Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at
Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thirty years of theft

I've been meaning to blog a link to this excellent post on the Touchstone blog - It really bring's home the extent of the "wage squeeze" that has happened over the past generation.

In 1978, 58% of the wealth we created went on wages. Today it's just 53.8%. This reverses the "profit squeeze" of the previous generation, in which the unique social and economic circumstances of the postwar "long boom" had led to increasing material wellbeing for working people associated with the growth of trade union membership, density and power.

In the postwar decades "A low level of unemployment (with the virtual disappearence of the reserve army of labour for a period) strengthened the bargaining power of the working class. There was a general strengthening of trade union organisation, the development of national pay bargaining, and the spread of shop-floor trade union organisation. Workers' real wages (deflated against consumer prices) rose at an historically high rate." (

In the past three decades we have seen the reverse happening. Declining union organisation at a rank and file level has been accompanied by various assaults upon national pay bargaining, and increasing real wages have fallen short of increases in labour productivity, which is reflected in the declining share of national income paid in wages.

What this all means is that working people are worse off because our movement has been in decline. Now we face a period of falling real wages and renewed assaults upon both national pay bargaining (witness the electricians dispute and the Government's drive to regionalise pay bargaining) and upon shop floor organisation (courtesy of the Tory right's drive to "expose" negotiated facility time). These assaults are not ends in themselves but means to the end of further weakening workers' bargaining power and, therefore, income.

The "Touchstone Income Tracker" gives you some idea what you would be earning today if we hadn't faced thirty years of declining union power.

Now all we need is an online tool which tells us how to go about rebuilding that power...

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Divided we stand?

The third largest teachers' union, ATL, has voted to accept the Government's "final offer" on the Teachers' Pension Scheme (, placing themselves at odds not only with the NUT, but also NAS/UWT, whose General Secretary is now forthright in criticising the Government (

Meanwhile, construction union UCATT, has agreed to endorse the "Heads of Agreement" with the Government ( even though this is no longer a precondition for participation in negotiations (so that craft workers in UNITE, for example, will still be represented in the negotiations without having conceded in advance to whole swathes of the Government's position.)

This fracturing of the impressive trade union unity that we saw on 30 November is a direct consequence of the withdrawal of UNISON from the decisive leading role which we played from mid September until mid December. in that period - which also witnessed the most impressive recruitment to UNISON in the union's history - UNISON used the unique authority of the largest public sector union to marshal and sustain the unity of the movement in a common cause to defend common interests.

Such unity could serve equally well to confront pay freezes and job losses as it did, however briefly, the campaign to protect our pensions.

The visible quest for trade union unity from the top of the union also helped to forge intra-union unity, an equally precious and perishable commodity.

UNISON members are the largest group of organised workers set to be attacked by the Government over the remainder of this Parliament. We need to rebuild unity within our union and with other unions if we are to resist.

As to how we go about this, well, the comments box is open...

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Stop the attacks on welfare

The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) website hosts a useful reminder of the importance of lobbying MPs ahead of Wednesday's Commons vote on welfare "reform" (

The timetabling of the vote on the day after the final debate in the Lords is an attempt to insulate MPs from pressure, such as that exerted by civil disobedience by the Disabled People's Direct Action network on Saturday (

Resources to lobby MPs are also available on the website of Disabled People Against the Cuts with a good report of Saturday's action (

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

OneBarnet - one fight against privatisation

UNISON members in Barnet, as part of their exemplary struggle against the madcap privatisation plans of the Thatcherite faction of their local Tory Party (, will be taking strike action on 9 February ( More power to their elbows!

This is very much the same fight which PCS members in HMRC have been waging recently ( - against privatisation driven by dogma.

Public service workers need trade union unity in the fight to defend our public services. How we build, rebuild and sustain that unity may be the most important question with which union activists need to grapple.

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Virtually building a real trade union

This week's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee received a presentation on the Web Access RMS (WARMS) which will be provided to branches later this year (RMS - the "Replacement Membership System" - is UNISON's membership system).

WARMS will enable access to the RMS over t'intraweb with what looks like a more user friendly interface and greater speed and ease of use. I hope this will be an asset to branches, particularly since it will make selecting members for bulk email distribution very easy (subject of course to the accuracy of the information on the system...)

I've been blogging now for more than five years (though I appreciate that for those of you who have been reading it has seemed longer). It's startling to reflect how far the Union has come online in that brief period. Back in 2006 we saw the internet as a noticeboard on which to paste information, not as a tool for recruitment and organisation.

Since the facility to join UNISON online was introduced more than 120,000 members have applied for membership in this way, with the proportion of all new members joining online shooting up from 14% in 2009 to 25% in 2010 and almost 35% last year. Whilst this still means that almost two thirds of new members are recruited "offline" it nevertheless represents a massive shift, indicative of the impact of technologically facilitated social change upon our movement.

We need to understand far more about how we move more of our activity online, overcoming the prejudice of those who counterpose "clicktivism" to "real life" - who fail to understand how social media can be used to facilitate activities which are far from merely "virtual."

Since the average age of a UNISON member is 48 (and although 48 is a very fine and youthful age at which many are considered to be in their prime...) we need very much to embrace an approach to trade union activism which will appeal to the Facebook and Twitter Generation.

This won't, I suggest, be done in an abstract way, but by applying the tools of social media to concrete circumstances of particular struggles and disputes. These tools may prove to be of particular value for rank and file organising given their utility in facilitating "horizontal" communication outwith official heirarchical structures.

Mind you, we need to tackle the problem that some of our most radical activists are some of the most conservative souls when it comes to dealing with the virtual phenomena of the developing online world...

