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.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

UNISON NEC elections - a view from the outside


Although it is now almost two years since I stood down from the last of my elected positions within UNISON, I remain (of course) a member (all workers should be trade union members), encouraged by the news that trade union membership increased last year. If a socialist Labour Government is going to stand any chance of success we will need to be able to mobilise working class people in support of that Government – and the trade unions are the most significant and effective means we have of mobilising our class.

This means that the leadership of our trade unions is an important question, and therefore I was interested to see the summary results of the latest biennial elections to UNISON’s National Executive Council (on which I served seven terms from 2003 to 2017). These were the first elections fought under recent amendments to the election procedures which sought to prohibit groups of UNISON members from getting together to support candidates in the elections.

This was obviously a response to the outcome of elections two years ago, which saw a contest between “Stronger UNISON” candidates supportive of the current UNISON establishment (who took 31 seats) and “UNISON Action Broad Left” candidates (29 of whom were successful). That election had been the first time that supporters of the status quo within the Union had organised openly, and plainly they didn’t much enjoy the experience. “Stronger UNISON” has morphed (on Facebook) into “UNISON Unity” which makes great play of not being a “faction”.

(Students of the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union will understand something of the political origins of some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the status quo in the Union from the fervour with which “factions” are denounced).

UNISON Action Broad Left, the most recent attempt to unite the disparate forces of the “organised” left within the Union, was clearly in the sights of those who succeeded in changing the election procedures which had served perfectly well for twenty five years without the need for draconian restrictions on organising support for candidates in elections – there were not, this time, candidates of UNISON Action Broad Left any more than there were “Stronger UNISON” candidates.

Those in the Union who were most concerned to see positive and democratic change nevertheless promoted a slate of 41 candidates, 27 of whom have been elected. This slate included left-wing Labour Party members, and also members of other political organisations (the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party for example). From my years of experience in UNISON I understand the need to organise those who want to see change in a bureaucratically dominated organisation, and I am really pleased to see the re-election of a number of those candidates, who were friends and comrades in my time on the NEC.

I was very sorry that my successor on the NEC, Sean Fox, was not re-elected in the Greater London Region, as I was to see that my friend and comrade, Sonya Howard was defeated. The reality is clearly that there is limited political space between those who want to keep things as they are and those who want change in UNISON.

23 (more than a third) of the NEC members were elected unopposed – none of whom were from the slate of 41. Were it not for “factional” organising from the left the state of UNISON democracy would be even less healthy than it is.

Supporters of the status quo will no doubt continue to organise as a faction on the NEC as they did throughout my seven terms, even as they denounce the very idea of factions within the Union in public. Over the years I would occasionally get reports from secret meetings attended (sometimes) by a large majority of the NEC. Once I sat next to a newly elected member who shared with me their disappointment that their name had not been put forward for the Labour Link Committee (because a caucus which did not exist had decided that it should not be).

Trade union activists will always organise alongside likeminded colleagues. There isn’t a problem with “factions” in UNISON, and it is profoundly disingenuous that those who maintain that there is are invariably those who have organised factionally in secret at the highest level of the Union for many years.

Perhaps now the Union could deal with the real problem of how to ensure that there is never a repeat of the disgraceful conduct of the former Greater London Regional Secretary in the last General Secretary election – perhaps even responding meaningfully to the recommendations from the Assistant Certification Officer?

There will be another General Secretary election before the next biennial election to the NEC and it would shame the Union if it did not have a reasoned response to those recommendations before that election takes place.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Fighting the rising tide of racism


My current state of health prevented me from attending the demonstration against the visit of President Trump today, but it didn’t prevent me from thinking about one of the most important themes raised by the right-wing populism of which Trump is the most prominent leader.

A recent report from the Trades Union Congress (Racism Ruins Lives) underlines the persistence of racism in the workplace, a topic about which I have blogged before more than once.

