Wednesday, June 20, 2018

UNISON Conference delegates fighting for democracy in the trade union

A year ago I attended my last UNISON National Delegate Conference and this year I am watching from afar as an interested member of my trade union.

1 July 2018 will see the twenty fifth birthday of the Union and the NEC therefore supported a proposal to Conference (set out in Composite A) for a “review” of the Union.

(This was not, as I had mistakenly thought, a proposal for a “revue” notwithstanding the hilarious suggestion made by the General Secretary that the Union was a “left” union – a quip which nearly matched the legendary “ice sculpture” sketch for sheer laughs).

Upon visiting the Local Government Conference at the weekend I became aware that branches were trying to amend Composite A to National Delegate Conference in order to inject some democracy and accountability into the composition of a “taskforce” proposed to oversee the review.

I understand that this attempted amendment was ruled out of order and that therefore, delegates (mistrusting the approach of a Union machine that did not wish to hold itself accountable to its active members) determined to oppose the Composite motion.

Following a debate, a vote on a show of hands showed clearly that the Composite motion had been defeated, but the Union’s Vice President, chairing the Conference initially sought to declare that the motion had been carried – and only conceded a card vote following some considerable contention.

The outcome of the card vote was that the Composite motion (supported by the NEC) had been comprehensively defeated. It is now in the hands of delegates whether or not they reprioritise another motion in order to pursue the question of a review of the Union as it enters its twenty sixth year.

This unfortunate handling of a controversial debate is hardly unheard of over the years at UNISON Conference. Fifteen years ago I was pleased to win a majority vote (on a show of hands) to amend Schedule D to the UNISON Rule Book on behalf of the Lambeth Branch.

Some years later the then Vice President who had chaired that debate confided in me that he had faced criticism for calling the vote carried although he could see that was the result (I don’t think that a former Labour MP will mind too much my sharing that confidence all these years later).

I am very sorry that UNISON’s Vice President in 2018 was not able to show the same judgement as had the Vice President in 2003. The leadership of a national trade union in visible decline should not be picking a fight with its best activists.

I am so glad that UNISON Conference delegates continue to fight on for democratic control of our trade union.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

No sign of recovery in union membership

Here is the news about union membership I was anticipating yesterday;

It's not good news. A fractional (0.3%) increase in overall membership (of 19,000 members) was exceeded by rising employment generally. Therefore union density (the proportion of employees in unions) continues to fall (from 23.5% to 23.2%).

Private sector membership - and density - increased while both fell in the public sector. This continues a trend which has seen an increase of over 200,000 in private sector union membership since 2010 - and a decline of over 560,000 in the public sector (some part of which may be due to outsourcing or recategorisation between public and private sectors).

Whilst these figures seem to correspond with data about which I blogged yesterday (which show that the bulk of the very low level of strike action still taking place is in the private sector) - the private sector saw a slight drop in the modest wage premium for union members while the public sector saw an increase. It would be interesting to see further analysis of this finding.

Union membership is higher among older and longer serving workers - but this is less likely to be due to the wisdom that allegedly comes with age than to a cohort effect.

Those of us who entered the workforce in earlier decades joined a world of work in which unions were stronger and more visible. As a combination of sectoral shifts and industrial and political setbacks have weakened our unions so new entrants to the workforce have been less likely to join.

In fourteen years on the UNISON NEC I saw much complacency - from all the largest unions - and little sign of anything that would reverse trade union decline. 

National strike action had the most noticeable positive impact on recruitment in my time - but compliance with the 2016 Trade Union Act makes that much less likely (even if union members in health and local government wanted it).

I wish my successors on the UNISON NEC good luck in addressing this continuing decline.

It will be needed!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Strike action has all but disappeared from the public sector

According to today’s release from the Office of National Statistics, 2017 saw the smallest number of workers, involved in the smallest number of strikes since records began in 1891.

Almost half of the 33,000 workers who took action, and two thirds of the 276,000 days lost to strike action, were in the transport sector (which means that were it not for the disputes on the railways these figures for strike action would be lower still).

Since the railways are privatised this also impacts upon the distinction between strike action in the public and private sectors. Whereas, for each year between 2000 and 2016, there were more working days lost in the public sector than in the private sector even though the private sector is much larger, In 2017, for the first time since 1999, there were more working days lost in the private sector (232,000) than in the public sector (44,000).

The number of working days lost in the private sector in 2017 (232,000) was the largest since 1996 and the number of working days lost in the public sector in 2017 (44,000) was the lowest figure on record.

Public sector strike action is currently almost absent, in spite of the fact that public service workers have suffered devastating decline in living standards since the economic crash – the lack of strike action is not because workers and their trade unions have found some other way to achieve satisfactory pay increases.

As the long standing inability of our trade unions to mount effective and sustained action to improve members’ living standards has contributed (alongside changes in the sectoral composition of the workforce) to a significant decline in the union wage premium, we will have to watch to see from official statistics, when they are published in the near future, if the decline in union membership is also continuing.

I wish luck to those in the trade unions struggling for change – and (again) would encourage all those who want to see improvements for working people in this country to focus immediate activity on building and campaigning for the Labour Party under socialist leadership.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Trade unions decline as our leaders whistle to keep their spirits up

Last weekend tens of thousands of people marched through central London in response to a call from the TUC to protest against continuing austerity.

That was an impressive turnout and it no doubt gave encouragement to those union leaders who stressed the importance of the occasion and emphasised that the Government could expect strike action in opposition to continuing public spending cuts and declining living standards.

But I remember that in March 2011 there were hundreds of thousands of us in the streets. In the first year of the Coalition Government our movement (from a stronger position than it now occupies) prepared to take on that Government.

And we did.

On 30 November 2011 we organised the largest day of strike action in this country since 1926. We did not just threaten action against Government attacks – we took action.

And then we backed down.

Instead of taking the risk of pursuing further action in order to maximise pressure on the Government, our leadership led us into shabby compromises. (And then they won a majority in our democratic structures to endorse this retreat).

Those compromises meant that those leaders could not then deliver on further promises to smash the pay freeze – instead our trade unions continued to fail our members. Our members continued to experience the decline in real earnings about which the TUC continues (ineffectually) to whine.

The membership density of our trade unions and the union wage premium (the simplest measure of the material benefit of union membership) have both continued to decline since 2011, as have measures of member engagement in their trade unions (such as turnout in union elections).

The increase in Labour Party membership and activism, which began when Jeremy Corbyn declared his candidacy for Party Leader, has passed our trade unions by. Our largest trade unions remain under the direction of a sclerotic bureaucracy incapable of recognising or responding to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Because our unions cannot mobilise our members we see the effective recommendation or acceptance of pay claims (for example in health and local government) which do nothing to reverse the decline in living standards of union members.

There is no prospect of a national fight to defend the interests of working class people led by our trade unions under their current leadership – working class socialists have to focus instead on the need for a change of Government (and the need to maximise the influence of socialist politics within the Labour Party).