Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Fremantle and the TUC one year on
Senior regional officials of UNISON were there to express support and I would expect to hear more shortly about our campaign to restore lost conditions in a dispute which epitomises everything about our Union’s policy of opposition to privatisation and the need for an effective response.
This reminded me that – at last year’s TUC Congress – the Fremantle dispute got considerable helpful publicity. Which in turn reminded me that I have yet to blog about the Preliminary Agenda for the TUC, which has been online since Monday.
The agenda is the normal mixed bag, ranging from a call for regular foot health screening in schools from the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCP) to a call for a series of one day general strikes against the anti-union laws from the Prison Officers Association (POA). Since we clearly do need to organise more strikes (involving standing on picket lines) and marches, the movement will no doubt have cause to call upon the SCP if we are to sustain our campaigns – and should anyone be imprisoned for our campaigning then the support of the POA will be a great comfort also.
The point that jumped out at me from this year’s agenda was the number of submissions on the crucial question of public sector pay. As I have reported before, one of UNISON’s motions is on public sector pay and the economy and calls for the TUC to co-ordinate public sector unions on pay and support unions taking industrial action. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) make some fairly modest (though sound) demands of the General Council in terms of production of campaign materials and support for joint union activity. The National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) make a fairly optimistic demand of the Government to engage in constructive dialogue with the General Council, which rather misses the point (a bit too much of the old “social partnership” approach there I fear!)
Some other unions go a fair bit further in trying to get to united action however. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) call for coordinated action and a major national demonstration in opposition to public sector pay limits. The University and College Union (UCU) call for a Conference for all public sector unions in October to agree a date for united strike action. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) call upon the General Council to coordinate action, including a national demonstration before the end of the year, and the organisation of days of action including one major national day of action.
What will emerge from the process of compositing (known at Congress as “grouping”) remains to be seen. UNISON will rightly wish to assert our authority in those discussions as the largest public service union – and no doubt colleagues in other unions will already be looking at the very useful UNISON Conferences database in order to be clear about the policies democratically agreed by lay UNISON Conference delegates which should guide the position of UNISON officials participating in such discussions.
It is UNISON Conference policy to “continue a united campaign across the union and other public service unions to oppose the government's unjust and unjustifiable policy on public sector pay”.
So it would be in breach of the policy agreed by UNISON Conference if anyone representing UNISON sought to argue against a national demonstration on public sector pay, or against coordinated national strike action. Whether we need another Conference to set a date for unified strike action I am not sure. What we need is for a date to be set – perhaps UNISON will accept the responsibility to provide this leadership by setting a date for action by all our members who are in dispute over pay and inviting other TUC affiliates to join in?
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Policy Forum - back to business as usual?
Was it a triumph for the unions at the Labour Party policy forum?
If there is a keynote issue for UNISON then it is the defence of public services.
In relation to which we appear to have won warm platitudes in which to wrap the cold reality of continuing privatisation (except that it doesn’t matter because the manifesto on which agreement was being sought at Warwick will not inform the actions of a Government)(We have to now start looking at what the Tories are up to because that is who we are going to be up against nationally).
There has to be a better way to campaign for our objectives than failing to obtain significant concessions from the Party which will, at best, form Her Majesty’s Opposition after the next General Election.
Particularly since it is precisely our failure to achieve a significant leftward shift in the approach of the Government which risks a catastrophic defeat at the next election for the Party to which we are affiliated.
It is a good job that our Conference has told us to take a long hard look at the work of our political fund. If UNISON Labour Link was a branch of our Union it would be under regional supervision.
Can the complacency which reigns at Mabledon Place in relation to the inadequacy of our political work be overcome?
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Now what? (pay dispute)
I have already asked; “what ought our objectives in this (national pay) dispute now to be and how shall we attempt to achieve them”?
The beginnings of an answer to this question are on my branch blog. We need to think further about strike action, political campaigning and all the various things which we can do to advance our cause.