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The challenge of solidarity

UNITE members employed as petrol tanker drivers by Wincanton are extending their strike action into a second week (

This is a defensive struggle against a threat to conditions ( much as has been the fight by the electricians to defend their national agreement ( and the fight by Unilever workers to defend their pensions (

It's clear that in the private sector as much as in parts of the public sector some employers see the economic crisis as an opportunity to reduce the living standards of their workforce. Where there is union organisation there is the possibility to resist these attacks, and it is clear that pockets of resistance are emerging in the private as well as the public sector.

The first, faltering steps in the direction of rank and file communication between activists in different unions are only the beginning of a long journey, but if the destination is one in which we coordinate solidarity for each struggle as it emerges then swift progress would be in all our interests.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Recruitment success and how to sustain it

Yesterday's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee heard that 2011 had seen UNISON recruit more than 175,000 new members - the best annual figure since UNISON was created in 1993.

Since it is estimated that we need to recruit about 145,000 members a year just to stand still (because of the turnover rate as members retire, become unemployed or move jobs) our net growth is a lot lower, but still impressive given that this is taking place whilst the number of jobs in the areas in which we are most organised are certainly not increasing.

The boost to recruitment which took us above our turnover rate and into net growth took place pretty much entirely in the period after our General Secretary's TUC speech calling for strike action over pensions. Indeed 30% of all the members who joined UNISON last year did so in the two months of October and November.

For once in life, cause and effect really are as simple as they appear to be. The last time we had such a "spike" in recruitment was around the national strike action over local government pensions in the spring of 2006.

Indeed, each and every significant boost to our recruitment figures at a national level has been associated with national industrial action.

I have spent almost nine years on the D&O Committee, and before that had served for seven years on the equivalent body at Regional level. In all the untold hours of discussion about how to improve recruitment, through periods of both growing and declining employment, under different Governments and through good times and bad, the only measure which I have learned is proven to significantly increase our membership nationally is to call upon our members to take national action in a cause in which they believe and for which a sufficient number are prepared to fight.

I'm not suggesting that we call strikes simply to recruit more members. Recruitment to our union (like industrial action) is not an end in itself but a means to the end of protecting and promoting the interests of our members and potential members. That objective has to guide us.

I am however suggesting that we need to change our thinking. Rather than see strikes as occasional exceptions to the "normal business" of the trade union (requiring such exceptional temporary exertion that we all take to our beds with "strike fatigue") we need to see conflict and industrial action as integral to our "normal business."

We must replace the bureaucratic timidity which sees strike action as a dangerous threat to be avoided, with an appreciation that, when conflict is necessary, it provides us with our best opportunity to build our numbers and our strength.

The evidence in support of this contention stares out at us from our own recruitment statistics.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

UNISON opposes benefit cuts - so should Labour

Smiths at the Station having sold it's Morning Stars, I thought I would buy a copy of the daily paper most widely read by UNISON members. There are some very angry people out there on the right wing (

Apparently the sensible decision of the House of Lords to exclude child benefit from the overall cap on benefits is an "insult to every working family" - the worst of it being that, in the debate a bishop referred to the Bible (!)

The Tories are however doing well in securing popular support for a policy calculated to create misery for some amongst a demonised and unpopular minority (benefit claimants). 76% - including 69% of Labour voters - back a policy which sets out to drive thousands more children into poverty and force families from their homes.

With Labour falling behind in the opinion polls, the timidity on the part of the Opposition Front Bench that has given the Tories a free hand to take on the supposedly "workshy" will probably only get worse.

Dave Osler makes the case simply, that there is no justification for a benefit cap set at any level ( The Labour leadership's capitulation to right wing populism on this issue is symptomatic of the weakness which could doom us to years of Tory Government.

UNISON members whose work brings them into contact with those who will be hammered by these vicious benefit cuts can see through the lies - and UNISON Conference had the clear-headedness to adopt a policy position which would serve Her Majesty's Opposition far better than their current equivocation (

The following text from last year's Conference motion, highlighting areas of particular concern to Conference in relation to benefit cuts, provides some of the information which we need to use to shift public opinion;

1) Women - The Fawcett Society figures show that benefits typically make up 1/5th of a woman's income compared to 1/10th for men. This would make benefit cuts particularly pertinent for many UNISON members - two thirds of whom are women, many have caring responsibilities and almost half of whom work part-time. The majority are low-paid. Taking the cap on housing benefit alone makes the effect on women clear as more than 1 million women currently claim this benefit;

2) Carers - Carers save the UK £87bn every year in services that otherwise would have to be picked up by the state - a cut in benefits for people who have often given up or reduced their paid work to care for others is counterproductive in both social and economic terms. Currently 3 in 5 people will end up caring for someone at some point in their working lives, with 2 million people moving in and out of caring every year. In a recent survey it was found that 1 in 3 carers do not want to wake up in the morning because of "dire financial circumstances";

3) Children - A cap on total benefits package will almost certainly add to child poverty figures by 2020 leading to higher public spending for future generations. Already the UK has one of the worst rates of child poverty in the industrialised world with nearly four million of our children living poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates that child poverty costs around £25bn a year in terms of poor health, educational inequalities, social exclusion and worklessness;

4) Housing - The reforms to housing benefit, including caps on the benefit that claimants can receive, a shift to up-rating benefit in line with consumer prices index, instead of retail price index, and reducing the value of local housing allowance risks driving thousands of vulnerable people from their homes in areas where housing costs are high. The cuts will also mean higher rents for many low paid workers and the recently unemployed, who along with pensioner claimants, make up the majority of households claiming Local Housing Allowance (housing benefit for the private sector). The housing charity, Shelter has warned that if housing benefit support is taken away, this will push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness;

