Sunday, December 23, 2012

How do we regain our strength?



The previous post on this blog finished asking whether our trade union movement is as weak as it might appear, and what we can do about this.

The effectiveness of the trade union movement, at every level, depends upon our objective strength vis-à-vis our opponents and upon our subjective willingness to use that strength. A useful recent overview of our strength is provided by Ralph Darlington in The state of workplace union reps' organization in Britain today, Capital & Class, No. 34, pp. 126-135 (the link is to a freely available online version).

This focuses on the key element of workplace representation, our shop steward structure and picks out factors such as the increase in the ratio of union members to stewards (from 1:25 in 1984 to 1:37) as an indicator of decline. A reduced number of shop stewards are also less autonomous than was previously the case. Darlington argues that shop stewards are now “much more dependent on full-time union officials compared with the relative independence of the 1970s.”

However, Darlington also acknowledges evidence of the continuing strength and health of workplace trade union organisation, point out that; “even though the balance of power remains significantly in favour of the employers, they still feel considerable constraints on the ‘right to manage’ in many workplaces. Shop stewards and other lay union reps are still able to resist, amend or undermine management initiatives on some occasions and win concessions and gains on others.”

This rings true, as does the subsequent conclusion that “the two crucial basic, albeit often ignored, ingredients for the rebuilding of a strong workplace union reps’ movement are struggle and politics.”

The evidence of trade union membership data, whether at the level of the movement as a whole or at the level of individual trade unions, is that struggle is associated with growth. Periods of transformative growth in trade union power have also, historically, been associated with widespread political engagement, or as Darlington puts it; “the strength and militancy of the First World War shop stewards movement, the rebuilding of stewards’ organisation in the 1930s, and the powerful stewards’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, did not develop in a political vacuum.”

Regular readers of this blog (Sidand Doris Trotwatcher) won’t be surprise by my conclusion that, if we want to rebuild our trade unions, we need to be prepared to adopt an assertive and combative approach, and to be hospitable to radical politics. As to the practical application of this conclusion, I shall blog further…





Plebgate - it's our fault comrades...



“Plebgate” poses a real problem for socialists of a certain age. It’s hard not laugh out loud. Unfortunately the underlying truth is less amusing.

Of course, when a former Tory Police Minister takes to the liberal press to take pot shots at the Police FederationI can think of nothing so much as the saying beloved of an old friend and comrade; “when thieves fall out, honest people smile.”

The shock with which Tories appear to be discovering that sometimes police officers fabricate evidenceis even funnier, to a cynical old 1980s lefty, than the shock with which the previously willing tools of Tory policy are experiencing their betrayal.

However, if trade unionists are the honest people in all of this, then I’m afraid we have few reasons to smile, because the reason this falling out is even possible is our own weakness.

The belated recognition being given officially to the blatantly partisan policing of the Miners’ strike of 1984/5 (reflected in Early Day Motion 775) is a reminder of how closely intertwined were the police with the last Conservative Government.

Thatcher protected the Police from her attacks upon public services because she needed a force prepared to restrain the resistance of a trade union movement thirteen million strong, twice as large as we are today.

Today our membership density is 26% across the economy, compared with a peak of 50% in 1979. The Coalition have concluded that we are not a threat and, as they have no “enemy within” they have no need to cushion the “thin blue line” from cuts to the extent that Thatcher did.

This begs the questions, are we really this weak and what can we do to strengthen ourselves?




Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Your P45 is 45 days nearer courtesy of the Lib Dems

As our trade unions continue to fall back in the face of a determined offensive from the Government of millionaires they continue to advance against us.

Today's announcement of a halving of the statutory minimum consultation period on mass redundancies is a case in point (http://news.bis.gov.uk/Press-Releases/Boost-for-business-as-government-sets-out-plans-to-update-employment-legislation-68512.aspx?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+bis-news+(BIS+News)).

The 90 day consultation period when consulting on more than 100 proposed redundancies is set to be halved - bringing our P45s 45 days nearer in such circumstances.

The cases of workers whose fixed term contracts expire and are not renewed are also to be excluded from the consultation provisions - and we'll need to watch carefully how that is done (and whether there is scope for legal challenge in Europe).

Having spent time most days since the last General Election (as many before) engaged in redundancy consultation at the sharp end, I can say that this measure to limit redundancy consultation will serve simply as a licence for poor employers to drive down standards of good practice.

Meaningful consultation, with proper consideration of the responses to consultation, takes as long as it takes - and if trade unions are to come up with alternatives to throwing our people on the scrap heap - we need to take that time. The case law definition of meaningful consultation is not changed by this announcement of course, and union reps must certainly not become more timid in response to this deeply reactionary step.

Good employers, with collectively agreed redundancy procedures which embody current legal provisions, should stand firm and - in particular - Labour-controlled employers (in local government) should pledge to continue to observe a minimum 90 day consultation period when proposing 100+ redundancies (though of course what we really want from Labour employers is that they stop making redundancies and work with the trade unions to develop a political strategy that will deliver redundancy notices to the Ministers spearheading this further attack upon our rights!)

Incidentally, little known LibDem stooge of the Tories, Jo Swinson, who announced this assault upon workers rights, in order to appease the Institute of Directors and other swivel-eyed elements on the foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing, once founded and chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics.

Perhaps that's why she wants to make it quicker and easier for bosses to liberate some of us from the curse of wage slavery?

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Sectarianism - an award for the worst of 2012

On Tuesday morning I joined a lobby of Congress House called by both the National Shop Stewards Network (http://shopstewards.net/) and "Unite the Resistance" (http://uniteresist.org/).

The purpose of the lobby was to press for more rapid action in response to September's Congress decisions in favour of co-ordinated industrial action and to "consider the practicalities" of a General Strike.

