Monday, January 31, 2011

A balanced view on reserves

With the Tory Coalition Government starving local government of resources it's important trade unionists leave no stone unturned in the search for ways to limit the damage.

There's a debate to be had about whether Council budgets must be balanced at all costs - I don't think they should (http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/100234). However, that debate isn't live in Labour Groups at the moment - where decisions to balance budgets have been made by large majorities.

Regular readers Sid and Doris Cipfa will recollect my publishing here the official statistics showing the distribution between the 32 London Boroughs of the total of £480 Million in unallocated reserves held across all the boroughs as at 31 March 2010. (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2011/01/messages-to-councillors-about-cuts.html).

Last Friday, Lambeth UNISON wrote to Lambeth's Labour Group to ask for a dialogue about the (apparently relatively high) level of unallocated reserves held in the borough. (http://lambethunison.blogspot.com/2011/01/lambeths-budget-for-201112-unisons.html).

This is in line with national UNISON guidance for negotiators on local government finance, which is well worth a look (http://www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/19091.pdf).

The Council administration gave us a prompt response, available elsewhere online thanks to an enthusiastic blogger. (http://grayee.blogspot.com/2011/01/council-budgets-and-unallocated.html).

The branch has replied - pointing out that a persuasive explanation for the principle of holding some unallocated reserves does not amount to a compelling justification for any particular level of reserves. (http://lambethunison.blogspot.com/2011/01/budget-reductions-and-unallocated.html).

This sort of debate isn't the most important question surrounding the coming tidal wave of spending cuts, closures and job losses. Wiping out all reserves would not prevent all of the coming cuts, and would in any case only provide one year's respite, since a particular sum of money can only be spent once.

The main problem we face is that a Tory Coalition government wishes to do great damage to public services.

However, in the face of unprecedented "front-loaded" reductions in financial support to the neediest local authorities, trade unionists do need to scrutinise our employers' budgets.

One year's respite, for some services facing closure or massive cuts, may be very valuable - and union members will expect us to explore every avenue to save jobs and services before we conclude that we need to take industrial action.

Now, for the forthcoming lobbies, who can suggest somethong to chant which will rhyme with "unallocated reserves"?

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Friday, January 28, 2011

If we face an attack on our pensions we will ballot for industrial action

The choreography or trade union resistance to the Coalition government took a tentative step forward today with the announcement that we are “not ruling out” industrial action in defence of our pensions.

Whilst a cynic might rank this statement alongside affirmations of Papal Catholicism and the arboreal toilet habits of ursine mammals, it is in fact meant to be a warning shot to the ConDems.

The point isn’t that we haven’t invoked some non existent “procedure for ruling out national industrial action”, but that the unions, together, have been prepared to drop a moderately heavy hint that we might see coordinated strike action over attacks on our pensions.

It is to the credit of the left-led unions, working through the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group that the TUC today convened the joint union meeting which saw Brendan Barber emerge blinking into the daylight alongside our own Dave Prentis on the steps of Congress House to announce just what it was that we weren’t ruling out.

With even the ATL prepared to join the NUT in balloting for national action over pensions it is clear that the assessment that pensions are the issue on which we can draw, and hold, a line against the Government is held far beyond the ranks of the usual suspects of the left.

All we need now is to take that small step from “not ruling out” to “ruling in and campaigning for energetically” which is just what was called for last summer…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An attack on the rights of every worker

The Government want our views on how to simplify the resolution of workplace disputes, with a particular focus on how to "help businesses and social enterprises feel more confident about hiring people." (http://www.bis.gov.uk/Consultations/resolving-workplace-disputes?cat=open)



Except that's a typo isn't it? They really want to help employers feel more confident about firing people.



Whilst we should no doubt respond to this consultation, we must be in no doubt that the Government's agenda is to attack what few legal rights we have in the workplace. They won't respond to force of argument so we'll need to mobilise the argument of force.



Employment tribunals are, of course, a weak and ineffective tool to secure redress for workplace injustice, and are in any case used insufficiently and inadequately by trade unions hobbled by the need for affordable indemnity insurance.



In too many cases however, they are all we have.



Which is why the Tories want to charge us a fee for daring to lodge a claim and to require us to have two years' service to complain of unfair dismissal.



As budgets tighten and redundancies pile up, many activists are reporting an increased appetite on the part of some managers for disciplinary and sickness dismissals (which save on redundancy costs).



