Tom, Dick and Sally" (as I have heard it put by an eloquent if politically immature individual) and if members of the local community wish to visit our picket lines tomorrow to express their support they should be made welcome (and certainly not as if they were "chaff" to be sorted from the "wheat" of striking workers).
This applies even if someone wishing to support the picket line tries to sell you a copy of "Socialist Worker" or "the Socialist" or any one of a dozen other such titles. (Copies of the Morning Star will be available free to Londoners at Lincoln's Inn Fields - but you should buy it if asked as they need the money!)
If you don't want to buy a leftwing paper all you have to do is say "no thankyou". Those of our members who have the gumption to picket can be relied upon to deal with that for themselves.
Our enemies are in Downing Street, and amongst Cameron's paymasters in the City. They are not to be found behind pasting tables full of wordy leaflets trying to sell socialist newspapers to largely uninterested shoppers outside a tube station.
Our picket lines are our own and are controlled by workers on strike. Other supporters are welcome if they accept our leadership of our own dispute. On a strike day, even more than any other day, we have "no enemies to the left."
I can't speak for every union official (and I wouldn't want to) but "Tom, Dick and Sally" are welcome on our picket lines!
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The individual exemption letters for those providing emergency "life and limb" cover have been issued.
Shop stewards, activists and ordinary union members are explaining, persuading and cajoling wavering colleagues.
Picket rotas have been drawn up - and picket co-ordinators are worrying about not having enough people first thing.
Unions are working together as never before. (Our branch office (away from the employers' premises) is hosting flags, placards and leaflets for both GMB and UNITE.)
Today Gideon told me he wants to cut my real pay for a further two years and make me work a year longer even than was previously proposed.
Tomorrow we have an unprecedented opportunity to reply to a Government of millionaire public schoolboys intent on destroying our Welfare State.
As one of our stewards said at the mobilising meeting hosted by our Trades Council last night, we will make history tomorrow.
Let's hope that a generation of retreat and defeat is at an end!
Good luck, comrades.
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Those who want above all else a market economy which rewards some at the expense of others and let's the devil take the hindmost will support the Thatcherite Government.
Between these two positions there is precious little political space, just perhaps a narrow fence, full of splinters, from the top of which the Shadow Cabinet gaze nervously down at the real world outside the Westminster bubble.
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Monday, November 28, 2011
On the one hand, the purported leader of the alleged opposition says all strikes are failures (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/11/labour-strike-miliband).
On the other hand, our General Secretary calls, clearly and unequivocally, for further action in the new year if the Government do not relent from a multi-billion cash grab from the reasonable and affordable pensions of public servants (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/28/unison-strikes-new-year-prentis?CMP=twt_gu).
To describe all strikes as "failures" (as Mr Ed does) is to commit a fallacy which would shame even a talking horse (http://www.google.com/m/url?channel=browser&client=ms-rim&ei=pwXUTpC-L4Ly8QOlvwE&hl=en&oe=UTF-8&q=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v%3DWLR4iZJLgc4&ved=0CBEQtwIwAA&usg=AFQjCNGPBsPOJYV7YaVrG00YQUlD0NdASw)
A strike is a collective manifestation of the structural conflict of interest which necessarily exists - in a capitalist society - between employer and employee. As long as social relations are structured as at present, strikes will be an occasional, inevitable feature of our working lives.
Only someone with no knowledge or understanding of the world of work could say that all strikes are a sign of failure.
They are a sign of conflict, to be sure. But two points need to be considered.
First, conflict is embedded in the "DNA" of a society in which the minority, owning and controlling the "means of production" can monopolise the surplus produced by those with no option but to sell their labour to pay their bills. If, in these circumstances, conflict is to be viewed as a failure it must surely be seen as a systemic failure, calling for structural (even revolutionary) social change.
Secondly, collective struggle may be far from the most pernicious expression of such conflict. It may be that, in the absence of strike action to address a conflict of interest between employer and employee, individual workers will resign, go sick or simply stop working to the best of their abilities.
Such individuated expression of dissatisfaction may well have more lasting negative consequences for an employing organisation than the "short sharp shock" of strike action.
Therefore, strike action is best seen not as a "failure" but as a diagnostic tool to help identify problems which an organisation needs to resolve.
Are you listening at the back?
Maude and Alexander! Stop chatting and let the rest of the class know that you have been paying attention!
And you, Miliband Minor, do try to keep up!
If I were a teacher having to deal with this shower I should certainly be striking.
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A poll for the BBC shows that 61% believe we are justified to strike on Wednesday whilst 36% oppose us and 3% don't know. The same poll shows that the Government's handling of the economy is approved of by just 28%.
(For a historical comparison with the last major showdown between the trade unions and a Tory Government, in 1984 the miners had uncritical support from about 12%, with some support from another 35% - http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=640).
This level of support for our forthcoming strike action is all the more impressive since we have the positive support of just one major daily newspaper - the Mirror (http://m.mirror.co.uk/) (which also reports the possibility of sunshine on Wednesday, so even their weather forecast is sympathetic to the workers).
Supporters of the Coalition Government's attempt to turn an economic crisis into a political opportunity to reshape society in the interests of the wealthy and powerful (who are, of course, responsible for the crisis) may have overplayed their hand. To see the smooth plump faces of privilege lecturing the careworn low paid public servants may be less persuasive than Messrs Maude and Alexander had hoped.
