Friday, November 30, 2012

Fifteen minutes of Maude on N30?

A year ago today I spent the morning, alongside my son and many colleagues, on picket lines as part of the largest strike of my adult life (www​.unison.org.uk/acrobat/20452.pdf).

In the run up to that strike, as regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Picket) will remember, Francis Maude, on behalf of the Government, had suggested that - instead of striking for the day - we could organise "token" fifteen minute protest action with no loss of pay (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15704451).

It's taken our movement a year to give Maude his wish, but today he gets what he wanted as an early Xmas present from civil servants.

The occasion for this is, appropriately enough, some characteristically Scrooge-like behaviour from the Coalition government.

In an attempt to encourage the worst employers to behave as they wish to, and to cajole better employers into following suit, the Government have launched an assault upon the terms and conditions of all civil servants (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/index.cfm/id/C37B0DEA-2772-4471-9EB028EF3544B85A).

This is why our brothers and sisters in PCS are organising a series of protests on today's anniversary of last year's N30 in order to focus and highlight opposition to this attack, and to mobilise their membership once more for the seemingly endless struggle to resist the Government's attacks (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/terms-and-conditions/index.cfm).

This limited action points the civil service union in the right direction of mobilising opposition to the dilution of conditions of service, as opposed to the foolish approach of seeking jointly to manage detrimental change, which, as I pointed out a few days ago (http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-fallacy-of-retreat-and-perils-of.html?m=1), is very regrettably being adopted in the health service.

The package of conditions of service which have been negotiated over decades and passed on to us by those who came before represent the product of past struggle and past organisation.

We won't reverse declining union membership in the public sector (http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/employment-matters/docs/t/12-p77-trade-union-membership-2011.pdf) with concession bargaining because if we want to inspire future leaders of future struggles we need to honour our past achievements.

Negotiators who approach an attack on conditions from employers from the perspective of looking to see what can be conceded, rather than how to mobilise members to get the best out of any particular situation, are lazy as well as timid. Rank and file organisation, with imaginative and skillful leadership, will invariably produce a better outcome than those who are experts only in knowing what cannot be done.

Today, PCS are showing a campaigning approach to the defence of conditions of service. Good luck comrades!

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Monday, November 26, 2012

The fallacy of retreat and the perils of defeatism

Regular readers of the blog not discouraged by infrequent posting (Sid and Doris Diehard-Blogger) will know that I am a happy-go-lucky hedonist rarely driven to anger.

I am, however, a tad annoyed when I see union officials (whether lay or paid) recommending or agreeing reductions in pay and conditions of service in the folorn hope of protecting jobs (or preserving bargaining arrangements).

This is particularly futile in public services, and all the evidence is that all that such "concession bargaining" achieves in these circumstances is that it invites employers to make further attacks.

At the start of the current wave of devastation of services (in the immediate aftermath of the last General Election) some of the better paid, but less economically literate, of the workforce wondered about giving up a day's pay (and work) to balance the books.

Great.

And next year? And the year after?

We face, in our Government, the specific UK manifestation of a global attempt to eliminate the last vestiges of the "postwar settlement" and to replace this with what may be considered the "postColdWar settlement" (based upon the absence of any global alternative to capitalism).

There can be no "deals" with this agenda, though we may achieve temporary truces where we are strong enough to slow it, or canny enough to divert it. Ultimately we need to reverse this offensive upon us - and that requires us to create political possibilities beyond the scope of this blog post (or - I fear - of current reality)(which, of course, we also need to change).

A recent example of the totally wrongheaded approach has been set by our national negotiators in the health service, who are (quite clearly) promoting a dilution of "Agenda for Change" national conditions of service in the hope of preserving national bargaining and fending off its disintegration (http://www.unison.org.uk/healthcare/pages_view.asp?did=14979).

This will work no better than the recent approach of a large City (but not always United?) local government branch in the North West, whose reward for conceding conditions of service to avert redundancies was (guess what?) redundancies.

As trade unionists we are negotiators and pragmatists. Compromise is an integral part of what we do. However, no one ever got the best deal they could by signalling an over eagerness for compromise at the outset. Yet this seems to be the default setting for some of our negotiators.