In these circumstances, now more than ever workers need to hold on to the legal rights we have won - and our trade union leaders need to sound the alarm bells loud and clear so that our members are alerted to this attack on all our rights.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How do we build the union in a time of cuts?

The first report at today's meeting of the UNISON NEC D&O Committee was on recruitment.



UNISON now has the most accurate membership records of any large trade union in Europe (we were told) and this enables me to say that we recruited 163,000 members last year - and that our net growth in membership was 19,000 because of the enormous turnover in membership as members retire, resign and move between jobs.



2010 was our best year for recruitment - except for 2006 when we recruited 169,000 members - at least 20,000 of whom joined simply because of our fight to defend the Local Government Pension Scheme in that year of the biggest strike since 1926.



I have an idea to boost recruitment still further (which I did share with my fellow Committee members earlier today) - why don't we stand firm in defence of public service pensions right now and join with the NUT to organise early national strike action?



Since membership turnover is likely to rise with public sector redundancies, we'll need to step up recruitment to sustain our strength to defend members' interests. The evidence of our experience is that a credible plan for popular national strike action is the best way to grow.



It might also defend the value of our pensions and hobble this awful Government.



The right time to do this is now.

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Kirklees show the way

Today I paid one of my last visits to Mabledon Place, our soon-to-be former Headquarters building, for a meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of our National Executive Council (NEC) (of which more shortly).

There I bumped into Paul Holmes, NEC member and Branch Secretary of the Kirklees Branch, who explained the successful outcome of their recent strike ballot (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bradford-west-yorkshire-12140501).

Thanks to a vote for action in a strike ballot of the entire Council workforce - and the consequently credible threat of a week long strike, the branch secured a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies this financial year, reversing an earlier decision to make 150 compulsory redundancies. Other concessions were secured on redundancy selection procedures and the redeployment period.

As I observed before Christmas (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2010/12/kirklees-take-lead.html); "A five day strike by a well unionised local authority would not only pile pressure on the particular employer, it would also signal what is possible. It would be a warning to the Government and an example to workers up and down the country. If the credible threat of such action produced significant concessions that too would be a lesson to the rest of us."

The lesson has to be that the credible threat of serious industrial action is a valuable and important tool with which to defend the interests of trade union members.

All industrial disputes end, sooner or later, in a settlement (which is usually a compromise of some shape, size or description). The Kirklees experience suggests to me that the best results are to be achieved by a resolute and combative approach rather than by starting from the premise that cuts must be made and we had better help make them less painful.

Kirklees UNISON will face further challenges in the coming months (as will we all) and clearly have won no more than a respite. It is a respite from the threat of compulsory redundancies for which I (and most local government Branch Secretaries) would be very happy to settle!

I will blog a link to the report on the UNISON website celebrating the success of our Kirklees branch in defending members' interests - just as soon as I can...

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Take action now to defend the NHS

This is the latest bulletin from UNISON's Million Voices campaign - all UNISON branches, reps and activists need not only to act on this but also to circulate this to our members and encourage them to take action. The future of our National Health Service is at stake.



"Next Monday, MPs will be voting on the Health and Social Care Bill which threatens the very fabric of our NHS.



Despite mounting opposition and the fears expressed loudly by staff, unions and health commentators, the government is determined to press ahead. Make no mistake, these changes are driven by ideology not by a desire to make life better for patients.



The real winners will be the private health companies who stand ready to move in and take over NHS services. This Bill will make our NHS profit centred rather than patient centred.Ask your MP to vote against the Bill on Monday:



(http://action.unison.org.uk/saveNHS)



Over the last week the government's health and social care bill has attracted a huge amount of media interest with many people and organisations outlining their concerns around the health bill.



With the second reading of the health bill on Monday 31 January we cannot let this pressure waver and we must call on MPs to reject the Tory led plans that will bring about the dismantling of the NHS on Monday.



It takes just two minutes to make a difference.



Please email your MP now asking them to vote against  the Health and Social Care Bill next Monday:



(http://action.unison.org.uk/saveNHS)



Thanks,The Million Voices Campaign



P.S. Don't forget to encourage your family, friends and colleagues to add theirvoices to the million voices campaign:



(http://million-voices.org)"



For further information and arguments against the Government's plans to break up the NHS and pave the way for wholesale privatisation visit http://www.keepournhspublic.com/index.php.

