Monday, March 31, 2014

Barnet - Not an April Fool

‎Not everything which happens at the start of the "cruellest month" is an April Fool.

In particular, the assault upon Barnet UNISON is no joke.

A madcap Tory-right administration obsessed with privatisation (and facing the possibility of losing control) is lashing out at its most effective opponents.

The imposition of unworkable, ideologically driven, reductions in trade union "facility time" (as advocated by the failed "Trade Union Reform Campaign" on the wilder reaches of the political right) isn't the half of it.

The employer has focused it's attack upon the leadership of Barnet's vibrant and effective UNISON branch (and it must be shaming for the senior officials who are allowing themselves to be used as political tools in this way).

As of tomorrow, in what may be the last weeks of Tory Barnet, the attack moves up a gear - the response to this attack from our movement also needs to step up.

This is a test we must not fail.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Local government pay - reject 1%

http://www.unison.org.uk/news/unison-to-consult-members-over-meagre-pay-offer

The 1% pay offer to local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was entirely predictable (as were the modest additional increases on the lowest pay spine points to keep ahead of the minimum wage).

UNISON has to give a clear lead to members to reject this further real terms pay cut if we are to stand a chance of securing the support of our members ‎for the action which is necessary to force a decent pay rise out of the employers. 
The run up to the 2011 pensions strike demonstrated the capacity of our Union, acting together, to mobilise members for action. ‎We need similar well-resourced determination if we are serious about ending the pay freeze that has been holding down the living standards of our members for years now.

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Breaking the Taboo - the failed war on drugs is an issue for the labour movement

http://www.breakingthetaboo.info/

I was pleased recently to see the excellent film, "Breaking the Taboo" which exposes the comprehensive and total failure of the "war on drugs" declared by Richard Nixon and still being fought in spite of overwhelming evidence of its futility.

The showing of the film (which you can find on YouTube and which I thoroughly recommend, was followed by a panel discussion at Komedia in Brighton, in which Green MP Caroline Lucas reported on the success of an e-petition which will now lead to a debate in Parliament‎ on the entirely sensible proposition that the Government should gather and consider evidence on the effectiveness of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

The failed policy of prohibition criminalises those with a health problem (addiction), underpins the business model of organised crime and ruins (and ends) lives. Many UNISON members - and other trade unionists - see the devastating social consequences of the continuing failure of a misconceived policy of repression both in our union work and our working lives.

If we are to shift the United Kingdom in the direction of a progressive policy on drugs we need to move the Labour Party in that direction. I suggest that trade union activists watch the film - and reflect upon what we can do in that cause.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Defend UNISON in Carmarthenshire!

It’s bad enough when Barnet’s madcap Tory right-wing extremists attack our trade union – but it’s a disgrace that Labour Carmarthenshire is following suit.

UNISON Cymru/Wales has publicly condemned Carmarthenshire Council's decision to remove the current and long standing trade union facility time secondments.

It appears that the Council are responding to robust criticism from UNISON which – if this local blog is to be believed – would appear to be justified.

Sign the online petition to support UNISON’s campaign to force Carmarthenshire to see sense.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Brixton needs a college - not a free school

There being no rest for the wicked, following an early start, I am now on my way home from a meeting to discuss the campaign to save further education on the Brixton site of Lambeth College.
The College management having decided to sell the site (whilst retaining perhaps a third of the site of the site for a continuing presence for further education) there was substantial local opposition to the suggestion that the site would provide (luxury) residential accommodation.
Michael Gove therefore stepped in and the Government have offered to buy the site to accommodate a secondary “free school” with a Catholic ethos, for which there is no demand locally and which is supported neither by the local authority nor the Catholic Church.
As public servants we are used to hearing that there is no money – but Michael Gove found millions (of our cash) to offer to buy some prime inner London real estate in order to play school with taxpayers’ cash. If those resources are available then they can be invested in further education for local people in Brixton.

The campaign to defend Lambeth College’s Brixton site (formerly the site of Brixton College before the merger which created Lambeth College prior to the incorporation (privatisation) of further education in 1992) has the potential to succeed if it can build the alliances which are there to be built.

The struggle never ends

http://lampag.org/

I was honoured today to be invited to speak to the Annual General Meeting of the Lambeth Pensioners Action Group (LAMPAG) following Dot Gibson, General Secretary of the National Pensioners Convention. 

LAMPAG has been organising older people (or - as was persuasively argued today - "retired workers") for thirty five years now - and is an active and effective organisation and a vital part of the local working class movement.

Given that the key struggle of the early years of this Parliament was in defence of occupational pensions, it was a humbling experience to be in a meeting of people who understood that our goal should be an adequate state pension - and that we need to defend the principle of universalism. 

‎I haven't blogged anything about the death of Tony Benn - because I couldn't match what many others have said about one of the greatest inspirations of my lifetime. I was exceptionally pleased to be at a meeting which began expressing respect for Benn and Bob Crow, and to be able to finish my contribution by quoting Benn in relation to the progressive policies of the pensioners' movement.

