Monday, October 29, 2012

Support strikers against low pay

You can do something today to support low paid UNISON members in dispute with Camden's parking contractor, NSL (http://camdenunison.org.uk/2012/10/19/the-nsl-dispute-raised-in-parliament-by-john-mcdonnell/#more-1453).



Check if your MP has signed the Early Day Motion in support of the strikers (http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2012-13/604). If they haven't then get on to them and ask them to do it (http://www.writetothem.com/).



The Early Day Motion (EDM) calls on NSL "to enter into serious negotiations with UNISON and table an improved pay offer, failing which it calls on Camden Council to review its contract with NSL with a view to cancelling the contract if the company does not improve its offer."



Since the UNISON members who have been taking action against NSL certainly want an improved pay offer, getting your MP to sign the EDM is a small step you can take in solidarity with their struggle.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Do we really oppose investing our pension funds in building homes?

It's a necessary and legitimate role for a trade union to sound a note of caution - indeed it seems I have to do that almost daily to my own employers at the moment (and I really must find time to blog about the "cooperative council" at some point!)

However, UNISON's response to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Future Housing Commission proposals for the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) to fund housebuilding, covered in the last post on this blog may err to far on the side of caution (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2857).

We are warning the Government of the risk of legal challenge if LGPS funds are invested in housebuilding as this may be contrary to the interests of scheme members.

So far so good. Our members will be pleased to gain the impression that we are protecting their interests.

But...

The starting point in a defined benefit pension scheme - like the LGPS - is that investment risk is borne by the employer (that's the main attraction of a defined benefit scheme).

Discussions about future "cost-sharing" have been around sharing (between employers/Government and employees) the demographic "risk" of increases in lifespan beyond retirement - not (at least not as far as we have been told thus far) about sharing investment risk.

Therefore, if we know what our contributions are and what our benefits are, and if both continue to be defined in regulations for LGPS 2014, then any investment risk arising from long term investment in housebuilding is a risk to be borne by the Council taxpayers via the employers' contributions following the next triennial valuation, and not by employees through increased contributions or reduced benefits.

(Unless someone is expecting something rather nasty and completely unheralded in the small print of the LGPS 2014 Regulations?)

As a general principle we should surely favour investing the considerable pension funds in the LGPS in ways which prioritise social benefits alongside financial returns. In the 1980s the fund which will one day pay my pension refused to invest in Apartheid South Africa, with the enthusiastic support of the trade unions.

If we can support an investment strategy which rules out certain investments then I cannot see why - in principle - we should oppose a strategy which rules certain investments in?

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Local Government workers to save the world. Official.

Well, perhaps not the world.

And perhaps "authoritative" rather than "official."

The Future Housing Commission established by the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) believes that the funds held in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) could provide resources to enable a massive increase in the building of much needed new homes (http://m.architectsjournal.co.uk/8637758.article).

Obviously part of me wants to express exasperation that, three years into a pay freeze, the collective pension pot of predominantly low paid local government workers is looked to to help rescue our economy and society from a crisis not of our making (particularly when it's some of the "great and the good" who've found this new use for the funds set aside for the retirement income of home helps and teaching assistants).

Local government workers should set aside any such emotional response however - because proactive investment of the considerable sums held in the LGPS could produce significant social benefits for the communities in which we live.

The Local Government Association aren't rejecting the idea (http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/development/council-pension-pots-could-lead-housing-revolution/6524374.article) and they're right not to.

At the moment, the billions held in the various separate pension funds which comprise the LGPS are invested purely in order to get the best return with the least risk. This predominantly passive approach means that the funds have little influence shaping the economy around them.

For my money (and some of it is) I think there is a lot to be said for an active approach to investing our money in ways which will produce social benefits as well as a satisfactory financial return.

This approach might even help to protect the LGPS in future. The reason why local government workers are the only public servants not (in their great majority at least) set to pay increased pension contributions alongside the cheapening of our pensions is because an exodus from the LGPS would devastate local government finance.