5) Disability - conference has many grave concerns about the government's plans to reform Disability Living allowance into a 'Personal Independence Payment' (PIP) and cut the future budget by 20 per cent by 2013/14. Over 3 million people currently receive DLA (1.8 are people of working age) with the total amount spent on the benefit this year forecast to be £12 billion. Just some of the concerns about the proposals are:

a) extra conditionality and the doubling of the eligibility lead in time before someone is able to claim DLA will result in an increase in disability related poverty for many disabled people;

b) there will no longer be automatic qualification for certain conditions and the proposed approach to assessments, necessitating regular face to face meetings, is problematic as it fails to recognise that society is still largely inaccessible to disabled people, including those with less complex impairments and barriers;

c) the proposal intends to withdraw the mobility aspect of DLA funding if an individual is in hospital or a residential home 28 days, 84 days for children; the right to control independence and offset the institutionalisation of disabled adults and children will become even more critical and place additional, unnecessary strain on both health and social care workforces.
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Monday, January 23, 2012

A tale of two public servants

This evening's Standard carried what is, I would say by any reckoning, a disgraceful attack upon a dedicated public servant (

Some (not very) bright spark has asked Haringey Council to tally up the salary of an elected lay representative of the National Union of Teachers over a period of six and a half years and (lo and behold) it adds up to quite a lot of money.

This really is only "journalism" in the sense that the "Taxpayers Alliance" conduct "research". It is clearly driven by the fact that the NUT (and others) in Haringey have got Gove on a back foot over trying to force an unwanted Academy - and is surely intended to act as a warning to every other trade union representative on full time release to carry out trade union duties.

But this blog aims to provide a balanced assessment of workplace issues, so let me try to see things from the other side...

I don't know the elected NUT rep in question, Julie Davies, personally but (much like the "Taxpayers Alliance" and all those astroturf grassroots campaigners) I know "her type".

Here is someone who has wilfully refused to advance her career for 12 years, wantonly choosing to represent her fellow teachers at disciplinary, grievance and sickness hearings (often to the mutual benefit of the individual and their employer) rather than progress to a management role.

Shamefully, she has accepted the repeated democratic decisions of her fellow teachers that she should continue to represent them rather than (as would be supported by this Government and their supporters in the press) sticking two fingers up to her colleagues and concentrating upon personal advancement.

Quite clearly, such selfless commitment to the best interests of those who choose to devote their lives to public service deserves every ounce of the criticism which it has today attracted.

How unlike this case is that of poor Stephen Hester, another public sector employee (running a nationalised bank), whose entitlement to a bonus is quite scurrilously being challenged (

How much more positive an example is set by a banker willing to double an already astronomic salary at the expense of an impoverished nation than by some public sector trade unionist scoundrel who persists in rejecting their own individual self-interest in order to represent workers' collective interests!

You see, dear reader? Once you look at things in a balanced way like this, it really is so straightforward...

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Solidarity with Southampton

A year on, UNISON (and UNITE) members in Southampton continue to resist the attack upon their pay and conditions ( Action short of strike action continues and plans are afoot to disrupt the opening of a museum, to build which the Tory Council has borrowed £5 Million while stealing the same £5 Million in attacks on their workers' pay and conditions.

Our members in Southampton are right to continue to resist - and the dispute illustrates the importance of having control in the hands of the elected lay representatives of the workers whose conditions are being attacked.

In other branches where conditions are under attack it is imperative that branches wishing to recommend opposition to reductions in conditions do not face obstruction from within their own trade union.

Branches tempted to acquiesce in reductions in conditions should remember that if you give the employers an inch they'll only want to come back and take a mile - and that each succesful attack emboldens reactionary elements in other authorities to mimic that attack.

Workers in Southampton who have fought hard against the employer's attacks have preserved the conditions of untold thousands of members elsewhere as they have discouraged other local authorities from following the example from the Solent.

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Workers should defend claimants

The Tory Government's Benefit cap will further impoverish thousands (

The trade unions should oppose this dramatic attack on some of the poorest in our society not so much out of humanity (though there's nothing wrong with that) but out of enlightened self-interest.

Nothing is more vile than the suggestion from the Cabinet of Millionaires that they are driven to impose an arbitrary limit upon benefits payable to any household so as to avoid the "injustice" currently done to low income households not reliant upon benefits.

Given that the Coalition are deliberately pursuing policies to cut jobs, freeze pay, reduce pensions and weaken employment rights, it would indeed be strange if in this one area of welfare reform they were motivated by the desire to do right by social strata they spend the rest of the time beating up.

Of course that's not the case. Far from gaining any benefit from the worsening of the conditions of those on benefits, those on low wages are every bit as much victims of this attack.

The Tories are returning to type and, in the spirit of the New Poor Law of 1834 they seek to ensure that the condition of "paupers" is "less eligible" than even the poorest worker in employment ( This facilitates the unemployed performing the function of instilling fear in the hearts of workers in employment, so that we shall moderate our wage demands and fail to fight for a better deal (being what Marx called a "reserve army of labour").

(This explains the paradox that political attacks on "benefit scroungers" aimed at the unemployed invariably increase as the availability of jobs for those same unemployed decrease.)

It is therefore in the direct material interest of trade union members in employment that our movement should show effective solidarity with claimants and campaigners opposing the benefit cap, resurrecting the demand of the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the 1930s for "work or full maintenance."

Unfortunately the leadership of the Party to which we are affiliated seems determined at present to position itself to the right of Lord Ashdown, Simon Hughes and the bishops on this question (

The trade unions need to shift Labour policy on this, as on many other questions, in 2012 if we are to justify our continued affiliation to our members (and arm the Party with policies which will motivate our voters).

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The dispute has not been pensioned off

Whilst union activists in local government will be focused on budget-setting for the next few weeks (at least in those authorities where the Coalition Government are enforcing their savage cuts), it’s important to reflect on the fact that the pensions dispute is not over.

