Thursday, November 14, 2013

Climbing the mountain to fight for fair pay in local government


There wasn't a quorum of delegates at today's meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Committee. This is in large part due to the fact that the Regional Office makes no effort to encourage participation in the Local Government Service Group (just as they do nothing much to encourage local government branches to attend the Regional Council AGM).

However, the bizarre and dysfunctional politics which haunt the first floor of Congress House are a sideshow when it comes to the real grown up trade unionism of the local government pay dispute (as they are generally I suppose). Local government pay is a national issue across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and activists need to think about what needs to be done at a national level (turning to how we remove or work around right-wing obstacles at Regional level very much as a secondary matter).

The delegates who were present this morning made some constructive suggestions as to the steps we need to take to develop a pay campaign for local government workers, starting from a clear-headed understanding of the enormous difficulty of persuading hundreds of thousands of local government workers to take strike action in 2014, twenty five years on from the last really significant victory in national action over local government pay.

We have a mountain to climb.

But that means we need to strike camp, get our boots on and head on up.

We need a major rally/meeting/training session for stewards in every Region (or every major city) to draw together as many shop stewards as possible. The size of such gatherings should give confidence to participants - but we are not so naive as to want to build the shallow confidence of a "ra ra" rally. We need "mythbuster" leaflets which take on the foolish argument that miserly pay restraint saves local government jobs. We need to equip every activist with arguments for the pay claim - and then with arguments for industrial action. We need each shop steward to leave that rally/meeting/training session equipped to make and win the argument for strike action.

In tandem with a campaign to win our members first to support the claim, and then to support strike action, we need a campaign for public support and to apply political pressure upon our employers. Every single local authority should receive a deputation in support of our claim in January, while dozens (or hundreds) of our members and supporters demonstrate outside. This should be preceded by a model letter for ALL UNISON members (and friends and family) to send to their local Councillor(s) and followed by the publication of a statement in support of our claim open to the signatures of all Councillors and Council candidates (other than those from the far right) - so that voters in May's local elections know who was with us and who was against us. We also need an Early Day Motion, and an e-petition on the Government website, with a co-ordinated joint union campaign to lobby MPs to support the EDM (and with a view to a mass lobby of Parliament if we can force a debate).

These are just the first steps we need to take. But if we are going to climb this mountain we need to take those first steps.

In the spirit of the Clyde Workers Committee we need to give the official structures of the Union a chance to get moving.

If they don't we'll press on unofficially.

A fortnight should be long enough to assess whether we should continue to wait before acting ourselves. We can't reasonably expect our own employees to work through all their weekends or until midnight - but we also can't reasonably expect our most committed activists to do anything else.

This national local government pay dispute (because a dispute is inevitable) will involve the largest bargaining group in the economy and will represent a turning point for our movement.

Either this is the beginning of the end for austerity politics (and therefore for both the Coalition Government and their "Progress" co-thinkers within the Labour Party) or it is the beginning of the end for national pay bargaining (and therefore perhaps ultimately for the national offices of our trade unions. )

It's not unimportant.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How to remove the protection from a protected conversation

Section 14 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 introduces a new section (111A) into the Employment Rights Act 1996, to provide that details of "pre-termination negotiations" should not be admissible in evidence in employment tribunal hearings about unfair dismissal.

(http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/24/section/14/enacted)

For good employers this new law is unnecessary. For those who want to strong arm employees out of the organisation it appears to offer a handy new tool which they can use to bully workers without fear of being held to account.

Happily the tool is so poorly designed as to not be fit for this nefarious purpose. This is because evidence about the "pre-termination negotiations" will be admissible in evidence in any tribunal claim other than unfair dismissal (as well as being admissible in all cases where a dismissal is alleged to have been for a reason which would make it automatically unfair).

This doesn't just mean that (for example) the veil hiding the so-called "protected conversation" can be pulled away in any case where allegations of discrimination accompany those of unfair dismissal - it also means that the fact of the "pre-termination negotiations" can always be made admissible in any case in which an employee is summarily dismissed.

