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, September 24, 2015

Correction and clarification - everyone has always been in agreement about the attack on DOCAS

Today's meeting‎ of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON received an excellent and informative report reviewing lessons learned to date in switching members to paying their subscriptions from their salaries (DOCAS) to Direct Debit.

The attack upon how we collect the union subscriptions of 70% of our members is not the most important of the attacks in the (Anti) Trade Union Bill - that honour is reserved for the attack upon the right to strike (and the attack upon the political levy is also worthy of mention).

However, the assault upon ‎DOCAS is an attack upon the functioning of our trade union, the rights of our members and our ability to organise effectively in defence of our interests. Today's report was therefore timely and appropriate.

The primary subject ‎for the report was the work being done to  move UNISON members in the National Probation Service on to Direct Debit, as the Government has withdrawn DOCAS in the Ministry of Justice with effect from the end of this month.

As at 15 September a majority of members had been signed up to Direct Debit - but very many had not. What works best is face to face contact with members but - particularly with such a scattered workforce - contact from UNISON Direct also has an important role to play.

The report also reported on international experience where Government's at state level in Australia and the United States have mounted similar legislative assaults.‎ The organising response of the Australian trade unions appears to have been a more effective defence than the focus on campaigning of the US unions.

Your blogger was authoritatively corrected by the President when I expressed the view that the foresight of the D&O Committee meeting in May on this question had not been universally shared.

It turns out I was mistaken and everyone in the Union had always seen the likelihood of an attack on DOCAS and the necessity for an organising response to this threat alongside a campaign against hostile legislation.
Those in the North West Region who recollect our General Secretary telling them, shortly after the May D&O, that had he been advising the Committee he would have given different advice, are in the grip of a mass hysteria which has clouded their memory.

Those who told the London Regional Committee at around the same time that they couldn't imagine how the Government could legislate against DOCAS, and those who said that to prepare the transition to Direct Debit was to "run up the white flag" are no more than figments of my overactive imagination. (A letter received by one branch from a Senior Regional Official chastising them for preparing for the transition to Direct Debit must be an elaborate forgery).

Even the overwhelming rejection by Local Government Conference of the Lambeth Branch Emergency Motion (the essence of which the Union is now implementing) turns out to have been a daydream.

And anyone who perceived complacency in anything written by any of our officials (not least our General Secretary) has plainly been deluded.


Here's a correction (or is it a clarification).

Everyone always foresaw the likelihood that the Tory Government would attack DOCAS.

Everyone always knew that we should prepare an organising response to such an attack alongside our campaigning opposition to the Government.

Everyone has always agreed about this and everything is for the best in this best of all possible trade unions...

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tories refuse to listen on exit payment cap

The Tory Government’s consultation on the proposed cap on public sector exit payments had illustrated the approach to consultation of which trade unionists often complain.

They told us what they were going to do and now they tell us that they are going to do it. This in spite of the overwhelming opposition to their proposals from those consulted, most of whom were employers (many of them Tory controlled).

The proposed “cap” of £95,000 on the total value of “exit payments” for public servants will be marketed as an attack on “fat cats” but, as I have previously pointed out, will impact upon career local government officers a long way from the top of the income pile (primarily because of the inclusion within the cap of the capital cost of paying unreduced pensions when making over 55s redundant).

The cap will now proceed by way of Clause 26 of the Enterprise Bill, currently before the House of Lords, which will give the Government the power to introduce subsequent secondary legislation to implement the cap. This does mean that effective Parliamentary opposition could limit the damage which this cap will otherwise do to employee relations and to the interests of some employees (and trade union members).

As well as pursuing amendments to Clause 26 (for example to try to exclude pension costs from the cap) the Parliamentary Opposition will also need to get into the detail of how the cap will be applied (not least the Government’s proposal that payments made following litigation for breach of contract or unfair dismissal would be excluded).

Two things are certain about this proposal. The first is that the wealthiest will find a way to circumvent the cap (whilst the professionals and middle managers will get hit).

The second is that the public sector exit cap will be used by the Government to achieve its real purpose, which is to engage in the decades long denigration of public service and the public sector. The now faltering neoliberal consensus has, for a generation, lauded the profit-driven private sector as the source of both value and virtue, whilst the public sector is presented as nothing more than an unproductive burden upon “hard working families”.

