Saturday, December 28, 2013
Those for whom the UNISON Rule Book has a status somewhere between a favourite book and erotic literature will know that UNISON is required to have a Deputy General Secretary.
This is a Rule Book requirement with which we have now been failing to comply for some eighteen months.
As an inquisitive soul, I have been asking about this and, along with the Xmas cards from those of my NEC colleagues inclined to send me such, I was pleased to receive, just before Xmas, a letter explaining what is going on.
It appears that a decision has been taken to defer recruitment to a Deputy General Secretary while we get used to having enough Assistant General Secretaries to field a five-a-side football team.
Those UNISON activists who have, in the past, tried to get a debate about the election (rather than appointment) of our Deputy General Secretary before UNISON National Delegate Conference may wish to take note of this.
In the past, our Standing Orders Committee (SOC) have felt constrained to rule such attempts out of order for fear that they would breach the contracts of employment of the holder of the post.
There is no such person now.
A more imaginative argument to seek to rule out extending the principle of election to more senior officials in UNISON has been that it would breach an implied term of the contracts of other staff that they should be able to apply for such posts as promotion opportunities without the peril of an election.
Since our Union now accepts that it may consider dispensing with the role of Deputy General Secretary (notwithstanding that such a decision would require a Rule Amendment quite as significant as one which proposed election to the post) this inventive argument must too now be discounted.
If someone wanted to propose the election of UNISON's Deputy General Secretary, 2014 would be the year to do it.
As to whether that would be a good idea, a future blog post appears called for...
This blog post comes with a warning (I believe these may now be called "trigger alerts" in informed circles). It concerns employment law and may provoke tedium. If you're a trade union activist you need to know this though.
The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, in their various guises, have implemented the different versions of the European Union's "Acquired Rights Directive". The extension of the Regulations (TUPE) to cover transfers from the public sector (in the 1990s) formed a vital part of the Blairite plan to outsource and privatise services, buying off trade union opposition with the promise that pay and conditions would be protected. Case law was vitally important to that extension of the understanding of TUPE.
In what might almost be a textbook example of the determination of the superstructure by the base, whereas when it might have been feared that our unions would block privatisation, case law ensured a generous interpretation of the regulations (from the point of view of workers' rights), now that there is less fear, the case of Packwood -v- Alemo Herron (the link above) has now bequeathed us a much more restrictive interpretation.
In a nutshell, this unanticipated decision, detrimental to workers' rights, lays to rest the previous "dynamic" interpretation of the meaning of TUPE for the impact on employment contracts of collective agreements in favour of a "static" interpretation. This means that if - for example - local government workers whose pay is determined by negotiations in the National Joint Council (NJC) are privatised, they can no longer expect (simply by operation of the law) that they will receive future NJC pay increases.
For those already transferred out of local government, and whose terms and conditions have been shaped by the previous (now incorrect) "dynamic" interpretation of TUPE, this legal decision creates a complexity which is probably best resolved (where possible) by collective bargaining and a retrospective agreement with the new employer that they will observe (at least) NJC pay increases. I won't go further into this question in this post because, like many other UNISON Branch Secretaries, I am awaiting guidance (which may well be to let sleeping dogs lie).
For future transfers however, Parkwood -v- Alemo-Herron raises (at least) two vital questions. First, if the law won't give us a "dynamic" interpretation of the impact of collective agreements upon contracts of employment, we need to decide whether or not to bargain for one through a "TUPE plus" Agreement.
Secondly, this decision makes it much easier to formulate a trade dispute around a transfer, since it is now at least arguable that a transfer involves a materially detrimental change so that, under Regulation 4(9) of the 2006 Regulations, employees facing transfer could treat themselves as having been dismissed.
Trade unions have been perfectly entitled to wage campaigns against privatisation, including campaigns in which industrial action in pursuit of a legitimate trade dispute plays a part, ever since we won that point (yes, won) in the case of UCLH -v- UNISON many years ago.
This legal decision (Parkwood -v- Alemo-Herron) is a defeat and a setback. It undermines workers' rights and worsens the prospective experience of those who are privatised and outsourced.
It does, however, serve as a timely reminder that such legal decisions reflect, albeit in a complicated and mediated way, the state of play in the class struggle.
Our acquiescence in privatisation and outsourcing has laid the foundations for the law to move (as it now has) against our members' interests.
I've been wondering when would be a good time to step up our opposition to privatisation and outsourcing.
It occurs to me that it's quite clear when that time would be.