This is because, by virtue of the Industrial Tribunals (Extension of Jurisdiction) Order 1994 an employee who has been dismissed can bring a breach of contract claim before an employment tribunal. An employee who has been summarily dismissed can bring a claim for wrongful dismissal alongside any claim for unfair dismissal and can therefore introduce evidence about the conversation which their employer had hoped would be "protected."

No decent employer should consider making use of s111A anyway. But if they try, they should watch out.

Bonanza for spivs and chancers

It's not really news that a handful of large contractors are raking in billions of pounds from the taxpayer. (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/12/public-sector-paid-outsourcing-firms-4-billion-pounds)

The function of outsourcing for a capitalist economy is precisely to open up to private profit (capital accumulation) areas previously excluded, in order to provide opportunities for profitable investment. It may be that this or that contractor makes super-profits through ripping off the public sector (and the private sector often seems adept at driving a harder bargain) but that really is incidental. Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee can expose particular scandals, but it would take both a change of Government and a change of tack by the Opposition really to address this issue.

Outsourcing expresses the primal urge of capital to penetrate and commodify every area of our lives. This drive is, of course, dressed up in an ideological worship of the supposed "efficiency" of the private sector, a foolish mantra which, having been swallowed whole by politicians of all parties, continues now to be excreted over our public services.

It's deeply ironic that, while every local authority has a staff code of conduct that defines as gross misconduct any attempt by a public servant to profit personally from their professional role, Councillors think nothing of handing over whole swathes of service delivery to organisations with precisely that motivation.

While, among the many thousands of workers outsourced over the past decades, there are many good people trying to do a decent job, their bosses are all too often spivs and chancers who care only for shareholder value (and their own inflated salaries and bonuses).

As public service trade unionists we need to remember to assert that a public service ethos is both morally superior to, and practically more effective than the profit motive as a guiding principle for the delivery of public services.

And we desperately need more Labour politicians, at every level, who understand this.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Stop the Lobbying Bill’s union membership data grab!

Full marks to the TUC for launching an urgent lobbying initiative to combat the threat of (the relatively little noticed) Part Three of the Lobbying Bill.

(http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2013/11/stop-the-lobbying-bills-union-membership-data-grabthe-lobbying-bill-pause-is-not-quite-what-it-seems)

This legislation - if it comes into force - will create unnecessary and uncalled for administrative burdens for trade unions in relation to our membership records - and open up new avenues for vexatious litigation against us.

The TUC are rightly highlighting the threat of breach of confidentiality of union membership records (in an economy where we know many major private employers have previous form for blacklisting trade unionists). However, the scope for mischief-making by anti-union employers and right-wing fringe groups is at least equally alarming.

The Lords will debate Part Three on Monday - so we only have the weekend to get the message across about a serious attack on the rights of millions of trade union members which has almost slipped below the radar of the civil liberties campaigners doing such good work to resist the outrageous restrictions of Part Two.

The TUC has launched an urgent campaign (http://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=12387&qid=58722) to allow union members and anyone concerned about data privacy to adopt a Peer and email them about this.

Please make some time to do this today!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Local Government Pay - Now is the Time for Action

‎In the past few weeks, three disputes have led to either national or multi-regional strike action in workplaces where UNISON members are present.

Right now (until noon tomorrow) NAPO are taking action against the attacks on the Probation service. Last month NUT and NAS/UWT members in schools in many regions struck over pay, pensions and workloads. Last week saw the successful joint union Higher Education strike.

That it was only in the last of these three cases that UNISON members were taking action is a product, in part, of objective factors such as bargaining structures, and, in part, of subjective factors (such as the extent to which persistent rank and file organisation can break the spell of the world weary cynicism which appears to be the default setting of many officials in more unions than UNISON alone).

If the trade union movement is to play a role in reversing the longest sustained fall in the real earnings of working people in this country in living memory then - in UNISON - it is to the example of Higher Education which we need to look. And it is from Local Government that we should be looking.