From a trade union point of view we would sooner have no redundancies and no exit payments at all, but if we are to see redundancies, and therefore redundancy payments then we should oppose an arbitrary cap upon payments in just one sector of the economy.

Monday, September 21, 2015

What do we want from a General Secretary? (And what should we pay?)

The current election for General Secretary of UNISON should encourage constructive and critical scrutiny of the Union’s achievements, and of the work of the incumbent General Secretary, in particular over his most recent term.

One issue which UNISON members may want to consider – and to question candidates for election about – concerns whether we want our General Secretary carrying out other roles at the same time as being our General Secretary. Another (not unrelated) question relates to the appropriateness of the level of remuneration for our General Secretary.

Discussing these important questions necessitates speaking about an individual and, in UNISON, to say that such discussion is discouraged would be the least that could be said. There is a culture of deference to a long serving General Secretary in the officer machine, and a culture which confuses critical questioning with disloyalty to the Union on the lay Executive.

Taken together with the restrictive interpretation of the Union’s Rules adopted in the past by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) for our sovereign National Delegate Conference (NDC), this culture has ensured that two important questions are hardly asked in UNISON;
Do we want a General Secretary who takes on other jobs?
Do we want to pay our General Secretary £100,000 a year?

Having long abandoned a quest for popularity in UNISON, I would like to address these two questions on the basis of the information which is readily available and in the public domain.

As a Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), Dave Prentis is eligible to claim an allowance of £4,000 but he does not claim expenses to which he might be entitled. 

The register of interests of UKCES Commissioners reveals Dave’s other roles as follows;
1. Current employment – General Secretary of UNISON (Family member UNISON Assistant General Secretary).
2. Appointments – Member of the Court of the Bank of England, President of Unity Trust Bank;
3. Membership of professional bodies – Labour Party Joint Policy Committee, TUC Executive Committee, President of Public Services International (Family member on the TUC Executive Committee).

Having a senior union official serve on labour movement bodies seems like a good use of time, and Dave’s role as President of the Board of the trade union bank Unity Trust Bank (involving 13 meetings in 2014) doesn’t lead to any other remuneration (although obviously it takes Dave away from his duties as our General Secretary).

More controversially within UNISON, however, from 1 June 2012 Dave Prentis has also been a Non-Executive Director of the Bank of England, “earning” a tidy £15,000 a year for attending some meetings (including meetings of the Remuneration Committee which determined that the Governor of the Bank of England should earn £480,000 a year – not all public servants suffer under the pay freeze…) 

The author understands that the General Secretary passes such earnings back to the Union,
As well he might.

As General Secretary, Dave Prentis earns (according to our return to the Certification Officer) a gross salary of £97,211 with taxable subsistence and car benefits of £7,462 (the Union also pays £12,762 in employers’ national insurance costs). 

Whilst this hardly puts Dave and his family in the plutocracy it is a level of earnings which matches those of (for example) Chief Executives and Senior Directors in local government rather more than it corresponds to the earnings of UNISON members. With pre-tax earnings in excess of £104,000 our General Secretary earns more than 98% of the population (according to official statistics).

The combined impact (upon anyone) of more than comfortable earnings coupled with a working life rubbing shoulders with the “great and the good” is to separate our leader from us, the workers. As Richard Hyman puts it; “full-time officials typically acquire interests, perspectives and resources which tend to channel union policies towards accommodation with employers or governments and containment of membership activism”.

The rank and file challenger to be UNISON’s General Secretary, John Burgess, has made clear that, if elected, he would continue to draw just the equivalent of his social worker’s salary (which is the model for all those of us who are elected officials at branch level seconded full time to trade union duties).

This isn’t about “hair shirt socialism” – it is about offering members the choice of a General Secretary who will remain “one of us”, earning what he would earn in the job which makes him a trade union member in the first place. It is an entirely legitimate point of view to believe that our General Secretary should be drawn from the rank and file, should devote themselves full time to their trade union role and should enjoy material conditions aligned to those of UNISON members.

That is my view, and I don’t think our General Secretary should be a Governor of the Bank of England, nor do I think we should pay our General Secretary a six figure sum.

This is not about a personal attack upon the incumbent General Secretary. 

It is about a political choice which confronts the trade union. 

