Monday, July 15, 2019

GMB forced to call strike action in Brighton and Hove - who is responsible?

It is a shame that our brothers and sisters in the GMB have found it necessary to give notice of dates for strike action at Hollingdean depot – strike action which, if it proceeds, will have a serious and negative impact upon Brighton and Hove.

Some Labour Party members may be perplexed about how it comes about that the GMB – stalwart supporters of our Party – find themselves in dispute with a Labour-led Council. In order to understand how this can be, it is important to understand the limited role of elected Councillors in the management of a local authority.

The 1989 Local Government and Housing Act, which was introduced after the period of 1980s “municipal socialism” introduced, among other things, political restrictions for senior local government officials – it also firmed up the authority of paid officials of local authorities, creating the role of “Head of the Paid Service”. The purpose of this legislation was to ensure that the paid “civil servants” within a local authority would become a line of defence against the sort of experiments in local socialism associated with (most notably) the Greater London Council.

Whilst elected Councillors set the overall policies of a local authority, it is the officers, reporting to the Head of the Paid Service (the Chief Executive) who have day to day operational management responsibility, including responsibility for employee relations. The accountability of the Head of the Paid Service to the elected Councillors varies depending upon a number of factors, including the political balance on the local authority.

In Brighton and Hove – where no single political Party has had a clear majority on the Council since 2003, it is clear that officers have become used to a marked degree of autonomy from political oversight. The Council has developed a practice of holding meetings between the Leaders of the three political groups, but although officers affect to ask the Leaders for a “political steer” from these meetings, the reality is one in which officers largely run the authority.

I have been looking back over the recent relationship between the Council and the trade unions. This is a subject which was touched upon two years ago in one of the regular “peer reviews” of the local authority organised by the Local Government Association (LGA). Peer reviews are undertaken by mixed teams of senior local government officials and elected Councillors from other local authorities and provide an overview of the functioning of a local Council from that perspective.

The LGA peer review of Brighton and Hove in April 2017 found that “Trade unions within the council could play a valuable role in the future. However, this requires dramatically improved relationships between all concerned. The current set of relationships is recognised by all as being dysfunctional. Progress can only be made if there is agreement that the relationship needs to be ‘re-set’.” The peer reviewers recommended that “External facilitation should be brought in and agreement reached by all to ‘re-set’ the council’s relationship with its trade unions.”

The Council’s (officers’) response to the peer review, in November 2017, was as follows: “The LGA highlighted the potential value of the trade unions role in the future but also the need for the council’s relationship with the trade unions to be given a fresh start, beginning with external facilitation to work towards this. Officers will seek to engage members and the trade unions in taking this recommendation forward.”

The Action Plan associated with this response assigned responsibility for action to “Leaders/CEO/ELT” and proposed to “Consult with trade unions on willingness to participate in the process of strengthening relationships, pending Group discussion” this was to be done by December 2017.

In February 2018, the Tory Group put a motion to Council calling, amongst other things, for the Chief Executive to “Set-up a cross-party working group to oversee external facilitation that would ‘re-set’ the relationship between the Council and The Trade Unions to take place.”

“This Council calls on the Chief Executive to:
1       Continue to demonstrate through current work on the People Plan that the most valuable resource of this Council is its workforce;
      Note the extremely negative impact of austerity on all public sector workers including council staff, with knock-on impact to many people including workplace representatives, and which should be addressed by sufficient funding for public services;
3       Note that the LGA Peer Review indicated that the Council’s relationship with the Trades Unions is dysfunctional;
      Note that the LGA Peer Review called for external facilitation to be brought in to enable a ‘re-set’ to take place;
5       Note the concern of the trades unions expressed during the recent consultation process for The Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust Arrangements;
      Note positive steps taken towards an improved relationship through the written Trades Union Recognition Agreement;
7       In agreement with the trade unions, confirm other appropriate steps that might be explored with the aim of having the best possible working relationship despite the impact of austerity.”

Point 6 of the amended motion referred back to the trade union recognition report agreed by PRG Committee in November 2017. (PRG is Policy, Resources and Growth, the most important Committee of the Council).

That agreement gave the unions nothing that they did not already have by custom and practice (recognition at the level of an individual local authority is not necessary if a local authority signs up to the National Joint Council conditions of service (the Green Book) as these defined the recognised trade unions (see paragraph 5 of the Annex to Part One of the Green Book).

The recommendation from the peer review that Brighton and Hove Council needed external facilitation in order to “re-set” its relationship with its workforce and their trade unions seems to have got lost in all of this – a recommendation which had been referred, critically, to the Chief Executive to action.

As I have said here before, the responsibility for avoiding this strike action is – and remains – with our well paid Head of Paid Service. The particular circumstances in Cityclean cry out for the involvement of an external third party to “reset” employee relations on a more positive footing, and it is the responsibility of the paid officials of the Council to find a way to achieve this outcome which averts strike action.

