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)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bloggers anonymous...?

I blog in order to share my views and to let people know what I am doing. It’s part of accountability.
I have little admiration for those who cloak the expression of their views in anonymity.
Since the last General Secretary election we have been blessed with the online presence of a normally anonymous blog set up as a fan site for Dave Prentis (which sometimes carries some useful content).
Now the internet has spawned an equally anonymous blog set up to berate the incumbent UNISON General Secretary and his supporters.
There is something desperately unhealthy about not putting ones name to ones views and politics.

If someone expresses their views anonymously the best place to file those views is the wastepaper bin.

Friday, June 26, 2015

It's still about pay

The news that the Association of Colleges (AoC) (the national employers' organisation for the Further Education sector) has made a 0% pay offer doesn't simply challenge our use of the English language.

(In what sense is an offer of nothing "an offer"?)

More importantly, this development highlights the fact that pay will continue to be a central question for UNISON in the coming year. The indicative ballot which will now take place among our members in FE will not be the last such national ballot in the next few months.

Whilst the election of a majority Conservative Government, and the whirlwind ‎of spending cuts which it will accelerate, may well push other employers to the conclusion arrived at by the AoC - that they cannot afford a pay offer - our members cannot afford continuing pay restraint. We must encourage our members to continue to demand pay increases whatever the financial position of their employers if we are not to collude with the progressive impoverishment of our own people.

The challenges we face in current circumstances cannot, of course, be underestimated. It's one thing to know that you need a pay rise, and quite another to believe that your trade union has a strategy to achieve that pay rise (which is always the most important element of the decision to make the sacrifice of strike action).

In each dispute the relevant Sector Committee will have to map out a strategy for action which could win. This undoubtedly requires the courage to take risks, and the wisdom to appreciate that there are those in our Union for whom national strike action is essentially a recruitment exercise, only ever intended to have a token collective bargaining impact. There is almost no useful strike-winning expertise in the UNISON Centre and therefore little hope of helpful advice from that quarter.

Much energy was expended in Glasgow calling upon us‎ to resist the Tories. Given the likely outcome of such resistance in the short term this year could be our last chance for national action to break the pay freeze. Given the pitiable performance of the majority of the NJC Committee last year it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospect of our members receiving the leadership we need and deserve if we are to win a pay rise in local government - nor does the picture in health look rosier.

Nevertheless, ‎if we are serious about our opposition to this vile Government (and we have to be) we must, as activists, find ways to mobilise and organise support for each pay dispute as it arises, and to coordinate action as best we can.

Pay is the issue which unites our membership.

It's still about pay.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Solidarity with London Met UNISON

UNISON members at London Metropolitan University are on strike again tomorrow as part of their continuing campaign against cuts and job losses.

The link above details numerous ways in which you can express support for the action and I would encourage all UNISON members, all trade unionists - and everyone who cares about the future of education - to show support in any way you can.

Fine words were spoken at our Conference last week about how we shall stand up against this Government and their austerity policies - but the finest words don't match the deeds of our members at London Metropolitan University.

Good luck comrades!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

If you marched against austerity on 20 June (or if you wished you could) - now support Jeremy Corbyn

Yesterday’s marches against austerity were a timely and appropriate response to the election of the most reactionary Government of our lifetimes – the spirit of the marchers is an inspiration for the resistance which will be required. The immediate challenge is to find a way to focus the determination of the marchers in a way which puts pressure upon a Government with a Parliamentary majority.
We all need to continue the struggle to defend the working class and the welfare state in our own roles and localities – but now, unlike five years ago, there is also a simple, unifying cause which enables all opposed to austerity to express that opposition together in a way which impacts upon the Westminster bubble.

The bigger the support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election, the greater the pressure on the Parliamentary opposition to oppose, and the greater the political space within which to articulate and fight for an alternative – indeed if everyone who marched yesterday, joined the Labour Party (or registered to vote as a supporter) voted for Jeremy he could win.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On unity and the left in UNISON in the run up to the General Secretary election

‎As much as delegates at UNISON Conferences may express disappointment at perceived shortcomings of the Union leadership, delegates on the left can be equally critical (if not despairing) of the "left" in the Union (and - in particular - for the difficulty we have in being united). There is a perception of an eternally squabbling "left".

However, there is - in fact - a mixed picture when it comes to the ability of those of us on "the left" to work and campaign together.

