Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Solidarity with Swindon

One of the topics discussed at today's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) was the disgraceful threat from Swindon Council to dismiss the UNISON Branch officials and remove all facility time from UNISON - http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7603.

UNISON is asking members and supporters to write to the council chief executive Gavin Jones at Swindon Borough Council, Civic Offices, Euclid Street, Swindon SN1 2JH (email gjones@swindon.gov.uk) or council leader Roderick Bluh at the same address or (email rbluh@swindon.gov.uk) expressing your opposition to these proposals and your support for UNISON in Swindon and to send a message of support to the UNISON branch (email unisonswindon@swindon.gov.uk).

For those who can get to Swindon tomorrow evening (23 February) there will be a lobby of the Council meeting 6pm, Civic Offices, Euclid Street, Swindon SN1 2JH.

What emerged from discussion at the NEC was that the attack in Swindon is far from being an isolated aberration. Other NEC members reported similar problems.

This gathering offensive against those of us elected by our fellow trade unionists to carry out such a volume of trade union duties that it is reasonable for us to be given full or part-time release from other work is an integral part of the Coalition Government's assault upon public services and employment rights. This requires a legal, political and industrial response.

Legally, of course, trade union facility time is the child of the statutory reuirement placed on employers to grant reasonable paid time off for union officials to carry out trade union duties - though, historically, these legal rights simply reflected "facts on the ground" established through prior collective bargaining.

Whilst there may be no legal right to any particular amount of time off, the right to reasonable time off does mean that, for many full-time reps, were we to be "sent back to work" we would simply spend an hour each Monday morning requesting paid time off for the duties which we would be carrying out for the rest of the week. Each and any unreasonable refusal of those requests would provide good grounds for a tribunal application. Saner employers recognise the folly of such an approach.

Another legal angle exists in the case of local authorities however, since all their decisions are subject to the "Wednesbury" test of reasonableness (which is unlikely to be satisfied, for example, in a case in which a gung ho Tory Leader makes policy on the hoof - http://roystonsmith.co.uk/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=476&Itemid=). Additionally, all public sector employers must have regard to their general equality duty in drawing up plans to reduce trade union facility time, providing another avenue for legal challenge against such attacks.

The law alone is never enough of course. That's why we also need a political response. Part of our response must be to ensure we get the message across, to our members, employers and MPs, that those released from other work to carry out trade union duties are doing valuable work. We can expect more positive stories such as this one in last Friday's Guardian - http://m.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/feb/17/working-life-union-official-unison?cat=money&type=article. This positive message has to be disseminated far and wide. This won't be easy as the other side has most of the print media sewn up - but (unlike the last time we faced such a concerted offensive from the Tories) we do have t'intaweb to use in our defence.

We also need to lobby politicians of all parties to spread understanding of the need for, and social value of, the trade union presence in the workplace. Since many Labour authorities also seek to attack trade union time off from time to time, there's a job here for UNISON Labour Link (and all other affiliated unions).

Ultimately though, when we are under attack, we need to be prepared to take industrial action to defend our interests (as part of a wider campaign which also includes legal and political action). To do this we need to remember, and to remind our members that - just as trade union facility time is only a means to an end, not an end in itself - so the attack on trade union facility time is also a means to another end (in this case our opponents seek to weaken our union in order to weaken our ability to resist assaults upon public services, pay, pensions, conditions and workers' rights). A valid point made at today's NEC meeting was that sometimes such attacks are also attempts at vengeance where the union has successfully resisted some attack from the employer (with the obvious intention of weakening the union now in order to settle accounts with the workforce as a wholein the near future).

Therefore, in mobilising our members on this issue we need clearly to link the attack on our trade union in each particular case with whichever other dispute accompanies it (or has preceded it)(or is likely to follow it).

This will be a critical issue for UNISON for the duration of this Parliament (and - unless the Opposition Front Bench rediscover left wing politics - perhaps far longer).

Today's battle in this long war is being fought in Swindon.

Good luck comrades!

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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