Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Privatisation will damage all our pensions

Full marks to Barnet UNISON for having commissioned a paper on the impact on their pension scheme of mass opt-outs. Even if lobbying from the Local Government Employers, and alternative cost-saving proposals, mean that we avoid increases in pension contributions in the LGPS on the scale threatened elsewhere in public services, outsourcing could still lead to massive reductions in the active (paying) membership of local authority pension funds.



Barnet’s paper shows how large scale privatisation of our jobs could push our pension schemes to a tipping point at which they begin to have cashflow problems, and have to adopt more cautious investment strategies (worsening existing deficits). The answer to this would be to require private companies bidding for our work to have admitted body status and to allow all their staff to be members of the LGPS.



This, however, would not permit privateers to profiteer by slashing labour costs, which is (essentially) the entire purpose of privatisation, whether in its “Tory blue in tooth and claw” form of Barnet’s EasyCouncil or its soft and fluffy New Labour version of Lambeth’s “Co-operative Council.”



Unless we secure a guarantee that private sector workers can stay in the LGPS – and that private contractors taking on LGPS members must match our pension provision pound for pound – we ought to be pursuing national strike action against the attacks on our pensions. This is the test which history has set for UNISON’s current national leadership and it will determine how they are remembered.



Why has the Barnet branch had to commission a paper which should have been prepared by and on behalf of the national trade union?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Congress - Unity is Strength...

The final agenda for this year’s slimline TUC is available online and, as ever, it is a veritable cornucopia of worthy sentiment. Delegates should emerge from Congress House on Wednesday 14 September supportive of trade union rights, opposed to cuts in public services and unemployment and generally thinking much as they did when they ventured into the building on Monday 12 September (although I notice that the Professional Footballers’ Association want our movement to back a single “Great Britain” football team in the 2012 Olympics – better read commentators will be able to identify whether this puts them on the same side as Lenin or Luxemburg in relation to the national question…)



Of the half dozen motions submitted on the question of pensions, which dominated last year’s Congress, UNISON’s motion does at least call upon the General Council to “support and co-ordinate close collaboration between affiliates in defence of schemes.” It is however left to PCS to place before Congress an instruction to the General Council “to give full support to industrial action against pensions cuts, including action planned for this autumn, and maximise its co-ordination.”



The General Council are rightly proud of the massive demonstration held on 26 March, and therefore go on some length about it in their Annual Report. For those who hoped that 26 March would be the commencement rather than the culmination of the efforts of the TUC, the report makes less than encouraging reading. The General Council have issued a statement, on 27 July, which is an elegant description of the diversity of campaigning activity underway up and down the country, and a plea for funds from affiliates to do more to co-ordinate this.



However, the General Council statement of 27 July doesn’t mention coordinated industrial action as any part of our campaign of opposition to the Government, even though the Coalition’s determination to attack public service pensions provides an unprecedented opportunity for just such united action. The Report of the General Council does find room to mention that “on 30 June, four TUC unions – ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU – took industrial action in response to the Government’s proposed changes to public service pensions. The action gained widespread media coverage and reports suggested that up to 750,000 teachers and civil servants supported the action. The Government’s claims that changes were driven by the issue of ‘affordability’ were clearly exposed during the media coverage on the day.” Strangely the General Council claim no credit for having helped to co-ordinate this action, perhaps because they didn’t.



At any event, any reader of pages 83 to 85 of the General Council report will realise that the authors consider the negotiations which the General Council have been coordinating are worthy of far more attention, although whereas a single day of action by four smaller trade unions clearly achieved some progress it is difficult to see what progress has been made in these negotiations.



The General Council acknowledged in their statement on 27 July that our movement can take the leadership of the fight against the Government’s cuts, but it seems that when we have the opportunity to use our power as trade unionists to resist the Government on ground on which it might be defeated, our leaders are less than willing.



Unity is needed every bit as much on the picket line as on the Olympic football field...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Solidarity with Plymouth

It's good to see comrades in Plymouth UNISON bearing up in the unprecedented circumstances of their derecognition by the Tory Council.



It appears that the Council have failed to meet a deadline to respond to UNISON (perhaps the Council Leader is too busy playing bowls to respond to European concerns about his Council's extremist policies?)