First, as reported before on this blog, we have - working together - elected more critical left voices on to our National Executive Council (NEC) than ever before. The NEC left caucus is now broad and diverse, as well as large - and there are more Labour supporters in its ranks than there are members of either the Socialist Party (SP) or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The members of the SP and SWP are an integral part of our left caucus (and our NEC) and - whilst I pull no punches in making criticisms of comrades when (often) I disagree with them - I recognise respected trade unionists elected by our members. As to what we should make of the fact that we have had the best ever NEC election results at precisely the time when we have no "United Left" (other than the broad, transitory, electoral umbrella of "Reclaim the Union" - a slogan rather than an organisation) - I really don't know.

Perhaps if we were better organised, with a vibrant, democratic and authoritative unified rank and file organisation we would have done even better - but perhaps our attempts to build unity are invariably so toxic and dysfunctional that it is better to have more modest ambitions.

At any event, the NEC meetings show that we can work together across a range of organisations (and individuals outside of any organisation). The subsequent support of the NEC left caucus for the Vice-Presidential bid of Diana Leach ( which, whilst unsuccessful, saw - as reported in the last post on this blog - more support than that for any previous left challenger) reinforces the observation that we can, and do, work together across significant political divides.

We must continue this cooperation in trade union elections as we move towards next year's elections to our Service Group Executives. We must also demonstrate the same unity in our solidarity with UNISON members in struggle (in Barnet and Glasgow for example) and in the everyday debates which arise at branch, Regional and national level.

So, there is much more unity (and consequent positive work) on "the left" in UNISON than a cynic might suppose.


Then there is the General Secretary election.

Well, not yet there isn't.

But there will be (as it would be political suicide to try to manoeuvre away from an election even if that were lawful).

Whilst Dave Prentis almost announced, by the content of his Conference speech and associated conduct, that he would be seeking re-election, the Socialist Party did announce that Roger Bannister (Knowsley Branch Secretary and Socialist Party member) would seek nominations for General Secretary‎ as he has in all four elections for UNISON General Secretary.

Roger says he's running unless he believes that there is a better (more electable) left candidate. He prays in aid that he has come second in each of the last three elections, knocking another left challenger into third place on each occasion.

Roger also emphasises that, in the last two elections he has bested opposition from a "United Left" candidate (one of whom was your humble blogger) in spite of the fact that, on each occasion, he had received far fewer nominations than the (ultimately) third placed candidate.

The helpful decision of the Socialist Party to publish the voting figures for the last three General Secretary elections on leaflets at this year's Conference reminded those with a different view that, whereas Roger had taken 71,000 votes in 2000, he received 41,000 in 2005 and 42,000 in 2010 (which hardly suggests that he is on a roll).

Karen Reissmann (a nurse from the North West and member of the Socialist Workers Party)‎ has twice now received the largest number of votes at "hustings" meetings (at which on each occasion, Roger has ruled out his own participation as a "candidate" since that participation was conditional upon prior consent to back the successful "candidate") - on each occasion Karen has defeated Paul Holmes (for whom I have voted)(and on each occasion I have been part of the minority who have opposed taking a decision in circumstances in which it has been clear that Roger will stand come what may).

As much as the results of previous General Secretary elections cast doubt upon the notion that Roger could ever win an election, they do demonstrate that, just as incumbency is a great advantage in a trade union election, so name recognition (achieved by repeated candidacies) has considerable value.

Karen's supporters stress that there are changed circumstances, and that she is both a woman and a health worker.

It is, of course true that circumstances always change - but as they changed from 2000 to 2005 and from 2005 to 2010 what did not change was that Roger Bannister came second in UNISON General Secretary elections - and other left candidates came third.

It is also the case that Karen would not be the first female (or the first health worker) candidate for General Secretary. In 2000 Malkiat Bilku stood for election as a low paid black woman worker who had recently led a high profile long-running strike‎, and came third behind Dave Prentis (who won) and Roger Bannister (who didn't).

Karen - as a candidate - would be forced to address the questions which would be asked about her role, as a leading member of the SWP,‎ in relation to the lamentable conduct of that organisation when confronted with allegations of rape by one of its leaders. Whilst many socialists have taken the difficult decision to continue to work alongside members of the SWP who seemingly continue to fail to see the seriousness of this issue because we recognise good trade union activists with whom we nevertheless have much common ground, the supporters of our current General Secretary would not exercise restraint - and the benefit of running a female candidate to lead a union with a million women members would, at the least, be severly mitigated by the vigorous opposition to that candidate from feminist voices within the Union.

The only thought less appealing than the choice between Roger and Karen is the thought that our current General Secretary will carry on.

UNISON needs to change. It needs to be rejuvenated and re-invigorated if we are‎ to meet the Tory challenge. A General Secretary election can only help to meet this need if it replaces an incumbent (which is unlikely if the incumbent seeks re-election and impossible if an incumbent candidate faces a divided challenge).

