Thursday, January 30, 2014

Organising in the Private Sector

I've not blogged since the Branch Annual General Meeting last week and now I'm posting up a reference to a fifteen year old Employment Appeal Tribunal decision. Why?

Well, I've not blogged because I've been busy with various matters, including attending a meeting last week of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Development and Organisation Committee (D&O) at which we received an excellent presentation on organising the increasingly fragmented public service workforce. Locally the branch is alive to this issue as we have private sector members working in intolerable conditions.

And I'm posting up this relatively ancient decision (which I fear is still, as they say, "good law") because it is a reminder of the risks we must be prepared to run if we wish to take trade union organisation out into the "precariat" who work in this fragmented workforce.

The "point of law" in the case of Beynon -v- Scadden is whether an employment tribunal can take account of the means of a trade union in determining the ability of workers represented by that union to pay an award of costs made against them. The real point of the case was an attempt to organise a small private sector social care employer whose workers wanted a trade union, but which refused to recognise the union (in the days before statutory recognition).

I was intimately involved in the case, in which a tribunal criticised the Union for using TUPE litigation to try to cajole a reluctant employer into recognising the Union. The Union lost the case, and bore non-negligible costs as a result but (as far as I am aware) no one (not even myself) was criticised within UNISON as a result. Nor should we have been. (The original tribunal, as I recollect, accused me of "abuse of process" - but sometimes that is what is necessary, and losing no more proves you were wrong than winning proves you were right).

We will not recruit low-paid private sector workers on insecure (often zero hours) contracts on the basis that we have a good individual "offer" (for as little as £1.30 a month). We have to show how organising can deliver immediate improvement to their working lives.

We have to adopt a multi-faceted approach in which we use every legal and political avenue open to us to try to build the capacity which will be needed to develop effective collective organisation. The tools we have now, more than fifteen years after the events leading to that legal decision, include not only the statutory recognition provisions but also the legal right to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance hearings.

To these legal rights we can add the law on consultation on health and safety, transfers and collective redundancies (as it applies where there is no trade union recognition). The (not otherwise very welcome) departure from the traditional Committee structure in local government has also created a Scrutiny function, the gaze of which we can, with the help of sympathetic politicians, turn to such questions as working conditions in a private social care sector almost entirely dependent upon public expenditure.

The approach of UNISON's admirable Ethical Care Charter can be applied beyond Homecare - and we must see that it is.

At the end of the day (a day in which some private social care workers may well have done a 24 hour shift) we do, however, have to recognise that the workers who we persuade to build the Union in these workplaces will be putting their jobs on the line.

We can only repay this courage by offering the same willingness to take risks and invest resources. I hope we shall.

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