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)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Storm in claret glass abates?

I cannot do better, in commenting upon developments in relation to the Collins Review and the Labour-Union Link than draw the attention of readers (Sid and Doris Lefty) to this link to comments from Jon Lansman.

The essence of the assault upon the union link pushed forward by the Tory fifth column in the odious "Progress" group (delivered to you by Sainsburys) has been seen off for now, but at the price of an unwanted "primary" to select our next candidate for London Mayor.

A shift to "one member one vote" for Labour Leader takes us to a better and more democratic place than that which the Party occupied before the electoral college - when the Leader was elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

We need to see more of the detail of what is proposed - and we cannot relax vigilance as long as the Labour Party remains infested with Latter Day Blairites who believe in privatisation, performance related pay and a reduction in trade union influence.

At least there is still a battle to be had.

Of which more later.

Organising in the Private Sector

I've not blogged since the Branch Annual General Meeting last week and now I'm posting up a reference to a fifteen year old Employment Appeal Tribunal decision. Why?

Well, I've not blogged because I've been busy with various matters, including attending a meeting last week of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Development and Organisation Committee (D&O) at which we received an excellent presentation on organising the increasingly fragmented public service workforce. Locally the branch is alive to this issue as we have private sector members working in intolerable conditions.

And I'm posting up this relatively ancient decision (which I fear is still, as they say, "good law") because it is a reminder of the risks we must be prepared to run if we wish to take trade union organisation out into the "precariat" who work in this fragmented workforce.

The "point of law" in the case of Beynon -v- Scadden is whether an employment tribunal can take account of the means of a trade union in determining the ability of workers represented by that union to pay an award of costs made against them. The real point of the case was an attempt to organise a small private sector social care employer whose workers wanted a trade union, but which refused to recognise the union (in the days before statutory recognition).

I was intimately involved in the case, in which a tribunal criticised the Union for using TUPE litigation to try to cajole a reluctant employer into recognising the Union. The Union lost the case, and bore non-negligible costs as a result but (as far as I am aware) no one (not even myself) was criticised within UNISON as a result. Nor should we have been. (The original tribunal, as I recollect, accused me of "abuse of process" - but sometimes that is what is necessary, and losing no more proves you were wrong than winning proves you were right).

We will not recruit low-paid private sector workers on insecure (often zero hours) contracts on the basis that we have a good individual "offer" (for as little as £1.30 a month). We have to show how organising can deliver immediate improvement to their working lives.

We have to adopt a multi-faceted approach in which we use every legal and political avenue open to us to try to build the capacity which will be needed to develop effective collective organisation. The tools we have now, more than fifteen years after the events leading to that legal decision, include not only the statutory recognition provisions but also the legal right to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance hearings.

To these legal rights we can add the law on consultation on health and safety, transfers and collective redundancies (as it applies where there is no trade union recognition). The (not otherwise very welcome) departure from the traditional Committee structure in local government has also created a Scrutiny function, the gaze of which we can, with the help of sympathetic politicians, turn to such questions as working conditions in a private social care sector almost entirely dependent upon public expenditure.

The approach of UNISON's admirable Ethical Care Charter can be applied beyond Homecare - and we must see that it is.

At the end of the day (a day in which some private social care workers may well have done a 24 hour shift) we do, however, have to recognise that the workers who we persuade to build the Union in these workplaces will be putting their jobs on the line.

We can only repay this courage by offering the same willingness to take risks and invest resources. I hope we shall.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Part time revolutionaries and full time trade unionists

Continuing the theme of comment upon (apparently left-wing) motions which may come up for discussion at my branch Annual General Meeting, I was really pleased (as a former student of Industrial Relations) to be reminded of the "incorporation thesis" associated (long ago) with Richard Hyman.

A proposal has been made that the branch should seek to renegotiate trade union "facility" arrangements so that no one would be on full-time release to the trade union. This proposal comes not from readers of the Daily Mail, or supporters of the (Tory right-wing) Trade Union Reform Campaign but from admirable comrades who would position themselves well to the left as such doubtful newspapers as the "Socialist" (or "Socialist Worker").

There is something of a socialist tradition informing this position if you look back into arguments from the 1970s and 1980s. Richard Hyman, the most prominent - if heterodox - Marxist academic in the field of industrial relations in the 1980s, advanced an argument that the spread of full time release of trade union lay officials in manufacturing industry led to the "incorporation" of workplace union organisation by the employers.