Whether "the left" in UNISON can find its way to‎ a united left challenger remains an open question (best answered by the delegate who said "I want a single left candidate, but then I've always wanted it to rain beer"). 

What activists in UNISON should reflect upon though, before berating "the left" for its current dis-unity in relation to the General Secretary election‎, is the effectiveness of joint work in the NEC elections, on the NEC and other national committees and - as, if not more, importantly - in building solidarity with UNISON members (and other workers) in struggle.

On a train home from Conference it seems to me most important to work out how to build practical unity around support for struggles and around vital trade union issues (such as branch funding). None of the General Secretary elections since UNISON was created have been‎ occasions for building rank and file organisation or advancing the left within the Union. I therefore refuse to be downheartened by the obvious prospect that the next one won't be either.

Our priority must be to mobilise opposition to the Tories and to austerity, locally and nationally. All who can should support tomorrow's demonstrations in London and Glasgow. All who will should join the Labour Party, or register to vote as an affiliated member, in order to back Jeremy Corbyn. All of us must redouble our efforts in our branches to recruit, organise and politically educate both members and stewards.

There is much to do and, as a left member of the UNISON NEC, I shall do as much as I can, and know that my fellow members of the left caucus shall also (whatever differences we may have).

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Where next for the UNISON NEC?

‎As delegates stream away from the Conference Centre after the close of Conference on a Friday afternoon, the National Executive Council are - in the years when there has been an NEC election - led away to a darkened room.

This is not for a lie down, but to hold‎ the inaugural meeting of the new NEC, at which the only item of business is the election of the Presidential Team (the President and two Vice-Presidents).

Although the Rule Book simply refers to the annual election of each of these three positions, there is a convention that each Vice-President serves two years (in the first of which they are known as the "junior" Vice-President and in the second of which they are "promoted" to "senior" Vice-President) and then progresses to the position of President.

This afternoon, convention was duly observed, and Wendy Nicholls, from Yorkshire and Humberside (who, amongst many other things, represents UNISON on the Labour Party National Executive) is now President of UNISON. Eric Roberts, a Londoner who represents the Health Service Group on the NEC, is "senior" Vice-President.

There was (as is also conventional) an election for the second (or "junior") Vice-Presidential position. With only 53 (of 65) NEC members present for the vote, Carol Sewell, from the West Midlands, triumphed with 34 votes. Diana Leach, from the South East Region (for whom I voted) garnered 19 votes.

Even in the absence of a number of known supporters, Diana's vote was the highest ever recorded for a Vice-Presidential candidate from our left caucus in my twelve years on the NEC. This reflects the substantial gains for the left in the recent elections.

‎The majority of my NEC colleagues who voted for the winning candidate in the Vice-Presidential election now face a choice. They could respond to the growing number of critical and questioning voices in their midst by "circling the wagons" - excluding the minority from Committees as far as possible and maintaining the discipline of their supporters with a mixture of patronage and peer pressure.

Or they could embrace change, reach out to critical and challenging colleagues in an inclusive way and try to build in practice the unity for which Dave Prentis, our (once and future?) General Secretary called in his Conference speech‎.

Which choice will they make?

I'll let you know when I do.

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How shall we reclaim our Conference?

Before UNISON Conference I expressed my disappointment about the way in which Conference has evolved over the past twenty years.
I also said that I would comment further on the ways in which lay democrats within UNISON could try to turn this tide.
Since then, of course, I’ve been a bit busy.
At Local Government Conference delegates tried to get to the Emergency Motions which stood out from an otherwise anodyne Conference agenda (on which the Executive supported pretty much everything). We did not get where we wanted to on the agenda – and I particularly apologised to friends in the North (West). But at least we tried.
From the perspective of the first three (of four) days of National Delegate Conference it has to be said that the “snake” has slithered far more slowly – and also that the machine has succeeded in persuading delegates to (re)prioritise important (but non-controversial) composites above controversy which could make a difference to the Union itself.
However, National Delegate Conference also saw a glimmer of hope from the decision of our Standing Orders Committee (SOC) to readmit to the agenda amendment 106.2 from West Sussex. Although this is now unlikely to be reached (and therefore debated) – and although it is opposed by the National Executive Council (NEC) – the decision of the SOC to listen to arguments from a branch and apply the Rules in a way which at least offered Conference the possibility of a choice is welcome.
I don’t mean to be critical of any past SOC decisions (much) (and if I did I would be alleging that they had breached Rule P). However it will be important for the future of UNISON if our SOC continues to facilitate debate. The independence of a lay SOC from both the NEC and the officer machine is a fundamental building block of trade union democracy.
However, if we want a Conference worthy of its status as the “supreme government” of our Union there are things that we – as lay activists – need to do both before and after SOC get to see the motions we submit. First, we need to coordinate, between branches, about the submission of motions (and Rule Amendments) targeted at achieving positive change in our trade union.
Recognising that the task of restoring Conference to its proper status will take some years we need to try to find – and agree upon – no more than one or two key priorities for next year, which should be issues in relation to which a Conference decision is both feasible and would make a difference.
Secondly, we then need to campaign for the prioritisation of these items in the pre-Conference prioritisation process. This process (like the reprioritisation process which is its daughter) is deeply flawed (why, for example, should the NEC have a say in either process? What is fair about the relative weight assigned to the priorities of the various UNISON bodies involved, some of which are more readily manipulated than others?). However, for now this is the process which we have – and we must play by the rules which have been written by those who do not want a vibrant, democratic Conference,

