Thursday, January 31, 2013

How members view unions in the workplace

I'm still dipping in to the recently published first findings of the sixth Workplace Employee Relations study (WERS)(https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers), which provides the best source of large scale quantitative data about our experience of working life.

As any union rep who has ever dealt with an individual or group of members angry and dissatisfied with their union knows, one of our perennial concerns is how our members view us. Particularly for lay, rank and file representatives in the workplace, the views and opinions of colleagues amongst whom we work and by whom we are (or may not be) elected are of paramount importance.

WERS asked employees who they would go to with various workplace issues and found that "most, but not all, union members thought union representatives would best represent them. The percentages of union members who chose union representatives was 76% in respect of reductions in pay or hours, 71% in respect of disciplinary matters and 69% for obtaining a pay increase."

Although we might think all those figures should be 100%, I think they're a tolerably encouraging indication that our rank and file members place some faith - or, at least hope - in our workplace organisation.

Given that the purpose of a trade union is precisely to deal with workplace issues such as these, and that (as a knock-on effect) our performance in relation to these "bread and butter" questions is key to both the recruitment and retention of members, we need to reflect upon what we can and should do to increase the percentages reported by WERS and quoted above.

I offer two suggestions, though there could be many more.

First, given the increased fragmentation of employment and localisation of bargaining, we need to do more to decentralise resources to branch level (which, in UNISON at least, is as close as our structures get to the workplace). UNISON's "Fighting Fund Organisers" might help, but it's a bit early to say (and throwing resources simply at recruitment won't help us do the work which our members expect of us).

Secondly, it's important that we respond swiftly now to the Coalition's attacks upon employment rights which will impact upon our performance in relation to these key workplace issues. For example, we need a "line" on what we'll do about employment tribunal charges faced by members we're representing, should we not resolve an issue at work.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Redundancies - could we do better?

The Workplace Employee Relations Study (WERS)(https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers), about which I blogged earlier today (http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/unions-in-workplace-it-could-be-wers.html?m=1) confirms the continuing trade union presence in workplaces, albeit this is - particularly in the private sector - greatly reduced compared to the picture of painted by the first and second studies back in the 80s.

The study also provides reliable data from which we can try to assess what we are doing with our collective workplace presence. The recently published summary of the first findings of the study includes, for example, the following information on redundancies;

"Around one in eight workplaces (13%) had made staff redundant in the 12 months prior to the 2011 survey (compared with 9% in 2004). In most cases (87%), managers had consulted with employees or their representatives before making anyone redundant. Managers almost always did so (95%) when two or more employees were being laid off.

The outcomes of redundancy consultation were mixed. The consultation process generated alternatives to redundancy or reduced the number of redundancies in 22% of workplaces where a consultation took place. Changes were made to the employer's means of preparing employees for redundancy in 19% of cases. Other changes were less common: strategies for redeployment were identifed or changed in 14%; redundancy payments were increased in 10%; and the criteria for selection were changed in 5%. Overall, managers' original proposals were altered in at least one of the ways listed in 40% of workplaces that engaged in consultation over redundancy. Some 18% of workplaces experienced multiple changes in managers' original proposals."

My initial reaction to these figures, working for an employer which has made redundancies over the period since the General Election equivalent to about one sixth of its workforce at the time - but where our rearguard action has saved many jobs - is that these statistics suggest that, as a movement, we could be saving more of our members from redundancies.

The statutory requirements for redundancy consultation, where a trade union is recognised, and where 20 or more redundancies are proposed (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1992/52/part/IV/chapter/II/crossheading/duty-of-employer-to-consult-trade-union-representatives), give union representatives some clout we rarely have.

"The consultation shall include consultation about ways of—
(a)avoiding the dismissals,
(b)reducing the numbers of employees to be dismissed, and
(c)mitigating the consequences of the dismissals,
and shall be undertaken by the employer with a view to reaching agreement with the appropriate representatives."

Starting from an assertive and informed reliance upon this law, I think we should, as workplace trade unionists, be able to reduce the number of redundancies in more than 22% of cases.

I should add the caveat that the more detailed WERS data which will become available later in the year may enable more informed debate about this question. It's also worth remembering that WERS is a time-limited snapshot and that maybe, as redundancies have penetrated further into our public service heartland, the better organised of our branches are raising our "batting average" when it comes to reducing redundancies.