On being asked to say a few words, I said a few gently critical things about the leadership of our movement (which were well received) and - reflecting views I have expressed here previously (http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/resist-unity.html?m=1) - I called for unity on the left (which was less well received).

It is, of course, regrettable that the weakness and marginalisation of the anti-cuts movement, and the left generally, within our trade unions has created the environment in which there are rival, competing campaigns aiming to do essentially the same thing.

However, the damage done by sectarianism on the left is as nothing to the damage done to our labour and trade union movement by sectarianism against the left.

Also this week I had the misfortune to read a diatribe circulated electronically by a trade union branch secretary, with the assistance of the employer to all staff (not simply members of the trade union) which concerned a nationally important fight to save a vital public service.

This unfortunate correspondence, in expressing opposition on behalf of the trade union to certain tactical options proposed by activists, expressed the view that "political organizations external to [the trade union] such as the Socialist Workers' Party and/or the Socialist Party (amongst others) are behind them."

The author went on as follows; "It is an unfortunate fact of life that there do exist in other local branches a tiny minority of SWP/SP members who hide behind the facade of being stewards of [the trade union] (as well as other Trade Unions) and use their positions to continually undermine their branches and push their own brand of extreme and minority politics."

This unbalanced and ill-judged contribution to communication from the trade union movement to the wider workforce is a clear winner of this blog's award for "Sectarian nonsense of the year 2012".

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Unregulated observations

Trade unionists can have no love for our current "free" press, which specialised in attacking our movement rhetorically long before Murdoch's move to Wapping in 86 opened a continuing war on their own workers.



I'm pleased, however, to find (in today's Morning Star - http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/127223) that I'm not alone in suspecting that quasi-statutory regulation overseen by Law Lords may not be the right answer to any question.



It's well worth following that link to read Solomon Hughes reviewing the many misdeeds of our monopoly-owned press, and arguing that it's ownership of the media that needs to be properly regulated.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

General Secretary Election?

According to Jerry Hicks, defeated candidate for UNITE General Secretary in the last election, today's meeting of the Executive of our sister/competitor Union may be about to agree to hold a further election for that post (http://grassrootsleftunite.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/unite-make-plans-to-call-snap-election.html?m=1).



What UNITE does is a matter for the members, activists and elected representatives of that Union, including the majority of the Executive organised around the United Left (http://unitedleft.org.uk/) - an impressive electoral machine which, as a UNISON member, I can only regard with envy.



Crying "foul" because you think an incumbent candidate may use their influence to timetable an election to their benefit is fairly futile (as we in UNISON know from experience).



UNISON activists will of course recollect that we have ourselves experience of timetabling issues around such elections (including the only previously unscheduled special meeting of our National Executive Council in 2010).



Speaking with all the authority of one of the most miserable failures in the history of left wing challengers for the position of General Secretary, and as someone who has yet to vote for the winning candidate in such an election, I have wise words for those watching the UNISON Centre;



"Watch this space."



(Particularly the sixth and seventh floors).

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Can we win by force of argument?

With Osborne set to admit that collapsing the UK economy has not brought down the deficit, UNISON's announcement of ways in which billions could easily be found to restore jobs and services is timely (http://union-news.co.uk/2012/12/stop-corporate-theft-unisons-45bn-plan-to-save-economy/).

In truth, even if we couldn't identify the billions readily available, it would make sense for the Government to increase spending in order to boost the economy (and to reduce the proportion of Gross Domestic Product accounted for by debt by increasing the size of the denominator).

However, because of the stranglehold of sub-Thatcherite economic quackery on popular consciousness it is certainly valuable to have a quick answer to the question "where will the money come from?" (even if it would be a better answer to explain that that isn't the right question).

It's similar to the importance of showing local authorities where they can make real efficiencies, or legitimately draw on reserves, in order to protect jobs and services. UNISON are doing the same job nationally that many branches seek to do locally.

As opinion polls increasingly show majority opposition to further cuts it's clear that our movement is winning the argument, and the battle for public opinion, with the advocates of austerity.

However, it would be a mistake to think that there is much prospect of winning anything on this score by force of argument.

This Government are not savaging welfare, attacking the most vulnerable and undermining workers' rights because they believe these things to be economically necessary but because they believe them to be socially desirable.

The deficit (caused by bailing out the banks) is not the reason for any of this, simply a convenient excuse.

The strategic objective of our trade union movement ought to be resistance (which may help us to survive), not survival (in order to achieve which we may need to be seen to resist).

As part of this approach we need to promote the coherent and radical alternative to austerity which is reflected in the policies of UNISON and the TUC but not in the policy or practice of the Labour Opposition - and we need to fight for it in the hear and now, as well as vote for it when we can.

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Disability - think globally act locally

Today, according to the United Nations is International Day for People with Disabilities (http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=1597).



Here in the UK every day is a day for the Tory led Coalition to attack disabled people, whether by forcing people off benefits, or out of work, or both.



The emergence of Disabled People Against the Cuts (http://www.dpac.uk.net/) is perhaps the most positive indication in this country of work being done towards achieving this year's international theme for today, which is "removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all."



The double irony, for a rank and file workplace trade union representative, of our Government's approach to disabled people is not only the hypocritical push to take jobs which aren't there (thanks to Tory economic policy), but also the way disabled workers are so often treated by employers.



Even in organisations with sound and progressive paper policies, too many managers (under increasing pressure to hit targets and cut costs) can be prone to see disabled colleagues as a problem rather than an asset.



As trade unionists we need to be clear that the problem is the discrimination against disabled people, of which such attitudes are one manifestation.



Solidarity to disabled brothers and sisters in UNISON and all trade unions, and to all those grassroots union representatives tackling disability discrimination today and every day.

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