Those branches who believe in lay leadership, democracy and accountability to the membership (you know who you are...) need to make arrangements to communicate in the autumn in order to resolve upon our priorities for 2016.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What future for UNISON?

The delegate from Brighton and Hove who spoke against an inoffensive motion on public services from the Northern Region on the grounds that it was a “business as usual” motion summed up the crisis which confronts UNISON.
Of course delegates did not, in their great majority, follow his lead. Faced with the opportunity to vote only on motions which have jumped the hurdle of standing orders and then crawled through the tunnel of prioritisation Conference did what it so often does and passed a motion noting what we are already doing and congratulating us on our perspicacity and diligence, whilst suggesting that we carry on.
I mean no disrespect to the authors of that particular motion, nor to any of the lay authors of any of the motions which we are getting to debate in Glasgow. However, I am utterly alarmed at the prospect that our approach to the election of this Government may well turn out to be “steady as she goes.”
Our General Secretary (who all but announced his fourth candidacy in the forthcoming election in his speech to Conference) lauded the survival of our trade union over the past five years. Our recruitment performance has indeed been positive – but then that has been necessary as we have failed to protect hundreds of thousands of our members’ jobs, just as we have failed to smash the pay freeze and failed (for want of trying) to properly protect all our public service pension schemes.
It is not enough to say that we have survived (not, at least, if one’s concern is with the interests of workers as distinct from the institutional interests of workers’ organisations). If there were inspections of trade unions’ resistance to the Coalition Government UNISON would get, at best “requires improvement.”
The Emergency Composite on an organising response to the election result agreed yesterday, and the Emergency Composite on a campaigning response to be debated tomorrow map out some elements of a constructive approach – but the vigour with which these will be implemented is open to question.
The determining moment of the last Parliament came in December 2011 when UNISON led the climb down on pensions by the public service trade unions. Having been led to the top of the hill, and then back down, our members were notably less enthusiastic about being led back up again to (fail to) smash the pay freeze.
Had it not been for the boosts to recruitment given by both those national disputes we probably would not have such a good story to tell about maintaining our membership levels (so whilst we preserved neither the pensions nor the living standards of our members we did maintain our solvency...)
It is evident that we need a change of approach if we are to face the challenge of a genuinely Tory Government in a way which corresponds with the interests of our members (and if we want to preserve our trade union as an organisation for the long term).
To debate what that change of approach needs to be is beyond the capacity of a Conference which has been all but stage-managed to death (and those of us who are committed to reversing this pernicious tendency know that we have a task before us which will take more than one or two years).
The election for General Secretary could create an opportunity for such a debate – but if the incumbent decides to stand again it is unlikely that this opportunity will be taken.
The official structure of the Union will not produce a challenger to an incumbent General Secretary – and the “outside Left” (of which I have long been a part) seems unlikely to find a candidate who will present a credible new challenge to that incumbent (or even to find a single candidate).
UNISON needs to renew and rejuvenate itself if it is to face the challenge of the most reactionary Government in a hundred years. One man can decide – by stepping down from a job he has now done for fifteen years – to begin to enable the debate that could lead to that renewal.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

You can't have everything...

Our friends at UNISON Anonymous, the blog which is certainly never written by paid officials of our Union, appear unimpressed with Motion 106, the Lambeth branch motion on branch funding.

Their argument is that there is a socialist principle to do with reallocating resources between branches - and this principle clearly requires yet another year of meetings before anything at all is decided.

Socialist principle.

So nothing at all to do with self-interest.

No, of course not.

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Local Government Pay - shall we now have "unity" after the Special Local Government Conference?