Nevertheless, activists could do more to share succesful strategies and tactics. My local experience suggests to me that a willingness to encourage industrial action and public campaigning, coupled with an aspiration towards a forensic attention to detail in consultation (with - where it applies - reliance on the public sector equality duty) and backed up by a determined effort to increase membership, and therefore density, is the best recipe for redundancy reduction.

Our unions could do more to encourage a combative approach to resisting job losses - and could do more to give our activists confidence to assert our legal rights as a basis to save jobs.

I'll finish by pointing out that it's because I want more people in the leadership of our movement who share this view that I encourage UNISON activists to try to get their branches to nominate candidates of the left (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/p/nec-2013-left-slate.html?m=1) in the forthcoming elections to our National Executive Council (NEC).

Working people did well to create trade unions, as they are the best way to strive for dignity and justice at work. The evidence suggests they could be better than they are, at least when it comes to resisting and reducing redundancies. I think activists should commit to trying to make our unions better at protecting our members' jobs, which is about rank and file cooperation and communication even more than it's about union elections.

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Unions in the workplace - it could be WERS?

Last week saw the publication of the first findings from the sixth Workplace Employee Relations Study (WERS) (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers). This is a periodic large scale survey of employee relations in UK workplaces, the first of which was undertaken in 1980 (when it was called the Workplace Industrial Relations Survey - WIRS).

WERS is the best source of in-depth comparative information about how the real work of workplace trade unionism (and the reality of employee relations in non-union workforces) changes over time. This is the "real world" of trade unionism, where elected lay reps speak to their managers on behalf of co-workers (a world away from the realms of Conferences, Committees, Head Offices and Regional Offices which we sometimes mistake for our trade union).

The "fieldwork" (interviews) for the latest WERS was carried out during 2011, since when number crunchers have been crunching numbers. The more detailed report won't be out until the end of the year, but the initial findings provide some important information.

I'll blog more later but, for now, will look at the headline information on trade union presence in the workplace.

WERS found that since the fifth survey in 2004 the prevalence of workplace union representation has continued to fall in small private sector workplaces, but has proved relatively robust in other parts of the economy and there has been no growth in non-union representation.

Here's the detail;

"In workplaces with five or more employees, the proportion of all employees who belong to a trade union changed little between 2004 and 2011. The small decline from 32% to 30% was not statistically signifcant, but is in line with the slow downward trend seen in offcial statistics covering all employees.

WERS provides additional insights by indicating the workplace concentration of union membership. The percentage of all workplaces with any union members fell six percentage points from 29% in 2004 to 23% in 2011, while the percentage in which a majority of workers were union members fell from 14% to 10%.

The recognition of trade unions for negotiating terms and conditions is another key indicator and, here, the decline was less pronounced. The percentage of all workplaces with recognised unions fell from 24% to 21% but, again, this was not a statistically significant change.

Any decline in the percentage of workplaces with union members was restricted to the private sector, and unions now have majority membership in only 3% of all private sector workplaces.

Public sector workplaces account for the majority (55%) of all workplaces that recognise unions, despite the public sector accounting for only 13% of all workplaces in the survey population."

This tells us that, across the period from 2004 to 2011, trade unions sustained our presence in the workplace or, as you might say, "it could be WERS". However, there must be a caveat that this survey gives us a snapshot of how things were in 2011, before the Government's onslaught on public sector employment had really begun to bite.

It's also worth observing that the years of Labour Government (which covered the bulk of the period between the fifth and sixth WERS) were clearly not years in which our movement strengthened our capacity to represent workers at work. This is something to consider when discussing with Labour their 2015 manifesto perhaps?

I'll come back to WERS later (if only to please regular readers Sid and Doris Anorak). There is a wealth of information in WERS and rank and file union activists should study it.

I may ask questions later...

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Some questions about Europe for trade unionists

I think Frances O'Grady made a compelling case that Cameron's plans in relation to Europe are to rid the UK of everything that protects workers whilst keeping the free market for big business (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jan/28/tuc-cameron-eu-workers-rights).



Of course his plan may fail and he risks a British exit from the European Union, which it seems many on the left (http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1764:morning-star-editorial-let-the-real-eu-fight-begin-&catid=78:eu-a-popular-sovereignty&Itemid=91) would welcome (http://no2eu.com/).



Although at the time of the 1975 referendum I supported a "yes" vote, I was only eleven then and subsequently changed my mind. For many years I agreed with the traditional left view (http://www.lesc.org.uk/) that we should withdraw from a "bosses' club" of wealthy nations.



