Monday, November 21, 2016

The last Regional Local Government Committee...

Having told my branch that I won’t be seeking re-election as Branch Secretary in January, with a view to having a bit more of a life, I realise that tomorrow morning I will attend my last meeting of UNISON’s Regional Local Government Committee after more than twenty years.

More than nineteen years ago, I was in the pub after a meeting of the Executive of this august body when I got the phone call that told me I was about to become a father, so I think of the Regional Local Government Committee as almost family (and certainly the relatives with whom I would prefer to spend time when compared with the in-laws of the Regional Committee, at least over the past decade).

UNISON’s local government membership is by far the largest part of our trade union both nationally and regionally, and I have gained an appreciation of both the strengths and weaknesses of our organisation across London over the past two decades and more (and have probably contributed at least as much to the latter as the former).

UNISON was something of a difficult coming together of the traditions of two of our “former partner unions” in Greater London local government. In the mid 1990s we would meet as an Executive in the Conference chamber at Mabledon Place with former NUPE colleagues on one side of the room and former NALGO colleagues on the other. After a while the “NUPE” pre-meetings no longer included any paid officials...

London local government was something of a centre of opposition, on the part of former NUPE branch secretaries, to the process of branch merger. As Chair of the Regional Recruitment and Organisation Committee in 1997 I secured a three month extension of the deadline for branch mergers in the Region – and we came to agreements locally in all but three London boroughs (although not before a walk-out of former NUPE branch secretaries greeted my report to the Regional Council).

Ironically Lambeth was the one place where branch merger never really happened, because UNISON created a separate branch for the members privatised to a joint venture company early that year, taking the great bulk of the former NUPE membership away from the “merged” Lambeth branch.

The Regional officials who ensured for many years that any mention of bringing the two Lambeth branches together was hastily squashed deserve my personal thanks for saving me from the work which would then have come my way – and can no doubt congratulate themselves on having assisted the Lambeth branch to play the very particular role it has played in UNISON over the past twenty years. (I won’t name names to save blushes – and also to avoid being hauled up on any more disciplinary investigations...)

Elsewhere in London though UNISON branches developed as we had hoped they might when we voted for merger in 1992 – particularly in those boroughs where some at least of the manual workforce remained in-house.

Effective partnership working between lay leadership and officials who respected lay control also meant that we resolved the contradiction between the goal of single status and the differential London weighting payments between manual and non-manual workers. It was a shame that individuals moved on and that productive partnership came to an end.

Equally unfortunately our subsequent campaign to increase London Weighting, for which we took strike action in 2002-03 not only failed to achieve our objective but led to the employers walking out of the London-level bargaining machinery, collapsing a joint body which had survived the interregnum in national bargaining before the second world war.

We learned that the uneven organisation and militancy of our membership between London boroughs amounted to an all but insurmountable obstacle in prosecuting a London-wide dispute. The national disputes in which we have been involved over the past decade or so have been equally discouraging. Twice we have settled for reductions in pension benefits, and repeatedly we have failed to defeat pay restraint imposed upon us by the Government and employers.

In many of our London branches UNISON activists have been fighting a vigorous rearguard action for as long as many of us can remember, to protect jobs and conditions of service from repeated attacks.

Over the past ten years our attempts to support each other have generally achieved any success in spite of, rather than because of, the resources of our trade union at regional level. Perhaps the most extreme example of the unhelpfulness of the official structures of the union was the deliberate damage done to the Greenwich branch when it was unjustifiably taken into regional supervision back in 2010.

The elected officers of our Regional Service Group Committee have done what they can to try to assert basic norms of democratic accountability, but it has been an uphill struggle. I have watched too many good activists worn down by the endless battles with both employers on the one hand and officials on the other, and have seen previously independent branches become obedient to those who ought not to control our lay led trade union.

Thankfully there are still sufficient London borough UNISON branches under the control of assertive lay leaders who know what a trade union is for, and with the Secretaries of two such branches as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Greater London Regional Local Government Committee we can continue to hope that UNISON may yet become something of the trade union we voted for in 1992.

It has been a privilege to attend meetings of our Regional Local Government Committee on many occasions since vesting day and to have worked alongside those principled and committed individuals who have chosen to devote themselves voluntarily to the cause of our members without ambition or hope of personal gain.

Others have sometimes also been present.

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