As diligent readers of this blog will recollect, UNISON members in Local Government held a Special Service Group Conference in March at which delegates decided that the Union should submit a pay claim for an increase from 1 April 2015.
Such a claim was duly submitted and can be read online here.
How seriously did our officials take the decision of our Special Conference? Well, the letter submitting the pay claim ran to an impressive word count in excess of 100.
However, if you compare that to the previous NJC pay claim you’ll see that ran to over 30 pages. A serious document, setting out evidence and argument in support of a pay claim shows when we are serious. A brief letter setting out a demand for more money with only the most perfunctory justification shows when we are not.
In other words, the official implementation of the Special Conference decision was deliberately contemptuous of that decision.
What happened next? This is what the official briefing tells us;
“The additional re-opened UNISON pay claim for NJC workers for 2015/16 was submitted to the employers on 22 April 2015. It demanded that the full-time equivalent Living Wage should be the new minimum, and an equivalent flat rate increase for all scale points. The Employers responded stating that they would not consider this new pay claim. The NJC Committee considered this at their meeting on 12 May, along with the results of the consultation of members on the content 2016/17 pay claim. The NJC Committee agreed to refuse to accept the Employers’ response to our 2015/16 claim and to merge the 2015/16 campaign into the 2016/17 pay campaign.”
What on earth does it mean to say that we “refuse to accept the Employers’ response to our 2015/16 claim” if we do nothing to indicate this refusal other than campaign for the next year’s pay rise? That is a bit like accepting that you won’t be served breakfast and deciding to merge your desire for breakfast into your ongoing campaign for lunch.
The Salford City branch deserve congratulation for submitting an Emergency Motion drawing the necessary conclusion from the employers’ immediate rejection of our pay claim for 2015, which is that we should threaten a campaign of industrial action. Delegates might or might not think that this is the right course of action (bearing in mind the mixed picture across different Regions perhaps). However, one would hope that delegates would have the opportunity to participate in that debate.
But no.
The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) has ruled the Salford Emergency Motion out of order. There is some confusion as to the reason for this. Salford were told that they were in breach of Rule O, but delegates at the London Regional briefing were briefed that the reason the motion was out of order was because it could put the union in legal jeopardy. Mind you, delegates were briefed at more than one Regional meeting that Salford had been “spoken to” about this (with the implication that they had accepted the decision) – which isn’t what the Salford branch told delegates at the fringe meeting which they themselves had organised on Saturday evening.
These manoeuvres are part of a desire from the top that this Conference should be an occasion for unity after the arguments of the Special Conference.
Unity is a good thing.
But representing the interests of our members is what we are for.
Unity is available on the basis that we fight for the interests of our members.
It is not available on the basis that we do not.
It is not available on the basis that officials treat the decisions of our Service Group Conference with contempt.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

UNISON Conference venue sacks UNISON activist - how shall we respond?

It’s odd to be preparing for the start of a UNISON National Conference at  a Conference Centre which not only does not recognise trade unions for collective bargaining, but has just dismissed a UNISON activist. I have just signed a petition in protest at the treatment of Robert O’Donnell by the SECC (Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre). Please sign it too!

As the petition, promoted by the local UNISON branch, puts it;

We believe that Robert, a gardener and UNISON representative, was unfairly sacked by the SECC Management on 25 May. He was dismissed following an alleged unwitnessed incident with his supervisor. UNISON is totally convinced that this was a trumped up charge and that the dismissal relates to Robert’s role as a trade union activist. Over recent years the SECC, which is 91% owned by Glasgow City Council, has refused to recognise trade unions for collective bargaining purposes and has been hostile to trade union recruitment activities.

Robert has twelve years’ service with the SECC during which time he has never been the subject of a complaint, investigation or disciplinary action.

Whilst it is true that Conference venues are booked up years in advance (so we can hardly just walk out now and hold our Conference in the street), I am disappointed that we have failed to use the leverage which comes from the considerable value of trade union bookings to try to secure a better outcome for our members employed by the Conference Centre. I hope that we now shall.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Online support for Motion 106

Just a quick note to encourage readers of this blog to have a look at the special Motion 106 blog which has been set up to encourage support for Lambeth’s Motion 106 on the agenda for UNISON National Delegate Conference.

This post isn’t meant to be a continuation from the last post on this blog (but then again, maybe it is…)

The decline of UNISON Conference?

‎Tomorrow I shall travel to my twenty fourth consecutive Annual Conference of my trade union.

This century UNISON Conference has become less unruly, less unpredictable, less vibrant - and therefore less worthwhile, less interesting and less effective in holding to account our leaders.

In this blog post I want to suggest some of the reasons for this lamentable state of affairs, and shall then go on (in a later post) to suggest something that lay democrats in UNISON might want to do about this.

One obvious underlying factor has been the relative absence of vibrancy in the wider class struggle. When there are fewer disputes in the wider world - and when (rare) national strike action enters the stage only ever for a single day to boost recruitment before a shabby compromise (or worse) is foisted upon the members through absence of leadership - there is less struggle to be reflected in the goldfish bowl of Conference.