However, after a generation of globalisation and the fall of the wall, it's not just "actually-existing socialism" (http://www.kent.ac.uk/secl/philosophy/articles/sayers/existingsocialism.pdf) in one country that's looking unlikely.



Social democracy "in one country" doesn't seem terribly persuasive in the twenty-first century.



What if we now live in a world in which an anachronistic attachment to "rebuilding Britain" (http://www.workers.org.uk/) or to "national sovereignty" is, at best, irrelevant to the interests of working people?



What if we have no choice but to reorganise our entire movement across national borders if we want to have a hope of meaningful positive change?



What would that mean for our attitude to a referendum on the European Union?



(And, also, how will we get beyond warm words and good intentions - http://www.unisonnw.org/documents/general/Ver_di_Memo_of_understanding.pdf - to achieve this?)

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't let them pickle local government

With tremendous chutzpah, Eric Pickles is slating Councils who dare to exercise their democratic right to increase Council tax (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21226239).

In so doing he makes clear the nature of the trap into which local authorities have walked by accepting Council tax freeze grant which, taken together with the requirement for a referendum even for a below inflation increase, is the most dramatic attack upon the legitimate financial autonomy of local government since, well, the last one.

(I was going to say "since ratecapping" but in truth the downward shift in the proportion of local spending funded by locally raised revenue initiated by the Poll Tax and continued under Council Tax has probably been more pernicious in the long term).

By accepting time-limited bribes to freeze Council tax, local authorities have - as UNISON warned (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2851) - created a future cliff edge, a long term budget gap over which central government could push them (and - when they did - the referendum lock would aim to force them to choose yet more savage cuts).

Incidentally, the idea that local authorities who put up Council Tax by 1.99% are somehow "dodging democracy" does as much damage to the English language as Pickles and his millionaire Bullingdon chums are doing to our society. A referendum gives voters a single choice, whereas an election allows us to choose between competing programmes. Local voters should be able to choose their Council - and boot them out if they don't like them.

Labour Councils in particular face an unpalatable choice between tax rises for our supporters, who are already suffering from falling incomes, or the prospect of still further devastation of local services (the "social wage" for those suffering the most).

Unfortunately the response from Labour's local government leadership is simply to cry out in pain (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20869246) or to retreat into fantasy (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2013/01/16/towards-cooperative-councils/). Neither is an adequate response.

All of which makes the sensible and moderate position of "Councillors Against the Cuts" (http://councillorsagainstcuts.org/) more timely and important than ever. Pickles is playing politics with local government finance - our response should be to do (not play) better politics by developing, presenting and campaigning for an alternative to austerity.

Within UNISON we'll have to try to persuade the Standing Orders Committee for Local Government Conference that the world won't end if we're allowed to debate the merits and consequences of local authorities considering refusing to set balanced budgets...

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unity against intolerance on Holocaust Memorial Day

The theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day, which is now drawing to a close, is "Communities Together: Build a Bridge". It's appropriate therefore today to read a report of emerging unity in opposition to the so-called "March for England" which annually seeks to invade Brighton in April.

Genocide is the extreme expression of the intolerance, bigotry and hatred displayed by the "March for England" - or, as the statement of commitment for Holocaust Memorial Day says "we recognise that humanity is still scarred by the belief that race, religion, disability or sexuality make some people’s lives worth less than others’. Genocide, anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination still continue. We have a shared responsibility to fight these evils."

As well as being a UNISON activist, I am a member of the Labour Party in Brighton and am pleased to see a number of leading Labour Party members putting their name to the call for unity against the March for England.

Solidarity with Mid Yorkshire strikers

Up to 500 UNISON and UNITE health workers in Mid-Yorkshire start a 5 day strike against compulsory redundancies at midnight tonight.

This action follows three days of strike action in November which inspired solidarity and support from other UNISON branches.

For details of the dispute, which is about job losses but also about defending Agenda for Change, I recommend the online report from InFocus on the UNISON website.

Details of how to send messages of support and donations are set out on the Unite the Resistance website;

Please send messages of support to midyorksunison@aol.co.uk

Financial donations to the hardship fund can be sent to:

UNISON Mid Yorkshire Health 20671
c/c Trade Union Office
Pinderfields Hospital
Aberford Road
Wakefield
WF1 4DG

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The threat to Lewisham A&E - Tories waging class war

I'm pleased to be on the way to the Lewisham hospital demonstration - an excellent summary of the necessity for which is set out on the False Economy blog (http://falseeconomy.org.uk/blog/lewisham-hospital-consultation-ignored-protest-26-january).