We have a lot to do…
Monday, July 21, 2008
Measuring the effectiveness of strike action
To make any sense I think it is necessary to take the second question first, and to accept that measuring the effectiveness of anything presupposes that you know what you are trying to achieve (so that you have some criteria for success against which to measure the effectiveness – in reality – of what you have been able to do).
So, to begin, I take it that our objective in the national pay dispute is to exert sufficient pressure, by whatever means, upon whoever it is helpful for us to exert pressure, in order to secure a significantly better pay rise for local government workers. In aiming for this we also want, as far as we can to build up union membership and strengthen union organisation.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the Miners’ Strike will recall the daily reporting of how many miners were on strike and how many had returned to work. As the Thatcher Government gambled everything on defeating the strongest section of the organised working class there was a great focus on the numbers on strike.
Like so much else about that struggle, this has left a legacy, such that the Local Government Association are focusing very much upon the number of local government employees reported to have been on strike by their employers last Wednesday and Thursday – and are very happy to report that the percentage is low. Their figures clearly massively understate the numbers on strike, but it is difficult from a practical point of view for the unions to issue effective data to rebut the employers because we lack the organisation necessary to collect and publish such data swiftly and credibly. However, these numbers do not in any case tell the whole story.
Obviously the numbers of people taking strike action must be one important measure of the effectiveness of strike action, as must the (separate but not unrelated) number of people not at work. However, going back to the miners, what mattered was not how many miners were on strike but how many pits were closed and how much coal was dug. Therefore another important dimension of the effectiveness of a strike in local government is the impact on service provision, in terms of services closed and services disrupted.
This is perhaps the single most important measure of effectiveness since it relates to the function and purpose of local authorities (the delivery of public services) and is of the same order of importance as the impact of private sector strike action on profitability (the function and purpose of a private company). However, this too is not the whole picture.
Whereas in the private sector the ultimate determinant of management strategy is the search for profit, in the public sector management has no such single goal. The objectives of a public sector organisation are politically determined and those in charge of the organisation are ultimately susceptible to political rather than economic pressure. Therefore what might be peripheral elements of a successful strike against a private company (such as media coverage, expressions of public sympathy and support, petitions, letter-writing, Early Day Motions, general political lobbying etc.) are much more significant in a public sector dispute.
These things matter because the politicians who hold the purse strings which, if loosened, would settle a public sector pay dispute are beholden not to shareholders at an Annual General Meeting but – eventually – to voters in an election. (I should probably point out that there are factors which tend to make public sector employers behave like private sector employers and that the similarities between industrial relations across the two sectors are at least as important as their differences, but that doesn’t matter too much for the purposes of this post).
Therefore, to return to the second question (which I said I would answer first) I think the answer to how to measure the effectiveness of the national local government pay strike is to look at a number of different factors, as best we can on the basis of the data we can get hold of. These are;
The numbers on strike;
The numbers not at work;
The number and nature of services closed;
The number and nature of services disrupted;
The extent and nature of media coverage;
The extent and nature of expressions of public and political support.
Also, given that the dispute needs to influence the thinking and behaviour of politicians it matters enormously whether we appear to be able to repeat such political harm as we may already have caused them.
So, how effective was last week’s strike action? I want to spend a little time trying to gather better evidence but my initial view would be that the numbers actually on strike, whilst lower than we would have liked by a long way, were – in the context of the numbers not at work – sufficient to achieve a significant disruption to services which provided the focus for some positive media coverage and the mobilisation of further political support.
Overall therefore, the action seems to me to have been effective and worthwhile, though it will take a little more time for the picture to become clearer. As to the critical question of whether, and if so how and when, we can take further action to exert political pressure on our employers, I think that this depends to some extent upon the debate which now needs to take place among rank and file UNISON (and UNITE) members.
The question which those of us who need a fair pay rise in local government have to ask of ourselves and our colleagues is – what shall we do next?
Time to think
What was the effectiveness of our action and how is it to be measured?