Credit is due to our leadership - and press office - for consistent explanation of our case (and for the press adverts running today - http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2532).
Equal credit must go to the untold thousands who have heeded the call to speak with family and friends, to use social media in our support, to write to local press and vote in online polls.
Now - on the antepenultimate day - we need to use this clear evidence of public support in our final push to consolidate the willingness of members to strike.
(Those Labour politicians who can't - yet - bring themselves to support us [http://www.edmiliband.org/] may feel that today is a day for silent reflection).
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Sunday, November 27, 2011
Someone claiming to be Alex White says Labour mustn't support strikes because the party needs the support of the electorate not trade unionists (http://labourlist.org/2011/11/labour-backed-strikes-not-in-my-name/).
In an analysis that my "O" level politics teacher would have returned with a lot of red ink this unfortunately ill-informed blogger says that unions are out of date and need the Party more than it needs them (a view from which the Party Treasurer might dissent perhaps?)
However the conclusion of this second rate opinion piece is truly breathtaking, and is as follows; "Like it or not, this coalition was voted in. They have a mandate. Do the unions speak for the electorate? Of course not. When they do, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?"
To get so many things wrong in so few words is quite an achievement. Neither the Tory nor Lib Dem manifestos justify the assertion that the Government has any sort of mandate for its cash grab on our affordable and reasonable pension schemes. (By this logic the Opposition ought not to oppose but should simply wait for the next election).
As for whether or not unions speak for "the electorate" - I think it is important to remember that people don't come to life only at election time in order to comprise "the electorate". In between time we live as workers, consumers (even bloggers!)
For the great majority of us who have to work if we are to pay our bills (the group which we "old fashioned" socialists sometimes describe as the working class), the trade unions very much exist to express our interests. UNISON speaks up for the public services that comprise the social wage upon which working people depend, not only for the pay and conditions of our members.
Rather than echoing Murdoch's Sun in 1992 ("will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?"), this dismal Blairite blogger would be better advised to lie down in a darkened room so they can get over their shock at working people standing up for our rights. (Or prepare to join a picket line and get the political education they have so far missed out on!)
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I was most struck to be contacted, at Sunday lunchtime, by a Regional Official, helping to ensure that our local health and local government branches were co-ordinating our work on the strike day effectively.
This is an important development in UNISON’s maturity (now our Union is more than eighteen years old!) It will augur well for the further action which will be necessary beyond 30 November.
When even the TUC General Secretary has to defend strike action it is obvious that our movement has reached a decisive moment.
Whilst we always need to be thinking globally, now is a time to act locally.
Well it may be that there will soon be regulations against which they will have to be asked to “pray” – but in the mean time they can sign up to Early Day Motions (EDMs) a sort of petition for MPs. There are two recent such.
EDM 2228, tabled by Dave Anderson MP sets out the trade union case to defend public service pensions with great clarity. EDM 2183, tabled by John McDonnell MP, calls upon Parliamentarians to support us in taking strike action by joining (rather than crossing) our picket lines.
MPs who want to support our cause should clearly be encouraged to sign both motions, as well as giving clear public expressions of support for our cause to local media.
These are laid bare brilliantly by Income Data Services (IDS) in their blog, as follows;
“In the year to April 2011, the median gross annual earnings for full-time employees were £26,200, an increase of 1.4 per cent compared with £25,900 in 2010.” (This compares with price increases running around 5%, and shows that overall the decline in real wages is continuing).
“This year’s ASHE (Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings) survey reveals some remarkably low movements in earnings over the year to April 2011. For example, the hourly earnings, excluding overtime, for full-time employees at the bottom decile grew by just 0.1 per cent to £7.01 an hour, compared with growth of 1.8 per cent at the top decile to £26.75 an hour. There is an overall stretching of the earnings distribution towards the top end.” (So we are all, on average, getting poorer, but the poorest workers are getting poorer fastest).
“The overall salary movement of 1.4 per cent is for those people who were in continuous employment between April 2010 and April 2011. The picture is bleaker if all full-time employees are included, including those changing jobs or re-entering the labour market. For this larger group, median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £501, up just 0.4 per cent from £499 in 2010.” (So workers who are losing their jobs are generally only getting back into employment by accepting lower pay than they were previously earning).
As IDS conclude, with remarkable restraint; “The reduction in the real value of wages and salaries is without precedent in the modern era and is the major cause of the consumer caution which is inhibiting economic recovery.”
Whilst the lamentable politics of the Labour “leader” may be a concentrated expression of these depressing economic realities, we can only change those realities if we can change the politics of the Labour “leader”. The Labour Party needs to support the working class fighting back against austerity.
For public service workers, well into a multi-year pay freeze, the further assault upon our living standards consequent upon the Government's plans to destroy our pension funds doesn't just add salt to our wounds, it deepens them considerably. We really do now have "scars on our backs" from defending public services, and we expect politicians who seek our support to support us now as we make a necessary stand.
At least in relation to Wednesday’s strike action, Alan Johnson has this right. So does Ian Davidson. So does Lambeth Labour Group. It isn’t just those of us on the left of the Labour Party.
The Government have declared class war upon us and we need both the political and industrial wings of our movement to mobilise effectively against them. The practical and legal restrictions upon mobilising nationally against cuts in jobs and services that fall locally have meant that the trade union movement has had to coalesce around the attack on public service pensions – and we need and are entitled to the support of any politician who calls themselves “Labour”.