I would recommend readers dig out John Kelly's "Trade Unions and Socialist Politics" to read the chapter which convincingly rebuts this misconceived argument. Although an argument can be made that those released full-time from their normal work are thereby distanced from their class interests and  are at risk of becoming "bureaucratised" (as fledgling full-time officials) there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support the thesis that having lay officials on full-time release makes trades unions less militant.

Since Marxists (including all varieties of Trotskyist) have been studying industrial relations for more than a generation one would think that if there were evidence to support the view that full-time release of union activists is bad for union organisation someone would have published it by now.

As a Marxist I am impressed by the approach of a bewhiskered nineteenth century German bloke who spent a lot of time in the British Library and based his politics upon study of social reality. 

No such study informs the lazy assumption that it would be a good thing to dispense with arrangements for the full-time release from their other duties of elected lay union officials whose duties take up all (or often more than) the time for which the employer pays them.

As with the proposal for term limits for branch officers about which I blogged earlier this suggestion is superficially radical. It appears to speak to a desire to spread and share responsibility (as if trade unions, and the participation of activists within them, were ends in themselves).

The formulaic approach of those who think that the main thing is to "share" "facility time" (which approach is eagerly shared in the national offices of our trade unions by those with an equal lack of practical experience) is of no help whatsoever in trying to use the legal rights we have to secure the time we need to do the work which has to be done.

It might well be better, in any particular set of circumstances, to have two activists sharing an amount of time off work to carry out defined trade union duties (or to have three, or four or five!) However, whether this is in fact a better way to represent workers' interests is a practical question to be decided on the basis of an analysis of those particular concrete circumstances.

To adopt - as a principle - the idea that no one should be on full-time release echoes the approach of the anarchists who sought trade unions which would employ no staff. This was a position which was principled, consistent and coherent. Its relevance to our movement today can be seen by the number of workers who have chosen to belong to organisations which apply such principles.

Not a lot.

The real problem of ensuring the accountability of elected lay leaders to the workers they represent can only be resolved politically, by democratic challenge, not administratively be dictating in advance formulas composed on the back of a beer mat.

Once more, addressing my friends and comrades who are Lambeth Activists I suggest that the practical way to deal with the distribution of trade union time off is to stand candidates for election to union positions who wish to adopt your preferred approach.

If there aren't two (or more) people willing to share some duties (so that no one needs to be released full-time) than a "principled" approach to refusing full-time release is an untimely gift to the employers, simultaneously hobbling the rank and file in their interaction with the trade union bureaucracy.

And if there are two (or more) such people, and if rank and file trade unionists are persuaded by them that they, sharing work out, will be better than a solo incumbent, then they will win election without the need for administrative manoeuvres to prevent full-time release.

The answers to political problems is political, not administrative and the way to win workers to a different leadership is to show leadership.

The amount of time off work required by any union representative is a practical, tactical question, not one of principle. To advance an argument (of principle) against full-time release at a time when the Government and its outriders are encouraging attacks upon trade union time off could justly be described as foolish.

Term limits for branch officers

For the past sixteen years my trade union branch has held our Annual General Meeting in January, and usually quite early in January.

This means that the return to work after Xmas and New Year is never uneventful - and in particular there are always motions to consider.

This year some comrades have taken a leaf out of the book of the leadership of the Lewisham Hospital branch and are proposing "term limits" for branch officers.

Diligent readers of this blog (Sid and Doris  Rule-Book) may recollect past posts responding to the proposal advanced on several occasions by that branch to our Conference, that NEC members ought not to serve more than three terms.

I never took it personally that such proposals began to be made as I embarked upon a third term on our National Executive.

Now some branch comrades propose that no branch officer should serve more than three years (unless there is no other candidate). 

That this proposal appears superficially radical is a testament to the fact that it does have a (fairly ancient) left-wing pedigree.

The healthy mistrust of leaders in the trade union movement found its purest expression around a hundred years ago in syndicalism. The RMT Union retains a tradition of term limits for lay activists because of the syndicalist origins of the former National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).

Term limits have an older legacy in eighteenth century democratic discourse, leading to the two term limit on US Presidents. They may be an appropriate check to the potential for a Head of State to accumulate excessive power over time. Syndicalists applied this insight, rightly or wrongly, to early twentieth century trade unions.

Syndicalism never really made headway because of the contradiction between faith in trade unions and mistrust of trade unions which was always at its heart. Whatever criticisms one might make of the Communist (and subsequent Trotskyist) traditions which subsequently won the allegiance of the most radical of working class militants, they did at least have a more sophisticated understanding of the role of leadership in the workers movement.