Whilst negotiations are underway over health and local government pensions, trade unions representing the majority of unionised members of the civil service and teachers’ pension schemes have not accepted the Government’s pension proposals (and “rejectionist” unions are no longer excluded from talks by the Government).

The National Executive Council of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have taken the sensible step, from the point of view of those who don’t find the Heads of Agreement a satisfactory basis upon which to negotiate a final settlement, of calling for further action, in conjunction with the other unions who are taking a similar view, notably PCS.

For those in UNISON who don’t believe that even world class negotiators can make a silk purse of a worthwhile settlement out of the sow’s ear of the Government’s preconditions, we have a pressing interest in what our fellow trade unionists do to continue to fight for fair pensions.

Activists need to continue to work for the maximum unity of our movement at every level at which that can be built.

Barnet Fair?

Tory Barnet Council’s mania for privatisation has now been augmented by a penchant for legal threats to bloggers who have apparently been leaked a document concerning the current bidding process. Barnet's privatisation programme, which has variously been titled "Future Shape" and "One Barnet" is now approaching the point at which massive contracts will be let, regardless of the interests of the people of the borough. It's no wonder that there is such concern about this that insiders are leaking documents.

This little episode illustrates one of the many pernicious aspects of privatisation of public services – that so much that is vital to the interests of service users and employees is no longer to be decided in public by Councillors, but will be determined behind closed doors, in negotiations shrouded by “commercial confidentiality.” The “Commissioning Council” is exactly what it appears to be, a cloak to conceal the making of profits out of the taxpayer, at the expense of those who use, and provide, public services.

Solidarity and good luck to friends and comrades in Barnet UNISON who have to face up to these challenges.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The challenge of job destruction

The TUC are right to highlight how public sector job cuts will fall hardest of all in those Regions where deindustrialisation has left the Regional economy disproportionately dependent upon public employment (

However, with the projected loss of almost 95,000 jobs in Greater London we're hardly excluded from the pain, particularly since (as the TUC have also pointed out -, private sector net job creation is currenly a drop in the ocean of public sector job losses.

The last Tory Government, just like this one, didn't see unemployment as a policy failure, but as a policy tool to be used to weaken our movement and to shift the balance of power in the workplace. An index of their success is that, after a generation in which the share of wages and salaries increased at the expense of the share of profits in the national income, that trend has been reversed in recent decades.

Now, under this Government, as we experience a sustained fall in real wages not seen since the 1920s, we also face a deliberate policy of job destruction. We can spell out the catastrophic consequences of this policy, but as union members we expect more than that our unions should share and describe our pain. Trade unions are tools for us to use to defend our collective interests.

Following the exposure of divisions in our movement at the last Public Sector Liaison Group, the question which confronts the leadership of (and activists within) the trade unions is "what is to be done?"

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Fighting privatisation - but not together?

Belated solidarity greetings to PCS members in HMRC taking lightening strike action today against the threatened privatisation of call handling (

This is exactly the same struggle being waged by UNISON members in Barnet, resisting wholesale privatisation plans from "EasyCouncil" ( (and tweeting as they do -

UNISON members in health and local government share with PCS members in the civil service all the problems which are created for public servants in the UK by the neoliberal politics which dictate that the correct response to a crisis in the financial sector is to devastate the Welfare State.

We share opposition to the threat of privatisation, and we share the challenge of organising public servants after they have been privatised.

All of which makes me regret the lack of positive progress in joint working between UNISON and PCS since the signing of the Agreement for joint working between our two unions (

Indeed, it even seems as if PCS is indeed now talking seriously with UNITE about a possible merger (

Since such a merger would have all the industrial logic as would be exhibited by the appearance of a member of the Door Supervisors Union ( representing an employee of a London local authority, it is quite striking (or perhaps "not striking any more") that we have been able to make so very little progress in strengthening relations between UNISON and PCS, which would seem to have a far sounder basis in common interest.

Activists in different trade unions may need, in these times after the disintegration of trade union unity on pensions, to create new channels for effective inter-union cooperation.

We must most certainly not abandon the local tools for rank and file coordination which we manufactured in the run up to N30, whether they used the (semi-official) structure of Trades Councils or even less official forms.

We also need national coordination - and can look back to the last period of a sustained fall in real wages for some ideas -

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Oh Balls!

Having given myself a weekend off politics (mostly) I wish the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Chancellor had done the same (

Instead one Ed has supported the other, who has given a speech ostensibly about economics but really about marketing the Labour "brand" for consumption in the pages of the right-wing press (

In fact, Balls gave a credible Keynesian critique of Osborne's reiteration of the Treasury orthodoxy of the interwar years, but the Labour leadership preferred to let the headlines be written around a remark that Labour cannot promise now to reverse cuts if it forms a Government in 2015 ("we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will reverse tax rises or spending cuts. And we
will not.")

This statement of the obvious (who knows what circumstances would face a future Government more than three years in the future?) was then reinforced by a futile pledge of support for public sector pay restraint.

This pledge was given because, according to Balls, " Jobs must be our
priority before higher pay." This sounds like an echo of 1970s corporatism, but in circumstances in which, wrenched out of its historical context, it has no meaning.

This Government isn't applying the money it has saved by forcing down the living standards of public servants to job creation! On the contrary, our pay freeze has been accompanied by massive job losses, with more in prospect, having the negative macroeconomic consequences which Balls himself describes;

"Fragile consumer and business confidence has been crushed by the inflationary hike in VAT, the threatened withdrawal of public sector demand, the reality of falling incomes and the fear of rising unemployment." (The touchstone blog spelt out before Xmas how falling real wages are restraining consumer expenditure -

Yet, for the two Eds, it is more important to be seen to have "economic credibility" by talking tough about painful choices than it is to advance a workable alternative to austerity which does not require working people to bear the costs of a crisis not of our making.