However, I observe that it is more important that our leadership has learned, over two decades, how to manage our Conference. The prioritisation process whereby the order of business is constructed lends itself to bureaucratic manipulation and - in a Union in which visible dissent spells career death for officials and ostracism for activists - this process tends to promote woolly consensus and marginalise controversy. The persistent failure of the Union to publish an up to date Branch Directory inhibits "unoffical" organisation around the prioritisation process (just as the failure to restore lay access to the database of Conference decisions for several years now puts obstacles in the way of the drafting of motions for those outside the official machine).

Of course, the prioritisation process can only work its magic upon those motions which are admitted to the Agenda - and our Standing Orders Committee has moved, incrementally, over two decades, to find new reasons to rule motions out of order (with each new restriction setting a precedent for future years). For example, in 1994 Conference voted down a plan for a new Headquarters building - but in 2015 a motion about our under-utilised prestige project on the Euston Road has been ruled out of order on the grounds that it concerns the terms and conditions of staff (the interpretation of Rule D.2.10 that says conference cannot debate staffing issues was explicity disagreed with in the "blue pages" of guidance to SOC members in the late 90s). From 1995-1997 Conference debated the election of paid officials, but all attempts to have such debates this century have been ruled out. This evolution in the approach of SOC reflects not changes in Rule but a ratchet effect whereby each restrictive decision sets a precedent for the next.

Where - as for example in Rules debates - controversy cannot be avoided then the quality of debate has suffered as the floor management skills of the machine (not, I should point out, of the NEC) have matured just as those of the rank and file left have diminished. From 1998 to 2001 Conference debated amendments to UNISON's disciplinary rules.

These were contentious and difficult debates which led, in the end to an inconclusive (yet democratic) outcome. They were, however, for the most part, well run debates - and part of the reason for this was effective cooperation between rostrum control and the "floor organisers" on each side of the debate.

In what was not, then, an uncommon practice, rostrum control would take "speakers lists" from floor organisers (I know because I was one). Now this practice has been lost and each individual delegate must put their name down to speak in person (whilst this appears - on the face of it - more "open" and "transparent" but, since the NEC continue to have the ability to interpose platform speakers at will, the "derecognition" of unofficial floor organising has shifted the balance between the floor and the platform to the benefit of the platform).

On balance, I think that the procedural changes at and before Conference have been more significant than the low level of struggle beyond the Conference bubble in "taming" what was once a democratic "parliament" for our Union.

However, it would be wrong to excuse the rank and file left from culpability in this process (as if we were not also concious social actors in the development of our trade union). We have aged. Some of us have been co-opted (some of us have been expelled!) We have pursued other priorities. We have fought amongst ourselves. 

Above all we have take our eye off the ball of using Conference to hold our leaders to account. The decline in the number of questions asked on the Annual Report cannot be because it has evolved from a meaningful document reporting upon the work of a trade union into something more akin to a company prospectus - that ought really to raise more, not fewer questions. Questions don't get asked because activists don't ask them.

I do not exclude myself from any of the criticisms above. Quite the contrary.

But if - as I believe - we are at least partly responsible for the stifling of democracy in our Union (leading to the stifling of yawns on the floor of Conference) then it follows that we must be able to do something about it.

Of which more later...

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

UNISON Probation strike action suspended

I was going to blog a message of solidarity to our members of UNISON in the probation service who were to have been taking strike action as part of their pay dispute on Thursday.

Instead I'll offer solidarity to our members (who won't be striking on Thursday) and wish good luck to our negotiators, who are engaging in further talks having secured the employer's assent to an extension of the legal deadline within which industrial action must be taken.

I don't know the background to the tactical decision to postpone action, but it is a device we used following a strike ballot over threatened job losses in Lambeth Libraries a few years ago, achieving our objective of the avoidance of compulsory redundancies.

The law which requires that, in order for the outcome of an industrial action ballot to be effective in providing immunity from civil liability for the trade union (and limited protection from unfair dismissal for our members) action must commence within 28 days of the ballot result includes a clause allowing employers and unions to extend the ‎28 days by up to another 28 days.

I hope the extension bears fruit for our members in probation (and that we can go back to the members with a worthwhile and‎ significant improvement). 

This episode highlights the danger of the suggestion from the Tories that ballots would have an "expiry date" following which they would have to be repeated for action to continue to attract the (limited) legal protections available.
Such a change to the law would invite intransigent employers to "sit out" disputes awaiting the repeated hurdles of further ballots to enable a dispute to continue. 