There are plenty of lay activists (including, for example, the 32 NEC members who delivered the NEC nomination to Dave Prentis) who believe that we should have a “professional” General Secretary whose career has been in officialdom rather than the rank and file (and who consider that UNISON itself is honoured somehow if our senior official is invited to be part of the Court of Governors of the Bank of England).

The question which those who take that view need to ask themselves is whether their preferred approach has been delivering for our members, in particular over the past five years, and that is a question to which I will turn in further posts on this blog.

Friday, September 18, 2015

How (not) to choose a General Secretary candidate

Heather Wakefield has been keen to draw to the attention of UNISON branches the letter linked to above in the Guardian, in which a number of female academics support her bid to be elected to replace Dave Prentis as General Secretary of UNISON.

This is a one-dimensional argument, that UNISON, with a large majority of women members, should elect a woman to be General Secretary. 

With the greatest respect to the authors of the letter, most of whom, are - I assume - ‎members of UCU, and mindful of my own gender, I must, respectfully disagree with the implicit contention that gender must be the overriding consideration in the General Secretary election.
There's no point replacing a male General Secretary whom many of us feel has given inadequate leadership in the fight against the Tories with a female candidate in respect of whom there is no evidence that she would be any better.

Heather missed the boat five years ago when, having stuck her head briefly above the parapet, she ducked back down before the polls opened.‎ In the past five years Heather has not only failed to differentiate herself from the incumbent General Secretary but has been in the front rank for some of the most dismal outcomes to major industrial disputes in our history.

‎UNISON staff kept a final salary pension scheme - but not the membership. Whilst Dave Prentis led the retreat from united action to defend pensions after the single day of action in 2011, Heather Wakefield was an integral part of the leadership which led us away from unity.

Similarly, whilst it was Dave Prentis who, having smashed the now notorious ice sculpture could not lead a united fight to do similar (or any) damage to the Government's pay freeze, Heather Wakefield was the Head of Local Government going in to the catastrophically mismanaged 2014 pay dispute.

As a rank and file UNISON member dissatisfied with significant aspects of our direction and leadership over the past five years, I am looking for a candidate offering positive change to our majority female membership (and to the male minority of which I am part).

The admiration of academics notwithstanding, Heather Wakefield is not that candidate in 2015.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Can Dave Prentis make his own supporters behave appropriately?

Dave Prentis, our incumbent General Secretary and candidate for re-election to his job for the fourth time, is careful to campaign in a positive and statespersonlike way. Not for him any direct attacks upon his opponents (whom he doesn't mention on his website, facebook page or twitter feed).

That's as it should be. An actual (or prospective) General Secretary certainly should not make personal attacks upon other candidates - although political criticisms obviously ought to be a legitimate part of a debate about the future of a major trade union.

Unfortunately, some of Dave's supporters are keen to smear and attack other candidates and have set up a little wordpress blog to do so anonymously. I won't link to it but you can find it by its somewhat improbable name (grassrootsunison). It purports to be the words of grassroots activists but since it is anonymous it is hard to read it as anything other than the work of some of the payroll vote which is the heart and backbone of the Prentis campaign.

What is really interesting about this little blog is not so much the silly personal sideswipes at Heather Wakefield, or the attack on John Burgess for supporting Candy Udwin. This sort of thing is par for the course in a UNISON election, which would hardly be complete without a juvenile "reds under the bed" SWP scare story (or for that matter a bit of innuendo about personal relationships)(about which one might say that people who work in glass towers really ought not to throw stones).

The attempt to present Jeremy Corbyn's thanks to Dave Prentis for his support in the Labour leadership election as if it were a personal endorsement in the UNISON General Secretary election is gently amusing, but that isn't the most important feature of this unfortunate little blog either. Attempting to talk up a level of support which is markedly less significant than in previous elections is bound to be a feature of Dave's campaign this autumn.

What is significant is that the (generally anonymous but often serious) UNISON Active blog, set up ahead of the last General Secretary election in order to back Dave, is not the vehicle of choice for plausibly deniable "off the record" attacks from Camp Prentis. Does this reflect the fact that the most serious of those who have backed Dave on previous occasions are absent from his campaign now?

Today the lead challenger to Prentis, John Burgess, has launched a firm, practical and sensible pledge on strike pay - this follows on from his clear and popular commitment to act on branch funding - the question to Dave Prentis has to be "what are you going to do differently to change UNISON so that it is fit for the coming challenges?" Let's see some pledges from the incumbent candidate, rather than anonymous sniping from paid officials posing implausibly as rank and file activists.