I've been taking a break from blogging for the holidays, but as another year approaches the thoughts of trade union activists inevitably turn to the state of our movement and our fitness to face the challenges ahead of us.
The link above puts the most important indicator of trade union strength (our "density"; the proportion of employees who are union members) in both (recent) historical and international perspective.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) UK union density has fallen from 30.2% at the turn of the century to 25.8% in 2012. This isn't good. The large majority of UK employees are now outside our ranks, whereas at our peak in 1979, almost half of all workers were union members.
At the same time however, the OECD average trade union density has fallen from 20.2% to 17%. This is a slightly faster fall from a lower starting point. Among the nations for which the OECD publishes data, only Austria, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and the Scandinavian nations have higher levels of union density than the UK.
We have higher union density than France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, the USA.
Our movement may not welcome 2014 at the peak of strength and fitness, but we are certainly not dead. Indeed, measured by union density, we are in a stronger position than the unions in the larger capitalist economies.
Our trade unions also retain the particular strength of a single trade union centre (rather than a trade union movement divided by politics) and we are (just about) clinging on to an organic political relationship with a (still just barely) social democratic political party which could credibly form a Government.
We face a continuing assault upon our living standards, our jobs and our collective and individual rights from a Government which is going further faster in reversing the social gains of the past two generations. However, we face this assault from a position relatively stronger than that of our counterparts in most other comparable capitalist economies.
Which does suggest we could perhaps be doing better at resisting redundancies and maintaining the union wage differential.
It may be time to stop battening down the hatches and showing purely symbolic opposition.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
I am indebted to a friend in UNISON for forwarding me the response to the Collins Review from the lobby group for insipid political careerist funded by Lord Sainsbury ("Progress").
I see that the Church of the Latter-Day Blairites are lauding UNISON's two section political fund model (without, it would appear, understanding it).
However, their real agenda (and hostility to collectivism) keeps showing. First, they propose that Labour should require that all unions establish two section political funds.
This is the arrogance which is familiar to those of us required to deal with Progress people, but is plainly calculated to antagonise and drive away trade union affiliates. The UNISON model was created to cater for very particular circumstances and may not appeal to all affiliates. Anyone who has read this blog over the years will have read many criticisms of the structure and use of UNISON's political fund.
Secondly, Progress want to prohibit members of other political parties from being members of "affiliated" funds. UNISON Labour Link retains (regrettably in my view) the "UNISON Berufsverbot" to prevent those who are not individual Party members from holding office within our APF - but we cannot ask our members what Parties they are members of!
Given that the author of anything published by Progress can be assumed to be a PPE graduate from Oxford whose parents can afford to support them as they work (unpaid) as a political intern I would hope that they know that trade unions cannot interrogate our members about their party affiliation except in tightly circumscribed circumstances. If they do, then they know that they are setting up conditions which cannot be met, which would only make sense if their long term aim were to dissolve the collective relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party.
The third - and most revealing - of the attacks upon trade unionism advanced by Progress is their demand for an end to the "block vote." They want trade union delegates to vote individually (in a secret ballot) - which would certainly prolong Conference debates (or, which may be the intention, ensure Conference has almost no time for debate).
The so-called "block vote" is simply the concrete expression of collective affiliation, which is the manifestation in the political sphere of the core trade union principle of collectivism.
It is true that the call for "collective responsibility" can be abused (and is sometimes within UNISON as I have often commented on this blog). The application of "collective responsibility" to the elected leadership of a trade union in relation to internal union affairs is, for example, an undemocratic perversion of collectivism.
However, the application of collective responsibility for the pursuit of the policies of a trade union by delegates representing the union (to, for example, the TUC, the Labour Party or a joint trade union side) is simply the proper and democratic application of collectivism.
Because Progress is an organisation created to promote the individual political careers of politicians who are fundamentally individualist rather than collectivist in outlook, they believe that the application of democratic collectivism is undemocratic.
They believe that the unaccountable action of an individual delegate casting a secret ballot according to a personal whim is a more democratic way of representing the interests of working people than for elected delegates to abide by the policies agreed, through democratic structures, by those whom they represent.
But then, as their fervent support for "primaries" reveals, Progress are in the camp of those who want to make twenty first century politics in the image of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries free from the burden of parties in general, and of a working class party in particular.
As a UNISON member I already have enough enemies not to need friends like these.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
That's the link to the official report from today's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC).
For the full, uncensored version of the bits I found most interesting come back here in a while...