We need to reverse the economic attacks upon our class, but to do this we need political power, and to achieve this we need to completely recondition the Party built a century ago for that purpose.
Wednesday is a time to choose sides. All Labour politicians need to realise this.
They are concerned that the public sector (where their “research” – which involves taxpayers to pay for information for them through Freedom of Information requests – has identified a weak foundation for wild assessments of the total cost of trade union facility time) has more strikes than the private sector.
This, they think, rebuts the counter argument from Dave Prentis, who has rightly argued that the role of trade union representatives in the workplace is, as the Donovan Commission held more than forty years ago, more a lubricant than an irritant. There is also contemporary evidence of the benefits to organisations in the public and private sector of effective trade union representations.
If the author of the reactionary twaddle published by the cheerleaders of the Tory Right had ever had a proper job he might have a little more understanding as to why the presence of union organising in the workplace may be associated with evidence of collective struggle (including industrial action) – and that this doesn’t necessarily mean that organisations with less collective organisation (and less struggle) are better performing.
Still, we mere workers mustn’t be sniffy about clueless intellectuals. We should offer them some suggestions to the author in question. He could read up a bit on “exit, voice and loyalty” for example and think about how that might apply to the performance of public and private sector employers.
If the “libertarian” right (whose concern never seems to be for the liberty or dignity of working people or the poor) were ever to achieve their fantasy of workplaces free from effective collective organisation, they would simply see that indices of individual discontent would rise. The production of complex services requires from much of the workforce a positive engagement and informed consent which cannot be achieved simply by diktat.
The agenda of the right is not about improving the performance (or “value for money”) of public services, but about hobbling the trade unions to weaken a bulwark against their attack upon our Welfare State.
The only taxpayers they care about are the ones who never earned their money in the first place.
Friday, November 25, 2011
First the "journalist" who wrote the comment regurgitates uncritically the Government's unsubstantiated claim about the likely cost to the economy of the forthcoming action.
Then they move on to the blame game. The real culprits are - of course - the trade union leaders who are "antediluvian monsters" - to be described as "antediluvian" by the house journal of English bigotry and xenophobia must be an accolade which will be welcomed as much by Tyrranosaurus Prentis as by the Serwotkasaurus.
There are, however, other villains.
Ed Miliband is in the frame because he has refused to condemn us. (Because we would dutifully surrender the pensions we have paid for all our working lives if a Labour Leader told us to?)
The BBC are also to blame apparently - because Ministers are running scared of being seen to be anti-union in that quarter. (This is odd as I seem to remember that the BBC have their own disputes with their own unions).
The Liberal Democrats too are responsible for our strike action ("the usual disagreements between the different halves of the Coalition pantomime horse" weakening the Government negotiators according to the Daily Malice).
But if Danny Alexander is partly to blame according to the Mail so is "Francis Maude — the wettest of wet Tories — (who, we are told, has) failed to heed the many warnings that, if Britain is not to be held to ransom by a small number of hard-left bullies, it must pass laws insisting on a minimum turnout for a strike ballot to be valid."
So, everyone is to blame apart from the Mail's preferred wing of the Tory Party (who have in fact initiated this dispute).
Also missing from the "analysis" offered by a paper which surely now struggles to justify being described as "middlebrow" is any sense that the coming strike arises from the reasonable and informed decisions of hundreds of thousands of workers, the great majority of whom are women - and many tens of thousands of whom are Mail readers.
Trade unionists should comment on this shoddy and ill-informed comment in a national newspaper.
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He's asking me to join him petitioning and campaigning tomorrow around Labour's Plan for Jobs and Growth (http://www.labour.org.uk/youth-petition?utm_source=taomail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Campaign-116567&tmtid=116567-16921-123307-99-28-4735942).
I'll tell you what Ed.
You bring your petition on to our picket lines when you support our strike to defend our fair and affordable pensions on Wednesday and we'll sign it there.
While you're at it tell the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party to do likewise.
You can follow the local example of Streatham CLP who last night voted to support us - or of Scottish Deputy Leadership candidate Ian Davidson (http://ian4deputy.org/) whose solid position on the pensions dispute is gaining backing across the Party.
Or look up the definition of "Labour" (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/_/dict.aspx?word=labour).
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According to the Grauniad, Dave Prentis declined to rule out more strikes if talks failed. "Members did not just vote for action on 30 November. They have voted for action full stop. If our members believe they want to take further industrial action if an offer from the government is not good enough, then we're in a position to take that action." This is a serious statement of intent from our leadership.
With the Government reduced to imagining reasons to oppose our strike – in part because they have failed adequately to prepare – now is the time to be clear and firm about the need, both to maximise strike action on 30 November, and to discuss honestly with our members the likely need to escalate our action thereafter.
Good luck to everyone planning for Wednesday’s strike!
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Such thoughts thought are inevitably brought back when we hear that our Prime Minister (the millionaire, formerly of the Bullingdon Club, never having done a proper job) thinks that parents whose children are out of school next Wednesday owing to the public sector pensions strike should be allowed to take them into work.
That’ll work. Tesco checkouts can easily accommodate a bored seven year old. A railway station ticket office would be a happy home for an irritated ten year old. A bus driver could easily and safely sit alongside a hungry five year old. And management at nuclear power stations will be jumping for joy at the thought that they could double up as a crèche for the day.
Cameron gave as much thought to the reality of employment in making this suggestion as Maude did when he called us all out for a quarter of an hour with pay.