Of course, I'd be still more pleased not to have to demonstrate because the closure proposals had been withdrawn.



With 96% opposition from Lewisham residents to the proposed closure of the recently refurbished A&E, it's obvious that the Tories haven't won the argument for closure - and equally obvious that they don't give a damn. Closing a well run hospital in an area where no one votes Tory is a fine example of the brutal cynicism of the Millionaires' Government.



It's a further expression of the raw class hatred shown by the targetting of local government funding cuts to poorer - and predominantly Labour-voting areas (http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/news-story/poorest-areas-are-hardest-hit-cuts-heat-maps).



The question which is posed to our movement is - what shall we do?



Labour needs a final breach with the toxic politics of New Labour (the failed Private Finance Initiative is part of the background to today's demonstration) - the Party needs to defend our people now, not just sit and wait "prudently" to be elected in 2015 to govern a country which will no longer have a National Health Service.



The trade unions also need to coordinate national opposition both to the Government's attacks and to those in Labour's ranks who fail to oppose them.



UNISON's support for today's demonstration is welcome and important (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=8317). If the Secretary of State is not swayed by popular opinion campaigners, and local trade unionists, will have to decide what to do next.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

The mystery of the movement which did not bark (yet)


Owen Jones once more makes constructive use of the platform he has as a columnist http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/british-politics-is-in-urgent-need-of-a-new-force--a-ukip-of-the-left-to-counter-the-crisis-of-capitalism-8459099.html”to call for “a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity”
and, in so doing, throws down a challenge to all those of us who believe that we are trying to build such a movement. Owen poses the “mystery” of why there is not already an effective network of opponents of austerity.

It's the mystery of the movement which did not bark (yet).

I can’t claim to be able to solve this “mystery” completely but I think I can see some part of the answer. Let’s start with an honest assessment of where we are. The history of the first half of this Parliament is a sad history of the failure of the opponents of a weak Government with no mandate. We have failed to prevent tuition fees or to defend our National Health Service. We have failed to mobilise the potential strength of organised labour, other than for momentary demonstrations of that strength. We have even failed to win the Parliamentary opposition to anything more than the slightest leftward shift from the poisonous legacy of New Labour to the meaningless “One Nation Labour”.

What we are witnessing as trade unionists is the consequence of a generation of social and political change since the defeat of the miners. Our trade unions, objectively weaker than in the 1980s, are subjectively weaker still because of an ingrained acquiescence on the part of the union bureaucracy to the legal shackles imposed by Thatcher and Major and retained by Blair and Brown – and a self-denying ordinance from on high which prevents us from using our potential influence over “our” Party. We have, for example, hundreds of Councillors who are members of the “big three” trade unions, not all of whom merely for show, yet we have miserably failed to influence these Councillors to resist vicious cuts. Our trade unions have been bereft of a political strategy for all of the decade that I have served on UNISON’s National Executive.

At the same time very many of the committed socialists who could be mobilised to try to transform our movement are enmeshed in organisations which are plainly incapable of effective political action in the twenty first century. If forced to choose between those who consider themselves revolutionaries and those who lead our movement I would always choose those who want to change the world rather than live comfortably within it, but comrades seeking to change our world from within political parties or groups which aspire to be Bolsheviks a century ago are walled off from achieving their own objectives. Whether this self-imposed irrelevance derives from purposeless “party building” or futile electoral adventures, it serves to insulate some of our best trade union activists from the influence our class needs them to have within our ranks.

Beyond the ranks of the organised labour movement there are millions who are angry and can be mobilised (or, which is more to the point, will mobilise themselves) from time to time. Away from the timidity of our movement’s leadership and the rigidity of their critics within our movement, groups such as UK Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts and the student movement have all shown the militancy and radicalism for which socialists hope from the workers’ movement. However, without a means of focusing organised political pressure on the Government (by posing an alternative) their exemplary resistance is inevitably reactive and therefore limited.

