Friday, December 21, 2018

Will our trade unions support age discrimination claims against the public sector pension schemes?


The best day of my working life was 30 November 2011, when I led (locally) the largest and most solid strike I had ever been involved in, as our public service trade unions took united action to defend our pensions. (Though not everyone approved…)

The eventual settlement of that pensions dispute was not something which I was happy with (albeit it was – eventually - supported by ballots of members of most of the unions involved – including UNISON).

Without doubt, part of the reason why members voted for the settlement was because those who were close to retirement were protected (in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) by the “underpin”). Given the higher trade union density among older workers, the trade union leaderships counted upon older workers to protect themselves at the expense of their younger colleagues.

Today, firefighters – and judges (!) – have won a legal case against the age discrimination implicit in protecting from adverse changes to pensions the older workers (who were least impacted) and not the younger workers (who were hardest hit).

The obvious implication of this decision of the Court of Appeal (which the Government will surely seek to appeal to the Supreme Court) is that younger members of public service pension schemes (who were excluded from “transitional protections” as the unions conceded detrimental changes to our pension schemes in 2012) could bring age discrimination claims.

This poses challenges to our trade unions who may be asked to support cases which implicitly criticise the settlements arrived at following ballot results in 2012 – but surely trade union support for claims of age discrimination would be better than leaving the field clear to “no win no fee” solicitors?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

When thieves fall out...

As the political representatives of the thieves who run our country fall out, we honest people must allow ourselves a smile.

The fissure within our ruling class is between those who would accommodate to the diminished role of our former imperial state through subordination to European corporatism, and those who prefer "free trade" and a subordination instead to our former North American colonies as an unregulated bargain-basement haven for financial capital off the coast of Europe.

Theresa May's attempt to find a compromise between these two positions is falling apart before our eyes.

Perhaps she will survive as Tory leader (for a while) - but if she does that will only be because the Tories conclude that there is no real world alternative candidate who would not be even less successful in reconciling the irreconcilable.

If the Tories could choose a mythical or fictional Leader they might have a chance. St George might mobilise English nationalism - and is as British as Boris Johnson. Mary Poppins has the necessary magical powers - and would certainly be more plausible than Andrea Leadsom. King Alfred the Great could handle setbacks - and would strike a more contemporary figure than Jacob Rees-Mogg.

If, however, the choice of an alternative Leader to take the country over the Brexit abyss has to be made from within today's Parliamentary Conservative Party, the Tories might as well pick at random any 8am drinker in any branch of Wetherspoons.

That - like the argument over Brexit itself - is, fundamentally, their problem.

However, whilst the thieves fall out, the honest people on the side of the working class cannot only smile.

We also need to organise and prepare for every eventuality. We need Labour candidates selected in every constituency so that we are ready for a General Election should the Tories be unable to avoid it.

We need to be ready for a Special Conference to agree policy should there be another referendum - and we need to be ready to oppose the far-right fantasy of Brexit (and to have and win the arguments, including the argument for free movement of labour, with those on "our side" who are not yet persuaded).

We need to step up our engagement with our Party's mass membership so that we can mobilise ourselves swiftly to respond to whatever events confront us as the divisions within our ruling class, expressed in the falling apart of the Tory Government, play themselves out.

But, as the thieves fall out, we honest people can smile.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Overoptimism on the Euston Road?


On my way back, on Wednesday, from an afternoon spent discussing the state of our trade union movement with people who think about that problem for a living, I chanced upon this article from UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis.

Dave argues, on the basis that UNISON is now the UK’s largest trade union that the Union has survived the attack on the labour movement – and won!

Since Dave takes union membership as the basis for this bold claim I have had a look at the official returns given by UNISON to the Certification Officer in recent years.

This is what they say;

Year ending 31 December
Members contributing to the General Fund (i.e. members paying subscriptions)
1,213,750
1,225,500
1,239,750
1,254,250
1,266,750
1,286,000
1,286,000
1,333,000

There is no doubt that sustaining this level of membership, given the high turnover of members and the scale of job losses in public services since 2010 is a significant achievement and UNISON activists and officers who have worked hard to keep the Union going through the recent period of austerity deserve great credit.

But the evidence simply doesn’t bear out the overblown claim that UNISON is a “growing” union. Our subscription paying membership was more than 100,000 larger at the end of 2010 than it was at the end of 2017.

Of the three other claims made in Dave’s article (“Defeating employment tribunal fees. Smashing the government’s 1% pay cap. Overturning some of the worst elements of the Trade Union Act”), the first is true, the second is laughable and the third, whilst true, was a very partial victory.

Trade unions are a vital resource for workers. Trade unionists deserve a realistic assessment of the state of our movement, not Panglossian nonsense.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Rethinking industrial relations - how shall we grow our trade unions?


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I spent this afternoon in Leeds at a half day event marking twenty years since the publication of John Kelly’s Rethinking Industrial Relations, which has been the subject of a special issue of the academic journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.

