Monday, January 16, 2017

Looking back in Lambeth

Next week I shall cease, for the first time in more than twenty six years, to hold a position as an officer of my trade union branch. Since I became Branch Chair of Lambeth NALGO in the autumn of 1990 I have always been part of the leadership of the branch and – since I first took up a position with full-time release in November 1991, I have had just two years “back at work” full time, and two years part-time (on each of the previous occasions, in 1994 and 2006, when I have tried to stand down as Secretary).

This is part of a deliberate process of disengagement from my UNISON responsibilities, which includes my decision not to seek an eighth consecutive term on the UNISON NEC (about which I am grateful for recent kind remarks). If you think I am trying to show people more important than myself that it is possible to plan succession and step back then (I’m afraid) you’re wrong (but I don’t object to the point being made). I am doing this for myself and my life (and in order to have time for those I care for – which includes myself).

To be a proper UNISON Branch Secretary is very much more than a full-time job, and I won’t really have time to take stock and decide what to do next until I have been able to draw breath, but – as the Annual General Meeting approaches inexorably – I cannot avoid looking back over many, often tumultuous, years of local government trade unionism.

I am a little bit more than one year older than the London Borough of Lambeth, which itself came into being in its current form in 1965. I went to my job interview in Lambeth from a picket line in Lewisham, where I was part of the five week long strike over health and safety in the Housing Advice Centre in late 1986. My first year in Lambeth was the year in which Thatcher won her third term in office, leading to spending cuts in local government, disputes within the labour movement and – a little further down the road – politically motivated “witch hunting” of the Labour Left.

Plus ca change.

I am not trying, in this blog post, to write the history of Lambeth Council from the perspective of the workforce over the past thirty years (which isn’t necessarily to say that I won’t ever do such a thing). I’m just reflecting (for my own amusement, which is the only good reason for anyone to blog) on some of the moments which will stay with me from the recent history of trade unionism in Lambeth Council, and from which I should probably try to draw some lessons when I am no longer getting daily requests for representation. Because I am, and have been, a trade unionist, all of these memories are of collective action, in which I have been but one participant;

  • ·         The ten week occupation of the Consumer Advice Centres in 1991, which saved one Centre from closure for several years – this is the sort of effective action, which we cannot even discuss within UNISON in 2017;
  • ·         Six coach loads of NALGO members departing the Town Hall to support the miners in 1992 on an unofficial strike for which we were “repudiated” by NALGO General Secretary, Alan Jinkinson;
  • ·         The “Section 5” report, the Appleby inquiry and the missing twenty million quid – the atmosphere of paranoia (not necessarily unfounded) and chaos which led to the “hung Council” of the mid-1990s;
  • ·         The defeat of 1996, in which workers in the Housing neighbourhoods lost sick pay for the first two days each time they were ill – a setback which it took us five years to reverse;
  • ·         The victory of 1997, when trade union unity successfully defended our Leave Code, our maternity package and our 35 hour week. In the twenty years since we won that fight we have given up none of our conditions of service;
  • ·         The largest privatisation in the history of English local government, also in 1997, which set up the soon-to-fail joint venture company “TeamLambeth”, the first of our many experiences of the failures of New Labour;
  • ·         The victory of the Onibiyo Family Anti-Deportation Campaign and the return of our member Abdul Onibiyo to employment with Lambeth Council following his unjust deportation to Nigeria;
  • ·         The march from Brixton to Trafalgar Square on May Day 1999 in protest at the Brixton bombing, led by a fabulous banner produced by our former Branch Secretary, Ed Hall;
  • ·         The publication, in 2000, of research commissioned by the Council (under pressure from UNISON) which showed that managers acknowledged that the ethnic origin of staff was a key factor in deciding on disciplinary action;
  • ·         Starting the picket line at 2/7 Town Hall Parade, protesting the dismissal of Alex Owolade in 2001;
  • ·         Giving evidence to the Lambeth Community Alarms Inquiry in the Assembly Hall in 2002, criticising the institutional racism of the authority and defending the trade union;
  • ·         Dozens of appearances at the Croydon Employment Tribunal between 1993 and 2006, when UNISON changed our approach, winning many thousands of pounds for trade union members;
  • ·         Hundreds of (disciplinary, grievance, sickness and appeal) hearings advocating for union members over more than twenty five years, in only one of which did “baked bean lasagne” feature as part of a disciplinary charge;
  • ·         More than three hundred meetings of our vibrant, diverse, lively and only occasionally infuriating Branch Committee at only one of which were we visited by a former Regional Secretary of UNISON;
  • ·         Welcoming the family of Jean Charles de Menezes to the branch office in 2005, as we assisted their campaign for justice – as we have stood, on far too many occasions over the years, with those contesting deaths in custody in Brixton and elsewhere;
  • ·         The campaign to give tenants a right to vote on whether or not there would be an Arms Length Management Organisation (which we won) and the fight for a “No” vote which we – so narrowly – lost in 2007;
  • ·         Our fight against the successive waves of cuts and redundancies which we have faced every year since 2010, as the Council workforce has been cut by something like 40%;
  • ·         The tragedy of the “early adopters” of the Cooperative Council, and the damage done to valuable public services, including the One O’clock Clubs, in the name of ill-judged ideology since 2011;
  • ·         The strongest strike action in years in Lambeth to defend our pensions on 30 November 2011 (and my being denounced as a “trade union bully boy” in the media and told off by UNISON) – and then having to campaign against an unsatisfactory settlement;
  • ·         Seeing the Chief Executive run out of a Council meeting after a UNISON deputation opposing race discrimination in the Housing restructure in 2012, leading to an independent investigation and defeating the threat of compulsory redundancies;
  • ·         Marking the demise of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2013 (with a banner and a bottle) – and getting into trouble with UNISON again for doing so;
  • ·         Campaigning for fair pay for local government workers in 2014, only to be presented with a settlement which was worse than the offer against which we had gone on strike;
  • ·         The strike action taken (unofficially in 2015 and then officially) by our members in libraries in defence of public services, which shows what local government workers will need to do in the coming years;
  • ·         The inspirational occupation of Carnegie Library by local people in 2016 – which showed that working class people can still take action even when working class organisations are prohibited from doing so.

I can see that there are a fair few things for me to think about once I have had the opportunity to recover from the impressive hangover which I expect to have after next week’s AGM.


Brian Walter said...

So long and thanks for all the fish. Will you continue to blog, and more importantly, turn up to London-based drinking activities?

Cheers comrade

Jon Rogers said...

Both I am sure!

If you are able to get to Brixton next Thursday we'll be drinking in the White Horse on Brixton Hill from 5pm until I fall over.

Anonymous said...

... all that plus the phenomenal 'Campaign for the right to speak your own language'... Could not have made it (practically or emotionally) without your skilled and dedicated support. Forever grateful, Jon. Huge loss to Lambeth! Sincere best wishes, SR