 

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Taking a pot shot at kettles

Katy Clark MP, socialist and UNISON member has tabled Early Day Motion (EDM) 1257 to enable MPs to express opposition to the pernicious practice of "kettling" as practised by the Metropolitan Police on peaceful student protestors (http://www.edms.org.uk/edms/2010-2011/1257.htm).



The text of the EDM is as follows;

"That this House is concerned about the use of kettling as a police tactic against demonstrators in the United Kingdom; expresses serious concern that in recent demonstrations individuals, including minors, have been indiscriminately kettled by police for up to nine hours without food, appropriate facilities or access to medical assistance for those who require it and have been refused the right to leave; notes that a number of individuals have suffered very serious injuries, such as bleeding to the brain, as a result of police action during recent kettles; believes this kettling to be an infringement of the fundamental right to peaceful protest; and calls on the Government to take steps to stop this practice."



Since "kettling" is clearly a deliberate attempt to discourage protest (and/or to ensure excessive stewarding of official demonstrations in order to contain our anger), it is important that trade unionists call upon MPs to sign up to this important EDM. You can do this online in just a few minutes (http://www.writetothem.com/).

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Join the demos in London or Manchester on 29 January

I've just received the following via the Labour Representation Committee (http://www.l-r-c.org.uk).



On 29 January, in London and Manchester there are nationally organised demonstration against cuts in the public sector and the attacks on young people through fee rises, the abolition of EMA and through rising youth unemployment.



Please do all you can to join the demonstrations and show your support. 



In London, join the National demo - No fees, No Cuts! Defend Education and the Public Sector! Assemble 12 noon, ULU, Malet Street, London, WC1 (organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, supported by Education Activist Network, UCU, PCS and others). (http://l-r-c.org.uk/events/detail/national-demo-no-fees-no-cuts-defend-education-and-the-public-sector/)



March from Malet Street to to Millbank via Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square.



In Manchester, join the TUC National Rally for Young People. Assemble for the joint UCU/NUS march from 10:30am at the Manchester Museum, setting off at 11:00. Rally from 1pm at Platts Field Park, Manchester. (http://l-r-c.org.uk/events/detail/a-future-that-works-a-tuc-national-rally-for-young-people/).

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Messages to Councillors about cuts

I think that the following letter which has been prepared by the Coalition of Resistance for local Councillors, whilst far too long to be read by many elected representatives, makes a better stab of effective communication than simply sloganising. It’s getting a bit late in the day to influence budget setting in local authorities, but there’s still a point in answering the “we have no alternative” line from Labour Councillors.

Dear Councillor,
You will soon be discussing your council’s budget and we are sure you are under pressure from central government to impose cuts and slash local services.The coalition government has made a political choice with these cuts to the jobs and services of our communities. The Tories have seized the opportunity of the crisis of a system of unregulated banking which puts profits before people in order to dismantle our welfare state. The poorest and most vulnerable are being made to pay whilst the wealthiest continue to line their pockets with bonuses and by avoiding taxation. The sums speak for themselves:
Benefit cuts over the next four years: £18 billion
Cuts in education and local services: £16 billion
Bank profits for this year alone: £28 billion
Tax avoidance and evasion: over £100 billion per year.

But just as the government has a choice, so do you as a local councillor.We therefore call upon you to join with the Coalition of Resistance, local anti-cuts campaigns, community organisations and trade-unions to explain that these cuts are not necessary, that ordinary people should are not responsible for this “odious” banking debt, and that this government has no mandate for rolling back of the welfare state.
We all need to work together to mobilise our communities against the cuts on a local and national level. We are suggesting below some steps you could take as a councillor in this campaign against the government’s cuts:
Move a resolution in the Council condemning the Government’s huge cuts programme and supporting campaigns, trade- unions and community organisations taking action.
Issue a press statement alerting the public of the impact the cuts will have, explaining where the responsibility lies, and calling on local people to mobilise to defend their public services.
Organise meetings in every ward to explain the cuts and to call upon local people to mobilise alongside anti-cuts campaigns, community organisations and trade-unions to halt the Government’s attacks on their services.
Contact other councillors in your region, and even around Britain, to organise a conference to establish what tactics can be used in the Council to frustrate the Government’s plans, and how to link up with the anti-cuts movement.
Use all your efforts and resources to ensure the maximum possible turn-out from your community on the “All together for public services and jobs” demonstration called by the TUC for Saturday 26 March in London.