If, in future, housing policy also comes to depend upon the health of our pension funds that also may not do us any harm. We'll obviously need more democratic governance of the scheme if it is to be used in this way - and a decent pay offer to those of us whose money could help to end the housing crisis might also ne a nice gesture...

(And just to be clear, a tiny increase with an attack on sick pay would not be such a gesture)(http://www.lge.gov.uk/lge/core/page.do?pageId=19195377)

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What do we do at the end of the world as we know it?

Birmingham Council Leader Albert Bore describes the cuts anticipated in England's largest local authority as "the end of local government as we know it" (http://www.birminghampost.net/news/west-midlands-news/2012/10/24/1-000-birmingham-city-council-staff-face-axe-in-bid-to-cut-600m-from-budget-65233-32089542/).

It's not good enough of course for leading figures in the labour movement simply to prophecy doom and explain that, much as they don't want to, they will move from "salami-slicing" cuts to "decommissioning" whole areas of service provision. The question to local politicians is "what are you going to do?"

This is a question which is posed particularly starkly to Labour Councils for two reasons. First, because the Tory Coalition are targeting the worst of the cuts at Labour Councils and, secondly, because Labour voters voted for Labour Councils to protect them from Tory cuts - and expect to see a political difference.

With Cornwall's ambitious joint venture privatisation plans kicked into the long grass - and Birmingham's own Chief Executive saying that outsourcing can't deliver the savings (http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2012/oct/23/council-cuts-chief-warns-outsourcing-no-longer-cuts-mustard?cat=society&type=article) it seems that handing us over wholesale to Capita is off the agenda for sensible people (although it ought never to have been on any sensible agenda).

The Blairite "Progress" wing of the Labour Party recently enlisted their failed cheerleader, David Miliband, to whistle to keep their spirits up with implausible tales of doing "better with less" (http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/17/the-treasury-doesnt-know-best?cat=commentisfree&type=article).

Some Councillors seek to make a virtue out of a perceived necessity by dressing up the abandonment of services as the empowerment of citizens. This is, of course, precisely the nonsense it appears to be (as you'll read here one day when the trade union workload generated by a "cooperative Councl" flagship permits.

So what should Councils do? What should trade unions be demanding of them?

First, we must remember it's not all and only about cuts. We shouldn't abandon other positive and progressive demands - such as paying a living wage to all local government employees, including those who have been outsourced (as Lambeth agreed this week - http://t.co/n2xPJQ7G). We also need to keep the pressure on for compliance with the public sector equality duty.

Secondly (and this is not a view universally held I know) we mustn't abandon the political task of trying to shift the Labour Party, locally and nationally, in a positive direction. Miliband Major and his well-funded chums are hard at work trying to ensure that a future Labour Government would be Coalition lite. They need to be fought.

Thirdly, though, the trade unions need to oppose. At a national level we need to continue to show the Parliamentary Labour Party what it should be doing - which is to oppose the Government.

At a local level we also have to oppose the implementation of Government cuts, whether they are being implemented by members of the Coalition parties or of the Party to which our unions are affiliated.

As part of that opposition we need to find a way to have a debate about what the role of Labour Councils and Councillors (many of whom are trade union members) ought to be in these testing times.

Those who cut their political milk teeth in the battles of the 1980s need to grow beyond antipathy to the historic left and be prepared to consider every option to fight back against austerity.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Merger mania?

My immersion in the minutia of the current horror of local government cuts and privatisation (including privatisation mutton dressed as cooperative lamb) was interrupted briefly yesterday for some head-scratching.

Dandruff? No, rather the news that something semi-formal may be about to happen in relation to a possible merger between PCS and UNITE. Apparently a motion will be put within PCS Left Unity, which - given the political weight of Left Unity within PCS - may well then find its way to next year's PCS Conference.