For me this was a trip down memory lane in more ways than one, since I was a student at Leeds University in the early 80s and then went on to the London School of Economics where I studied Industrial Relations (with John Kelly as one of my lecturers).

Rethinking Industrial Relations was an ambitious attempt to rescue the field of industrial relations (as an area of academic inquiry) both from its own lack of theory, and from being swallowed up by the study of Human Resources Management (a field of enquiry very much at the shallow end of intellectual endeavour and which has subsequently spread so far and wide that, like an annoying puddle, it is difficult to avoid stepping in it).

Today’s event was an interesting opportunity to meet comrades I had not seen for years (or have never seen but have corresponded with online) and to listen to debate around the issues raised in Rethinking Industrial Relations (in particular around “mobilisation theory”, which is really a model explaining how people come to think and act collectively in certain circumstances).

I am not blogging to provide an overview of six hours of discussion because (a) I am tired and (b) I doubt I could do justice to the debate across the various sessions. As I had hoped, attending today’s event has got me thinking, so you may be unfortunate enough to read more here in future (if you are unwise enough to return).

There are really just two points I intend to make here and now. The first, which I made myself earlier today, is that I am not at all convinced that the leadership of our big trade unions really want to “renew” our union movement, in the sense of embedding a radical and transformational approach to organising union members.

Fourteen years on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON (2003-17), all of them also on the NEC’s Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee, showed me that there are activists and officials who are (subjectively) “serious” about organising, but these are massively outnumbered by those who will (at most) pay lip service to the “organising agenda” – which helps to explain why essentially identical and very worthy motions about organising are agreed year on year at National Delegate Conference with only limited impact upon reality.

The bulk of the leadership of the big unions (lay as well as full time) are content to carry on having the bargaining relationships and political influence which they have (however much they might like more) – and are miles away from genuinely wanting to organise the unorganised.

This isn’t just a shame because there are – as I saw today - some thoughtful and radical people trying to work out how we could reverse the decline of our movement (and to understand why we haven’t done so yet).

It is also shaming to our unions because of the second point which I want to make, which was made by John Kelly himself today, which is that an incoming Labour Government might be about to give our unions an opportunity which they may not be in a fit state to make use of.

A Labour Government would legislate in accordance with the Institute for Employment Rights (IER) Manifesto for Labour Law a fairly moderate set of proposals (which would not even repeal all of the anti-union laws introduced since the 1980s). The IER manifesto has at its heart sectoral (national) collective bargaining with representative organisations of employers negotiating national agreements with trade unions (presumably intended to set a floor for pay and conditions).

The very good point which John Kelly made today is that, as desirable as it may be to extend collective bargaining coverage, this will not of itself reverse twenty years of failure of the “organising approach” as applied by UK trade unions. Workers need the right to bargain collectively with our bosses, but we also need trade unions which are strong enough to bargain effectively.

Given that twenty years of “talking the talk” about organising has not really made a significant impact in terms of organising the growing mass of unorganised workers, there is no immediate reason for optimism that our big unions could seize this opportunity to extend union influence for the benefit of working people by driving up union membership.

At the close of this afternoon’s event Gregor Gall therefore took the opportunity to repeat the point which he had made in the Morning Star this summer that a “union default” system would be required alongside sectoral collective bargaining if we were to restore union power so that workers could go into this new collective bargaining machinery with a hope of getting something worthwhile out of it.

In a “union default” system, newly appointed employees would be enrolled in the appropriate trade union on obtaining employment in the same way as they are (now) enrolled in an occupational pension scheme (and – unlike the old “closed shop” – they would have the same right to opt out of the union that they have in relation to the pension)(which seems a bit wishy-washy to me but apparently human rights law requires it).

Although promoted from the Marxist Left this “union default” idea may well come to have wider purchase within the trade union movement, with stalwarts of the (former) Labour establishment, Jack Dromey and John Monks recently promoting the idea of “default” company level joint bodies courtesy of the Fabians, and – keeping it nicely in the family, Jack’s son Joe has made the union default case on behalf of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Now it is of course true that even collective bargaining rights and union organisation won’t necessarily mean that sectoral bargaining will deliver anything for workers. I say this as a local government worker (as regular readers of this blog – Sid and Doris Blogger – will recollect) and although we are the largest bargaining unit in the economy, represented by the three largest unions, our living standards have fallen by 20% over the past decade.

However, at least workers who are covered by collective bargaining and are organised into trade unions have the possibility of fighting effectively to defend our collective interests against employers and the state (even if we may have some internal battles within our own trade unions which we also need to wage to get to that point).

We need the political wing of our movement to provide the opportunity for regrowth that our industrial wing has been unable to find for itself.

Therefore those reading this blog who are active in the Labour Party certainly need to think about how we can campaign to add the “union default” idea to our next manifesto (and those reading this blog who are not active in the Labour Party ought to be!)