Wednesday, May 20, 2015

PCS, UNISON and the complaint to the TUC

‎An interested reader has asked that I elaborate upon an aside in a blog post earlier today.

Our sisters and brothers in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are meeting in Brighton for their Annual Delegate Conference.

Their National Executive has put a motion ‎(A98) before their Conference which, whilst rightly noting the excellent grass roots cooperation between activists in our two trade unions, nevertheless asks the Conference to endorse the formal submission by PCS, to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of a complaint against UNISON.

‎This is obviously unwelcome news to any UNISON activist, but rather than respond in kind, UNISON members need to understand where PCS are coming from and have a sensible debate within UNISON - and with PCS and other trade unions - about the issues raised by this episode.

I was - as I have mentioned on this blog before - pleased to have been at the TUC in 2010 to witness Dave Prentis and Mark Serwotka sign a "memorandum of understanding" - part of which put in place machinery to resolve any potential disagreements where members of one union found their jobs transferred into the "sphere of influence" of the other.

This was plainly intended to avoid embarrassing incidents such as the failed attempt by UNISON to recruit staff of the Welsh Assembly. It was seen to be clear that UNISON has "spheres of influence" (health and local government for example) where PCS ought not to recruit and seek to organise - and that the civil service is, likewise, the "sphere of influence" of PCS.

Over the years, Governments do move services between central and local Government and - thanks to the memorandum of understanding - in 2011 the two unions were able to agree the smooth transfer of members employed by Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs), who were moving between central and local government, from PCS to UNISON.

This made sense in the same way that members in public health jobs were transferred from health to local government within UNISON recently when that was what had happened to their jobs.

Then however - as PCS see it - things started to go wrong. It may (or may not) be coincidental that this happened after major policy differences emerged within the movement over the disputes over public service pensions, with UNISON withdrawing from further action after 30 November 2011 whilst PCS held out for a better deal.

In May 2013, UNISON contacted the trade union side body for the national civil service, seeking recognition for collective bargaining purposes in the civil service because several thousand UNISON members had transferred into the civil service. PCS opposed this move, which was rejected by the trade union side. PCS instead sought discussion (under our "memorandum of understanding") about transferring these members from UNISON to PCS.

Nevertheless, UNISON was offered, and accepted national recognition across the civil service as a whole, which PCS view as undermining their position. 

When this was discussed at our NEC, the General Secretary made the point that we were not seeking recognition with the civil service departments where PCS lead the collective bargaining over the jobs, pay and conditions of civil servants - and showed a standard letter which UNISON sends to applicants for membership employed in the civil service encouraging them to join another appropriate trade union.

Unfortunately UNISON did foolishly seek negotiating rights for a few hundred fraud investigators whose jobs are transferring from local authorities to the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have blogged before, since this was a mirror image of the LSC transfer, in the case of which, PCS complied with their obligations under the memorandum of understanding, our position is as difficult to justify as it is to understand. It was a terrible waste of the precious time of national officials to try to organise scattered members who could better be represented by PCS post-transfer when we have so much work to do to organise in local government.

The PCS NEC see this as a simple case of UNISON abrogating our memorandum of understanding and failing to comply with the relevant TUC Code of Practice - and it's clear that their arguments are not without force.

However, the evolution and fragmentation of public services is clearly changing the scenery which is the backdrop to inter-union relations, as outsourcing and reorganisations mean that more and more jobs are in contested areas between the formerly so obvious "spheres of influence" of our respective trade unions.

In a world in which the law precludes the operation of the legendary "Bridlington Agreement" of 1939, under the terms of which the TUC could transfer members between unions to resolve disputes, in which the TUC has lost power and influence to ever fewer, ever (relatively) larger unions, and in which members joining online and paying subscriptions by direct debit change jobs and industries without telling the trade union of which they are a member, we have to reconsider how any agreement about "spheres of influence" between trade unions can operate.

But that's the point - we have to reconsider this together. We have to discuss this, come to agreements and stick to them. With three quarters of all workers outside our movement and beyond the reach of collective bargaining we should not be squabbling over the unionised minority.

UNISON cannot prevent civil servants from joining our trade union, any more than we could prevent teachers or firefighters - but we shouldn't be seeking to bargain for civil servants any more than we would for teachers or firefighters. We have our work cut out for us organising in the areas where we organise already - and reaching out to the unorganised millions in the fragmented public service workforce.

That's why, as I said earlier today, if I am re-elected to our NEC I will argue for a lay-led dialogue to resolve the unnecessary differences between UNISON and PCS.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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