Perhaps Prentis supporters should focus on the future of UNISON and not spend time blogging anonymously against other trade unionists?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Corbyn - we can't leave him to fight alone!

On a wonderful day, we need to recognise that the work to build on Corbyn's election victory has to start immediately. As a UNISON Branch Secretary, I have just sent the following message to members of my trade union branch, encouraging members to join the Labour Party now in order to be part of the fight which will be led by Jeremy Corbyn, to defeat the Tories and transform our country;

"Jeremy Corbyn, the candidate supported by UNISON in the election, has today been elected as Leader of the Labour Party. He won the vote on the first round with almost  60% support, winning amongst every category of voter (Party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters).

This excellent result offers the opportunity that the policies which are supported by UNISON, because they are in the interests of UNISON members, will now be fought for by the Labour Party. The Labour Party is now led by someone who does not believe that public service workers like us should pay the price for an economic crisis caused by the bankers.

However, one man, however principled, honest and consistent, cannot alone achieve the political change which is needed. If we want to change our country for the better it is we ourselves who must engage actively. Politics is far too important to be left to politicians. If you want to work with Jeremy Corbyn to achieve the objectives in which UNISON believes I urge you to consider joining the Labour Party – which you can do easily online at"

I hope that every socialist, every progressive, everyone who wants to see social change, will do the same.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

One election ends. Another continues. How should it be conducted?

‎All we can do now that the ballot for the Labour leadership has closed is cross our fingers until Saturday and hope that Jeremy Corbyn can trump an amazing summer by taking the movement to transform Labour forward into a challenging autumn as our Leader.

UNISON members now find ourselves, however, well into the initial nomination period of an election for our General Secretary - with a larger electorate than that which Corbyn and his opponents have had to reach (and with rules which prevent the telephone canvassing which has been a feature of the Labour election).

What lessons can the five candidates for UNISON General Secretary draw from the Labour leadership campaign? 

It has been suggested that one useful lesson would be to borrow Jeremy Corbyn's maxim and to focus positively upon the proposals of one's favoured candidate, rather than campaigning negatively with criticisms of other candidates.

‎This is an attractive proposition, but one which could badly undermine the very purpose of a trade union election featuring an incumbent candidate if applied with excessive rigour.

The benefit of electing, rather than appointing, any trade union official (including a General Secretary) is that the official can be held to account by the members whom they represent. 

If an overly comradely approach to an incumbent candidate meant that awkward questions and potentially valid criticisms were to be avoided then this would vitiate ‎the function of the election in ensuring accountability.

Such a "gentlemanly" election would fit well with the culture of UNISON officialdom, in which everything is always for the best in this best of all possible unions, and in which investigation of serious errors usually takes long enough that it can be found that no one (at least no one who is still around) is to blame for anything.

That's not to say that there isn't plenty of backbiting and "off the record" briefing against (or even on behalf of) those who fall from favour - but as a general rule reports to the NEC (for example) are welcomed fulsomely ‎by a majority of lay representatives (who sometimes compete to praise the wisdom and perspicacity of the officials).

The (shrinking) majority of NEC members who prioritise support for over scrutiny of the Union machine seem in many cases genuinely unable to distinguish between criticism and disloyalty.

Against the backdrop of such a flawed organisational culture, for a General Secretary election to take place in a climate in which it was unacceptable to voice criticism of past errors would be to grant a free pass to an incumbent candidate who inevitably begins as favourite to win.

Clearly the candidates themselves, aspiring as they do to lead the whole of our vast Union, must and should conduct themselves in a comradely way towards their competitors, focusing positively upon their own plans and proposals.

As for those of us who are not candidates, our members are owed vigorous scrutiny of all candidates by informed activists.‎ That scrutiny should be proportionate to the likelihood that each candidate will succeed in being elected (or re-elected) and candidates should welcome being tested by such scrutiny and challenge.

‎The pressure which candidates will face from the most vigorous challenge is, of course, as nothing compared to the constant fear of victimisation and dismissal faced daily by many of our activists in the front line of the defence of public services.

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Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Last Ice Sulpture?

Those who support incumbent candidate (Dave Prentis) for a fourth term as UNISON General Secretary because he is a "safe pair of hands" can reflect on the "safe" way in which Dave smashed the pay freeze.