The local government workforce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, whose pay and conditions are negotiated by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services remains the largest bargaining group in the economy.

UNISON is the majority union in this crucial bargaining group, our membership exceeding by more than 100% the combined membership of the other unions (GMB and UNITE). I don't make this remark out of some sort of "UNISON chauvinism" but to point out the responsibility which falls upon UNISON to provide clear leadership, with the other unions, in a fight which will have implications for all trade unionists - and all workers.

As an aside I should point out that one part of that responsibility is the responsibility of UNISON members of the NJC trade union side to turn up at meetings or send substitutes - and that the same responsibility falls equally on our Union's official structures to ensure that we are adequately and appropriately represented. We can revisit this question when we have won a decent pay rise.

We now have a pay claim, for a flat rate rise of at least a pound an hour to bring the bottom of the national pay spine up to the level of the (national) Living Wage. A special meeting of the UNISON NJC Committee on 13 November will now discuss how we build the campaign ‎around this claim.

Strike action will be required.

National strike action will be required.

All-out national strike action of more than one day will be required.

We also need a campaign strategy which builds towards that necessary action and which wins the support of our members for that action.

We need an e-petition and an Early Day Motion (signed by every member of the Trade Union Group of MPs). 

We need deputations from every local government branch to meetings of every local authority in support of our claim (coordinated by our Regions, with Regional staff organising the deputations wherever branches may be unable to do so). 

We need targeted recruitment material for local government workers who have yet to join us, based upon our claim. 

We need regular bulletins to all our members, nationally as well as from branches, each of which asks members to do something - to act - in support of our claim. 

When our e-petition forces a Parliamentary debate we need a lobby of Parliament, around which we should focus a media offensive in which we publicise the case for fair pay for a predominantly female and low paid workforce delivering vital services.

We need model letters to Councillors and MPs for all our members, our friends and families.

We need leaflets which our branches can customise and order free of charge (on the model of the recent recruitment campaign).

We need guidance to branches (immediately) on how to organise publicity stunts and media events to promote a coherent message which has to be defined within 48 hours of the 13 November meeting.

And we need to sideline and ignore anyone whose world weary cynicism has overwhelmed their optimism of the will.

Now is the time for action.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Support the Probation Officers' strike!

At the last meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) (a report of which here is now somewhat overdue) our General Secretary, Dave Prentis, made a particular point of mentioning UNISON's firm opposition to the plans of the Coalition Government for the privatisation of the Probation service.

‎Today, our sister union, the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) launch a 24 hour strike at noon in opposition to plans which threaten public safety as much as the rights and conditions of the workforce (https://www.napo.org.uk/about/news/news.cfm/newsid/310).

UNISON members are not being called out as UNISON has yet to declare a trade dispute, but when UNISON members in probation were surveyed in the summer 99% opposed the Government plans and 85% indicated a willingness to take industrial action.

‎NAPO's action clearly demonstrates the possibility of lawful action in these circumstances, and the strike will most certainly focus further attention on this most outrageous of privatisations.

I'm not privy to the details of the negotiations which are underway to try to protect the terms and conditions of probation service staff, nor therefore to the decisionmaking process which has led to our not yet having declared a trade dispute. However, I hope that if NAPO are forced to take further action, UNISON is able to offer our members the opportunity to act alongside them.

One thing we can all do is sign the e-petition against the Government's privatisation plans (http:‎//epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44403).

NAPO are taking only their fourth national industrial action‎ in over a century of existence, in response to a vital threat to the very existence of probation as a service for the public, rather than a money-making scheme for private profiteers.





Monday, November 04, 2013

Trade unions need to toughen up

I'm not sure if getting the headline on the letters page of the Grauniad necessarily signifies an upturn in the class struggle (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/03/trade-unions-need-toughen-up‎).

However, a good UNISON comrade, George Binette, has managed to shame the paper into headlining his letter about last Thursday's Higher Education strike‎ (which points out that Friday's print edition ignored the strike when it was a significant news story). That letter then leads several others dealing with union issues and the living wage.