In an economy where weak wage growth is restraining activity these proposals to strengthen the worst employers aren't just anti-worker, they're anti-prosperity.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Four things that the UNISON NEC election results tell us

First, that we had 1.24 million full members at the point that the extract for the ballot was taken from the membership system. This corresponds pretty closely to the 1.25 million members in our last submission to the Certification Officer. Our membership is holding up in spite of a tsunami of public sector job losses.

Secondly, that our members are not heavily engaged in our democracy. The turnout in the election for the Black Members’ seats (for which the constituency is the whole union) was a paltry 5.5%. In the Regions the turnout varied between 4.8% in Wales and 6.6% in the South West (where incumbent Mike Hines defeated his opponent Berny Parkes by just three votes after a recount). In the Service Group constituencies turnout varied from 4.7% in Health to 8.5% in Higher Education.

Thirdly, incumbency is an asset in trade union elections. 45 of the members of the previous NEC were on the ballot paper to return to office and faced a contest – of these 38 were re-elected (myself included). However, incumbents are not invulnerable to a campaigning challenge – and two of the defeated incumbents were Chairs of Strategic Committees of the NEC.

Fourthly, there are more left-wingers on the newly elected NEC. This offers an opportunity for a more inclusive approach to leadership at a national level if the Presidential team and the General Secretary (whom we shall elect (or re-elect?) later this year) wish to reach out. If you want to know whether this opportunity will be taken, well, check back here soon I suppose.

In the mean time, congratulations to all those who were elected and commiserations to those who tried and failed. The trade union movement in general – and UNISON in particular – face an unprecedented challenge from the most rightwing Government since the universal franchise. The 65 members of the UNISON NEC which will take office on 19 June are, for good or ill, the leadership we now have.

I'm back...

‎I've been narrowly re-elected to UNISON's National Executive Council, with 51.8% of the vote (but on a turnout of just 6.2%).

I'll comment further on the election results later. For now I offer my congratulations to all other successful candidates.

The derisory turnout in a ballot which the law requires to be undertaken by post to home addresses underlines the case against the Government's proposed new restrictions on strike ballots.

If we really want to democratise our trade unions and increase our members' engagement in our decision-making we need to be able to organise ballots in workplace and make full use of electronic communications and social media.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Cometh the hour

‎Jeremy Corbyn has been as consistent as he has been persistent in thirty two years in Parliament as a socialist advocate for working people.

There are a thousand positive things I want to say about his decision to seek nominations in the election for Labour Leader, but for now I shall say just one.

It is ‎the salvation of the Labour Party membership of thousands that we should be able, as Party members to express our support for a candidate for Leader who opposed the Iraq War.

That brutal, criminal act of Tony Blair, opposed by none of the other declared candidates for Leader, epitomised all that was wrong with the "New Labour" regime whose adherents now seek to recapture the Party on the back of electoral disaster.

And at every wrong turn New Labour took (foundation hospitals? Tuition fees?) Jeremy Corbyn was among the fine few who put Labour values ahead of career and currying favour.

Jeremy Corbyn offers a socialist voice to the thousands of socialist Labour Party members whose views have been denigrated and ignored in what has thus far passed for the leadership "debate".

More than that, Corbyn's candidature throws down the gauntlet to the leaders of the trade unions - will you come out in support of an MP who has supported all your members over many years (or do you prefer the illusion of influence over those who are contemptuous of you)?

Every socialist, every trade unionist, should put pressure on every Labour MP to nominate Corbyn so that socialists in the wider Party can express our views in the Leadership election.

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Standing still to stand still?

The neither-good-nor-bad news is that UK trade union membership has been broadly static in the last year, according to the official data issued today.

Most of the movements, in absolute numbers and proportions, are not statistically significant although - worryingly - there is a small, but noticeable decline in union density (the proportion of employees in trade unions) in the public sector.

Although, as in the past few years, there was a modest increase in the total number of trade union members in the private sector (not quite offsetting the loss of members in the shrinking public sector), as private sector union membership increased more slowly than private sector employment so union density in the private sector also fell.

‎The number of trade unionists is now 6.4 Million and 25% of all employees in the UK are trade union members. (So for every trade unionist there are three workers who should be, but are not, trade unionists).

The detail of the official data published today will repay further study, and Assistant General Secretary Roger McKenzie mentioned some of the key points to today's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) whilst promising to circulate further information.

However, the headline really should be precisely that this is neither good not bad news. We are not witnessing a resurgence of trade unionism, as workers tired of constant austerity rally to collective action to transform their lives. Neither are we in the midst of a catastrophic collapse of the working class movement, as atomised individuals respond to the failure (hitherto) of our resistance to austerity with a wholesale retreat from collectivism.