What a total pillock.
Meanwhile, in reality, parents who cannot go to work as their children are off school next Wednesday could see to it that their kids enjoyed some special extra citizenship lessons by joining picket lines, rallies and demonstrations in support of the strikers.
The idea that workers have an excess of rights in the workplace, or that it's not easy enough to sack people will raise a hollow laugh in most trade union branch offices.
On any given day it falls to me to advise one or more of our members that the law offers them little hope of recompense for one or other of many injustices.
In my experience, lazy managers sometimes like to blame workers' rights, union power or negotiated and agreed staffing procedures for their own failings. Good managers can cope with the human beings they work with having rights as well as responsibilities in the workplace.
Right wing business lobby groups (http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/zones/policy/tax-and-regulation-campaign/tax-and-regulation-campaign_2.html) always resist regulation in the name of profit. But deregulation just benefits the worse employers and worse managers, whilst creating downward pressure on workers' conditions throughout the economy.
Our best response to this latest attack must be further to strengthen next Wednesday's action.
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Sunday, November 20, 2011
Given that, at present, the Treasury rakes in £2 Billion a year more into the NHS scheme than it pays out to pensioners it would be interesting to see a similar calculation - which would underline the vital importance of strike action by our healthworker members.
Every UNISON Region needs to follow the example of our Welsh members who have pledged to picket every employer (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7377). The only people allowed past should be those showing letters identifying them as individuals providing "life and limb" cover as agreed with the Union (which letters will remind them to donate their pay to hardship funds!)
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You know Francis Maude is fibbing about being close to a deal on public service pensions because he’s saying it in public – anyone who has negotiated a settlement knows that megaphone diplomacy does not accompany a constructive end game. He says that union leaders are being irresponsible by supporting strike action but, for my money (quite a lot of it looking at the pension calculator!) the only irresponsible statements are from those leaders who say of the Government’s recent pronouncements that they “welcome the government's concessions, and say as they had come at ‘the 11th hour’ they need to be studied carefully to make sure ‘they stack up’.”
This is nonsense. The Government are offering nothing in relation to the uprating of pensions by the CPI and nothing in relation to the immediate increase in pension contributions (in the LGPS mitigated by contemporaneous immediate worsening of accrual rates in the interim scheme). In relation to future accrual rates they offer only to leave us with sixtieths in a (cheaper) career average scheme and, as to the “protection” of those within ten years of retirement this is to be achieved within a cost envelope, and therefore at the expense of younger workers.
Such public equivocation from leading trade unionists can only give succour to our enemies in the Government. Perhaps UNISON should make sure all other union leaders have read our useful handout which explains how little the offer means. We need our leaders to stand firm at a time like this and not to be shaken by the bluster of Tory Ministers.
Whilst the Government try to shake the confidence of the weakest of our leaders, the rank and file are getting organised locally and nationally. I didn’t get to the Unite the Resistance meeting yesterday as I was busy elsewhere, but learn online that it can be recalled with both optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect. Now is certainly the time for rank and file organisation on a pan-union basis in order to support those amongst our leaders who see the need for action, and to reinforce the confidence of those we send to speak on our behalf.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I am happy that the pensions campaign is going well.
This lunchtime I spoke to almost 100 members of UCU (http://www.ucu.org.uk/) and UNISON at Lambeth College's Vauxhall site on the topic of pensions.
This was a really positive and constructive meeting between members of two different branches - of two different unions - absolutely united in their determination to defend our pensions. The meeting was unanimous not only for action on 30 November, but also - and wisely - for the necessity for subsequent escalation.
That said, none of the stewards and activists from either union seemed to me to be complacent about the great difficulty of actually getting our members out, and losing pay. That work remains to be done, but from a far better position after such a positive meeting. Plans are in hand for joint picket lines of members of the two branches.
Later on I was pleased to attend a shared meeting between public service trade unionists and anti-cuts activists from Lambeth Save Our Services (http://lambethsaveourservices.org/) where we planned four pre-strike leaflet drops at major local public transport hubs as well as events for the strike day itself.
Representatives from UNISON, UNITE, UCU and PCS worked in harmony with community activists to make these plans in a model of the unity we strive to create between providers and users of public services. I was able to report on united work being undertaken by our Trades Council and other unions, including the South London Battlebus on 26 November and the organising meeting hosted by the Trades Council on Monday 28 November.
The ballot results of recent days are most important for demonstrating the solid determination of a united labour and trade union movement. The numbers balloted do also, unavoidably, underline the relative importance of different unions in this dispute.
UNISON is absolutely central - but we still need to guarantee unity in action, not only between but also within our Union. If we want UNISON to achieve its potential then we need that unity.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011
We are heading for the largest, and most united, strike action of our lives on 30 November, and one of the most encouraging features of this dispute is the unity of purpose which it has engendered.
In my own branch we are cooperating with a multitude of other trade union branches to build support for the strike and picket shared workplaces. At the Town Hall, and many other Council offices, we will stand alongside comrades from our local GMB branch (and in some cases with comrades from UNITE). At our local College, picketing will be jointly organised with the UCU. Crucially we will work jointly with all the teacher unions, NUT, ATL, NASUWT (ballot permitting!) and the NAHT. This picture will be replicated up and down the country.