For all that pessimism of the intellect is called for, our optimism of the will should be sustained not only by these spontaneous struggles which are emerging around us, but also by the success with which trade unionists are resisting and limiting the damage being done to our members where we organise effectively and show courage and determination. The challenge before us is somehow to focus struggle through the labour movement in order to articulate a viable political alternative to austerity.

This is, in many ways, the task for which the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was refounded some years ago. However, as utterly unconvincing as the mission to create a “new workers party” so obviously is, the persuasiveness of those of us who believe that we can “reclaim” the Labour Party is plainly equally in question.

The movement we have to build must be much bigger and broader than those around the LRC at present – and it may find new answers to the challenges it faces which we cannot anticipate. I cannot, however, see that there is a better place to start building the movement for which Owen rightly calls than by putting the challenge of doing so plainly before the LRC.

The LRC Members of Parliament, and those trade union leaders associated with the LRC, could become the focus for drawing together the opponents of austerity, within and without the Labour Party, within and without other political organisations and within and without the organised labour movement. As difficult as this may seem, I can’t see who else is better placed (or perhaps “less worse placed”) to do this.

We won’t build a movement overnight, but we could begin to organise some activity which tries to build upon the grassroots resistance to austerity and give it some meaningful political direction. Please let's not ever call it a "UKIP of the left" though!










Sunday, January 20, 2013

Save Lewisham Hospital


As a one time patient at the hospital, and the father of a child born in the threatened maternity unit, I have a personal as well as a political motivation to ask readers to support the demonstration and sign the online petition.

Caught between the Scylla of Coalition cutbacks and the Charybdis of the financial legacy of the disastrous Private Finance Initiative, our health service faces potential devastation, of which the threats to Lewisham Hospital represent a crucial moment. If the Government can be prevented from closing Lewisham Hospital that could be a turning point, and the next step must be to support Saturday’s demonstration. Assemble at Lewisham Roundabout (by the station) at 12 noon on Saturday 26th January.

Barnet fighting privatisation

 
On Tuesday 22 January opponents of the “One Barnet” privatisation programme will hand in their petition, signed so far by more than 8,000 Barnet residents, to Barnet Council. The petition calls on the council to halt the One Barnet programme – the process of giving away 70-90% of our public services to big multinationals, including Capita - until they have held a REFERENDUM.

This is why they are calling for the referendum (hat tip Barnet UNISON)
We were not consulted about handing over £1 billion of our money in contracts to companies like Capita;
We will not be consulted when the services we use daily will be provided by big businesses, interested only in their profits;
We were not asked whether we are willing to give up our local democracy and accountability to councillors, when services will be subject to 'commercial confidentiality';
The ruling Conservative group did not listen when we pointed out the huge risks of letting such big contracts for so many years to a company with too many failures to its name;
The ruling Conservative group don’t appear to care that our local economy will deteriorate further when Barnet residents lose their jobs with the council and local traders lose business as a consequence;
We will have to pay through the nose if we want to get out of the 10-year One Barnet contracts and bring services back in-house

The Conservatives could pay a high political price for One Barnet, losing their majority in the 2014 council elections – but even if this happens, residents could still be landed with the One Barnet bill. Barnet UNISON have waged an exemplary campaign to resist this privatisation over many years and deserve the full support of all trade unionists.

If you can get to Hendon Town Hall on Tuesday evening you can support them in person. If you can’t then there’s an e-petition to sign on Barnet Council’s website.




Save Our Fire Service

The London Region of the Fire Brigades Union has called a lobby of the next Fire Authority meeting on Monday 21 January 2013 at 1.30pm at the London Fire Brigade headquarters at 169 Union Street, London SE1 0LL to protest at plans to close 12 fire stations, remove 18 fire engines and slash 520 firefighter posts details are online here.

UNISON's Greater London Regional Committee has encouraged UNISON members to attend if possible, and our members who work for the Fire Authority will be supporting the lobby in opposition to these cuts. Those of us who work in Lambeth have particular cause to reflect on what the FBU's Regional Secretary, Paul Embery had to say; "The helicopter crash that occurred earlier this week showed the importance of having a properly-funded, well-resourced fire service in the capital, and it is worthy of note that the first crew at the scene was mobilised from a station – Clapham – earmarked for closure and arrived within four minutes." 

We need to do all we can to oppose these cuts, which literally and very obviously threaten life and limb. If you can't get to the lobby then sign the online petition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

UNISON's London Regional Committee - to infinity and beyond?

I understand that there is a point of view that, since there are an infinite number of numbers it follows that there are an infinite number of realities.