What ought our objectives in this dispute now to be and how shall we attempt to achieve them?
What are the likely moves from the employers’ side and how should we prepare ourselves to respond to these?
Discussing these questions presupposes a willingness to discuss some deeper and more abstract underlying questions (such as; What is the current role of the trade unions in collective bargaining over pay? How do we build our trade union at the present time? What is the nature of our relationship with the local government employers (and behind them the Government) and how do we apply pressure to shift them?)
There are also more practical and concrete questions which lead forward from the questions set out above (such as; What action do we take next? What is the relative priority between urgency and unity with other unions? Should we debate the merits of selective as against all-out action? What political campaigning should be undertaken and how should this be integrated into the dispute?)
There is a hazard to having these debates in public, which is that the employers can see what we are talking about. Having just come back from the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival the fundamental conflict of interests between employers and employed in a capitalist society is very much on my mind, and I would rather that our discussions could take place purely between ourselves.
However “ourselves” means not just the dozens who serve on national or Regional Committees of our Union, nor the thousands who serve on Branch Committees and stood on picket lines, nor even the many many thousands who took strike action last week. All these groups are important (the active supporters of the strike most of all) but “we” in the context of this dispute are local government workers.
We have no option but to have our discussion in the open. I hope that branches will be timetabling meetings over the coming days and calling for Regional meetings in the very near future so that this discussion can take place through the official channels of the Union.
I also hope that discussion will take place through unofficial and informal channels, such as all the various UNISON activist and office-holder blogs, and the new unofficial local government worker email discussion group.
Last week was the time for action, this week is the time for discussion.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Strike for Fair Pay
Lambeth being Lambeth we have already made an impact on the Royal Family!
I am as proud of our activists – who have been having the hard arguments with our members to go on strike – as I am irritated by the excuses for strike breaking which are always wheeled out.
For the moment – needing some rest before getting up for picket duty – all I shall say is good luck. Good luck to every striker and to every picket.
Our cause is just (and the case for action is persuasive) and we must prevail.
But – to be honest – there comes a point in a strike when nothing matters beyond the simple fact of choosing sides.
For the employers – or for the Union. For the bosses or for the workers.
I’m for the Union. I’m for the workers.
But if you have not yet worked that out then you have been mixing me up with someone else…
Good luck to everyone reading this who is on strike.
And to anyone breaking the strike – shame on you!
Monday, July 14, 2008
London strike rally Wednesday 16 July
WEDNESDAY 16 JULY 2008
1PM ASSEMBLE LINCOLN INN FIELDS, OFF REMNANT STREET (Holborn)
1.30PM MARCH FROM LINCOLN INN FIELDS
2PM –RALLY @ FRIENDS MEETING HOUSE, EUSTON RD (Euston)
Speakers to include:
Keith Sonnet, Deputy General Secretary, UNISON
Jack Dromey. Deputy General Secretary, UNITE
Kevin Courtney, Branch Secretary & NEC NUT
PCS speaker invited
See you there!
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Preparing for the strike
For all the different reasons that people give for not wanting to strike - the most important question is always whether trade unionists believe that the union can win a better deal through the sacrifice of strike action.
Therefore I am boring members of my branch by going on about the lesson from 1989 and 2002 - which is that national local government strike action can work.
There are however some important practical steps which can be taken.
I am pleased that my local branch has worked with our employer to secure their confirmation to staff that they do not ask staff to cross our picket lines - and to managers that they are not expected to encourage strike breaking.
This helps to isolate any rogue reactionary managers and to give confidence to new staff in particular to do the right thing.
I am also pleased that colleagues in the other local unions have agreed a joint appeal to all trade unionists not to cross picket lines. This helps those fellow trade unionists who want to support us.
There remains the question of hardship - and I am glad that Unison has issued some guidance (albeit it could be better worded) - I am also impressed to hear that some branches have already agreed with their employers to defer making deductions until the dispute is settled, a good idea which should be taken up more widely.