And where we have workplaces where members of different UNISON branches work together, pickets from different UNISON branches will be cooperating on the day. Now is not the time for those of us in UNISON to remain in our "service group" silos. This is a fight which the Government has picked with the whole of the public sector, and the whole of the public sector must - and will - stand together to resist.
As UNISON's guide on industrial action for branches makes very clear "It is important to work with the other trade unions at local level to ensure the maximum impact of the strike and any protests. Branches are encouraged to set up joint trade union strike committees, to co-ordinate picketing arrangements and other activities so that each union can play to their maximum strengths." This applies as much to different branches of the same union as it does to different unions.
(If there are a small number of conservative officials who see cross service group working as "meddling" or who fail to understand the extent to which workplaces are shared between UNISON branches across service groups then their toes will be quite sore on 30 November, having been trodden on a fair bit. Perhaps another of the unions striking with us on the day will be able to offer them some solace!)
In our great majority, millions of trade unionists are preparing for united action on 30 November. We will stand together, picket together and march together. This unprecedented unity gives us some sense of the potential power of our movement.
The branch briefing saw Regional Secretary, Linda Perks, taking a strong line in calling upon all activists to do all we can to get all members out all day on 30 November. The only members who will be permitted to do other than strike for the full day will be those legitimately exempted or providing emergency cover agreed by the Regional Office.
Branch delegates were resolute and determined. No one present sounded a discordant note.
We now have the hard work of persuading members to strike, picket, rally and demonstrate on 30 November.
The Regional Local Government Committee members gave our representatives on the Service Group Executive a "steer" for the meeting called for 23 November. Our unanimous view was that the strike must go ahead, that we need ample time to consider the details of any offer (of which there is in any case no sign) and that we believe plans must begin now to escalate all out strike action for a longer period early in the New Year.
We now have an irreversible momentum for the largest, most solid and most effective strike of our lives in a fortnight's time.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Tomorrow's briefing for London UNISON branches will be a unique opportunity to organise cross service group action in our capital city. It has taken eighteen years, but UNISON is finally coming of age, bringing nurses out on strike alongside local government workers (and many others!)
Whilst working our socks off for the most effective action possible on 30 November we do however need to be debating where we go next after that Day of Action, as I argue in the Morning Star. Gregor Gall's recent contribution to this debate is timely and interesting.
He is right to argue that a strategy that does not include further all-out action after "N30" cannot seriously expect to win whereas a strategy of trying to "keep people out" rather than going back to work on 1 December cannot seriously expect to be delivered.
Whilst I want there to be a debate in the movement about what, between these two equally wrong-headed approaches, we need to do, I do understand why union leaders play their cards close to their chests. Dave Prentis cannot express a personal opinion about what we do next without offending against our lay democracy. Elected lay officials can - and should - express the range of our personal views though, and we should do so now.
It may be particularly useful if those who remember their roles in the 1989 NALGO local government pay dispute communicate what they believe to be the lessons of that dispute for our current circumstances, since it combined both escalating all-out action with selective (or what is now called "smart") action.
I hope that we shall find some space for such a discussion at tomorrow's necessarily truncated meeting of the Greater London Regional UNISON Local Government Committee, and shall report back here later this week.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
With the replacement, in the space of a few days, of two elected European Premiers with technocrats charged by the European political elite with the task of implementing austerity programmes against their own populations it is clear that we are moving into a period in which our struggles as trade unionists to defend our economic interests (crucially for us just now the pensions dispute) will become inseparable from the defence of democracy itself.
Jurgen Habermas this week summed it up very well; “Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy want to extend the executive federalism of the Lisbon treaty into an outright intergovernmental rule by the European Council to make it possible to transfer the imperatives of the markets to the national budgets without proper democratic legitimation, using threats of sanctions and pressure on disempowered national parliaments to enforce nontransparent and informal agreements creating an especially effective, because disguised, arrangement for exercising a kind of post-democratic rule”.
The worsening financial crisis, caused like every such crisis in a capitalist economy by the bosses going on strike and failing to invest their capital in productive industry will only worsen the financial pressures on national Governments, who will continue to pursue the economic prescriptions of the IMF and ECB, attacking the wages and the social wage of the workers.
In Europe, including the UK, the weakened social forces which built the social democratic postwar settlement will continue to resist the appalling social consequences of these economic policies. In these circumstances, we can expect to see further restrictions on the right to protest and the right to strike as, ultimately, what is now at risk are not only the social gains of the last century but the democratic gains of the last two centuries.
In the UK we have a Coalition rather than a Government of technocrats, but its function is the same, to secure public consent for policies contrary to the interests of the great majority of the population. If we are to secure a better future, the trade unions need to campaign for our policies, defeat this Government and secure its replacement with a Government committed to policies which would rebuild our economy and society in the interests of the majority. As hard as this may be even to imagine, it seems to me that the only possible such Government would be a Labour Government – which is why I’ll be at the AGM of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) next Saturday, to discuss with fellow socialists in and around the Labour Party how we might move in that direction.
As the LRC National Committee statement for Saturday puts it; “The Labour Party leadership has totally failed to connect with the new movements and new mood of resistance. Worse still, it has continued to support largely the same economic strategy as the Coalition with only marginal differences over the speed and severity of cuts. From a position where it initially recruited tens of thousands of new members in the aftermath of the 2010 general election in reaction to the coalition government, the Labour leadership is blowing this goodwill by its refusal to speak up on behalf of the 99%. The election of Ed Miliband as Labour Leader reflected a rejection of New Labour by Party members but this has not been repaid in any way since. With rare exceptions he has pursued the same agenda as Blair and Brown economically, politically and in terms of Party democracy. The opportunity presented by ‘Refounding Labour’, for instance, was abandoned in favour of a continuation of centralised control. The task of the LRC is to play the role that the Labour Party has failed to grasp – to be an essential part of building the resistance and to assist in giving it political expression”.