Such sophistication is not shown by those who propose term limits for UNISON branch officers. Were we in a trade union in which all power was vested in lay activists then an argument might be had that term limits could provide a check upon that power.

It would be a very weak argument, since the check upon such power would better be provided by democratic challenge than administrative manoeuvre, but it would be an argument nonetheless.

In the reality in which (Rule B.2.2 notwithstanding) much real power is in the hands of paid officials (who face no term limits of course) the argument for term limits on lay UNISON office holders (whether at national or branch level) is really an argument for the relative empowerment of the full time machinery at the expense of the rank and file.

A healthy and vibrant trade union in a period of rising struggle would be likely to replace its elected leadership in large part as newly radicalised layers of activists came into action, displacing those whose past experience might make them more conservative. 

This would happen as a result of real responses to concrete circumstances, not as a result of the bureaucratic imposition of anti-democratic rules at a time of relatively low struggle. 

The decisive argument against term limits is always an elementary democratic argument. Members should have an unconstrained choice as to who to vote for.  The formulation which says that no one may serve more than a certain number of terms "unless there is no other candidate" in a movement and at a time when positions are often either unopposed or even left vacant is a recipie for random outcomes.

If a Tory stood against a long serving incumbent they would automatically be elected regardless of the views of the electorate.

Trade unions are a means to an end (the representation of working class interests) not an end in themselves. Likewise trade union democracy is a means to the end of more effective representation.

Among the things that are wrong with our movement are the shortage of elections and democratic choice. The solution is clearly not to limit the democratic choices of our members in the elections which we do have, whilst empowering those who never face election.

Speaking personally to my friends and comrades who are Lambeth Activists I would say that if you want to change a branch officer you should submit a nomination, and if you value elections you should perhaps not withdraw nominations once made.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Local Government Day of Protest - Tuesday 4 February - the fight on pay is paramount

UNISON is urging all local government branches to participate in a day of protest on Tuesday 4 February.

This will be both to support our reasonable claim for a fair flat-rate pay rise of at least a pound an hour (ahead of the employers' side meeting to agree a response to that claim the following week) and to express opposition to yet another year of savage cuts in local government spending. 

The call is not for strike action but for protests at lunchtime or after work. There are (of course) ways to support a protest at work too (for example by wearing UNISON colours) and in the four weeks we now have to plan there is time to organise the leaflets and stickers we need to get our message across.

The coming defensive struggles against the cuts may well have the highest profile in particular localities - and we need to mobilise our members to fight defensively (not least because such struggles are proven to limit the damage to jobs and services).

However, the challenge facing UNISON (and other union) activists in local government is to prioritise the fight for better pay. The best that ever comes from purely defensive struggle (which can be very very good) is damage limitation at a local level. The fight to reverse the declining living standards of workers covered by the largest bargaining group in the economy represents our last chance in this Parliament to inflict a defeat on the Government and to turn the tide which has been flowing so heavily against us for so long.

A serious attempt to secure a decent pay rise for a massive (and predominantly low paid) workforce in local government would deliver economic stimulus just where it is required - and the political circumstances in which we achieved such an outcome would be those in which we defeated the advocates of austerity (for workers and the poor - they never advocate austerity for the rich!)

A combative union movement (such as would be encouraged by a local government pay fight worth pursuing) would also be the best chance we have of pushing the Labour Government, for which we have no choice but to hope, into being a Government worthy of that hope.
Clever cynics will say this strong lead from the top of our union is two years too late to do any good. Cleverer people will know that it is never too late to try to mobilise working people to fight in our interests. 

Let's plan to make the biggest splash we can on 4 February, building for the further action we know we're going to need. 

I do not believe it!

Imagine, if you will, a large public service trade union in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it's members under attack from a Government utterly hostile to everything the union stands for.

Now imagine that members in one branch get to hear about the severe attacks being faced by members in another branch and seek to submit a motion to their Regional Service Group to send solidarity and support to the second branch.

Would you believe that in such circumstances the first branch might be told that the union's "democracy guidelines" precluded them making any proposals relating to the second branch?

(It might be an academic question if you also imagine that the Secretary of the first branch has training needs in relation to sending faxes via a Multi-Functional Device, but still, would you believe it?)

As I enter my second half-century I worry that I may experience more and more such "Victor Meldrew moments". Readers concerned for my mental well-being are invited to send brandy (or clear instructions on sending faxes via a Multi-Functional Device...)