Circulating detailed information about deductions which will be made - also about the impact on pensions - and about the benefit of various possible settlements of the dispute is certainly worthwhile.
Good luck everybody.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Everybody out! (except...)
Although we are trying to disrupt, if not close, all local authority services in England Wales and Northern Ireland next week we don’t want anyone to die or suffer serious injury as a result.
Not even Gordon Brown…
Or Sandy Bruce-Lockhart…
Therefore, since you cannot rely on the deadbeats and selfish oafs who haul themselves across picket lines to do any proper work, we do have to consider “exempting” some of our members from the strike call in order to ensure we safeguard “life and limb”.
This invariably means that – as a Branch Secretary – I have to spend some time in the run up to any major strike debating with the employer who we won’t call out.
I have been engaged in this odd process, on and off, for the last few days, and my point in blogging about it is that the Regional Office (whose approval is required) turned round the request from my local authority (and accompanying recommendations from the local UNISON branch) in just over an hour this afternoon.
Since I am the first to criticise the official machinery of the Union when the occasion demands I think it is worth saying that it is helpful to get such a prompt response to what could be a tricky issue.
No, knowing that we have done what we reasonably can to safeguard life and limb, we can concentrate on getting the maximum response to the strike call.
Prentis condemns Brown Government without regret...
This may also delay my report of an interesting meeting Wednesday of UNISON’s Development and Organisation Committee which had a full agenda addressing proposals to introduce annual assessments for branches and to restructure (or even abolish) our Service Group structures – and receiving a report from Staffing Committee Chair, Bob Oram on the changes being made among our staff.
More on all of that later.
In the few moments I now have I would just like to let you know about Wednesday’s meeting of UNISON’s TUC delegation, which will be the only meeting of the delegation before Congress.
(Last year’s controversial proposal to replace the second delegation meeting – previously held to consider approving amendments to motions on the Congress agenda – with a “virtual meeting” has now become a proposal to delegate the approval of amendments to the NEC Policy Committee who will themselves have a “virtual meeting”).
The new approach to soliciting motions for consideration by the delegation from the “constituent bodies” of the delegation had achieved exactly the result hoped for by its protagonists – and I was able to salute the farsighted wisdom of the Policy Committee who had been able to ensure that, in choosing three motions for submission to the TUC, the delegation meeting had three motions to choose from.
When questioned about the new procedure, the Chair of Policy, Jane Carolan, gave a robust defence of the new approach, forcefully reminding my NEC colleague Glenn Kelly that the NEC had endorsed this new approach but also stating that this had the assent of the Regional Convenors. Since not a single Region had brought forward a proposed motion for the TUC, UNISON members may wish to enquire of their Regional Convenor about how and why they supported the new approach.
Activists whose major focus is on the work of our national Service Groups and Self-Organised Groups (also, along with Young Members, “constituent bodies” of the TUC delegation) may also want to ask a few questions. In general, now that the leadership of the Union have turned over the stone under which the unwritten “rules” governing UNISON’s relationship with the TUC had been left since vesting day it may be timely for activists to turn our attention to improving the accountability and transparency of our TUC work in general.
That is for the future.
Yesterday we agreed the three motions which were put before us – although thankfully with some amendments.
A worthy if somewhat anodyne motion on the National Health Service will, I hope, be strengthened and improved by further work to be undertaken between the Chair of the Health Service Group and the Chair of Policy prior to submission to the TUC. Since the Government’s sixtieth birthday present to the NHS is the threat of marketisation, we can anticipate a major composite motion from health unions which will be based upon the UNISON motion.