The strike on 30 November is not simply about our pensions. It will be a crucial moment in building resistance to the austerity plans of the global elite, which are plans to roll back decades of social progress.
The Government are clearly rattled by the coming pensions strike - leading to the daft suggestion that we can have a fifteen minute strike with no loss of pay.
Did Francis Maude consult the employers on this proposal? Of course not, it isn't a serious proposition but a shot in a propaganda war.
Today's Financial Times sees Francis Maude playing every card he can think of, building on last week's "non-offer" from Danny Alexander, although it's left to an anonymous Whitehall source in the Guardian to offer the "carrot" (that they may give ground on the "Fair Deal") whilst Maude wields the "stick" of possible further anti-union legislation.
The "carrot" is, of course, no such thing. It's more the possible withdrawal of an "anti-carrot," in that the Government may not withdraw what little protection we have for pensions when workers face privatisation.
In what sense is it "giving ground to leave things as they are?
It's a bit like Alexander's "offer" on accrual rates in that sense. He kindly offers us (after 2015) the sixtieths accrual rates we already have (saving himself money by the switch to career averages).
The Government's PR strategy is clearly to talk up what Maude calls their "big and generous" offer, obfuscating and hoping that the inherent complexity of some of the issues in dispute will mean that commentators and the public accept their version (as a very poor Guardian Leader did early in the week).
Maude repeats today the lie that the Coalition is offering protection to those approaching retirement age. They aren't. They are offering negotiators the opportunity to make those further from retirement pay more in order to provide that protection. (If the unions engage with this approach we risk being seen to have betrayed younger workers, who are already less likely to be trade unionists - or, indeed, members of the pension scheme.)
This crude "divide and rule" tactic to set young against old is mirrored in Maude's public attempt to drive a wedge between Dave Prentis ("a very formidable, skilled, experienced negotiator") and Mark Serwotka ("highly politically motivated").
If he thinks such transparent tactics will persuade UNISON to switch from a one-day strike to a token fifteen minute walkout, I predict he will be disappointed. Maude, for all his praise of Prentis, is trying to reach past our General Secretary to weaker and more timid souls who want to avoid confrontation.
Confrontation is however inevitable unless the Coalition withdraw their attacks upon us. The very public game of "sticks and carrots" and "divide and rule" is a play to the gallery of public opinion, hoping to shake the confidence of our leaders and confuse and intimidate our members.
In response, we need our leaders to be both "formidable, skilled and experienced" and "highly politically motivated". It is a very "political" - and laudable - motivation to want to defend public services and public servants!
We should be moved least of all by threats of anti-union laws, the withdrawal of offers or the end of the Fair Deal.
Unless we stop the Coalition in their tracks then all of these things will inexorably come to pass as the cuts collapse the economy, drive up the deficit and lead to further attacks on workers' living standards.
Anything the lying Coalition say is safe (such as the risible suggestion that they won't touch our pensions again for 25 years) is as secure as last year's decision to uprate benefits each April in line with the previous September's CPI, which is already being revisited to shave still more off the living standards of the poor and most vulnerable.
We have one chance - and it comes not only on November 30 but also in the vital and urgent debate about further early all-out national action.
Which will need to be for considerably more than 15 minutes!
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Writing for the Daily Mail he explains that public servants are the pampered, the privileged and the protected.
This fabulous insight has certainly turned my world upside down.
I can certainly see that the Adventure Playground workers in my branch who lost their jobs this summer when the employer made 70% funding cuts earlier this year were “pampered” by being offered a massive and unaffordable cut in their hours. And all local government workers are truly “privileged” to be in the third year of a pay freeze. Most of all though, the many workers made redundant against their will this past year are truly “protected” from the pain of continuing at work with the kind offer of their P45.
Or, on the other hand, maybe not.
Maybe those who are pampered, privileged and protected are those who move between easy jobs with libertarian campaigns, rightwing political parties and reactionary think tanks? Does Mr Littlewood deal with difficult casework, work unsocial shifts or live under constant fear of losing his job? What do you think dear reader? I doubt it.
Those of us with real life experience of public service work know that this reactionary nonsense is rubbish. However, we need to bear in mind that the odious Mail, which is, in fact, the most widely read daily newspaper amongst UNISON members, is also read by many with no such experience.
Therefore, all of us who care about the future of public services – and all of us who want to win the pensions dispute – need to be alive to the need to rebut lazy reactionary nonsense wherever it is vomited into public consciousness.
Public services are as important to the functioning of the private sector of the economy as is the “wealth generating” private sector to the funding of the private sector. Neither one is parasitic upon the other, both are in a symbiotic relationship – which is one reason why we campaign in defence of public services.
As we move towards 30 November every one of the foaming-at-the-mouth reactionaries like Littlewood will be unleashed. We need to face them down and expose their lazy and ill-informed arguments.