Socialists should be convinced agnostics on the principle of trade union merger. Everything depends upon whether particular merger proposals create a stronger and more democratic union than the sum of its parts.

This means that you have to consider what might be called the "industrial logic" of a proposed merger as well as the question of trade union democracy.

Trade union democracy must be particularly protected through any merger discussion between any trade unions, because - in the nature of things - a lot of detail will end up with unelected officials who tend not always to give the highest priority to being held to account.

Were I a member of either PCS or UNITE I would approach all talk of merger with a healthy scepticism on this point.

What really provoked me to scratch my head though was the industrial logic of such an arrangement.

Obviously UNITE has members in so many sectors that almost any union, if transferring its engagements (in the quaint archaic terminology which makes relations between unions sound vaguely like dating) could find some similar folk in the ranks of the general union.

However, the merger of a predominantly industrial union into a predominantly general union really does require some compelling justification on which to found a belief that the new entity would be stronger in confronting the employers. In the case of PCS and UNITE I'm not aware that this case is being made anywhere - and certainly not in public.

Since a period of trade union growth would require a resurgence of struggle, we may be in for a series of defensive merger proposals as unions respond to continuing decline with consolidation.

Apparently some GMB activists were so alarmed at the prospect of "GUMBISON" after the joint press conference at the TUC that they are preparing a campaign in opposition to a GMB-UNISON merger.

Such a development might have some benefits in terms of industrial logic, but given its likely chilling effect upon trade union democracy - and therefore effectiveness - activists in both unions need to set some clear preconditions before anything moves further on that front.

Quite clearly, anyone who wanted a logical, effective and democratic structure for our trade union movement would not start from here.

Having spent twenty years dealing with some of the unforeseen adverse consequences of a merger which appeared to have both industrial logic and democratic safeguards, rank and file activists in UNISON have an obligation to sound a note of caution about merger mania in our trade unions.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Another defeat for privatisation

Great news from Cornwall, where the Tory Council Leader trying to drive forward a deeply unpopular mass outsourcing to a "joint venture company" has been deposed. (http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/oct/16/tory-privatisation-plans-blow-cornwall?cat=society&type=article)



I like what Independent Councillor, Bob Egerton, who proposed the motion of "no confidence" had to say about his own lack of any "Plan B";



"If you are heading towards a cliff edge it is not your job to reprogramme the GPS with a new route, but to stop the car."



This is the perfect riposte to those with an addiction to "innovation" who think that privatisation (in whatever form) offers a way to make savings without making cuts.



London local government workers should note that Cornwall have Oracle Release 12 and were clearly building their "joint venture" plans in part on this foundation.



If anyone suggests a joint venture to you then (unless it's between consenting adults) suggest they research what happened to "TeamLambeth" the Joint Venture Company created in 1997 in what was (at the time) the largest single privatisation in the history of English local government...

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Learn from Barnet

The weekend saw renewed coverage of the ongoing scandal of the blinkered rush to privatisation in Tory Barnet (http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/oct/12/friern-barnet-library-cuts-fight?cat=society&type=article).



Barnet Council - the long standing "flagship" for Tory policies in London local government is clearly staggering from crisis to crisis. Less than six months after losing it's unpopular Leader, the Chief Executive who has steered Barnet towards massive outsourcing has jumped ship before the implementation of the approach with which he has been so closely associated.



The departure of the Chief Executive rightly prompted UNISON's Regional Secretary to write to the (new)(ish) Council Leader last week to urge suspension of the "One Barnet" outsourcing programme (http://www.barnetunison.me.uk/?q=node/1026).



However, what's driving this blinkered rush to privatise is more than just the odd individual. Those who are ideologically (or personally and financially) committed to privatisation are trying, up and down the country, to persuade fellow Councillors that privatisation of "back office" services will save money to protect the front-line.



Since local government is not (whatever its faults) a meritocracy, such flawed arguments can and do hold sway (particularly where Labour Councillors have not yet truly recanted "New Labour" distaste for in-house services.