I suppose it is at least consistent with local maritime traditions for Plymouth Council to head off into uncharted waters by withdrawing recognition from the largest local government trade union, but its not a very useful way for grown ups to try to run a local authority. Presumably the brains behind derecognition had thought through the consequences of imposing a detriment upon people alleging unlawful discrimination - but maybe common sense will prevail?



Those of us elsewhere in the country can express our support on Facebook and by tweeting @plymouthcc telling them to restore recognition to UNISON.



Barnet Independence Day - 13 September

Barnet Council in North London has been trying to pioneer wholesale privatisation of Council services for several years now. Intelligent and committed rearguard action fought by the UNISON branch has, over recent months, taken the form of a rolling programme of selective industrial action which is now set to reach an important point on Tuesday 13 September – Barnet Independence Day.



Hundreds of Barnet UNISON members who have been taking action are set to strike together on this day in an important escalation of UNISON’s trade dispute with Barnet, which is over the identity of the employer of our members in future. Barnet UNISON members are fighting to remain in the employment of the very employer with whom they are in dispute – because they have a sound sense of their own interests and a laudable commitment to public service.



They make the sound point that it is important that many public services are independent of vested interests and are not best driven by the profit motive. Barnet Council on the other hand want to flog off anything that isn’t nailed down, and leaseback anything that is. They now prefer to call their plans “One Barnet” since earlier references to EasyCouncil have provoked well-earned derision. However, the driving force remains privatisation – so much so that options appraisal can be dispensed with as the Council moves straight to procurement.



There is of course nothing new about letting the private sector profit out of the need to provide public services - from the mid 1850s until the inception of the London County Council in 1889, London Government was in the hands of the Metropolitan Board of Works, a joint board of indirectly elected representatives, with no accountability to the people of London generally, which was notorious for corruption in its dealings with the private sector.



The postwar development of a Welfare State, insurance against further reaching social change at a time when capitalism seemed to face a global alternative, has simply made for richer pickings for today’s public service “industry” to feast upon. Though since “we are all in this together” everyone has to make sacrifices – the Chief Executive of the Capita Group (Paul Pindar) had to make do with a measly £262,500 cash bonus on top of his £375,000 salary last year – with another £262,500 paid as a deferred bonus.



Mr Pindar’s company isn’t expected on Barnet Independence Day, but all those who care about the future of our public services can support the Barnet workers at a lobby at Hendon Town Hall from 5.30pm

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gazing up at another summit, selectively

Subconsciously it is clear that the leaders of our movement know that, in taking on the Tory-led Government's attack on our pensions, we have a mountain to climb. That must be what accounts for the rash of "summits" taking place just now.



Yesterday was the turn of the health sector unions to gather at UNISON HQ. Here - according to the Grauniad  plans were made to consider "smart" strike action.



This will obviously be a blow to all those who support action which is not "smart"...



More seriously, the exclusive and one-sided focus upon "targeted" or selective strike action reflects both a lack of confidence and the continuing debilitating effect of Labourism as an ideology upon our union movement.



Gail Carmail of UNITE is quoted by the Grauniad as saying "Gone are the days when you ballot members, take them out on a day's strike and have a nice rally."



Obviously this historical shift in the nature of industrial action in twenty first century Britain took place since the successful strike action on 30 June, which I recall the General Secretaries of both UNISON and UNITE lauding when it happened.



Alternatively, no such shift has taken place, and all-out action has its place in a sustained campaign of mass action quite as much as targeted selective action. The long ago lesson of Newham NALGO in the early 90s is that an employer facing selective action can always try to "up the ante" and the union needs to know that the whole membership can be mobilised in support of the selective campaign.



UNISON discovered the limits of selective action in the 2002 National Pay dispute and in the London Weighting dispute but these lessons are never even alluded to in public when pronouncements are made about our tactics.



Even if the pensions dispute is successfully broken up into its sectoral components (a recipe for less satisfactory outcomes in each and every sector) an exclusive reliance upon targeted selective action is not nearly as "smart" as its proponents, and their theoretical journal, like to think.



The least smart thing we are doing though is precisely the deliberate fracturing of our own unity by a focus on doing things "sector by sector". This doesn't just offend against the principle of solidarity by running the risk of a short-sighted "I'm all right Jack (or possibly Mark and Christine)" mentality, it also misses the point of the nature of this confrontation with the Government.



The law restricts the limited legal protection of our trade unions to action taken in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, so we have action around a trade dispute about our pensions.