The second motion was on public sector pay, I suggested that the word “notes” (in relation to the Government’s public sector pay policy) needed to be replaced by something stronger. The General Secretary agreed and suggested the word “condemns” which seems to hit the mark rather better. Rather than wonder about how the weaker form of words got as far as the delegation meeting, what matters now is that this motion should form the basis for a strong composite calling (once more) on the TUC to coordinate the campaigns of the public sector unions. Delegates were critical of the absence of coordination to date – although Dave Prentis made the fair point that the TUC could not coordinate the trade unions if they did not want to be coordinated. I can see the problem – suppose a couple of large unions in an industry did a deal with the Government behind the back of other Unions – that would be a problem. Perhaps this year’s TUC President should have a word with the General Secretary of the second largest affiliate about that matter…
The third motion which we agreed was on public services and I was pleased that my suggestion that we needed something other than “regrets” in relation to the Government’s continued privatisation of our public services was accepted. However, the General Secretary didn’t want us to use “condemns” twice and so the Chair of Policy said she would get a Thesaurus out in order to come up with something stronger. Perhaps we can be marked down for poor use of English by the General Purposes Committee if we over utilise the same verbs in our TUC submissions? (Although I think the National Union of Teachers would probably let us off writing out one hundred times “I must not condemn the Government twice in one Congress”…)
I am afraid that I missed this opportunity to burst into a rendition of “Je Ne Regrette Rien” although I did take the opportunity to point something out to the many people in the room who had backed Gordon Brown – rather than John McDonnell – for Labour Leader and who might, if their comments at the time are to be taken at face value, have believed that Brown would be better than Blair (and thus genuinely “regret” that he is not).
I didn’t say anything particularly clever or eloquent but it was something I wanted to get off my chest.
I said; “I told you so.”
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Seeking support for local government workers
As we gear up for the strike action on Wednesday and Thursday of next week, involving 600,000 UNISON members (and 60,000 members of UNITE) in
The NEC Committee meetings (and TUC delegation meeting) taking place on Wednesday are not among those non-essential meetings to be cancelled – and rightly so (although why it should be that the Leeds branch of all people were told that the Development and Organisation Committee wasn’t meeting I don’t know!)
We have to have a TUC delegation meeting to agree our motions for the TUC Congress in September – although a new “streamlined” procedure for agreeing motions should speed the process up no end…
Since the Greater London Region (in common I should imagine with many other “constituent bodies” of our TUC delegation) did not have enough notice to arrange a meeting to discuss submitting TUC motions, I haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in any discussion of what motions to submit.
I should imagine the NEC Policy Committee (of which I am not a member) will agree some recommendations to put to the delegation meeting. With the largest bargaining group in the entire economy involved in strike action, I hope that UNISON will formally put the local government pay disputes on the Congress agenda.
Friday, July 04, 2008
Further Education pay offer
The employers have made a poor offer which is slightly less poor than the offer against which we are taking strike action in local government.
We are to embark upon a consultation ballot of our members in further education over the summer holidays (when many will be away from the workplace and the opportunity for collective discussion) on the basis that this is the best that can be obtained by negotiation (which I am sure it is).
Full marks to our negotiators for achieving the best that can be achieved by negotiation.
Mind you I cannot remember ever having been consulted on a negotiated offer which was not thought, at the time of the consultation, to be the best that could be achieved by negotiation.
Our sister union UCU has agreed to convene a Conference to consider the offer. This at least allows for collective decision-making in line with the best traditions of our movement.
Of course I respect the decision of the National Further Education Committee. They have decided that there shall be an individual ballot of our members.
UNISON Conference has very recently reaffirmed the right of Regions and Branches to make and campaign for recommendations in pay ballots.
I also respect the right of Regions and Branches to get out there and campaign for rejection of this lousy pay offer.
A great trade unionist once told me something he was told by his father - that if you fight you may not win, but if you don’t fight you certainly won’t win.
There is more money to be had by public sector workers, in further education as in local government and health. Whether we get it depends upon what we do, how well organised we are and how we are led.
Islington 1 - North West Region 0
The withdrawing of the motion was essentially forced by the passing of amendment 63.02 to motion 63 at National delegate’s conference which included the following points
“Conference welcomes the turnout in the last APF (Labour Link) National committee elections which was relatively high in comparison with recent National Executive and Service Group Elections, conference recognises the importance the use of all APF payer ballots on a regional basis for electing the APF committee.”