If this is so then there must be a universe in which the London Regional Committee of UNISON, which met this morning, makes sense.



Mathematically, there must be a reality in which a Committee which doesn't care that it has failed to organise a quorate Regional Council (other than its AGM) since 2005 is nevertheless a paragon of labour movement virtue.



In this universe however, a Regional Committee the leadership of which is happy not to have a functioning Regional Council, is a sorry creature.



We need effective and vigorous unity to confront the attacks from the Coalition Government. Such unity cannot be built on the basis of dereliction of duty such as that shown by our Regional Committee, which has failed to arrange a quorate Regional Council (other than an AGM) in eight years.



Trade union democracy - which requires well attended decisionmaking meetings - is not an "optional extra". It is essential to an effective response to austerity and to the defence of workers' interests more generally.



Given the infinite possibilities of the "multiverse" there must remain hope that the Regional Committee will rise to this potential occasion and ensure a quorate Regional Council after this year's AGM.



Or perhaps not.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Councillors against cuts

A very welcome addition to the internet is the online presence of Councillors against cuts (http://councillorsagainstcuts.org/). I urge you to follow that link (indeed if you only have a few moments online that will be a better use of your time than reading the remainder of this post).

The few pioneers who have put their names to this initiative stand in the best and proudest tradition of Labour representatives in local government, a tradition punctuated by Poplar, Clay Cross, Lambeth and Liverpool, by those who remember, with George Lansbury, that it is "better to break the law than to break the poor."

There are many more Labour Councillors whose hearts are with those elected representatives who have pledged not to collude with the Tory destruction of our welfare state. However, most of these do not believe effective resistance is possible, or fear that their reward for similar courage would be to lose the whip. In saluting those Councillors who have stood up in defence of services, I'm not with those who would denounce all those who have (as yet) failed to do so.

The task for those of us who believe that Labour should be a true shield for our communities (rather than - at best - a cushion absorbing a little of the Tory blows raining down on us) is a task of persuasion rather than denunciation.

Our adversaries within Labour are those who believe that local government is essentially a proving ground, and that all real politics is at Westminster. Whether these "comrades" (the inverted commas are for those in the Sainsbury/Progress faction) are trying to "prove" that a local Labour administration can be "prudent", or whether they are more interested in proving that they themselves would make a good MP, they prioritise the administration of the local state over representing the interests of the local working class.

Under a Government which has already - in effect - abolished the National Health Service as we have known it and taken the larger part of secondary education out of local democratic control, it is not possible to administer the local state in a manner which is consistent with the interests of the local working class. This is true with greatest force in those Northern cities (and Inner London Boroughs!) - overwhelmingly Labour controlled - where the cuts are deepest.

Developing a socialist alternative to administering Tory cuts as kindly as possible is not at all a "return to the 80s". In the first place, it was precisely in the 80s that those currently calling the shots in the Labour Party rose to power - and the actual practice of the great majority of the Party in local government was the tragic failure of Kinnock's "dented shield." Secondly, the challenge we face now is so much greater than that faced a generation ago that the comparison simply cannot be made.

"Councillors Against the Cuts" have done us all a great service - by reminding us that there is a political debate to be had about the role of the Labour Party in resisting this Government. The challenge to the leadership of the trade unions is whether we will defend these Councillors and promote their arguments, which are the logical consequence of the policies of the unions and the TUC.

It's time the trade unions fought for our policies in the Party and backed those who support them. Will we?

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Debating our future

Before Xmas I blogged some comments on a useful article by left academic Ralph Darlington about the current state of our movement (http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/how-do-we-regain-our-strength.html?m=1).

I'm pleased to see that the comrades over at UNISON Anonymous have picked up on the debate (http://unisonactive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/building-workers-confidence-and-rank.html?m=1) - albeit the SWP flavour of comrade Darlington's conclusions isn't quite to their taste.

There is some force in their criticism that Darlington's positive assessment of independent rank and file forces is "wishful thinking". It might be more polite to say that his optimism of the will may have obscured his pessimism of the intellect on this point. Certainly, as a member from its inception of UNISON United Left, I would never claim it was anywhere near being the rank and file movement which socialists would like to see.

However, there is an obvious flaw in their conclusion that "building rank and file movements and linking with social movements is not a strategy for building and growing, they are the strategies of a powerful and well organised union not ones struggling to be relevant in the workplace." This ignores the historical evidence, to which Darlington refers, which shows that our movement grows when it is strong and autonomous at the base and reaches out beyond the workplace.