In discussing your budget, we urge you to bear in mind that Councils are large organisations with complex finances which give them much leeway. Here are some of the measures you could take to avoid cuts in services and jobs:
Bringing services back in house to save money. Services run for profit provide poorer outcomes and are less efficient than those run directly by the council.
Cutting top management pay and councillors’ expenses.
Stopping the use the consultants and instead employing directly staff.
Using reserves, juggling accounts to move spending items from one financial year to the next, and borrowing (although there are legal limits on councils borrowing, there may still be loopholes).

However, when the budget is finally due to be voted on, we urge you and your colleagues in the Council to stand by your community and to be with the anti-cuts movement. This can only mean refusing to vote for any cuts in services and redundancies.
If together, councils refused to cut public services and jobs, then the government would have to backtrack. The mobilisation of students against the rise in fees has forced concessions and thrown the Coalition into crisis. We now need to continue with the campaign against the government’s attack on our welfare state.
The Coalition of Resistance believes that the public has a right to know what their elected representatives plan to do when the local council budgets are being decided, and if they will defend all the public services for communities.
We hope that you will join with us in this resistance against this government and we look forward to hearing from you.
Yours, etc

For those in London who are talking to local Councillors about whether they have any leeway to take money from reserves as an alternative to balancing their budget at the expense of jobs and services, this table shows the level of unallocated reserves held by each London Borough at the end of the last financial year (the equivalent of having money – rather than an overdraft – the day before pay day);

London Boroughs Unallocated reserves at 31/03/10 (£000s)
Bromley 51,855
Camden 32,100
Westminster 31,734
Lambeth 28,111
Tower Hamlets 27,102
Newham 25,050
Wandsworth 20,085
Hillingdon 18,900
Southwark 18,197
Greenwich 16,463
Barnet 15,780
Ealing 15,241
Hammersmith & Fulham 15,000
Hackney 15,000
Redbridge 14,639
Enfield 12,687
Havering 12,665
Islington 11,939
Bexley 11,846
Lewisham 11,511
Richmond upon Thames 10,705
Haringey 9,902
Sutton 9,156
Brent 8,963
Kensington & Chelsea 8,669
Barking & Dagenham 8,065
Waltham Forest 8,008
Harrow 6,294
Kingston upon Thames 3,984
Merton 767
Hounslow 505
Croydon 0

Source:
http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/xls/1785197.xls

For most boroughs these amounts are nowhere near the totals they will be looking to cut to balance their budgets for 2011/12. There is no easy quick fix to save most Councils from savage cuts.

However, we can certainly argue to Councillors that they are not entitled simply to blame the Government for the totality of cuts they are making if they aren’t leaning on their Chief Finance Officers to bring these unallocated reserves down to the very lowest level. At the end of the last financial year, the total unallocated reserves held by London Boroughs amounted to £480 Million.

More importantly, union members who may not (yet) be persuaded that we can realistically expect our employers to set an unbalanced budget may be more willing to believe that Councillors can save jobs and services rather then hoard millions unproductively.

Spoilt for Choice?

Just as the local anti-cuts campaigns in Lambeth have begun to pull together a new national umbrella organisation springs into life.

Regular readers Sid and Doris Trotsky-Cynic will realise that I am not that impressed by the arguments advance by the Socialist Party for establishing another national anti-cuts organisation from yesterday's Conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN).

If I had to choose from amongst the competing "umbrella organisations" I would probably favour the Coalition of Resistance which seems to me least likely to fall under the exclusive sway of a single political organisation. However, the (SWP inspired) Right to Work campaign seems to have a positive idea with the Peoples Convention on 12 February.

What I suppose we are looking for, even more than a single democratic anti-cuts organisation (which won't happen) is something which may bridge the gap between the far left, organised in part in the trade unions, and the emerging anti-cuts activists in UK Uncut and the student movement.

In the mean time, whilst the predominantly London based "leadership" of the left compete to offer us different shades of umbrella organisation under which we may shelter, at a local level we simply need to get on with the job of campaigning. The single most important focus must for now be the TUC demonstration on 26 March.