The trade unions have, broadly speaking, advocated economic policies in the interests of our members. If our affiliation to the Labour Party is to remain defensible to our members (the large majority of whom - in UNISON - choose not to pay into the affiliated section of our political fund) then the unions need to establish, at Party Conference, economic policies for the Labour Opposition, and a possible future Labour Government, which offer some hope.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pensions decisions

UNISON's Health Service Group Executive (SGE) has agreed decisively to ballot members on the Government's "final offer" on the NHS Pension, and will meet next week to decide on a recommendation (if any) to members in that ballot.

The various SGEs with members in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) have all, by varying margins, voted to endorse the principles agreed between the trade unions and the Local Government Association (LGA) for the future of the LGPS, legitimising the process of intensive negotiation which was already underway and which aims to secure agreement on "big ticket" items within three months.

For those of us in UNISON, we now have a clear policy position on the LGPS (and - of course - the right to campaign to change policy). Members in Health will shortly have a vote.

For those in other unions wishing to fight to improve upon the Government's position on public sector pensions, I regret UNISON is not, at this point, at your side.

However, the decisions have been taken democratically according to our Rules and those of us wishing to change or challenge these decisions must turn to our Rule Book to do so.

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Decision day on pensions

With an increasing number of trade unions distancing themselves, in one way or another, from what appeared before Xmas to be the emerging settlement of the public sector pensions dispute (, UNISON's Service Group Executive (SGE) meetings today assume ever greater importance.

Will UNISON deliver the result that Maude and Alexander hope for?

Robert Griffiths, writing in today's Morning Star (, puts a key part of the case against coherently and in a measured way, when considering, quite correctly, the deliberate political nature of the attack upon our pensions;

"Only working-class unity, backed by a broad section of public opinion, bears the potential to turn back this massive ruling class offensive.

Of course nobody should be so naive as to believe that every public-sector worker - let alone those in the private sector - is prepared to strike unselfishly, for the collective good rather than to defend their own pension terms.

But it is also true that the huge demonstrations and strikes of March 26, June 30 and November 30 have built confidence, solidarity and militancy.

To break that developing unity now would be calamitous, not only for pensions and public services. It would divide and demoralise many workers and the labour movement as a whole.

It is sheer delusion to imagine that one or two major pension schemes can be removed from the fight and escorted to safety.

Splitting the united front will worsen the prospects for defending the other schemes - and guarantee that any temporarily "exempted" ones will be even more savagely attacked further down the line.

"First they came for the Civil Service scheme, but I was not a civil servant so I did nothing. Then they came for the teachers' scheme, but I was not a teacher... etc."

Finally, the government will come for the health or local government scheme, and there will be nobody left to act in solidarity."

The extent of the "delusion" criticised by Griffiths is made clear by the fact that, whilst UNITE were deciding their position democratically, negotiators for UNISON and GMB were in talks about the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) ( This before any of UNISON's SGEs had expressed a view!

I fear that our LGPS negotiators are so dazzled by their achievement in putting off contribution increases until 2014 (the credit for which they share with the employers' side negotiators) that they now want to press ahead, trusting to their undoubted skill and understanding of the detail, but ignoring the wider context in which a local government workforce, isolated from the rest of the movement, could be picked off at their leisure by the Government.

For local government workers it's as if, having confronted a burglar about to steal our possessions, we have come to an agreement with him that, if he leaves us most of our stuff now, we'll go out and leave the front door unlocked in 2014, and will spend the coming months helping him prepare an inventory. (And, since we are conceding to the Government on the pension age, and abandoning indexation as a bargaining objective, it's also as if we've given the burglar some valuables "on account" as a token of good faith!)

Of course, for health workers, the burglar's visit is delayed only by one year - and then only for half the workforce.

Today we'll find out if the elected lay representatives of UNISON members are prepared to endorse the approach which the Government are hoping for.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

UNITE rejects LGPS Agreement - what should UNISON do?

Of the 11 trade unions with members in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), just three sent their senior officials into the talks with the three political leaders on the Local Government Association, from which emerged the "agreed principles" which UNISON Service Group Executives (SGEs) will be asked to endorse tomorrow.

Now, the senior lay Committee of one of those three unions, UNITE, has voted not to accept the "principles agreement" as a satisfactory basis for further progress (

Although UNITE's total membership in the LGPS is small in comparison to UNISON it's Local Authority National Industrial Sector Committee (LANISC) is a serious body of informed and experienced union activists, who have now made a reasoned judgement that the principles, which entail surrender on the question of pension age and abandonment of our opposition to changes in indexation as a bargaining objective, are inadequate and insufficient.

With UNITE saying that "there now needs to be genuine discussions without arbitary deadlines" will UNISON bend the knee to the Government and accept the principles and the tight timetable for further negotiations on the basis of those principles?

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will know that I think the answer ought to be "no" for all the reasons I set out elsewhere ( I do not believe that the gain we have won in the LGPS (delaying any change from 2012 to 2014) would be put at risk if we try to secure the further improvements which UNITE now seek - and that, as I argued today in the Morning Star ( - we will do better if we sustain the unity of our movement which was the most impressive feature of 30 November.

There is an increasingly strong case that UNISON, instead of leading local government workers away from the unified fight to defend pensions, would do better to stand firm and resume the resolute and effective leadership of that fight which we showed in the three months following our General Secretary's speech to the TUC.

(And as for the position in respect of the health service scheme, I can think of no better riposte to the public comments of our lead negotiator than that offered by Mark Campbell of UCU at Saturday's meeting!)

(If you may be offended by rude words look away now)

(Damage Limitation? My Arse!)

