Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The final Regional Local Government Executive...

If the title of this blog post does not signal to you that this is a "niche" blog then you really are not paying attention.

As I slowly disentangle myself from my various UNISON responsibilities I find myself more and more at final meetings. This week I attended my last ever meeting of the Executive of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Committee, a body which has been far more worth attending than most trade union committees over the past quarter century.

I have served, not quite continuously, on this august body since its inception following “vesting day” (the day on which all members of the “former partner unions”, NALGO, NUPE and COHSE put on the same vest). I remember the days when, meeting in the Conference Chamber at Mabledon Place, the “NUPE” members would sit on one side of the room and the “NALGO” members on the other.

Our then Regional Head of Local Government (formerly of NUPE) was spoken to by our then Regional Chair of the Local Government Committee (formerly of NALGO) about how it wasn’t appropriate to caucus beforehand with the minority of delegates who were (formerly) from NUPE. The conflict between (former NUPE) officials, who believe that the paid professionals should guide the Union, and the (former NALGO) lay activists (who don’t) continues to this day.

I am very glad that the Lambeth branch will continue (I hope, subject to democracy) to be represented on the Regional Local Government Executive, since it is essential to the effective defence of the interests of UNISON members in any one London borough that there should be a vigorous defence of those interests across as much of London as may be possible. Parochialism is the curse of local government trade unionism and, in London Boroughs in particular, we must be vigilant against it.

As is generally the case in UNISON’s Greater London Region, there is little upon which one can remark which has been achieved in the last decade or so (and we can only hope that this will change as the Union follows through on the logic of its own defence in the recent Certification Officer hearing). However, before the current torpor we did have achievements worthy of record – and UNISON still has that potential.

Regional officials who understood and respected the role of lay leadership resolved the tricky question of how to implement single status in the face of three different rates of London Weighting back in the year 2000 – and then backed up lay members when we embarked upon the, ultimately unsuccessful, fight for an increase in London Weighting, which saw UNISON attempt Region-wide strike action in 2002 and 2003.

The London Weighting dispute is rightly remembered as a failure – but we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes if only we can be honest about them. I claim my role as one of the small number of activists who initiated that dispute, and I do not apologise for testing to destruction the potential for a Region-wide dispute (and also of the arbitration provisions of collective agreements).

We learned, a decade and a half ago, that our organisational strength across different boroughs was not such as to enable us to maximise pressure on the hostile boroughs whose policies we most needed then to change. We also learned that the employers would walk out of collective bargaining machinery rather then accept a reference to arbitration when they know that we might win by force of argument what we were not winning with the argument of force.

One of the hardest things about walking away from trade union responsibilities is watching what is done with those responsibilities once one has walked away. In the case of UNISON’s Greater London Regional Local Government Committee I am proud and happy to express my total confidence in the Chair (Sue Plain from Southwark) and Vice-Chair (Sean Fox from Haringey) to continue the excellent work they have been doing for several years to represent UNISON members in London local government.

The best of UNISON’s local government branches in London are the best of trade unionism – combative, lay-led organising trade union branches. There are few UNISON meetings (outside my own branch) which I can honestly say that I will miss when I no longer hold any UNISON office, but I shall miss the opportunity to swap notes with fellow Branch Secretaries at the Regional Local Government Executive – and I wish my comrades all good fortune in continuing to assert lay authority over a Regional machine which seems almost to celebrate its inability to achieve positive outcomes for our members.

Perhaps UNISON (particularly in Greater London) will change…

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