The anonymous commentator rehearses some common sense steps which any decent activist would endorse - and their reservations about cackhanded "politicisation" by activists are not entirely without merit. However, whilst Darlington may be criticised for conclusions which go beyond his evidence and argument, UNISON Active are characteristically timid and apolitical.

If we were going to rebuild our movement with the ten year old syllabus from "Winning the Organised Workplace" we wouldn't be having this debate now!

It's time to put down the metaphorical icepick comrades. UNISON Active often includes thoughtful contributions (some of which are attributed!)

I think you could do better comrades. Give it a go?

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An offer we can refuse

A week from today the national employers' side negotiators are likely to make a formal offer for the 2013/14 pay round.



Time was this annual event would have been unremarkable, but it's something which hasn't happened over the past three years. This must be a cause of some relief to the employers' side negotiators, since if we never got pay offers the employers might not need negotiators.



So, let me say it again.



A week from today the national employers' side negotiators are likely to make a formal offer for the 2013/14 pay round.



Whether there shall be any cause for celebration on the trade union side is, however, questionable.



Wiser and better informed sources than your humble blogger (Sid and Doris Service Group) predict an offer of 1% probably minus the worst of the mooted "strings" (an assault on sick pay).



I don't think we'll be putting champagne on ice in our branch office though - even if an attack on conditions which hasn't happened doesn't happen.



There would be nothing to celebrate if we end up with a pay "rise" which is a further reduction in real earnings (as the percentage increase in pay would fall well below the current rate of price increases).



The standard of living of the many local government workers who have seen neither a promotion nor incremental progression since 2009 has fallen by one sixth. At the same time, as tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, workloads have been rising inexorably.



Now is the time to implement the policy moved at last September's TUC by UNISON's own Dave Prentis - and to seek to coordinate action to smash the Government's pay policy.



This means that the trade unions in local government need to find the confidence to recommend rejection of a below-inflation pay offer, and to campaign energetically and persuasively for our members to be prepared to take strike action to win the increase we deserve.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2013 - the need for political trade unionism

It may not be the best or easiest year in which to be a socialist and trade unionist - but there's little doubt that most years in the past two centuries have commenced less auspiciously and that those who came before us didn't flinch from getting on with the difficult job of building our movement and defending the interests of working people (nor did they sneer for that matter!)

So we have to get on with it. And we have to recognise the difficulties which we face.

The Coalition Government has cut through us like a scythe over the past two years, having come to office to find a labour movement demoralised and disoriented by the defeats and betrayals of the New Labour years. Resistance has been patchy in the sense that arable farming in the Sahara is patchy - it has been very very limited at a local level.

Those of us who hoped to engender a meaningful national fight (which might better have inspired local resistance) have failed because the approach of the national leadership of our movement has been to mirror what they perceive at the base with what might best be described as "qualified despair" - and we have failed to change this (yet).

The public service pensions dispute was our best chance to inflict a setback upon the Government in this Parliament. We failed to do so because of a lack of confidence from top to bottom of the movement. It's easy to be angry with the leadership and their supporters (and I am) but trite to characterise this simply as "betrayal."

The leadership may have been culpable for circumstances in which we did not mobilise our members for action which could win a real victory - but the importance of their lack of confidence was magnified by the weakness of the left and rank and file.

Comparing our circumstances now with those two and a half years into Thatcher's first term (which seems sensible) we have half the trade union members we had then, we have - comparatively - a pitiably weak and marginalised left wing in the Labour Party, a Communist Party which is barely an echo of its former self and a far left which is floundering and without direction (to put it kindly).

In local government, these political weaknesses are reflected in the fact that we have almost no political support for a position of outright opposition to all spending cuts. In 2013 there are fewer Councillors prepared to resist all cuts in England than there were local authorities prepared to take that position in the mid-80s.

The pointless diversion of "building a new workers party" is less relevant now than at any point in the thirteen years of (New) Labour Government, but the important weaknesses and errors are at the top, not on the margins of the movement.

We need a clear focus from the trade unions on building and developing the Labour Party as a focus for our opposition to austerity. We might wish for a different or better political vehicle for our hopes - but we might wish for almost anything. We won't get it. What we have is the Labour Party.