On a serious note, the need for support and solidarity between and across UNISON branches is one of the reasons why I and other activists are starting a new discussion about how we can organise to support each other. An initial chat will take place on Thursday lunchtime in the Euston area, email if you would like to be kept in touch.

Lost database spotted in cyberspace!

Having alarmed regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Conference-Anorak) with the news that UNISON's online database of previous Conference decisions was missing online, I am pleased now to report better news thanks to a prompt and helpful response to enquiries from colleagues at the UNISON Centre. 

I had been worried that our Conference database might have been swept out to sea by one of the storms of irritation at not being able to find anything on the new website. Happily this is not so.

The Conference database was part of our previous Conference Management System (CMS) which has now been replaced by the Online Conference System (OCS). It cannot currently be accessed through the new website due to technical issues but it does still exist. It's just that we can't access it.

However work is underway to make a searchable database of Conference decisions (back to 2000) accessible to UNISON activists through the OCS. I am advised that it is hoped that this will be available by the end of next month.

Bearing in mind the deadline for submission of motions to National Delegate Conference surely only a pedant would want to submit a Conference motion instructing our National Executive Council to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure. continuous future access to the database of Conference decisions.

If any pedants are reading this perhaps they could get in touch?

Friday, January 03, 2014

Has anyone seen a Conference database?

This is a blog post for all my friends and readers at the UNISON Centre.

I'm worried about a missing database. 

This is how I realised it was missing.

Like anyone who is as arrogant as they are self-obsessed I sometimes read old blog posts.

Back in 2009 I blogged with characteristic intemperance concerning my views about a decision taken by our TUC delegation that year (

In that blog post I referred to a Conference decision which I felt the delegation were in breach of.  Upon looking back at this blog post I couldn’t remember the decision but, knowing that UNISON’s website has for many years provided public access to a database of Conference decisions, I knew I could follow the link I had blogged at that time.

So I followed the link in that blog post to

And this is what I found;

“The page cannot be found

The page you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

Where is the Conference database? Search our new (all singing, all dancing) website for the phrase “Conference database” (once you’ve logged in of course) and you’ll be told;

Your search - Conference database - did not match any documents.
o                 Are all words spelled correctly?
o                 Try searching again with different, more general or fewer keywords
o                 Start from the UNISON homepage or why not Browse the UNISON knowledge base.”

The availability in public to all UNISON members of a database of all our past Conference decisions is a vital part of trade union democracy. For a database to be available it has to be easy to find.

Where is it?

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Resist fear and insecurity

I have yet to spend my Xmas book tokens on the full write up of the findings of the 2011 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS), which was published slightly before the holidays. However, the link above shows one of the authors of that work picking out one of the more dramatic changes in our working lives between 2004 (when the last such survey was carried out) and 2011.

Employees' perceptions of our job security, which remained stable in the private sector, have collapsed in the public sector. Whereas in 2004 almost two thirds of public sector workers believed their job to be secure, this had fallen to less than half by the time interviews were carried out for the 2011 survey.

These perceptions don't necessarily reflect real experience. In the same year as the fieldwork for the latest WERS was being carried out, a survey of employers from XpertHR found that public sector organisations had a turnover rate of 12.6%, compared with 17.4% in the private sector. 

So, in the public sector (where only a minority felt secure) just one in eight workers actually left their jobs over the course of a year, whereas in the private sector (where two thirds of workers felt secure) the equivalent proportion was more than one in six.

Public sector workers feel less secure but are not, in fact, at that much greater risk.

I don't think that the resolution of this paradox is necessarily that complex. Since the General Election (and before), as the political right won the battle to control the narrative of the economic crisis, we have lived through a period of "public sector worker bashing" unprecedented in living memory.

An important part of this offensive has been to instil fear in the public sector workforce. Some part of this may be motivated by a deliberate intent to provoke feelings of insecurity to undermine the combativity of the workforce, but the relative extent of job insecurity compared to real risk also has a material basis in the way in which large groups of workers are continually pushed through reorganisations to achieve the redundancy dismissals of only a minority.

The economy cannot sustain recovery without an increase in real wages - and if the trade union movement is to play the part it should in achieving this outcome we need to mobilise and motivate public sector workers to fight for higher pay. To do this (to do anything very much worthwhile) we need to change the climate of fear and insecurity in our public services.

Trade union leaders don't have a magic wand to change this with overnight (it's not an ice sculpture, one might say) but the sort of resolute leadership being shown currently by the Higher Education Service Group Executive points in the right direction.