The reality of racism is frequently denied – which is why it is important to highlight the evidence of this reality, in wider society as much as in the workplace.

The Government’s own Race Disparity Audit gives official evidence (from 2017) of the continuing scale of racism in our society and its impact upon people’s lives;

“Asian and Black households and those in the Other ethnic group were more likely to be poor and were the most likely to be in persistent poverty. Around 1 in 4 children in households headed by people from an Asian background or those in the Other ethnic group were in persistent poverty, as were 1 in 5 children in Black households and 1 in 10 White British households.”

This disproportionate experience of poverty depends to some extent upon higher rates of unemployment; “around 1 in 10 adults from a Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Mixed background were unemployed compared with 1 in 25 White British people.”

The state – which we might hope (by virtue of its collection of these statistics) would recognise an obligation to do something to redress such disadvantage does itself have something of a disproportionate impact; ”while there has been a very large reduction in the use of Stop and Search among Black people since 2008/09, the use of these powers remains far higher on this ethnic group than others. Black men are also almost three and a half times more likely to be arrested than White men,” and; “of all defendants, including juveniles, who were remanded at Crown Court for indictable offences, the proportion of defendants who were remanded in custody (rather than allowed out on bail) was highest for Black defendants, and particularly for Black males.”

This data is being updated online – and you can check there that; “in 2017, the average (median) hourly pay for White people was £11.34, which was 10p higher than the average hourly pay for people from all other ethnic groups combined” and that “between 2012 and 2016, people living in White households had the lowest rates of persistent low income out of all ethnic groups, both before and after housing costs were taken into account – persistent low income is defined as having 60% or less of the median (average) UK income in at least 3 out of 4 years. The highest rates of persistent low income were found among people living in Asian and Black households.”

Racism is woven into our social structure by history, and in particular by the history of the Atlantic slave trade and of British imperialism, but it isn’t simply some historical relic, slowly fading away into the past.

Racism fulfils an important ideological function for the ruling class in the here and now, in perpetuating divisions within the working class and in providing part of the (seemingly) material basis for the formulation of national – or even racialised – identities rooted in the past (Britishness, Englishness and the so-called “white working class”) which are a reactionary alternative to socialist ideas.

Far from fading away into the past, there is evidence of a continuing rise in racism in the past couple of years following the spike in racist hate crime after the 2016 Referendum.

The vote for Brexit was – in part – an expression of this racism, as is the recent emergence of the Brexit Party. However, these surface phenomena are simply the latest manifestations of the deeper social roots of racism, the answer to which is a socialism which must be consistently anti-racist in word and deed.

Socialism today has to be in opposition to nationalism. We have to follow through from condemning the Tories “hostile environment” for migrants towards a principled position of opposition to all racist controls on migration (and all controls on migration are racist). The role of socialists is to try to unite our class, and we can only overcome the deep rifts in our class caused by racism by starting from a position of anti-racism.

A small step in the right direction locally was the adoption, by the local Labour Party in Brighton and Hove of specific pledges to ethnic minority citizens in the City, drawn up at the initiative of Black and ethnic minority Party members.

Since none are so fit to break the chains as those who bear them, it is always right, in struggling against any particular form of oppression to support, first of all, the self-organisation of those who experience that oppression and who therefore unavoidably lead the struggle against that oppression.

However, support for self-organisation doesn’t justify “outsourcing” struggles against oppression to the oppressed. Racism is, fundamentally a white problem, to do with the conduct of white people in a racist (and patriarchal) capitalist society (which is why the pledges developed by Black Party members must now be implemented by the Party as a whole, including the Labour Group).

Equally, an understanding of the leading role of those with experience of oppression in the fight against that oppression does not absolve those of us not oppressed from our own obligation to understand the world and how to act within it. Racism is a central part of our contemporary capitalism, and the changing way in which it is reproduced by, and sustains the social order is something which we need continually to try to understand, as we try, continually, to change it.