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Unity against miserablism

I was pleased to be well enough to make it to today's well-attended Conference called, in a timely and appropriate manner by PCS Left Unity( for trade union activists to consider recent developments in the public sector pensions dispute.
I ask those reading this who also attended to excuse the somewhat cantankerous nature of my contribution on the basis that I am still recuperating! (Mind you, I stand by my contention that union activists who don't understand the interaction of accrual rates and revaluation rates in a CARE pension, or what the triennial actuarial valuation of the LGPS is, have some studying to do.)(It's more important than reading Trotsky comrades :p)
Although the Conference saw excellent contributions (from the platform and the floor) from Mark Serwotka, John McDonnell, Kevin Courtenay, Gill George and a host of others, and although Janice Godrich deserved a medal for chairing it, the single comment which lodged in my (still perhaps slightly feverish) brain was from the UCU comrade who described our opponents within the movement, those who think that we have gone as far as we can go and should settle for whatever tiny concession we can achieve, as "miserablists."
This is such a wonderful description of those now prepared to write off the largest strike for a generation as a failure in order to try to justify abandoning its objectives!
I am left far from miserable by today's event. As ever, my batteries are recharged somewhat by networking with so many comrades whose commitment to our movement is driven by a vision of a better future for all - but much more important (for a borderline miserablist like myself) I am encouraged by the practical usefuleness of the lunchtime UNISON caucus, and of the valuable information shared by comrades from other trade unions.
It is crystal clear that the pensions dispute is not over. The choice we all now face is which side to take in this dispute. Are we with Cameron or the working class?
Having seen what the leadership of my trade union can do to lead a fight for our members, I hope that UNISON will assume its proper place as the leadership of a battle which is far from over.
As our General Secretary repeatedly made clear to our NEC - and stated to our Conference (, this will be a long and hard fight in which victory cannot be guaranteed - "one day will not be enough").
I will not join, and do not agree with, those who condemn our leaders and our negotiators for putting to our elected lay Committees a position described, for the Government, as their "final offer". To do this cannot properly be characterised as a "sell-out".
However, the fact that the Government of public schoolboy millionaires say that they have made a final offer ought not to determine what the movement of the millions decides to do in response.
We can sensibly reject these paltry offers and fight on for more, mindful of the implications of the outcome of this dispute for every other issue which confronts our members.
The dispute about public sector pensions continues. UNISON's Service Group Executives (SGEs) must now decide whether or not UNISON shall continue to provide its leadership, or to cede that role to others.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Teachers hold out for a better pensions deal

In keeping with their profession, the two biggest teachers' unions seek to offer us a lesson in how to campaign and negotiate for a better deal on pensions. (

NUT and NASUWT have both refused to accept the "Heads of Agreement" announced, with such fanfare, before Xmas as a settlement of the pensions dispute and are demanding further improvements.

NUT General Secretary, Christine Blower, makes the obvious point that; "The Government must face the fact that further discussions and additional funding are needed." (

This afternoon's meeting of the NASUWT Executive unanimously arrived at the same conclusion - they refuse to be browbeaten into accepting that this is the "final offer" since it doesn't address their concerns about contribution rates and retirement age (

The NUT Executive will meet next week to decide how to take the campaign forward. Rejecting now what the Government describes as their final offer implies the need for further action.

It is increasingly obvious that the dispute over public sector pensions is not over. A growing number of experienced lay union Committees have concluded that they do not accept that the repackaging of Danny Alexander's 2 November statement on 20 December can be the final word about what trade union members can achieve in defence of our pension rights.

UNISON members have until Tuesday morning to share their views with members of the Service Group Executives (SGEs) whose decisions will not only, quite properly, determine UNISON's stance, but may also help to decide whether our movement is united in a campaign for fair pension provisions for all or buckles in the face of pressure from the Government of our enemies, thereby inviting further attacks on every front.

There are difficult decisions confronting our SGEs. There are risks in continuing the campaign, including the risk that those who doubt our ability to continue to mobilise our members may turn out to have been right. However, we should draw encouragement from the confidence and determination shown by other trade unionists - and consider the enormous risks of being seen to concede now, in a dispute which has always been about much more than pensions.

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The Rule Book and the pensions dispute

Sometimes, on cold, dark, winter evenings, when the North Wind whistles around the chimney tops, I am asked to tell tales of the UNISON Rule Book.

One important story explains who is accountable for the decisions which now need to be taken within UNISON about the Government’s “final offer” on the NHS Pension Scheme and the “Heads of Agreement” with the Local Government Association (LGA) on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). It often confuses members that those of us who are members of the National Executive Council (NEC) aren’t involved in these decisions in that capacity, but that is as it should be.

Under Rule D. each of UNISON’s seven Service Groups has autonomy, on behalf of its members, to negotiate pay and conditions of service, and (under Rule D. to negotiate the settlement of any disputes arising from the employment of its members. Each Service Group has a Service Group Executive (SGE) (in accordance with Rule D.3.5 if you’re taking notes). The SGEs are the decision-making bodies which will meet on Tuesday 10 January to consider the pensions dispute.

Under Rule D.3.5.3 the majority of members of an SGE are directly elected biennially (and the elections are just coming up now - the nomination period will open on Tuesday 10 January 2012 and close at 5pm on Friday 17 February 2012.) A minority of members may be co-opted, and the NEC members elected to the NEC to represent the Service Group are also voting members of the SGE. Each SGE is bound by the policies agreed by the Annual Conference of the Service Group, in accordance with Rule D.3.4.2.

(An attempt to amend our Rules to shift the responsibility for bargaining to Sector Committees (which are indirectly elected under Rule D.3.7.3 and which have no Annual Conference to hold them to account) failed when National Delegate Conference 2009 rejected, by a clear majority Rule Amendment 13, which would have made this change. Personally, I thought Conference got this right, although our subsequent decision, as an NEC, not to pursue the matter again may need to be revisited.)