I will (honestly!) blog a full report of today's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) when this is ready.
The highlights of the meeting included the following points.
- The General Secretary began his report by acknowledging the scale of cuts in local government. The Head of Local Government confirmed that UNISON national officers were looking to arrange a meeting with the group "Councillors Against Cuts" as agreed at Conference;
- The NEC expressed continuing support for members who had taken action over pay in Higher Education yesterday, and for members at Liverpool University on strike today in opposition to an attack on conditions from the employer;
- A ballot of UNISON members in the Probation service will take place with the aim of UNISON joining with the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) in taking strike action in January in opposition to the impact on employees of the disastrous privatisation plan of the Coalition Government;
- The threat of industrial action in the Ambulance sector had brought the employer's back to the negotiating table (the NEC received a summary report of industrial action ballots held in 2013 which indicated a revival of action across the Union);
- UNISON had been isolated at the TUC in calling for a major national demonstration against austerity in the spring, and this was now planned for the autumn;
- 22 March is pencilled in as the date for a major anti-fascist demonstration, further details of which are awaited;
- The outcome of UNISON's legal battle against employment tribunal fees is still awaited (branches can expect urgent guidance also on recent case law in relation to TUPE and collective agreements);
- UNISON will ballot our members on the retention of our political fund in the autumn of 2014 (ahead of the 2015 deadline to avoid a clash with the General Election);
- The NEC reaffirmed a message of support to members at Whipps Cross hospital;
- The 6th and 7th floors of the UNISON Centre will not now be rented out as office space but will be turned into meeting rooms.
More detail later.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
"Labour aims to reassure trade unions by easing in party funding changes" according to the Grauniad headline, although the full story suggests a slightly more complex story emerging from discussions between Ray Collins and the unions (and UNITE in particular).
It would appear that a selective drip feed of information to the Guardian Political Editor is being used to float ideas which might form the basis of a hoped for compromise, thereby avoiding a major row at the unnecessary Special Conference in March.
The unions need not to fall for "phasing-in" of anything other than cosmetic change - and Constituency Parties should have an eye not just to the potential consequences for party funding of adverse change, but to the political consequences of cutting the Party adrift from its trade union moorings.
It will be ironic if the "one Union, two sections to our political fund" fix which was brokered more than twenty years ago to enable a merger between affiliated and non-affiliated unions now emerges as a favoured model, but the UNISON approach is at least consistent with collective affiliation, as opposed to the total individuation of the relationship between trade unionists and our Party hinted at by Ed Miliband in his 9 July speech.
The battleground may be shifting to the arrangements for voting at Party Conference, where the 50% of the vote for affiliated organisations has to be a red line which we do not cross. No amount of concessions on policy questions in the here and now (up to and including a pledge to bring the Trade Union Freedom Bill into law) would be worth a further dilution of union influence in the Party.
UNITE is "seen as the swing union" (which hardly amounts to praise for the clarity of the approach of its officials on this issue up to now). Jim Kelly, lay chair of UNITE's London and Eastern Region, has it right when he says that the link can be defended if the unions stand together. The forthcoming meeting of the UNITE Executive will be critical and I hope that the good sense expressed (for example) on the website of UNITE's United Left will prevail.
I was pleased to speak last week to Party members in Edmonton, North London, on behalf of the Defend the Link campaign, and some positive suggestions were made by sympathetic Party members about how to renew and strengthen the link at a local level. If we can defend the link we need to move the debate on in that direction.
First though, we have to defend the link.
Monday, December 02, 2013
I'm looking forward to being part of a branch contingent joining our nearest Higher Education picket line tomorrow morning, and wish luck to all those who will be supporting the second day of cross-union (UNISON, UNITE and UCU) national strike action against the 1% pay offer in that sector.
It's the second day of strike action in a campaign of discontinuous action which indicates the seriousness of the unions' leaders and members. If the leaders are serious about securing a real shift in the employers' position at the commencement of action, the call for a second day demonstrates that the campaign is about more than simply token action. In heeding the call the members then show that they are serious about achieving a just outcome.
Tomorrow is a vitally important day not just for all workers in higher education, but for all trade unionists. The joint action in this sector is an (as yet regrettably isolated) example of the co-ordinated action for which delegates from all our unions keep calling at the TUC. The outcome of this campaign has implications for us all.
For UNISON activists in local government, support for our brothers and sisters in Higher Education is also an excellent opportunity to practice picketing, ahead of the strike action which will be essential if we are to secure a meaningful pay rise in 2014.