This approach fails. It shows weakness, it invites attack and it demoralises members.

If the employers' side national negotiators have even the hint of a thought that our members in local government might be recommended to concede conditions of service in order to enable their constituent authorities to "afford" a miserly increase in pay they had best think again.

And if there are lay elected members of UNISON bodies who think we should recommend the worsening of conditions of service that were fought for by people who came before us?

They should resign.

And those who believe that trade unions should fight to improve (rather than worsen) the lives of their members and potential members need to get involved, get active and get nominated.

Now, more than ever, is a time for (real) trade unionism.

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Local Government pay - what is "substantial"?

The pay settlement for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (of whom I am one) is that for the largest bargaining group in the economy. If fine words about confronting the Tory pay freeze are to find meaning it has to be in relation to this claim.

This year's local government pay claim (for 2013-14) is, in part, for a "substantial flat rate increase" - but what does that mean?

Officers asked to explain, as at the recent UNISON Regional Local Government Committee in Greater London cannot answer - and that's not ducking and diving on their part, but properly observing the democratic legitimacy of the lay Committee which determined this form of words.

That doesn't mean that those of us in line to receive whatever pay award is eventually negotiated ought not to consider what we think these words mean - if we don't then how are we to judge whatever offer we are made?

I would like to suggest a test we should put to whatever offer the employers side eventually make (having thus far done no more than dangle the possibility of (a very small) carrot, which has even less substance than our claim.

A "substantial" flat rate pay award needs to be sufficient to halt the decline in living standards for a large majority of our members (bearing in mind that the real terms pay of a worker on the same pay point since 2009 has fallen by a sixth).

With Retail Price Index inflation at 3.2% (http://www.ons.gov.uk:80/ons/rel/cpi/consumer-price-indices/october-2012/index.html) that's the percentage increase required by workers to halt (not reverse or make up for) the decline in our standard of living.

Since we are asking for a flat rate increase (in a legitimate attempt to redistribute in favour of the lowest paid) we need to set (even if only in our own heads) a benchmark grade to which this 3.2% applies, so that we can judge an offer from the employers.

If we don't think now about what we think "substantial" ought to mean - in our own pay claim - we have no basis upon which reasonably to judge any offer which may be made - and that would be dangerous.

If we have this discussion only in private we shall fail to mobilise our members, rendering the discussion pointless.

If we want to ensure that workers up to SCP28 (outside London) don't suffer a further fall in living standards we need £760 a year - but that would mean all those above that point (and at lower points on the London pay spines) would continue to lose in real terms.

If we pitch this at the level at which we were happy to see members pay more for their pensions (SCP49) we need an increase of £1,332 a year.

Looking at these figures it's fairly clear that any pay offer below £1,000 a year flat rate can't reasonably be described as "substantial". This sum would sustain the living standards of workers up to SCP37 (outside Greater London), although with those above that rate still seeing a continuing fall in real income.

This is, of course, a very low benchmark by which to judge a pay offer - it wouldn't bring even those at the bottom of the pay spine back to the spending power they had in 2009.

This approach to working ought what ought to be meant by "substantial" also fails to address the question (to which I will return) of the "strings" which may be attached to any offer.

Any offer which was linked, for example, to detrimental changes in well-established sick pay arrangements (which set a modest civilised standard for other decent employers) we would be being asked to collude in redistribution away from those who are unwell.

No flat rate payment, however substantial, could justify that (and I would love to see the equality impact assessment which would justify such an assault upon those most vulnerable).

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why health and safety at work matters



The earliest legislative victories of our trade union movement, more than a century and half ago, were around health and safety regulation. The shocking news from Bangladesh, where over 120 workers have died in a factory fire is a reminder of the conditions in manufacturing in this country before those victories.

The workers in the Indian subcontinent are not separate from our economy – they are an integral part of the supply chain leading to many of the purchases which will be made this Xmas. The same companies which employ many workers in the UK are prepared to tolerate appalling working conditions in jurisdictions where they can get away with it.