The scale of the student demonstrations and the anti-tax dodging protests over the past couple of months, and the likely scale of opposition to coming local authority cuts, are far more significant and important than this choice of umbrellas.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Regional Committee - one step forward two steps back

UNISON's Greater London Regional Committee met on Wednesday morning and took a step forward with a positive focus on a campaigning response to the Coalition's attacks upon the Welfare State.

The scale of the attack upon our members across all service groups is such that we have to unite in action - even if this is limited at this stage to building for the 26 March demonstration (which is, after all, the single most important event on the political horizon).

All UNISON branches in Greater London need to aim to mobilise not just our members but their friends and families on the streets on 26 March. We face a particular responsibility to mobilise our members in the city where the demonstration is to take place.

I was pleased to hear, in discussion around this point of the meeting, that there will be a branch briefing on pensions (even if not until May) since it is only around pensions that we may be able to mobilise the national action necessary to force a "U-turn" on the Coalition. (The (local) "guerilla action" against attacks which has been much lauded in our Region is, of course, a fallback position rather more than it is a strategy.)

I believe that the Regional Committee reflected the desire of our members to resist the attacks from the Tory-led Coalition Government, and believe that this was indeed a positive step forward.

Unfortunately we also managed a couple of modest steps backwards, as a narrow majority on the Committee insisted upon asserting itself rather than seek consensus.

Both of these steps away from unity were made with the purpose of limiting democracy in the Region and impairing the ability of our lay structures to hold our officials to account, and arose from consideration of Regional Committee policy on submissions to the Regional Council Annual General Meeting on 9 February.

The first setback for UNISON's members concerned the quorum for the Regional Council. Democrats on the Committee argued without success that, since it is now more than five years since a meeting other than the Annual General Meeting was quorate, we should therefore support a Rule Amendment to reduce the quorum from one third to one quarter of registered delegates.

Opponents of this measure argued that a smaller quorum is less democratic - but the likely consequence should this view prevail at the Regional Council will be that decisionmaking will continue to be in the hands of far fewer people, far less accountable to our members, than if we can hold quorate meetings of the Regional Council with (say) 30% of registered delegates present.

It was particularly disappointing that the narrow majority who opposed a pragmatic step to achieve quorate Regional Councils failed to reciprocate the conciliatory move from the supporters of this proposal, who had backed a proposal to revert from four to three Regional Councils a year. The question of the number and frequency of Regional Councils is clearly a matter which requires an amendment to Rule and the Committee was unanimous in backing three meetings a year.

The second setback for our members then arose from the bizarre (and questionable) decision of our Regional Council officers to permit on to the agenda a motion seeking to cancel all but two Regional Council meetings annually, replacing others with briefings for activists.

This motion plainly breaches the Rules of the Union but - rather than focus on a technical argument about Rules - those worried by this potential breach suggested that the Committee ask the movers to remit the motion for consideration of how to achieve its objectives without departing from our Constitution.

Once again, by ten votes to eight, the Committee rejected the path of compromise and decided to support a policy motion (for there to be only two Regional Councils a year) which contradicted a Rule Amendment (that there should be three Regional Councils a year) which had been supported unanimously some moments before.

(I am sure I ought not to complain about such inconsistency, although I forget now whether it was Winston Churchill or Enver Hoxha who said that "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".)

Since the Regional Council Officers had been diligent in ruling out of order all motions making reference to industrial action against cuts (in some cases on fairly tenuous grounds) it was all the more intriguing that they had shown the flexibility to permit on to the agenda a policy motion seeking to amend the Rules. However a majority of the Regional Committee were happy to support this.

Briefings for activists are enormously valuable, but can never be a substitute for (quorate) meetings of elected bodies charged with holding the leaders of our Union (both elected and appointed) to account.

Trade union democracy is all about making life uncomfortable for all our leaders (at every level - I would apply this principle as much to myself at branch level as to colleagues regionally and nationally).

We don't want this discomfort for some sado-masochistic reason but because an accountable leadership is more effective in promoting the interests of ourselves as members.

For the moment our Regional Committee faces, in my opinion, the wrong way on this question. It will be for the Regional Council AGM, and - ultimately - our members to arrive at a definitive position.

I hope we can aspire to be both a democratic and fighting union.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The real enemy is at Westminster

Today is a day when I expect to learn details of the way in which the Labour Group on the Council which employs me have chosen to be the political equivalent of human shields for the Coalition Government as the Tories (blue and yellow) force through cuts for which they have no mandate.