Contrary to what the Grauniad Leader writers may think, the Government's "offer" last week was no offer. It doesn't matter if they turn it into a "formal offer" - it's crap. It doesn't touch the immediate proposals in any way, and the "protection" for older workers is just an aspiration which we have to help the Government achieve at the expense of younger workers. "Offering" us 60ths in a future career average scheme (which will be much cheaper that our current final salary 60ths schemes) is hardly an offer!
To be fair to my favourite liberal paper they had provided a platform for an important expression of support for our struggle from young Labour Party activists yesterday. Wherever a serious attempt has been made to ask Labour policitians to back our cause they have agreed. The only areas where we don't have Labour Councils considering support for our struggle is where we have failed to ask. (Note to UNISON Labour Link - do some work!)
It’s key that we sustain support for the 30 November strike action across the whole movement – which means we need to rebut the argument that Danny Alexander has offered us anything and also that we need to welcome and value all support from within the Labour Party.
Sunday, November 06, 2011
In the latest shot in the propaganda war, the Government have planted a story in the Indescribablyboring which suggests that they gleefully anticipate our forthcoming strike action, believing we will alienate “public opinion”. Apparently, we have fallen into their “trap” by fighting to protect our pensions (whereas, of course, we can all well imagine that they would be livid if we had simply decided to swallow a massive attack upon our living standards…)
Well the online poll by the Grauniad gives us 77% support and the Torygraph gives us 82% support. The reality is that the great majority of working people (whether conscious of their being working class or believing themselves to be “middle class”) know that the great majority are being done down in this bankers’ recession, in which only the very wealthiest – who caused the problems in the first place – are protected.
Public sector pensions are not some indefensible perk, they are the sensible provision of security in retirement for those who, in their working lives, are required not to be influenced by improper motives. Public opinion is not against us, and the targets of this Tory propaganda (the weaker elements in our own leadership) must ignore this nonsense from our enemies.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
That means we are moving toward action at the of this month (on "N30").
This changes everything.
Our national leadership wants us to fight hard for our pensions.
At a local level, branch activists are convinced of the need for a serious fight against cuts and job losses also.
If there are (lay or full-time) officials between these two levels not prepared for the hard work required to deliver these aspirations then let them depart.
For now, let's be clear. UNISON balloted members for action and they have voted to take action. We. hope each and every member who has been balloted will both have voted for and will take take such action.
It's a hard job we activists are given over the next month - to persuade people to do what they don't want to. Strike action is never easy and always painful.
But this is the action which is now necessary.
Now we move forward.
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Who should strike?
Everyone who has been balloted should strike!
Every UNISON official and activist has an obligation to have this argument with every member (and every recruit!)
Get out on N30!
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This dispute has arisen because - rather than make savings in the use of expensive consultants and agency staff, the authority has decided to rob £3 Million from the pay packets of predominantly lower paid workers through a series of changes to terms and conditions. Disgracefully the Council have resorted to bullying to try to get workers individually to accept changes which have not been agreed by their trade union (http://www.unisonwalthamforest.org.uk/2011/10/19/latest-management-bullying-to-get-you-to-sign-their-new-contract/).
UNISON resistance has already seen off an attack upon national sick pay - but as the branch's report to the Council's own Staffing Committee (http://www.unisonwalthamforest.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Report.pdf) makes clear - the Council has lacked the confidence even to have a meaningful dialogue.
How shameful to see this conduct from a Council led by a former UNISON official whose biographical details claim he used to fight workplace injustice (http://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/index/council/leader/leader-biog.htm).
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Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Before assessing today’s announcement it is important to be clear about what, according to the Government, has already been agreed (that is to say, agreed by themselves with themselves, probably over a very agreeable meal and some fine wine…) and is therefore not changed by what has been said today.
These “agreed changes” include not only the change in uprating pensions from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which reduces the lifetime value of our pensions by at least 15%. This change, which hits private as well as public sector workers, transfers £83 Billion pounds from workers to bosses (including the Chancellor of the Exchequer) over the next fifteen years. The Government, which is waiting as we are for the outcome of our legal challenge to this act of theft, has proposed no change whatsoever on this point. (If you haven’t already signed the e-petition against this do so now!)
Incidentally, the RPI/CPI change make the Government liars when they say that one thing that won’t change is the value of our accrued benefits. They tell public servants that “all the benefits you have earned, up to the point when any changes are introduced, are fully protected”. Given that our benefits, post retirement have been reduced by tens of billions of pounds by George Osborne’s sleight of hand with price indexation, this is the sort of statement which makes Nick Clegg look like a decent and honourable individual.
Another area of what the Government are calling the “agreed changes” which are not touched by today’s announcement are the contribution increases, about which HM Treasury say; “Employee contributions will rise from 2012. This was announced as part of the Spending Review and there has been a consultation on this issue already. Members of public service pension schemes will pay more for their pensions from April 2012. Average increase in member contributions for public service pension schemes (excluding the Local Government Pension Scheme) should be assumed to be 3.2% of salary. Average increases for the Local Government scheme should be assumed to be 1.5% of salary.”
This statement is also riddled with outright lies. The Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) consultation is still underway – and the only reason that the contribution increases in the LGPS are lower than in the other schemes is because the Government are also proposing detrimental changes to accrual rates with immediate effect (hitting all workers including the lowest paid). For those who don’t find the dishonesty of Tories (and their Lib Dem stooges) at all shocking, the important point is that the contribution increases – a 3% extra tax on public servants who choose to save for their retirement – are taken as a given by the Government. The Chancellor’s cash grab on our financially viable and affordable pension schemes, to raise billions annually to pay off the deficit caused by the bankers, is still on – and nothing Danny Alexander and Francis Maude said this morning has changed any of that.