The approach of the Coalition Government is to seek to water down legislative protection for the health, safety and welfare of employees(and others). Those of us coping daily with the threat of redundancies and privatisation (however it is dressed up) may have little time with which to try to protect the health and safety gains of past generations.

However, with injuries increasing even as economic activity has declined, we need to continue to fight the battles which our predecessors fought in the nineteenth century (and to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world who are experiencing the sort of “light touch” regulation of health and safety to which Cameron and Clegg aspire).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Resist the Unity?

I couldn't get along to today's Unite the Resistance (UtR) meeting in London (http://uniteresist.org/) but hope it's going well. I hope it will put the emerging organisation on some sort of democratic footing and provide a useful opportunity for networking.

There are some on the left who decry the somewhat ironic name of the most recent arrival amongst the national bodies seeking to co-ordinate anti-cuts activity, and others who level at UtR the allegation also made about the Right to Work (RtW) (http://righttowork.org.uk/2012/10/new-sanctions-regime-will-punish-the-poorest/campaign) (that it is essentially a front for the Socialist Workers Party).

We do, however, need to try to develop more effective national coordination of anti-cuts activity, and UtR will draw together some of those who should be part of that, including many outside the ranks of the SWP (I have put my name forward, if wanted, for the steering committee).

Others, around the Socialist Party, see the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) (http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/) as the vehicle for the coordination of struggle. I was at the founding Conference of the NSSN and continue to believe it to have been a good idea with considerable potential.

Many of those previously involved in the NSSN have fallen away as the dominance of the Socialist Party has become more pronounced, but the NSSN retains official links with several national unions, and those who look to it are not insignificant, although their determination to prioritise their distinctive "selling point" on the left (visceral hostility to the Labour Party they left twenty years ago) can make "united front" work a challenge.

The Coalition of Resistance (CoR)(http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/)has also aimed at the same target of coordination for some time, without the participation of the largest far left parties, but with high profile support and strong European links. Although on paper a likely candidate to draw people together (and is, of all these initiatives, the one for which I feel most warmth), CoR includes among its leading lights some groups whose relationship with the SWP is like a recent, raw divorce.

Away from the "Trotskyist" left, the People's Charter (http://www.thepeoplescharter.org/) (which I support) is a project (though not exclusively) of the Communist Party of Britain which has, characteristically, by far the stongest "official" labour movement backing and - equally characteristically - a low activist profile.

Looking just at the picture I have sketched out above, there are many on the left who will bemoan the "sectarianism" of the left groups which appears to be the cause of the divisions, at a national level, in an anti-cuts movement which is at its best (at a local level) when it is united.

This complaint mistakes the symptom for the cause and makes the mistake of blaming those who are present in the struggle against cuts, rather than those who bear responsibility for these problems - those who are absent.

The anti-cuts movement is not weak at a national level because it is divided. It is divided because it is weak.

The responsibility lies with the leadership of the Labour Party and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the trade unions.

The Balls/Miliband line on cuts - which could be summed up in the chant; "What Do We Want? Fewer Cuts! When Do We Want Them? Later!" Is testament to the continuing influence of vile Blairite forces around the Sainsbury-funded Progress faction. It seeks to place the Labour Party outside the anti-cuts movement and encourages Labour Councils to see anti-cuts activists as enemies as much as the Tories (a grave misjudgement which is then just as foolishly reciprocated).

In these circumstances, the responsibility to lead and unify a struggle against assaults upon working class living standards and public services unprecedented in a lifetime falls upon the trade union leadership.

The TUC have called a couple of major national demonstrations and the unions (led by UNISON) have organised one major national strike.

The trade union leadership lack confidence in our ability to defeat the Government and are therefore prone to seeing our campaigns (such as UNISON's Million Voices - http://www.unison.org.uk/million/) as being as much aimed at our members and potential members (with a view to recruitment and retention of union members) as at defeating our enemies.

If the Labour Party or - failing that - the TUC (or failing that the big unions) organised an effective anti-cuts campaign then that would be the one national anti-cuts campaign we need.

If they won't do that then we socialists need to do a number of things.