This is a depressing state of affairs which will tend to set the growing anrti-cuts movement against many Labour local authorities - and therefore against the only available vehicle for a challenge to the Coalition.

Labour Councillors are responsible for their actions. Those who implement cuts for George Osborne and Eric Pickles are not an opposition to those cuts. The argument that "Labour cuts are kinder cuts" is shallow, unpersuasive and - in my quarter century of local government experience - utterly unproven.

However, the reason why the demand that Labour Councils should not make cuts fails to find more than the faintest echo where it would matter is that there is (as yet?) no massive and influential anti-cuts movement which is sufficiently well-established to alter the parameters of political debate for the better.

In building that movement we need to ensure that we are not distracted from a clear focus on the source of all these cuts - the Coalition Government which is spearheading this unprecedented assault upon our welfare state.

This week the Tories unveil their plans to smash the National Health Service. To defend this historic gain we will need the widest unity (http://www.lambethunited.org/index.php/2011/01/lambeth-activists-plan-to-resist-health-cuts-report/).

Tomorrow Parliament will vote on the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance, which will close of life chances for thousands of young people in low income households. Again we must rally all those who would oppose this retrograde measure. (If you can get to the lobby of Parliament check - http://emacampaign.org.uk/files/2011/01/How-to-lobby-your-MP.pdf; if not go to - http://action.unison.org.uk/page/speakout/EMA).

Soon we will learn what fate - and Hutton - decrees will be the fate of our pensions, already devalued by some 15% from 1 April by statistical sleight of hand. If we want our trade unions to force the Tories back we need to focus ruthlessly on an issue where we can inflict a national setback upon the Government - and that is pensions.

For now though, like many local government trade unionists trying to save jobs and services, I find my immediate problems arise from the decisions of local Labour Councillors placing themselves between the Tory attacks upon our services and the anger which these will provoke.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

We can't sell jobs to save services - so what do we do?

I was saddened to see the response of our Manchester Branch to the appalling cuts facing their City Council (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-12177853) - which has been to agree a voluntary redundancy exercise with the employers (http://www.unisonmanchester.org/national-news/government-cuts-to-manchester-city-council/).

My employer is one of many currently trawling the workforce for volunteers - but without the sanction or approval of the trade unions.

Whilst we can't - and wouldn't try to - prevent the voluntary departure of members wanting to leave, we don't see it as our role - in Lambeth - to help the Council save money.

That's not to say that trade unionists shouldn't help the employer with money saving ideas which do no damage to jobs and services. In the past year I've been involved in discussions about reducing (expensive) reliance upon agency workers - and about whether repayment of our pension fund deficit can be rescheduled to reduce current budget pressures.

However, we shouldn't be helping with saving measures which will hit public services hard. I don't say this for any moral, or ideological, reason but out of sheer pragmatism.

If we are to preserve jobs and services we need to build alliances across our local communities with those who rely upon our services. Their interest is in saving services - and those services are jeopardised by job losses - whether voluntary or compulsory.

Therefore we have to campaign to defend services and oppose job losses. We can't build succesful alliances to defend public services if we pack up, go home and let the Council close a library/day centre/nursery once enough staff have volunteered for severance so no one faces compulsory redundancy!

What seems to lie behind the Mancunian approach is an acceptance that a local authority has no option but to implement cuts as the Government withdraws funding.

I think we need to challenge this lazy assumption and start thinking with more imagination both about how Labour local authorities might resist the Government - and about how we might press them to do so.

To take an example, a number of sizeable Labour authorities, standing together, setting budgets based upon social need rather than financial constraints, would have the political power to force, at the least, a climbdown or U turn upon the Government if - and this is one of a number of big "if"s hovering around this argument - they had support from the leadership of the Labour Party and of the trade unions.

I fear we are a considerable distance from almost all the ingredients of the scenario above.

Therefore we need to build resistance on the ground, by mobilising our members into community campaigning and by fanning any small flames of opposition to cuts and job losses.

At present the mood in workplaces seems "patchy" - we need to try to generalise the anger which exists.