"It's always the same with progress. First they ignore you. Then they say you're mad. Then they say you're dangerous. Then there's a pause. Then you can't find anyone who ever disagreed with you."‎

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

No justice for workers



I have been worried for several years about the way in which the trade unions handle employment tribunal litigation and how we have contributed to the declining utility of the tribunals to defend workers’ rights. However, the Coalition Government have excelled themselves in undermining employment tribunals through the introduction of fees payable by claimants last summer.

Official statistics reveal the sheer scale of the weakening of the employment tribunals by the current Government. In employment tribunals, the number of claims received in October to December 2013 was 9,801 – 79% fewer than in the same period of 2012, and 75% fewer than last quarter. This is a phenomenal decline, which is clearly attributable, in large part, to the introduction of tribunal fees.

This represents the undermining of a system year for recompensing workers who are victims of (unlawful) injustice which was already weak and flawed – as a Government survey (which looked into whether tribunal awards were paid)  last year found; “Overall, around half (49%) of claimants had been paid in full, and a further 16% had been paid in part. This amounts to 64% of all claimants, and leaves 35% who had not received any money at all.” The problem with this is that tribunal awards amount merely to a debt which then has to be enforced.


Individual (or even collective) litigation is rarely likely to be the best way to secure good employee relations for the benefit of workers. However, where workers have no option but to pursue a legal avenue, we ought to have easy access to an effective remedy. Labour’s manifesto for the next General Election ought not only to pledge to remove tribunal fees, but also to make tribunal awards directly enforceable. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

As the Crow flies...

http://www.unison.org.uk/news/unison-chief-great-shock-at-death-of-rmt-leader-bob-crow

I think that Dave Prentis (in the link above) strikes precisely the right note in acknowledging that the untimely death of Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, is a loss to our movement as a whole.

In the years before the office successfully clamped down upon the attendance at the annual Trades Union Congress of all members of our National Executive Council I sat through Congress on numerous occasions.

The annual "Parliament of the organised working class" has not been an exciting experience in my time - but the hall awoke when Bob got up to speak. Always.

And the only excitement was often offered by the question of whether other unions (motivated either by politics or jealousy - or both) had managed to bump Bob off the General Council.

Bob Crow was a character in a movement which too often lacks character. Like many socialists I did not agree with him on every question (and feel that the best tribute that the "No2EU" candidates could make would be to abandon their bizarre and ill-advised political project) - however Bob Crow stood out as a trade union leader who was both effective and inspirational.

The RMT faces an enormous challenge in replacing such a towering figure. The movement as a whole will be watching this important choice.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Solidarity in the struggle against low pay


I finished a long day at work today (which had begun with leafleting members about the local government pay dispute) by attending the first hour and ‎a half of a useful meeting, attended by a couple of dozen trade unionists and activists, addressing the need to show solidarity with the fight against low pay.

UNISON - of course - needs to fight for the living wage (and more!) for all our own members. However, we are also part of a wider movement - and solidarity doesn't depend upon which union card a worker holds.

It was good to hear, first of all, from a BECTU activist from the Ritzy Cinema, where the heavily unionised workforce are about to embark upon a ballot for strike action in support of their campaign for the London Living Wage. The Ritzy - in the heart of Brixton - has a clientele which includes many who may be sympathetic to the workers' cause.‎ 

The Ritzy's multinational owners are probably as clear as the workers about the potential significance of this dispute for a cinema industry which profits from the super-exploitation of a largely unorganised workforce. This means that trade unionists and Labour Party members in Brixton bear a heavy responsibility to bring solidarity to a struggle brewing (quite literally) on the doorstep of Lambeth Town‎ Hall.

In particular, in the run up to May's local elections, this dispute offers an unparalleled opportunity for those seeking election to Lambeth Council to take the side of the one force which can really address the "cost of living crisis" - trade union organisation. The Ritzy dispute will be a key feature of Lambeth politics from now until the workers win.

The second speaker at the meeting was from the IWGB ("The Independent Workers of Great Britain" - an offshoot of the IWW "Independent Workers of the World" - which now organisers those workers who left UNISON in frustration at the conduct of branch elections in our Senate House branch last year).

Our UNISON branch in Lambeth has -quite rightly - expressed our solidarity with the workers at the University of London who are fighting for equal leave, sick pay and pensions for privatised workers (the same struggle as is being waged by UNISON members in the SOAS Branch). That solidarity is in no way diminished ‎by their decision to leave UNISON - though I stand by the criticism I made this evening of that decision. That the new priority of the IWGB is to secure recognition - when their numbers would clearly enable an approach based upon joining the recognised trade union (UNISON) - illustrates the wrongheadedness of their approach. "Red and Black" trade unionism has no more future than "Red trade unionism" and there are no short cuts in the fight within our movement.

There is no road forward to fight for the fair treatment of all public service workers in this country (including the hundreds of thousands in the private sector) which does not run through UNISON and require that we make from UNISON the fighting and democratic trade union which it has the potential to be. The departure from UNISON of the workers at Senate House was as pleasing to those whose conduct provoked it as was (for example) the departure of good activists in the Greenwich and Bromley local government branches.