Trade unionists need to raise our game in opposition to this onslaught - and we could not do much better than learn from the exemplary struggle of Barnet's opposition.



You can (and should) keep up to date with developments over at the Barnet UNISON website (http://www.barnetunison.me.uk/).

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Monday, October 08, 2012

Tories decide to scramble employee relations

After a long day unpicking some of the absurdity of (local) state sponsored (non)mutualisation it is - in a strange way - reassuring to reflect that the proposals which spew forth from this most reactionary of Governments are so much worse than even the least sensible of the proposals of their political opponents.

Today our unqualified Chancellor proposes that workers may abandon various legal rights in return for as little as two thousand pounds worth of shares (without capital gains tax - but if Osborne is left in charge of the economy then capital gains are unlikely!) (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/08/george-osborne-workers-rights-shares?cat=politics&type=article).

Whilst I can almost hear intelligent labour lawyers bemoaning the half-baked Conference-pleasing nonsense suggested in Birmingham today, I don't doubt that their more mercenary colleagues are gleeful at the litigation which will ensue.

We already have distinct legal definitions of "employee" and "worker" - and a wealth of case law defining the boundaries (including the chain of cases about agency workers fron Dacas -v- Brook Street to James -v- London Borough of Greenwich). Now Gideon invites the courts to start beating the bounds of an entirely new quasi-employee status.

For a Government that says it wants to reduce red tape this is foaming-at-the-mouth nonsense. Already firms can give shares to employees in order to try to secure their loyalty - many of the bonuses paid to those whose largesse keeps the Tory party afloat are paid in shares or share options.

No one has ever suggested that the bankers who get shares as part of their bonuses should forego employment rights - but it would appear that this Government feels that cashiers or checkout assistants should be cajoled into selling their (all too limited) right to justice for a handful of shares.

This is not a genuine offer of "ownership" on the model of the Mondragon co-operatives. It is an attempt to grab headlines at the expense of the London Mayor without thought for the employee relations consequences.

In all probability there will be few consequences in the sensible parts of the real world - but the Institute of Directors will have been able to work themselves into their own little frenzy - and the more carnivorous elements on the Tory Conference floor will believe that they have been fed.

It's crystal clear that the Tories want to remove the right to complain of unfair dismissal altogether. It is clearly offensive to our social betters in the Cabinet that mere "plebs" should be able to challenge the decisions of our superiors in such a fashion.

There's a couple of things they haven't considered.

First, if you have no right to complain of unfair dismissal anyway then all of the pressure not to take unofficial industrial action disappears.

Secondly, the self-denying ordinance observed by the courts in developing legal remedies around - for example - damages for the manner of dismissal depended entirely upon the existence of the statutory unfair dismissal regime.

If you create a new category of quasi-employees - and if employers are daft enough to use it (and the continued existence of the Institute of Directors surely shows that many are) then it'll be your fault if you see increases in unofficial industrial action and judicial activism around contractual employment rights.

Perhaps David Cameron should give George Osborne two thousand pounds worth of premium bonds and then tell him his services are no longer required?

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Back to Blogging (with some new Regulations)

I've been a bit slack with blogging recently. This has been entirely due to pressure of work (and not existential despair at the state of a Labour Party which can get so carried away about one speech) - work for rank and file lay trade union activists is a bit hectic just now!



I thought I'd get back in the blogosphere with a reference to The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/2089/made) - which may turn out to be of some value to bloggers.



Among the changes imposed by these regulations are more rigorous requirements for the publication of all "executive" decisions taken by officers - a requirement which has upset no less a body than the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11706%3Ameeting-of-minds&catid=181%3Aeditors-blog&Itemid=28).



Those of us who need to keep an eye on what local authorities are up to may be less troubled by increased transparency of local government decisionmaking. Local Government trade unionists might like to check out these new Regulations, which have been in force now for a month - and check whether your employer's Constitution and practices are compliant.

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