As this is Living Wage Week‎, with the uprated living wage set to be announced today, it's a good time to reflect upon how we should respond to the longest period of declining living standards for UK workers in living memory.

The Living Wage is, of course, a worthy cause. Setting a standard below which workers ought not to have to live is good sense. However, there are a couple of reasons for caution.

First, as trade unionists, we ought to aspire to raising wages through collective bargaining - the joint, collective, regulation of the employment relationship. We've not been doing particularly well on that front in recent years.

If an increasing number of low paid workers come to rely for a pay rise not upon their own collective organisation but upon a more or less arbitrary announcement by a well-meaning cross section of the great and the good, or upon sudden generosity from employers because the Government offer them tax breaks, then where is the space, or the incentive, for trade union organisation?

Secondly, as important as it is to raise up the living standards of those at the bottom of the pay pyramid (and it is vitally important - which is why I welcome the flat rate pay claim for local government workers), it is also important to reverse the fall in living standards for workers who are not low paid.

It is a scandal that so many thousands of our fellow workers earn ‎less than the modest sum required to live with a modicum of decency - but it is also a scandal that all local government workers have seen our real earnings fall by one sixth since 2009.

So, yes, we need to campaign for the living wage for all, but we also need to organise for a pay rise for all workers, and to organise all workers into trade unions. This "economic recovery" which cheers the CBI while workers' living standards continue to fall is a direct consequence of the weakening and marginalisation of our trade unions.

As the headline writer on the Guardian letters page puts is so well, trade unions need to toughen up.

Friday, November 01, 2013

A new red light for Part 3 of the Lobbying Bill

http://midlandstucmedia.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/new-blow-to-lobbying-bill-as-business.html?m=1

A not inconsiderable hat tip to the Midlands TUC for the link above, which tells a funny story about how dishonesty can turn round and bite you in the posterior.

The Government oppose "red tape" because they oppose anything which gets in the way of profit (pesky things like health and safety law, or the requirement to pay a minimum wage).

They don't really oppose "red tape" as such of course (indeed they like to use it to keep foreigners out of the country or to make it harder for workers to bring claims in employment tribunals).

However, because we live in a class society in which those at the top prefer, mostly, not to flaunt their class bias, ‎ they have set up a Committee with the explicit aim of limiting red tape. All red tape. Anywhere. Not just red tape which constrains bosses.

Unfortunately for the Government, their Committee has applied their stated position on "red tape" (rather than their real position) consistently ‎ to Part Three of the Lobbying Bill (a.k.a. the Gagging Bill).

This is the bit that imposes novel, onerous and (literally) uncalled for requirements in relation to trade union membership records. The real intention of these proposals is - pretty obviously - further to constrain our already limited right to strike, but the Government can't say that.

So their very own "Regulatory Policy Committee" has given a "red" status to their mischevious plans. Parliamentarians need to stop this nonsense now.

And if they don't, the whole trade union movement will have to reconsider our approach of slavish compliance with anti-union laws which contravene our human rights and the UK's international treaty obligations.

Solidarity with the FBU - in all our interests

Good luck to all firefighters taking strike action later today (and Monday) in their continuing search for a fair deal on pensions (http://www.fbu.org.uk/?p=7707#more-7707‎).

The firefighters' cause is obviously just and they deserve to prevail. Many of our pension schemes would no doubt be in a better state had we continued with coordinated strike action after 30 November 2011, however the FBU action is not simply an aftershock from that earlier, too hastily concluded campaign.

As the stuttering economic recovery does nothing to relieve the downwards pressure on workers' living standards, and as this Government continues to demonise and attack public service workers, it's quite clear that a future Conservative Government would renew an assault upon all our pension schemes.

In the current workplace climate of fear, stress and uncertainty, every struggle is a potential beacon of hope which offers the possibility of getting to the coordination of strike action which trade unions vote for at the TUC and then fail to put into practice.‎

But even if disputes are prosecuted entirely in isolation, they deserve our support - and anyone who might ever need to be carried out of a burning building should show support for the FBU in whatever way we can.