First, we need (if we can) to find an effective substitute to unite our struggles. If this can be done it may be that the General Secretaries of unions in the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG) hold the key.

Secondly, we need to mobilise to hold to account - and force to the left - our union leaderships. This does require organising at a rank and file level, focusing on local activity and building workplace organisation - but those who concentrate only on these things are not doing all that is required.

We must stand candidates of the left wherever and whenever we can in our trade unions and (as much as this may divert our energies) we must campaign for their election (of course we must also build the rank and file organisation and grassroots struggle which will ground, and hold to account, whoever is elected).

Thirdly, we must press our trade unions to take our fight into the Labour Party. Our goal is not so much to ensure the selection of trade unionists as Labour candidates for public office (thought that is a worthy cause) as to fight for policies we can support and then for candidates, and democratic structures of accountability, which give hope that these policies may be delivered in practice.

We need to reclaim the Labour Party not in the sense of capturing official positions but in the sense of making the Party a campaigning organisation fighting for working people in our communities as we fight for our unions to do in our workplaces.

Of course, we must also work with socialist comrades who may not agree with every point above (and I guess the third may not appeal to every reader of this blog). I do, however, think it quite important that socialists grasp that division and sectarianism on the left is much more a consequence than a cause of our problems, and that the struggle to hold to account the leadership of our movement (whilst building and strengthening our movement) is where our energies belong.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

News from the front line in Barnet

Barnet's long war against privatisation get's some well deserved publicity in today's Grauniad (http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/11/local-government-democracy-outsourcing-barnet?cat=commentisfree&type=article).



Following the recent setback for those who see local services primarily as a cash cow for shareholders in Cornwall, Barnet is now very much in the front line of attempts to divert taxpayers' money in the cause of profit.



The Guardian's John Harris rightly credits the legendary Barnet bloggers but omits to mention the absolutely vital, central role of Barnet UNISON branch (www​.barnetunison.me.uk/) in sustaining, over several years, a lengthy struggle (sometimes against unanticipated obstruction and opposition).



Spending cuts are damaging (sometimes horrendously so) but privatisation can do permanent damage that is even harder to reverse (particularly if local authorities lose the assets and physical and managerial/organisational infrastructure which would enable them to deliver a service themselves).



We can all learn from the continuing struggle in Barnet, whether we are up against the "pure" Tory threat of privatisation to the vultures of the public services "industry" or the Tory-lite Progress inspired version peddled by those who misuse the word "cooperative" in this cause (http://www.councils.coop/).



Our trade unions require a process of rejuvenation and decentralisation if we are to engage effectively with the prospect of dozens, if not hundreds, of local authorities taking the "Barnet Road" over the next couple of years. The imagination, persistence and agility of Barnet UNISON has been and is an example to us all.

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Truth, damned truth and statistics

Over the weekend I had the opportunity occasionally to be flummoxed by maths puzzles set to a teenager.



However, enough of my brain cells have survived the rigours of decades of trade union activity that I still have a rough comprehension of statistics.



Those of us who are dealing daily with the disproportionate impact of Coalition spending cuts on disadvantaged groups certainly need such comprehension.



Let me illustrate with a maths puzzle of my own for you;



A section of the workforce of an employer consists of 70% BME (black and minority ethnic) employees and 30% white employees.



Restructuring proposals put 73% of the BME staff and 45% of the white staff at risk of redundancy.



The employer answers concerns about this disproportionate impact (which, given the numbers involved, is found to be "extremely statistically significant" using Fisher's Exact Test) as follows;



"the proportion of BME staff who may be at risk is broadly comparable with the proportion of BME staff in [that part of the organisation]".



Does this answer from the employer demonstrate;



(A) a misleading comparison between the proportion of a sub group in an overall population with the proportion of that sub group having a particular additional characteristic;



(B) a lack of comprehension of the meaning of an "extremely statistically significant" relationship between two characteristics;



(C) an inexpert attempt to downplay evidence of a potentially racially discriminatory outcome if the proposals proceed as planned, or;



(D) all of the above?