If the Chief Executive fails in his responsibility, then Labour in Brighton and Hove must express our full solidarity with GMB comrades forced into taking action, and call for the earliest possible negotiated settlement of the dispute on a basis which respects the rights of all Council workers.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Keep Calm and Carry on campaigning for socialism

There is nothing new or unusual about mounting attacks upon the Labour Party in the run up to an election in anticipation of which the establishment is fearful that the Party’s policies may be contrary to their interests.

In 1924 the Daily Mail splashed details of the forged “Zinoviev letter”, claiming implausibly that the British Labour Party took orders from the Soviet Communist Party. The subsequent General Election saw the defeat of the first Labour Government.

Two decades later, in the run up to Labour’s first majority Government and our most famous victory, Winston Churchill famously prophesied that an incoming Labour Government would create a Gestapo.

In the 1970s, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson became convinced that elements of the deep state were plotting against him (and not without cause) – and smears against Labour Leaders alleging that they were somehow in cahoots with the Kremlin continued against Michael Foot and – of course, more recently, the current Leader.

The British establishment has a “love-hate” relationship with our Party. It loves having an alternative Party of Government to facilitate Parliamentary democracy, and it loves those within our Party whose political ambition is limited to ameliorating the conditions of the majority within the broad framework of the status quo.

But our establishment – our ruling class – hates the potential for social transformation inherent in the nature of our Labour Party, as a Party founded on and by the organised working class. Therefore we can anticipate a gathering crescendo of attacks upon our Party and its leadership as the General Election draws nearer.

History suggests that sane observers should not take this attacks too seriously – and that Labour Party members and supporters, particularly those who see the crying need for a socialist Labour Government, should concentrate on winning arguments for our policies with voters.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Will our unions support a strike for the future of our planet?

Until two years ago I had attended, as a delegate or member of the National Executive Council, every UNISON National Delegate Conference since the foundation of our Union – last year, having stood down from my UNISON positions, I popped in only as a visitor. This year, in my sick bed in Brighton, I am missing out completely upon events in Liverpool (and therefore also missing the General Secretary’s most left-wing afternoon of each year, on the Tuesday afternoon of Conference).

It would appear that the General Secretary, in his annual address to Conference, applauded members who have been taking strike action. Such applause is well deserved, particularly now that the many hurdles which have to be jumped to take lawful official strike action (in furtherance of a trade dispute) include those imposed in 2016.

There is, of course, another strike now looming on the horizon, and one which poses a challenge to the labour movement to find a way to give effect to our support for climate justice. The school strikes for climate justice have been incredibly encouraging and positive, giving hope that even at the eleventh hour we may be able to save our planet from ourselves. Now the younger generation have thrown down the gauntlet to those in employment to join their action.

Earth strike are calling for a day of strike action on 27 September. This would be – straightforwardly – political strike action, it would not be taken in contemplation of furtherance of a trade dispute with any employer, and it would not therefore attract the very limited legal protections from civil liability for any trade union calling upon their members to take such action (no matter what ballots took place or notices were served).

You might therefore conclude that, in the UK at least, the idea of workers joining school students for a climate strike in September is dead in the water.

However, I remember being at the Trades Union Congress seven years ago when that august body agreed to “consider the practicalities” of a General Strike. At that time, the two leading Labour lawyers, Keith Ewing and John Hendy, had written a very interesting pamphlet, which considered how political strike action might, in fact, be lawful.

Their argument was that the right to freedom association under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, read with International Labour Organisation Convention 87, provides a basis upon which to argue for a right to take political strike action (which is completely different from the law around limited immunity from civil liability, which is what English law provides instead of a “right to strike”).

The marvellous Bakers’ Union, BFAWU, have called upon their members to support the Climate Strike but it would probably be wrong to expect that the big trade unions will also call upon their members to support the action on 27 September by taking strike action.

The officials will likely be too cautious about the threat to the resources of their organisations (indeed any attempt to raise the issue in a motion at UNISON National Delegate Conference would be ruled out of order because of the risk of “placing the Union in legal jeopardy”).

However, workers who have watched our children walk out of school several times now in order to highlight the risk to their future caused by our generation’s appalling stewardship of this planet, need not necessarily wait for an “official” call. We have the right to freedom of expression as well as the right to freedom of association – and we have a duty to the future to take action.

Employers – such as Labour-led local authorities – who want to take the climate crisis seriously, can take a positive step by opening a dialogue with local union representatives about how to facilitate maximum participation in the climate strike on 27 September, and local union activists can think creatively about how to navigate around the caution of union officialdom (without calling for strike action, a trade union branch could, for example, seek agreement with an employer that employees supporting the climate action would not face any victimisation).

I hope that UNISON activists are already thinking about this in Liverpool.