Although, under Rule D.3.1.5; “The policies and activities of a Service Group shall at all times be subject to and consistent with the policy of the Union as laid down by the Union’s National Delegate Conference or as applied by the National Executive Council and within the Rules of the Union” – this has never been taken to override the clear autonomy of the Service Groups granted by Rule D.3.1.4.

Therefore, to take the simpler case, whatever decision the Health SGE makes in relation to the NHS Pension Scheme, that shall be UNISON’s decision, neither the NEC nor our National Delegate Conference, could overrule the SGE. The only body above the Health SGE in our Rule Book is the Health Service Group Conference (which will meet in Brighton in April).

The case of the LGPS is more complex, since several of our Service Groups have members in the LGPS and, whilst the Local Government Service Group has by far the greatest number, nothing in our Rule Book says that a decision of one Service Group can bind another Service Group, regardless of the numbers involved. This gives rise to the same complicated question of coordination which arose in the last LGPS dispute, since it is quite possible that different SGEs may reach different conclusions about the Agreement with the LGA.

There is a Service Group Liaison Committee (SGLC), comprising a few senior NEC members together with representatives of Service Groups and Sectors. This Committee does not feature in our Rule Book, except obliquely in that, under Rule D.2.8; “the National Executive Council shall have the right to appoint such Committees from amongst its membership as it shall see fit, and shall have the power to delegate to such Committees any of its functions as it considers appropriate.”

Leaving aside the point that the SGLC includes members who are not “amongst the membership” of the NEC, the key consideration is that the NEC does not have any function which it could delegate to the Committee which would trump the autonomy of each Service Group.

This mode of coordination provoked the ire of our Local Government Conference in 2007. The Local Government Conference at that time expressed a lack of confidence in the SGLC and proposed that “a union wide review is conducted into the lessons of the dispute and report back on the findings and make recommendations for future cross service group disputes.”

Although no such review took place in those terms there was a proposal to write into the Rule Book, at the 2009 Conference, a power for the NEC to “oversee cross service group work” (this was in response to a decision of the 2007 National Delegate Conference that the NEC “reviews and enhances cross service group working”).

I don’t think that there are any easy answers to these issues, since the autonomy of Service Groups is important to the democracy of our union, and to members being in control (as far as possible) of negotiations which take place on their behalf. There is an inevitable tension between democratic accountability and solidarity which probably cannot be resolved.

The upshot of all this history is that there isn’t really a mechanism to resolve differences of opinions between SGEs about a cross service group dispute which would comply with UNISON’s Rules, so were such a difference to arise there would need to be a consensus between those who had the substantive disagreement about a procedure for its resolution.

Whether any of this will matter in the case of pensions we shall have to wait for Tuesday to find out. The SGLC would then, on Wednesday, face the task of sorting this out.

Should anyone be looking for Rule D.3.4.11 later next week, you’ll find it on page 16 of this year’s Rule Book.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

UNITE reject the NHS pension offer (and wait for UNISON before deciding what to do next)

Today brings the news that UNITE's equivalent of our Health Service Group Executive (SGE) has unanimously rejected the Heads of Agreement for the proposed changes to the NHS Pension Scheme (

Mind you, continuing a theme from earlier today about the poor quality of BBC reporting on pensions, the Beeb manage to misrepresent the Government's "final offer" as including protection from contribution increases for all those within ten years of retirement(!)

Still, the report from the UNITE Committee is accurate and Len McClusky is quoted as saying of the decision;

"Our NHS executive unanimously rejects the government's pernicious attempts to make hard working and dedicated NHS staff pay more, work longer and get less when they retire. Unite believes it is important to continue a campaign to maintain a fair and equitable system of public sector pensions and calls on ministers to enter into real, genuine and meaningful negotiations on the future of NHS pensions and public sector pensions." (

The eyes of health workers will now turn to next Tuesday's meeting of our Health SGE, who will need to make a judgement in the interests of UNISON members (and of the future strength of our organisation).

Since we have been told that the present offer "is the best that can be achieved by negotiation" and that this is about "damage limitation" the SGE face a hard choice, as were we to adopt the same position as UNITE we would necessarily continue to lead a dispute which would require further industrial action. This would certainly not be an easy choice. I think, however, that it would be the right choice.

I know there are those in the movement who are, sotto voce, talking down the success and effectiveness of the 30 November strike and, particularly in the North, who are emphasising the disappointing geographical gradient which sees support for strike action weaken generally as one travels South.

But should we be shocked that we faced difficulties in mobilising members for the first national action in a generation? Should we accept that 30 November is a high water mark, the best we can hope to achieve and the limit of our aspirations? I would suggest that the Ambulance sector ballot result is one indication otherwise.

It seems to me that the question confronting the Health SGE is not whether a manifestly poor offer is really acceptable, but whether we believe we have the power to improve it.

That said, I don't rule out the possibility that there may be some "talking up" of the offer alongside the talking down of our action (though I sincerely hope not).

In this connection, I hope that SGE members will query that part of our commentary on the Agreement (about which I blogged before - which refers to the proposed "accrual rate of 1/54th for service after 2015" and goes on to say that "this is around 11% better than the 1/60th accrual rate in the reference scheme and the current 2008 section. Comparison with the 1995 section is more difficult because you have to take part of your benefit as a lump sum at retirement but a 1/54th is around 18% better than the value of an 1/80th pension with a 3/80 th lump sum."

This really is unacceptable as it fails to compare like with like, since the accrual rate in a final salary scheme is multiplied by the known quantity of a final salary, whereas in a career average scheme it is multiplied by a series of annual salaries (each increased according to the revaluation rate). The presentation of that part of our commentary is, at the very least, misleading.

UNISON did such good work to train pension contacts and champions that it is very saddening to see us issuing such misleading comments - particularly when they could have the consequence of making a poor offer seem better than it is.

