Saturday, June 14, 2014

Organising the fragmented workforce

A few months ago I was reflecting on the challenges we face in trying to organise the fragmented (and frequently privatised) public service workforce.

This issue, which will be an important topic for discussion at UNISON Conference over the coming week, has also been one of the things keeping me away from blogging over recent days.

UNISON faces a public service workforce employed by thousands of different employers, sometimes on zero-hours contracts, often without the benefit of trade union recognition.

Whilst we have made great strides in organising the workforce of a company like Four Seasons (where we have a national recognition agreement), we need a significant change in our own culture if we are going to unionise employers who do not welcome our presence.

The NEC’s Development and Organisation Committee is still waiting for a final report of the lessons learned from the “Three Companies project” (which attentive readers of this blog may remember). I won't forget to pursue this.

Most of all though we need to face forward and prepare ourselves to organise in hostile environments.

I’m aware of the case of an activist who has been through two suspensions since he began trying to organise for UNISON in his employer. In a world in which workers need two years direct employment before they even have the right to gamble a thousand pounds on a claim of unfair dismissal, we need to provide different, appropriate, support to activists in such circumstances.

I have sympathy with the argument that our structures (including our lay democratic structures) are not perfectly designed to facilitate such organising, or to represent the interests of our members “out there” in the fragments of the fragmented public service workforce.

However, I have very little sympathy with the idea that we should prioritise years of navel-gazing when there are workers out there now experiencing unilateral pay cuts from employers, some of whom seek to prohibit discussion of trade unionism in work time.

Our ramshackle branch structures are the only structures we have now, in 2014, to organise workers who need to be organised in 2014 and our over-stretched lay activists are the only activists we have, right now, to help to achieve this.


1 comment:

steve jinx said...

Jon, your blogs seem to be addressing fellow Unison activists rather than the rank and file and it is me that is probably not in the right place here,speaking as it were from the floor. I come on to your site and criticise Unison from the perspective of a permanently disgruntled member out of frustration of having no direct means of addressing the leadership or getting any kind of response from my branch who are,I contend,lazy,inactive both in terms of recruitment and in promoting better t&cs. They seem to be just another branch of management rubber stamping the council's demands.
So, to address your subject "Organising the fragmented workforce" I'd like to make the following points which will probably sound like more carping, and probably stuff you've heard before but they are intended to be constructive.
From where I'm standing as a low paid front line council worker with no career prospects Unison is not fit for purpose. It is hugely fragmented not only geographically and in terms of different organisations,jobs, and contracts but, in trying to be everything to everybody it does little to help anyone. Unison may represent both me and the Chief Officer but we have different needs and aspirations. Unison, as I have said before, exploits the low paid as much as the management does. It needs us to be poorly paid so it can rattle the tin for the bigger benefit of the middle management many of whom are doind exceptionally well.
Squeezed middle? How's this for squeezed? I'm on under £16k a year. I am what is making those on £18-£20k feel ok. I'm keeping them off the bottom. They and people above them are never going to take action on my behalf. People cling desperately to their position on the Hay Scale. Below me, and working alongside me are perfectly happy people on zero hour contracts (under £7ph)(unopposed by our Unison branch) - pension- age people boosting their income to pay for their Florida holidays. I am not able to complain about my wages when these people are content to work so cheap and uncomplaining. I, no less than everyone else, want to stay off the bottom of the heap yet as the minimum/living wage creeps up it gets ever closer to me. Fragmented? Let's not pretend we're a united group. We all believe we're entitled to more or as much as our fellow pulic sector workers and, again as I've said before, the union's pay negotiations have made many of us at the bottom relatively and absolutely poorer year after year after year. Who is Unison for?