In this way we can try to build both the confidence and activity of rank and file trade unionists, which is what we need in order to exert political pressure both locally and nationally.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

UNISON's message to Greenwich Council

I was pleased to see the following extract from a response by UNISON to the attack on its workforce by Greenwich's Labour Council, which is threatening the sack in order to end incremental progression (the cost-saving option recently rejected overwhelmingly by our Health Service Group Executive for the NHS);

"It’s time that a labour council, in an area hugely affected by the Government’s cuts, starts to fight back against Tory cuts rather than attacking their own workforce. The council shouldn’t be managing the cuts but working with staff and the community to stand up to the Tories. The voluntary sector has already been hit by the council’s axe and now it’s workers who are being expected to carry the burden. With inflation running over 3% all staff are taking a real terms pay cut this year. For staff who have their increments frozen the pain will be almost double. Add to that the rise in VAT and the impending rise in employee National insurance contributions. 2011 is going to be very difficult for all workers but for some the pain will be greater and that is directly due to decisions taken by the council."

It has to be right that we oppose Tory attacks whether they are made by the Tories, their LibDem stooges - or Labour Councils like Greenwich.

Of course, UNISON members in Greenwich also need their UNISON Branch returned immediately to democratic control. There is simply no reason why the Branch couldn't hold an Annual General Meeting in the first quarter of this year and elect officers to lead the campaign against the attacks from their employer - as happens in so many other London boroughs.

Devastation - and our response

A daily diet of redundancy consultation has now led me to a state of near constant anger.

It's easy to be angry with a Government seeking to reverse the historic gains of the postwar settlement, and I am. The combined impact of spending cuts, benefit changes and the break up of health and education will be to devastate our society.

However, when spending cuts begin to be reflected in the the dead look in the eyes of friends and colleagues told after years of service that they may face unemployment then its so much more personal. At the level of each individual cuts proposal, people are hurt who have names, families and smiles which disappear.

At a local level we can keep trying to build up our organisation and sustain our membership so that we can argue and fight job by job - and we can score some victories and win some concessions. I know that I am one amongst thousands of rank and file trade unionists immersed in this work on a daily basis.

But something more needs to be done with the social and political weight of the trade union movement if we are to stand a chance of halting the tide of reaction flowing down Whitehall from Westminster and engulfing the country.

We cannot rely upon Her Majesty's Opposition I fear. It will take much more struggle and activity on our part before we can hope that our Labour Party's leadership will find the confidence and common sense simply to oppose the Government without neoliberal caveats and qualifications. At a local level, Councillors befuddled by the scale of their budget gap are deep in denial and are chasing the illusion of the "Cooperative Council" rather than face the harshness of reality.

Nor should we expect much, I'm afraid, from the isolated remnants of the political left (of which I am very much part). The very fact that we can pick and choose between the People's Charter, the Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work, the National Shop Stewards Network and now the Peoples' Convention demonstrates that Britain's socialists and communists - all of us - are currently failing the very people we aspire to lead and represent.

For now, union activists are left fighting locally and building towards the TUC demonstration on 26 March by way of events such as the SERTUC Day of Action on 15 January and the Day for Libraries on 5 February.

The decision of UNISON's Health Service Group Executive to refuse to be duped into surrendering contractual rights for implausible and unenforceable promises of job security gave me hope much as the wise decision of the NUT Executive to call for action over pensions had.

The leadership of the struggle to save the Welfare State has passed to the leadership of the trade unions.

We need more than a demonstration - we need to plan to build and co-ordinate campaigning which includes the maximum industrial action we can achieve.

At the moment thousands of our members are facing the risk of unemployment and the sacrifice of their jobs - our leaders must make the argument to all our members to take the risks and make the sacrifices of industrial action.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Incremental advance

Good news today from UNISON's Health Service Group Executive, who have rejected a proposal to surrender incremental progression in return for an unenforceable pledge of "no compulsory redundancies" among some grades in the NHS (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2111).



Incremental progression - the modest annual increases for staff new to their grade until they reach the top of their grade - is a well established element of many contracts of employment in public services.



Had the unions caved in on this, and agreed detrimental changes to contracts, this would have greatly weakened and undermined the position of the unions, without any guarantee of greater job security.



Some local authorities (including - shamefully - Labour Greenwich) are making similar proposals and these need to be resisted.



The decision of the Health SGE demonstrates a wise recognition of the folly of trying to give up contractual rights or conditions of service in the hope of job security.