In the end, for all the rhetoric, UNITE made half a decision today, and it is noteworthy that they will meet again, after the UNISON Health SGE has taken the decision that will matter most of all, in order to take the other half of the decision ("what to do next").

I hope that the Health SGE has confidence in our ability to mobilise members for further effective action and therefore arrive at a similar decision to our comrades in UNITE. This is a decision for the SGE of course, which they are best placed to make.

I hope very much, however, that no part of UNISON's decision is influenced by misguided attempts to convince ourselves and our members that we have somehow conjured a silk purse from the sow's ear of the Government's offer on pensions to our health service members.

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Today's Bad Science on pensions

It is difficult to get to grips with the report on the Today Programme that increases in the pension age in the three "pay as you go" public service pension schemes will not produce long term savings ( since the BBC don't go far into the detail of the assumptions on which this claim is based. This is not helped by the fact that Mr Ralfe's website ( provides no further details (at least not yet).

Perhaps it is as well that the BBC don't try to get into the detail as they might not understand it. Yesterday the BBC, whilst reporting that "civil service pensions were still gold plated" ( told us that "Before the changes, which were finally agreed before Christmas, public-sector workers accrued pension entitlements at the rate of 1/80 of salary per annum, plus a cash lump sum on retirement of 3/80 of salary, which was equivalent to an accrual rate of 1/70."

This of course wrong on so many counts! First 1/80 plus 3/80 is not equivalent to an accrual rate of 1/70 but is more generous. Secondly, the last round of changes generally moved to 1/60 accruals. Thirdly (of course!) - no changes were "agreed before Christmas" as all need to be considered by our elected Committees.

The net effect of this incredibly poor reporting by the BBC is to obfuscate and confuse the issues. Today's report ( does no better.

This is how it deals with the question of the revaluation rate, which, together with the accrual rate, is crucial to assessing the future monetary value of a career average pension;

"The Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS) and NHS have annual increases over CPI baked in, which gives no flexibility to have a pension freeze along with a pay freeze," said Mr Ralfe in the report.

"Pensions will still go up, even if pay is frozen."

That last sentence is misleading in the extreme since what it refers to is not pensions in payment (which will increase in line with the CPI rather the generally higher RPI, as in the past) although this is what most readers would understand to be "pensions".

Here Ralfe is referring instead to the accrued pension from previous years of service which are revalued annually until retirement according to an agreed formula to prevent price inflation destroying the value of accrued pension rights. This is a novelty for those of us used to final salary pensions, where (obviously) the salary to which the accrual rate was applied to determine our pension tended to increase in line with (or for high flyers, faster than) earnings throughout our career.

Ralfe's implied criticism of even having a fixed revaluation rate appears to show a distinct lack of understanding of how pension schemes are negotiated, since without an agreed revaluation rate a given accrual rate gives none of the certainty about retirement income which is what defines the benefits in a "defined benefit" pension. Without both an agreed accrual rate and a fixed revaluation rate we would really be buying a "pig in a poke").

It is clear that negotiators on both sides have a better understanding of this issue than the "pension consultant" of whom the BBC make such play, as is clear from the proposals for different accrual and revaluation rates in each of the three schemes.

In fact, based on the assumptions made in UNISON's pensions calculator ("Future AWE is assumed to be 1.5% above RPI. For the projection of pension from retirement, future RPI is assumed to be 4.6% pa (in line with September 2010 RPI), and future CPI is assumed to be 3.6% pa, i.e. 1% lower than RPI. (Actual CPI as at September 2010 was 3.1% pa.)"), none of the three proposals have a revaluation rate which will be likely completely to protect the value of accrued service from past years compared to long term increases in earnings - a topic about which I blogged a little while ago (

The "more generous" accrual rates picked out by Ralfe are balanced by less generous revaluation rates (as is evident from the inverse relationship between accrual and revaluation rates in each of the three proposed "pay as you go" schemes.)

So does this all mean that, whereas we know that the RPI/CPI switch will cost us 15% of the average lifetime value of our pensions (if we can't stop it), and that (at least in the three "pay as you go" schemes) trade unionists face substantial "contribution increases" to pay down the deficit (if we accept the Heads of Agreement), that Ralfe is right and the change to the retirement age would not, of itself, save any money?

This is what the BBC are reporting, but on so little information it is impossible to assess. What assumptions does Ralfe make about mortality? About future increases in earnings and prices? About the demographics of each workforce?

We don't know because the BBC don't tell us and Mr Ralfe's website doesn't yet feature the report. All in all, shoddy work by a public service broadcaster.

Nothing in today's news makes me look more favourably on the "Heads of Agreement" - it would be good to see the detailed analysis of the excellent pension experts in our movement though.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Ambulance workers up for a fight over pensions

Having been ill for a few days now, my thoughts turn of course to the health service...

Hat tip to UNISON's London Ambulance Service Branch for the excellent news that our members in the ambulance service have overwhelmingly backed further industrial action over pensions (

The Framework Agreement for the future NHS pension scheme, including the concession of a delay in contribution increases of one year for the majority of our members (about which I have blogged before - has been described as the best that can be achieved by negotiation.

This gives our Health Service Group Executive (SGE) at its meeting next Tuesday two options, to accept the Agreement or to call for further action.

The Ambulance workers' ballot result (for action short of strike action) suggests at the very least that the second option ought not to be written off!

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Happy New Year

Apologies to eager readers for the lack of posts over the last few days (and Happy New Year btw). No sooner was the New Year holiday out of the way than I have been laid low with what unkind souls would doubtless call "man 'flu'".

If you miss me you can read a summary of the reasons why I hope UNISON's Service Group Executives (SGEs) should not at this point accept the Heads of Agreement with the Local Government Association (LGA) as a basis for negotiating the future Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) online at

Good luck for 2012 comrades. I think we'll need it.

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