I deal regularly with circumstances in which good lay UNISON activists are - at the least - dispirited by what is done "officially" in our name and would (and do) plead with such activists to contact NEC members before abandoning the union we need to transform.‎ Those of us who stick with UNISON in spite of quite disgraceful attacks from reactionary forces within our own trade union are not fools. We grasp the importance of changing our movement - and occasional impatience with those who seek a more convivial environment elsewhere is excusable.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on workers in struggle who have made the (sometimes understandable) mistake of putting themselves outside our ranks as a result of their rage at the unfortunate conduct that sometimes takes place in our name. 

It is certainly no good reason to refuse to support the IWGB that it is not an affiliate of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - when in the comments on this very blog I have myself been taken to task for criticising the minority union for UNISON employees (the Society of Union Executives - SUE) for not being a TUC affiliate.

(Although I am not sure how convivial relations between SUE and the IWGB are - and believe that rumours of a merger are almost certainly misplaced...)

All UNISON activists should show solidarity with the outsourced workers fighting for justice at Senate House under the banner of the IWGB in exactly the same way as we must show solidarity to the UNISON members at SOAS waging the same fight.

What is also clear - and this is something which I think is clearly recognised in an important motion from our National Executive Council (NEC) to National Delegate Conference‎ (NDC) - is that we need to be prepared to change how we organise in order to mobilise the fragmented public service workforce of which the workers who left us at Senate House are clearly part.

That motion is available for amendment on the Conference agenda and is certain to be prioritised for debate.

I trust that regular readers (Sid and Doris Conference-Anorak) can work out what to do with this information...

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Justice 4 Cleaners at SOAS - an important dispute for UNISON

http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/03/03/another-planet-justice-4-cleaners-campaign-struggle-recognition/

The link above is to an excellent interview with three of the UNISON members, employed as cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) by private contractor ISS, who are striking today‎ and tomorrow as part of their continuing campaign for equality with the conditions of in-house staff.

The story of how those who clean the offices of public service workers with decent sick pay and pensions do not enjoy such conditions themselves is painfully familiar across all the sectors in which UNISON organises.

In local government (for example) our "achievement" of single status was a hollow victory the fruits of which were denied to many (particularly low paid) workers whose jobs were outsourced before any pay and grading review‎.

The supposed "benefits" of "diversity of service provision" and bringing in "private sector expertise"‎ are all essentially about driving down the pay and conditions of the workforce in a crude attempt to generate a saving at the expense of already low paid workers which can then be shared between the contractor (profits) and the client (budget savings).

It's a poor use of English ever to describe this process as more "efficient" than what came before - it's simply more exploitative. An added benefit for employers from contracting out is that (thanks to the impact of the UK's restrictive trade union legislation - and the compliance of the trade unions with those restrictions) the obstacles in the way of showing solidarity from the rest of the workforce to outsourced workers ‎are considerable.

Contracting out of low paid jobs produces, at the level of the organisation as a whole, a segmented labour market, in which a (relatively) protected "core" workforce enjoy (relatively) greater security and stability, whilst a "peripheral" workforce (working for external contractors or employed through agencies) have far worse and more precarious working lives.

Because it is easier to organise the more stable and secure "core" workforce (where the employer generally recognises unions, has developed procedures etc.) there is a trap for our movement, which we fall into if we prioritise the "core" over the "periphery." In that case we could become the guardians of the (relative) privelige of the more stable and secure sector of the workforce, rather than reaching out to organise the workforce as a whole.

‎In the long run, such an approach, reinforcing division and inequality, offers no worthwhile future for trade unionism. That's why we need to be organising workers on the precarious periphery of our public services - and helping them to take up the issues which are of concern to them.

The strike today and tomorrow by the SOAS cleaners is an important moment in turning UNISON outward to the workers we need to organise if we are to grow in the twenty first century.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

A loss to our movement

‎I was saddened today to learn the news of the untimely death of UNISON Regional Organiser Stuart Barber.

Stuart, 63, had worked for UNISON (and before that NUPE) for more than 30 years and ‎was the most recent official to have faced the challenge of working with the Lambeth Branch (for many years).

Before I worked with Stuart as "our" Regional official/organiser I was aware of his work - as an effective enthusiast for challenging race discrimination in the employment tribunals, and as a diligent Secretary to lay bodies at Regional level.

Stuart brought to his work decades of experience and a commitment undimmed by the passing years. It was unremarkable to receive emails from Stuart as he worked through cases on a Sunday and his advice (whether or not it was welcomed by members or their local representatives) was founded on experience and intelligence which commanded respect.

I could not say that I always saw eye to eye with Stuart (and would challenge anyone to say that they did!) However, Stuart was someone with whom one could disagree robustly on the basis of mutual respect - and always, in my experience, a solid ally when confronting employers.

Stuart represents a generation of union officials tested in past fires who were able to carry out the impossibly wide-ranging role which we expected twenty years ago. His knowledge of employment law and tribunal representation matched his skill as a negotiator and his commitment to our movement.

‎Stuart Barber is literally irreplaceable.

Ave atque vale.


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