The first correct answer in the comments below will win an, as yet unannounced, prize.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

Living Wage: work in progress


The publicity received yesteday is most welcome by those who have campaigned for a living wage, however the Labour Party support does seem to come with some confusion, stating that the National Minimum Wage is the basic minimum and Living Wage is that little bit more. The Living Wage(LW) and the London Living wage (LLW) are based on a calculation of what is the minimum income needed to meet basic needs – it is the basic minimum. The National minimum wage at £6.19 remains well below the Living Wage. The Living wage and the London Living wage both increased yesterday by 25p to £7.45 and £8.55.

However with the Labour party announcement of support for living wage has suddenly seen a number of Labour councils who previously had very little interest in the Living wage suddenly declared themselves a living wage employers and some seem to have rather hastily been accredited by the Living Wage Foundation.

Accreditation is based on employers not only paying its own directly employed staff the Living wage but also contracted staff. No council as far as I am aware has fully complied with this as yet, however credit is due to the likes of Islington Council who have now signed up 80% of their contractors to LLW and brought back in house cleaners so they get more the LLW and are doing the same with waste. Islington accreditation is based on the fact that it had made good progress with it contractors and agreed be fully compliant by 2014 and the local unions were fully involved in the process.

However you do not have to go far to find a different story neighbouring borough Camden who had shown no real interest in LLW despite attempt by the UNISON to get them to do so. However they have now declared themselves a living wage employer been accredited and now flying the Living wage flag this week for living wage week. They have been accreditations on the basis of achieving this in 4 years, my fear is hasty accreditations could not only appear opportunist but will undermine work done elsewhere.

Being living wage employer is not just some badge of honour or a bandwagon to leap on, but rather about ensuring a reasonable standard of living for workers and their families.

Our employers could be accused of giving with one hand while bashing us over the head with the other. Not only has no Labour council as yet stood up and refused to implement the cuts which have led to many UNISON members being made redundant. Some councils of them have even more actively attacked terms and condition from sick pay, annual leave and refusing increments also going down the road of privatisation or increase number of part time jobs. The danger is the living wage may also be seen as the maximum wage as well as the minimum and not as should be as the absolute minimum wage paid by a responsible employer.

Turning to the Labour Leadership who have made it clear they are happy to continue to see a the pay cut to public sector workforce not only continue but deepen in real terms and Ed Milliband even argued a few months ago that an actual cut in pay would in some case be reasonable action of a public sector employer. Of cause not forgetting the Labour front benches support on the attack on our pensions which is after all just deferred pay.

I also note our General Secretary Dave Prentis felt the need to write an article on the living wage with leading progress MP Dave Miliband (maybe he forgot what he said a about progress recently) which seemed to give the agenda unsurprising of the labour party right on privatisation of public services, it ok they privatise just do it a bit more nicely!!.

Back to the Living wage, once again the campaign has been taken forward in huge leaps and bounds from it starting place in east London, but as trade unionists we must not take claims at face value we must monitor scrutinise and if necessary expose them if commitments and promises are not met, or if we find workers suffering as a result of poor terms and conditions instead. In additions campaigns like London Citizens and its sister group the Living Wage Foundation must insist on trade union involvement with any employer before engaging in discussion about becoming a living wage employer

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Europe - the real story?



Half-term has kept me away from work, and therefore the local manifestations of the global crisis, for a week – but the news from Greece, as reported by Kate Belgrave, is genuinely frightening.

In the areas hit hardest by the slump, hunger is on the increase as democracy stutters, which makes next week’s European TUC Day of Action a timely move.

This is a call for “a day of action and solidarity on 14 November 2012, including strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions” and there will be general strikes in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Malta. Unfortunately I can’t find details of what is being done in the UK on the relevant page of the TUC website.

While Congress House is probably still considering the practicalities of a General Strike, the Coalition of Resistance have organised a solidarity protest outside the offices of the European Commission.

Whilst the Westminster bubble is taken up with David Cameron losing a vote, and whether the Labour opposition were right to oppose, the real story about Europe is not the squabble within the elite about the European Union, but the resistance on the streets by the people.


Or activists locally could get on with organising events and protests on Wednesday 14 November.