However, this action takes place in the context of a war being waged upon our welfare state, a deliberate ideological offensive to roll back generations of social gains won by working people.



This political attack from the Government requires a political response from our side - and unified public-sector wide strike action would be a key part of such a response.



The reason why Ed Miliband, and those union leaders fundamentally on his wavelength, oppose such action is that it trespasses over the line between the "political" and "industrial" wings of our movement which is a central tenet of Labourism, the peculiar British form of social democracy which evolved in the last century.



As John Foster explained this in yesterday's Morning Star "one of the key objectives of the capitalist state in the 1920s was to get the Parliamentary Labour Party to agree that any sort of external trade union pressure on Parliament was "unconstitutional" - while that by banks and big business was totally normal and acceptable." Regrettably this objective was achieved to such an extent that, in my trade union, a motion put forward to our Conference calling for politically motivated industrial action against an unjust law would be ruled out of order (because all the main parties have endorsed legislation which removes all protection from trade unions taking such action).



Therefore, although our movement faces a wholesale political assault from the Government, our responses, hidebound by decades of tradition, will be to treat one particular element of this assault as if it were a discrete industrial dispute, or worse still a series of separate industrial disputes.



Unity is strength you see comrades, but it just isn't thought to be "smart" these days, at least, not up there at the summit.













Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plymouth - reject an unjust attack

At least one of Plymouth City Council's Tory fools has decided to enter the record books for all the wrong reasons (http://www.lgcplus.com/city-council-derecognises-union/5033907.article).



The looney tunes fringe reactionaries seeking to dominate one of our south western cities have announced a decision to derecognise UNISON.



D'oh!



You can't manage an organisation of the size and complexity of a modern local authority without a cordial, professional relationship with the elected representatives of your workforce.



That certainly includes recognition of the largest local government trade union. Recognition is the cornerstone of the voluntary approach to industrial relations developed over generations - and if it were to be abandoned that would be a recepie for endless, expensive litigation..



Let's hope this purported derecognition is the action of an individual extremist and that the Council leadership can successfully distance themselves from this "Thatcher on speed" approach to employee relations.



We don't need unenlightened amateurs damaging local government in such difficult and challenging times.



UNISON members must also consider how ill-advised it can be to oust the leadership of a trade union branch on political grounds...


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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sign up against the great pensions robbery

Older readers may remember that Robert Maxwell was a crook who stole from his employees' pension funds - but he had nothing on George Osborne who, within weeks of becoming Chancellor had raided the future pensions of millions of workers, in the public and private sectors, of billions of pounds we were counting on to see us through our old age. He did this by changing the future basis of uprating our pension benefits from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).



This dramatic move had been in the manifesto of neither party to the Coalition of millionaires - indeed it directly contradicted promises made by all three main parties before last year's General Election.



This was simply a massive transfer of future income away from future pensioners to the benefit of Government and employers (or class war to give it it's technical name...)



Estimates of the cumulative loss for those of us not yet retired range upwards from 15% (or almost one pound in every six which we had been promised for the rest of our lives).



This is one element of the Government's attack upon pensions which not only applies across the whole public sector but also unites public and private sector workers. It is a move they show no sign of even considering stepping back from.


This is an opportunity to try to use the e-petition site in the interests of working people rather than for reactionary knee jerk populism - the petition is at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/1535.



All trade unionists, and indeed everyone who believes promises should be kept, should sign!

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The pay freeze - public servants paying a tithe to the bankers

A warm welcome to the web to the new blog from UNISON's Camden local government branch - who are pointing out that, in the third year of a pay freeze, local government workers have suffered a dramatic fall in our living standards (http://camdenunison.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/a-3-year-pay-freeze-is-a-massive-pay-cut-in-real-terms/).



Since the date from which our last pay rise was effective (1 April 2009) the Retail Price Index has risen by 11%. It takes £111 today to purchase what would have cost £100 back then - or, put another way, each £100 you earn now is only "worth" as much as £90 could back then.



In effect - for a full time worker who has had no promotion or incremental progression to soften the blow - it's as if you had agreed to forego your pay for one day a fortnight without reducing your hours. This is a tithe (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tithe) paid not to the Church, but to the new religion of Mammon in the cause of bailing out the banks.



This is a dramatic decline in living standards over a short period. UNISON branches with members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose pay is set in the National Joint Council negotiations were last week sent a circular giving us four weeks over the summer holidays to consult members on proposals for a "substantial" pay claim.