We are in a position more complicated and more challenging than either of those extremes. 

As to how today's meeting of our NEC met the challenge of that complexity, well that is another blog post.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The choices we face?

‎I was pleased to be able to join a determined march through Barnet's unseasonable weather in support of today's strike against privatisation.

Local disputes of strategic significance to wider groups within the union movement are taking place not only in by UNISON members at Barnet Council (and UNITE members in Bromley) but by PCS members at the National Gallery (also on strike today), by UNISON and UCU members at London Metropolitan University (striking on Thursday)‎ and - potentially - by UCU members across a number of London Further Education Colleges.

These are just the particular local disputes with which I am familiar as an individual activist in south London.

How should activists, and our trade unions‎ be responding to these local disputes? What does this question mean for the question which UNISON will soon ask our members about our leadership?

One option is plainly to draw back and take shelter from the coming onslaught upon the trade union movement. Prioritising institutional survival over the immediate interests of current members, there is a model of trade unionism based upon (limited) servicing of members and (even more limited) "partnership" with employers which would foreswear strike action for (at least) the next five years and manage membership decline whilst looking opportunistically for possible membership growth (perhaps by poaching). 

This right-wing model is the secret dream of more officials than would ever admit it (although in some cases they views are obvious from their actions). From this perspective the local disputes are an irritation to be deterred (or at least ignored).

Another option is to ramp up rhetoric about unity, understating the challenges of generalising action, and see each dispute as the germ of a necessary wider struggle. This approach sits more comfortably with an organising approach to trade unionism, although some of those advocating struggle sometimes seem to see strike action as our objective (rather than one tool which we may use to try to achieve our objectives).

The quasi-syndicalist approach associated with the Socialist Workers Party (whose trade union front organisation is called "Unite the Resistance" although it struggles to do what it says on the tin) is plainly superior (from the point of view of union members‎) to the "batten down the hatches" no-strke policy of (for example) UNISON's Greater London Regional Office, which seems to find greater sympathy than once it did in the Great White Elephant.

However, our members are no more a stage army with which we armchair generals of the left can take on the Tories than they are a cash cow for those whose concern for pensions starts and finishes with the staff pension fund. Neither syndicalism nor surrender offers anything worthwhile to our members.

Trade unionists urgently need to find a path which is neither the pathetic timidity, which will be elevated to an art form by elements within our national leadership,‎ and the empty call for a General Strike which will not come.

I don't pretend to know what that path is or where it goes, and I have yet to hear of or from a potential candidate for UNISON General Secretary anything which makes me think that there is yet on offer to our members a candidate who could find that path.

This means that the process of the forthcoming General Secretary election is, at least for now, much more important than its outcome. 

If UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) cares for the future of our union as a campaigning, organising, democratic workers' organisation it will decide to use the single transferable vote (STV) to elect our General Secretary.‎ STV allows members to express thoughtful preferences and encourages candidates to offer more than a simple choice between different ways of giving up.

If UNISON Conference delegates want to engage and empower our members in taking the vital decision of who leads us in the war declared upon us by the Tory Government, they will reprioritise and support Motion 115 at National Delegate Conference - ensuring that hustings take place, and are broadcast in an accessible format, so that members can see for themselves those who would lead us.‎ 

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Monday, June 01, 2015

Solidarity with Barnet strikers

Hundreds of UNISON members in the North London borough of Barnet are striking today and tomorrow in a dispute sparked by the Tory Council's plans for the wholesale privatisation of Council services.

Barnet's dispute with an ideologically motivated Tory Council clinging to power with a one seat majority is of strategic significance for all local government workers.

The drive to a thoroughgoing split between "commissioning" and "delivery" of public services (which seeks to remodel local government to match more closely the late nineteenth century Metropolitan Board of Works) means that many local authorities are organisationally prepared to mimic Barnet (and, of course, some already have).

Barnet UNISON have been waging an exemplary rearguard action against the onslaught of ideologically motivated social vandalism upon which the Tories have been determined. Other UNISON branches have much to learn from ‎their resistance.

And UNISON, at national and - most particularly - Regional level has a lot to learn about how most effectively to demonstrate and mobilise solidarity for members involved in such a strategically important dispute.

(At a simple level, an organisation with UNISON's resources should be able to keep our Regional website up to date and circulate an official request for messages of support and donations to the branch).

For now though the most important message to send is one of solidarity to the Barnet strikers.

If you can make it to their film show, picket lines or rally (tomorrow). If not then use social media to promote and support their action.

Barnet UNISON deserve the wholehearted support of every trade unionist.

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The UNISON web site carries this news story posted up at 10.57am, which also features on the Regional website.