The failed approach of having "influence" over the Labour Party leadership is not, however, the answer, although it may well be what the big trade unions continue to try to do. This was the approach which saw Foundation Hospitals delivered with the votes (against UNISON policy) of UNISON MPs. This was the approach which has done so much to discredit our relationship with the Labour Party in the eyes of the rank and file.

We need rather to see the Labour Party for what it is and has always been - an arena for struggle to promote workers' interests.

Whether or not we believe in class war it is being waged against us. We therefore need to fight back on every front, including within the Labour Party. In 2013, more than ever, we need political trade unionism.

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

New Year's Resolution - Defend Sick Pay

I started the New Year off sick and am just now getting into work, my cough providing a percussion accompaniment to the ever more expensive train.

Whilst unpleasant, this is strangely appropriate, since we know that, in their quest to offer "red meat" to some of the least evolved of their constituents, the national employers' side negotiators in local government have our sick pay scheme in their sights.

There was, before the holiday, a modest amount of confusion in the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road as to whether the employers had in fact made an offer of a 1% pay rise "with strings" to local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is clear now that no offer has yet been made.

It is equally clear that, when it comes, the offer to end the pay freeze will be of an increase well below the current rate of price inflation (continuing, if we were to accept, the decline in our living standards). Furthermore, this paltry offer will be linked to unacceptable attacks on conditions of service (the "strings").

One of these which has been widely trailed is a "reform" of our sick pay scheme, which provides for a reasonable and civilised amount of pay for those who are unwell. It's not difficult to anticipate the arguments that will be advanced to attack the sick, because they will echo the arguments used to justify the assault upon our pensions.

We will be told that we are featherbedded public servants and that workers in unorganised areas of the private sector cope with being impoverished if they become unwell (or drag themselves in and share their infection with colleagues and customers).

No doubt we will also be told that many Tory donors in the insurance industry stand ready to sell us products which might make up for any sick pay we could lose...

Whilst I think it's obvious that reasonable sick pay provisions (which really reflect distributional justice within the workforce rather than generosity from the employers) are essential to decency in the workplace, I can also already hear the handwringers claiming that our members don't want to fight.

I therefore suggest two resolutions for the New Year. First, we need to take the argument for the defence of sick pay to our own members, win it and mobilise for action.

Secondly, if you do go into work with a cough then be careful not to infect anyone else - unless they are arguing against action to defend sick pay (in which case they deserve it...)

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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

New Year's Message to shop stewards

We are now half way through a Parliament in which the Coalition Government has used the opportunity of an economic crisis caused by the banks to launch an attack upon our welfare state which they have wanted for a generation.
 
The years of pay freeze, job losses and attacks on benefits and services have not reduced the public sector deficit - because that has never been the Government's intention. For the Cabinet of millionaires, the attack on our living standards and public services is an end in itself.
 
It will be a difficult year in 2013 (as UNISON warns on our national website today - http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2923) but if we work hard together we can make it less difficult - and make a real positive difference.
 
At a local level, since the General Election, we have lost hundreds of jobs in the Council, including some compulsory redundancies. However, we have also delayed and/or avoided many job losses.
 
The stronger and more effectively we are organised at a local level, the better will be the job that we can do to limit the damage being done to jobs and services as a result of the Government's economic policy.
 
In particular, we need to be prepared to win arguments with our members, perhaps section-by-section, to be prepared to take industrial action as part of our campaigning activity against cuts. In general we need to encourage more activism, including lobbies of Council meetings and participation in all sorts of campaigning.
 
Now more than ever we need to remember, and remind our members, that the Union is not something else, separate from the membership, and that we need to organise and mobilise our members to be active in defending our interests as local government workers.
 
Of course we also need to see a change in approach nationally from the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party if we are to be able to reverse the attacks upon our living standards and public services from the Government. We can only do so much at a local level.
 
Former Council Leader, Ted Knight, has recently explained what Labour Councils should be doing, with which I agree wholeheartedly and which I would urge you to read (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/30/coalition-resistance-local-council-cuts).
 
Our Branch Annual General Meeting will be an opportunity for us to consider what demands we should be making to our UNISON Conference about how our trade unions use the power of our six million members to stand up to the Government.
 
As much as I know 2013 will be tough and will see a lot of hard work, I cannot imagine a better place in which to face this challenge than the Lambeth branch of UNISON. I look forward to seeing you at the next Branch Committee and at the Annual General Meeting.