We need to start alerting our members to the cause of rising overdrafts, squeezed household bugets and increasing hardship - the pay freeze.



The devastating impact of the pay freeze will only be reversed by industrial action, and industrial action will only become possible when we start to have the argument for it with our members.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Barnet - the front line in the defence of public services

UNISON members in Barnet are rightly calling to escalate their action as part of UNISON's trade dispute with the madcap Tory borough over their dogmatic insistence that local government workers cease to be local government workers - the branch is therefore wisely proposing co-ordinated action on 13 September, henceforth "Barnet Independence Day" (http://www.barnetunison.me.uk/?q=node/644).

Whilst I was sorry no one from Barnet could attend tomorrow's Lambeth Branch Committee to update us, I am pleased that the reason is that the branch is meeting with the Region who will, I am sure, endorse the prudent and reasonable course of action which is proposed.

Barnet Council has been trying to launch itself as a flagship for Cameron's "Thatcherism with a shiny face" and it is only the diligent work of the UNISON branch, with support in the trade union and labour movement and the wider community that has staved off mass privatisation thus far.

There are no better negotiators, wiser strategists or more cunning tacticians in our UNISON Region than are to be found in the lay leadership of the Barnet branch, singled out for praise in our General Secretary's keynote Conference speech just a few weeks ago.

Privatisation is an existential threat to public service trade unionism - and now poses an unprecedented challenge to our movement. It is the issue around which the history of UNISON in the second decade of the twenty first century will come to be written.

The main purpose of the attack upon public sector pensions from the point of view of the wealthy capitalists, who expect this Government to do their bidding even more enthusiastically than the last one, is to facilitate the privatisation of public services in order to create new opportunities for profit at the taxpayers' expense (which is why any "concessions" on contribution increases in the LGPS founded upon a belated recognition of their potential macroeconomic consequences provides no basis for any agreement).

It's all about privatisation (as is Lambeth's "co-operative council" as we warned - http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/25/council-cooperative-privatisation-barnet-lambeth?cat=commentisfree&type=article - and as much as its advocates might wish that were not so).

The defining struggle of the moment is the fight to defend public services, and UNISON members in Barnet find themselves on a strategically significant part of the front line.

They need, deserve and expect the wholehearted support of every UNISON member and official.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

The unions and the riots - what do we do with Thatchers' grandchildren?

Yesterday, UNISON issued a statement saluting the public service workers dealing with the consequences of the riots (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7116).

A riot is a rending of the social fabric - and it's quite right to remind politicians and the public of the worth of those of us whose work is to weave, and sometimes repair, that fabric. UNISON was absolutely right to do so.

Whilst ACPO and the Police Federation can be pleased that both the Mayor of London and Her Majesty's Opposition have made the obvious step from that point to questioning forthcoming cuts in policing numbers, it's understandable that firefighters are angry that the cuts they face aren't being challenged to the same extent (http://www.fbu.org.uk/?p=3963) - the FBU are clearly right to articulate that anger.

However, our public services are not simply there to respond to, or pick up the pieces after, social disorder. They also play a role in meeting social need, and sustaining involvement in, and the cohesion of, our communities. The statement from PCS on Tuesday went some way to acknowledging that growing unemployment and inequality, accompanied by cuts in social provision are among the longer term causes for the social conditions from which rioting can arise (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/news_centre/index.cfm/id/E0A7A515-CEFA-48A4-865EFD52B0A653D3).

Heather Wakefield, writing personally, was able to go a deal further than official comments have in her blog post, rightly picking up on the alienation of inner-city youth and the nature of the policing of those youth as elements in the causation of the riots (http://opinion.publicfinance.co.uk/2011/08/why-there-were-riots-in-lewisham/). This analysis is not a million miles from that offered in the statement issued by my own union branch (http://lambethunison.blogspot.com/2011/08/lambeth-unison-public-statement-in.html).

We certainly need to go beyond praise for our own members to make the point that the deep cuts being made to jobs and services will, without doubt, make such disorder even more likely in future. Our members losing their jobs in the provision of youth services bearing the brunt of cuts can see this and expect to hear us say it.

However, the trade union movement has a broader responsibility to those beyond our ranks, including those - predominantly young - people engaged in rioting and looting. Our union movement is not just the largest civil society organisation - it has a particular role to represent the interests of the working class.