The best route to job security is building stronger trade union organisation, and an important element in achieving this is a resolute fight to defend and advance (not undermine) the conditions of the workforce.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Two cheers for the "big three" for offering leadership against cuts

Returning to work today was like walking into a blizzard of forthcoming job losses and threats to our public services.
However, as distressing and alarming as were the meetings with management at which these threats were outlined, just as encouraging were the meetings with fellow trade unionists, in UNISON and other unions at which we discussed organising fighting back.
This has set me thinking about the nature of the wonderful example of struggle set for us by students and young people in the weeks before the holidays, and what this means for our trade union movement.
A couple of recent contributions to online debate on the left have put the case well for the proposition that a succesful outcome for the movement of opposition to the Coalition Government - and its assault upon our working class - requires the coming into action of the trade unions.
Leading lefty blogger Dave Osler explains well why the social weight of the union movement is needed for the movement to shake the Government (http://www.davidosler.com/2010/12/student-protests-sorry-kids-wait-for-the-old-gits/).
At the same time, the recent and welcome addition to the blogosphere from my comrade Owen Jones - a bona fide student protester no less! - sets out why the radical and invigorating "leaderlessness" of the struggle of students and young people gives rise to weaknesses of democracy and effectiveness (http://owenjones.org/2011/01/03/leaderless-youth-will-not-bring-this-government-down/).
I share the conclusions of these comrades that - if it is to succeed in forcing a climbdown from the Coalition of the millionaires, the struggle to defend our Welfare State must be founded upon the millions of the organised working class.
That's not Marxist dogma, just a pragmatic acceptance of where power lies and how it may be mobilised.
This sensible conclusion poses however the pressing question of whether the trade union leadership is ready to lead this subversive political struggle against the policy of the Government of the day.
Shortly before the holidays the newly elected General Secretary of UNITE, Len McCluskey, seemed to suggest that there was a willingness to lead this struggle (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/19/unions-students-strike-fight-cuts), thereby inviting condemnation from the same "liberal" paper that had invited him to write (http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/20/trade-unions-leading-nowhere?cat=commentisfree&type=article).
In this regard the joint New Year message from the General Secretaries of the "big three" unions is welcome (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2105).
It deserves two cheers. The first for spelling out that Government policy is indeed economic vandalism. The second for articulating a series of practical and achievable progressive policy alternatives.
However, to deserve the third cheer - and to bring cheer to the many workers facing redundancy this year (including those who may well be able to bring their P45s on the - vitally important - TUC demonstration on 26 March) - our leaders need to set out a prescription for action which goes some way beyond simply voting against the Coalition partners in the various elections taking place in May.
We need to mobilise members to campaign actively against all cuts in public services (including those sadly being made by Labour Councils), fighting alongside all those being hit by these cuts.
We need to promote and encourage joint union and community activity, drawing upon the inspiration of the recent protests of the students and against tax avoidance.
And we need to plan now to build for united, national industrial action on whichever issue maximises our chances of causing maximum political damage to the illegitimate Government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Readers of this blog will know my view that the most sensible proposal - to build a strike against attacks on pensions - has already been made and needs to be acted upon.
The sooner we act, the better our chances. I look forward to an early opportunity to yell out a full three cheers for a leadership worthy of the movement which is growing around us. (Which almost leads me on to the question of whom to nominate in the forthcoming elections to the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC)...)

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Marching together but striking separately?

This is set to be the toughest year for UNISON activists since the formation of the Union in 1993.

If you have a few moments online and have not yet signed up to UNISON's Million voices campaign you should. Not because simple online petitions will of themselves take us very far, but because we need to support every official action in opposition to cuts if we are to broaden and deepen the necessary opposition.

That is why it is vitally important that we maximise turnout on the TUC demonstration on 26 March. We must march together in our hundreds of thousands, mobilising members who have never been on a demonstration in their lives, and never expected to.

In the mean time, cuts and job losses will be biting in local government in particular - and Kirklees UNISON are showing the rest of us how to respond. We must do what we can to generalise and coordinate every element of a fight back against the Coalition Government's ideological assault upon our Welfare State. However, resistance to cuts and job losses will inevitably be patchy and uneven. Local fights may win some local concessions but they won't be able to turn the tide of Government policy.

Because of the limits upon strike action imposed by the anti-union laws, our best chance of effective unified action forcing a climbdown from the Government would be to fight to defend our pensions. The sooner we mobilise our strength as a unified national trade union movement the better our chance of forcing the Government back.

At the risk of being considered a trot I should point out that the slogan "March Separately but Strike Together!" is probably a better slogan than "March Together but Strike Separately"...