“also include in the review the set up of the two national political committees and consider expanding the directly elected seats and reducing the indirectly elected seats to the National APF (Labour Link) committee;”
Clearly the passing of such a motion would have unambiguously Contradicted National Policy and had to be withdrawn. I don’t normally gloat but I might just a little bit on this occasion.
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Taking sides in defence of a sacked activist
I won’t go in here to the details of every aspect of Yunus’ case. For one thing UNISON has an outstanding appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal against a decision of the Certification Officer than the Union had unlawfully suspended Yunus from his trade union positions.
I’ll have more to say about that later.
I am not writing this post right now to comment on disputes within the Union.
There are sometimes disputes within the Union – but I strongly believe that when the employer attacks an activist you close ranks. That’s what we should do now.
People who are familiar with the history of the Lambeth branch of UNISON in recent years will know that myself and other officers of that branch closed ranks when one of our activists was attacked a few years ago.
We did so in spite of profound disagreements over tactics, in spite of well-founded criticisms of the conduct of that activist (later substantiated and supported by an independent public inquiry) and in spite of facing what we believed to be (and I believe have been shown to have been) entirely unjustified allegations against ourselves and the Union.
When our branch activist was dismissed by the employer (having failed to accept the advice of branch officers and having made unwarranted attacks upon the Union) we worked with a dedicated and effective Regional Officer to submit an application to the employment tribunal for interim relief.
We did this because we knew which side we were on.
When it came to the crunch, in a dispute between the employer and a union activist, we took sides. We did not allow our political disagreements or personal criticisms to get in the way of supporting a fellow trade unionist who needed our support.
The application for interim relief was not successful – perhaps it was a long shot – but we made it and we were right to make it.
Now Yunus Bakhsh has been sacked – and every trade unionist faces a similar choice.
Are we on the side of the sacked trade unionist or the side of the employer who has dismissed him? (For trade unionists there is a right answer and a wrong answer to this question and there simply is no middle ground).
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Defending workers rights and civil liberties
UNISON’s guidance on this is as helpful as it was when it was produced four years ago. To quote from the guidance “it is estimated that at least 20% of the working population has a criminal record. Many of them have difficulty finding work if their past convictions become known, even if their past record has no bearing on the job they are applying for.”
I imagine many public sector employers think that it is best to “err on the side of caution” by requesting more and more detailed CRB checks than they really need – but this approach discourages job applicants with criminal records from even applying for roles for which they may be perfectly well suited (and undermines the objective of promoting the rehabilitation of ex-offenders).
We are thereby in danger of excluding from employment in public services millions of individuals who may once have done something wrong. Since most of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted for the Iraq war (a more serious crime than those committed by most of the fifth of working people who have a criminal record) perhaps we should apply the same principles in the Palace of Westminster?
Meanwhile in the private sector the controversial National Dismissal Register may deny employment to staff who are merely suspected of wrongdoing and then placed on a register by their former employer.
The Government are refusing to get involved and denying responsibility yet the website of the outfit behind the register has the Home Office logo on it! The press release launching this dubious initiative is online and includes contact information for those promoting this sinister scheme.
At the risk of being accused of being old fashioned I could point out that the profits made by private sector employers are all of them stolen from the labour of the workers in the first place. So if we really wanted a database of the biggest thieves in the country it would be a list of the largest private sector employers…
Of course if we allow this sort of approach to take root it will lead back to the practices of the Economic League and to trade union activists being denied work.
Socialists defend the interests of working people and particularly those groups who face particular oppression or discrimination. That means sticking up for minorities whether or not they are popular – and the (large) minority of workers with criminal records are entitled to expect our support.
All of which goes to show (in my fairly predictable opinion) why we need Labour MPs who actually believe in Labour principles and will stick up for the interests of workers. (As opposed to grandstanding Tories...)