The great bulk of the changes which can be illustrated by UNISON’s pension calculators are therefore simply not touched by the “offer” made by Danny Alexander this morning. The only material change for most members is to Box 8 on the LGPS calculator and Box 10 on the NHS calculator, where the accrual rate in the “new” scheme should now be set to 60ths. (I hope the necessary changes to the online calculators can soon be made). This is a modest concession, increasing the value of pensionable service post 2015 by some 8%, but the other “concession” announced today is somewhat more problematic.
If you read the detail of today’s publication from the Cabinet of millionaires, you’ll read that “the Government’s objective is to provide protection to those who on 1 April 2012 are within ten years of Normal Pension Age,” however this objective is to be met in scheme specific negotiations subject to overall cost ceilings. In other words, any protection for those close to retirement must be at the expense of those further from retirement.
For a trade union movement which already fails to reach the great majority of young workers, collusion with these age-related divide and rule tactics would be the kiss of death!
That’s why our General Secretary, Dave Prentis, did well to lead a strong response from the TUC to the poisoned chalice offered by Ministers this morning. The Government are not confident or strong. They have not made this offer conditional upon withdrawal of strike action but instead say that it remains open to the end of the year.
Today the Government showed weakness both by shifting their position and by the bluster which accompanied that move – but they also showed the animal cunning of the British ruling class as they tried to give as little as possible whilst trying to divide their opponents and take advantage of the weakness of those who see their role as mediators rather than leaders.
Tomorrow will see the result of the largest ballot in the history of British trade unionism. UNISON members will speak and we will say that we are prepared to fight this Government to defend our pensions.
Let that be our answer to the Government. A million workers prepared to take on the Cabinet of millionaires. (The turnout in the ballot mayn’t be all we might have hoped for, but that’s why the last Tory Government introduced postal ballots – to depress the turnout!)
Wednesday 2 November 2011 was the day that those who don’t want workers to fight the Tories tried and failed to set the agenda. Tomorrow will be different.
That was always going to be their offer on accrual rates anyway (and represents a massive overall reduction in pension payouts compared to 1/60th accrual in a final salary scheme. As for the proposal that the trade unions should sacrifice the interests of young workers to protect those closer to retirement – that’s hardly a strategy for the future of the movement!
I don’t like to disagree with a fellow trade unionist but I can’t see how these proposals are "worthy of serious consideration". We now know what the Government is prepared to offer to avert a strike.
Now let’s see what we can make them offer by striking! Tomorrow’s ballot result will show UNISON members voting for action, and this will be followed by results from many other unions.
Now is not the time to give up.
Update - it is clear that the strike on November 30 will be going ahead (depending of course on the ballot results, of which more tomorrow)
No doubt wobbly people will want to wobble in response to any sign of a concession – but I am confident UNISON will stand firm. It’s clearly UNISON’s imminent “YES” vote that has the Government beginning to at least seem to shift, but our members will expect that we don’t settle for anything less than the withdrawal of the current proposals for a cash grab on our pension funds.
UNISON activists now need to do all we can to help our fellow trade unionists in GMB and UNITE, and other balloting unions, to get the “YES” votes we all need.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
Let's hope for a good turnout and a strong, positive "YES" vote!
The ever informative website of the Civil Service Pensioners Alliance predicts that we won’t have the judgement for some time – and I guess an appeal would be quite likely too. However, the e-petition has now exceeded 70,000 signatures, and as we need 100,000 for a parliamentary debate – now would be a good time to sign the petition!
This is an issue which unites public and private sector pensioners and – with evidence that declining active membership could undermine the future of the LGPS – it is vital that we do all we can to build such unity. As we defend our pensions we need to articulate a positive alternative of fair pensions for all.
Signing an online petition can be dismissed as mere "clicktivism" - but forcing a parliamentary debate on the question of pensions would not be an irrelevance as we prepare for the biggest strike of our lives (so far).
There will be a regional rally in London. This will be 2.15 to 3.15pm on Victoria Embankment and the road will be closed for the event. SERTUC and London unions will coordinate speakers – more information later. There is likely to be a march to join the rally at 2pm – provisional arrangements are assemble in Lincoln's Inn Fields from 12 noon, move off at 1pm to the Rally on the Victoria Embankment – details will be finalised shortly.
Branches staging local events will, I am sure, generally bring these forward to enable members to support events in the boroughs and go on to the London demonstration.
I very much take the point made to me privately by a well-informed correspondent that we cannot necessarily expect all the General Secretaries to be at the London rally. This will - ballots permitting - be a UK wide strike and it is certainly true that in the North, Wales and Scotland (and for that matter Northern Ireland) where trade union density is higher, there will be strong support and major - and important - rallies.
However, I hope that UNISON will field a significant speaker for the London rally which will inevitably draw an unfair share of media attention. UNISON turned out massive numbers on 26 March and a fair few of those were from London.
As we move towards the declaration of our ballot result in the next 48 hours we need to begin to prepare our members for the absolute necessity not only to take strike action on the day but to do the maximum possible in terms of activity - whether picketing, demonstrating or (best of all) both, guided always by an understanding that our objective is to exert political pressure through our lawful industrial action and associated activities.
Now is the time for the sort of leadership that tells people not what they may want to hear but what they are required to do.
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