Thatcher's grandchildren, who rioted this week, have internalised her message that "there is no such thing as society" - only a dog eat dog world in which you can expect neither hope nor justice and might as well take some "free stuff" from fellow citizens to whom you neither have nor feel any ties of common interest or obligation.

These are the bitter fruits of the failures of our trade union movement - failure to defeat the Tories in the 80s and 90s; failure to assert the interests of our class under New Labour - but also failure to organise young people, in and out of employment.

We can't change the past - but we can now turn our minds to how we take the ethos of collectivism to marginalised and excluded young people. Surely we need to start by stepping up campaigns to protect the services on which young people rely, and to reverse the policies, on EMA in particular, which are further diminishing the life chances of the young?

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Remember Hiroshima. Cancel Trident

Well said those 21 Labour MPs who have made the point that, on the anniversary of Hiroshima, Labour should be calling for the cancellation of Trident.

No case can be made for the use or threatened use of weapons of mass destruction and no civilised nation should possess, or aspire to possess, such weapons. To remember the hibakusha call on the Government to ensure that disarmament is considered as part of the review of Trident.

Leadership in the pensions dispute - and anonymous commentary

I don't know the identity of the anonymous contributor to the semi-official blog "UNISON Active" who took issue (http://unisonactive.blogspot.com/2011/08/mobilising-for-pensions-action-from.html) with commentary from Gregor Gall on the pensions dispute (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/05/unions-leaders-members). For ease of reference let's call our anonymous friend Joseph Vissarionovich, or "JV" for short.

Gregor, in a reasoned contribution to an important debate, observed that the Preliminary Agenda for this year's "slimline" Trades Union Congress reveals that the big unions haven't made submissions calling for co-ordinated industrial action over the Government's attacks on public sector pensions. This sounds a discordant note when heard alongside the harmonious calls for such action made at last year's Congress - and from our General Secretary at and before UNISON Conference.

Instead of engaging with this substantive point, "JV" instead picks up on an aside in Gregor's article about the desirability of General Secretaries touring workplaces in order to lampoon a serious commentary as no more than a manifestation of the "great leader" approach (a view of history comprehensively debunked by a generation of great Marxist historians including Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm).

This enables "JV" in his or her role as publicity officer for our General Secretary's fan club to laud UNISON's "bottom up" approach to preparation for industrial action over pensions. But somehow, "JV", you seem to miss Gregor Gall's point.

We can do all the data-cleansing we want (and we do, and must) - and we can train up pensions champions by the thousand (as we are and should) - but a "bottom up" approach does have to go "up" and influence the conduct of our leadership.

Sometimes - when caught up in the excitement of a two hundred strong "pensions summit" with no constitutional basis or decisionmaking authority perhaps - being an (albeit anonymous) "insider" may not help "JV" to see what is going on.

Perhaps in order to avoid not being able to see the wood for the trees it sometimes helps to be on the outside, looking in.

Does the conduct of UNISON's leadership since Conference suggest a genuine wish for co-ordinated industrial action to defeat the Government, or a preference for cutting deals "scheme by scheme"?

It's a fair question for Gregor Gall to have addressed, and "JV" does UNISON members a disservice by misrepresenting the argument and turning debate about tactics into a loyalty test.

It's twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down, but the Berlin Walls of the mind which convince sufferers that all dissent is divisive continue to haunt our movement.

Gregor Gall deserves a proper and respectful response from those prepared to put their name to their views.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Pensions - a positive alternative?

I'm on holiday, so may be prone to optimism, but it strikes me that the bad news on pensions in the private sector (http://wricommission.org.uk/wric/private-sector-needs-better-value-for-money-from-its-pensions) presents an opportunity in more ways than one.



Of course it's right to point out that the real problem with pensions in this country is in the private sector (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2392) - just as the real pensions divide is not between public and private but between rich and poor.



But isn't this also now the time to do what I've wondered about before (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2010/04/son-of-frs17-and-lgps.html) turn Hutton on his head and - instead of excluding private sector workers from public sector pension schemes - open up admitted body status in the LGPS to any solvent employer willing to pay their way?



The fight to defend our pensions is inevitably a defensive battle - but we need an alternative vision for a better pensions future, and the stable, viable, funded LGPS might just be the basis for that.



Or maybe I'm just under the influence of too much fresh air, sunshine and Crazy Golf...

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