That worked well didn't it?

The declining base of support for the current General Secretary from the "payroll vote" of those who owe him their jobs (or are managed by him) and those who lack the imagination to believe that UNISON could be better than it is may still be significant.

But those who back the incumbent have no idea how to change UNISON to meet the challenges of 2020. Because their figurehead, who has already spent 15 years failing at succession planning, has offered them no vision other than the status quo.

An earlier enthusiasm for ice sculptures at the top of UNISON has now been abandoned, yet the metaphor of a response frozen in time shall remain apt for as long as the "safe pair of hands" steers our Union on its current, failing course.

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Friday, September 04, 2015

UNISON General Secretary election gets serious

Leading challenger in the contest for UNISON General Secretary, Barnet activist John Burgess, has today launched a detailed and practical pledge to increase funding to UNISON branches.

This marks him out from "complacency candidate", incumbent Dave Prentis, whose nomination request letter merely expresses a pious platitude intended to reassure without offering any commitment (perhaps Dave will now make a serious attempt to address the issue)(or perhaps not...)
Earlier this week, John gained the support of 16 members of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) at the meeting which nominated Dave Prentis (who gained 32 votes), indicating a larger level of support at the top of the Union than any previous challenger.

Already people across UNISON are describing John as our "Jeremy Corbyn" - which seemed apt last night when John had to arrive late at the Regional launch meeting of his own campaign because he was representing a UNISON member facing dismissal.

The distinction between the "steady as she sinks" approach of our current leadership and the clarity of purpose offered by John is increasingly clear.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Report of the UNISON NEC meeting on 2 September 2015

The meeting commenced with most members in the ninth floor Conference Centre and thirteen NEC members in the first floor audio/video link room.
The NEC sent best wishes to two members who were unwell (Linda Sweet and Max Watson) and remembered deceased activist June Poole, as well as all the migrants suffering around the world.
General Secretary election
The NEC then moved on to discuss a nomination for General Secretary. The President asked those seeking nomination to leave the room and notified the meeting that two members of staff, Dave Prentis and Heather Wakefield, had (as required) given notice that they were seeking election.
Paul Gilroy from the Northern Region nominated John Burgess, Hugo Pierre nominated Roger Bannister, Debbie Potter nominated Dave Prentis, Tomasa Bullen nominated Hayley Garner. The voting was as follows;
Roger Bannister – 4
John Burgess – 16
Hayley Garner – 1
Dave Prentis – 32
Abstentions – 1
Organising report
The meeting then moved on to discuss the organising report. Recruitment is down on the last couple of years which is alarming given the challenges we face. The Government is to withdraw all funding for trade union training and for union learning activities. The union is having to consider how to run trade union training in future.
General Secretary’s report – Trade Union Bill
Dave Prentis then gave the General Secretary’s report, starting with the campaign against the Trade Union Bill. This led to a wide ranging discussion, during which the President confirmed that the written report to the NEC meeting would be revised for urgent circulation to branches (and throughout the Union).
Dave illustrated the draconian impact of the Bill if enacted with the fact that there had been 101 industrial action ballots since January 2014. Very few would have met the thresholds – only 23 would have been legal. 72 met the 50% turnout threshold but didn’t meet the total 40% of total membership threshold for strike action in “essential services”.
The Union’s response will be to campaign against the Bill in Parliament, through legal challenges, by engaging our activists, members and the wider public including through mass action (at the demonstration in Manchester on 4 October and the lobby of Parliament on 2 November). At the same time, we will need to prepare ourselves so that we can continue to function if the Bill becomes law, reviewing our industrial action procedures, our support for branches coping with reduced facility time and – crucially – our capacity to switch members from paying by DOCAS to Direct Debit.
General Secretary’s report – other matters
Dave then reported on other matters;
·         UNISON Labour Link had decided to endorse Jeremy Corbyn, who is the one candidate who supports all UNISON’s policies;
·         UNISON lost our case in the Court of Appeal against employment tribunal fees and will be appealing to the Supreme Court;
·         Camden branch members striking today against NSL for the Living Wage, to whom Dave sent a message of support;
·         Members in the Probation service are being transferred to Direct Debit. We have 40% of members signed up with only four weeks to go.
A number of issues were raised in questions, concerning the vital importance of supporting victimised activists, highlighting the perilous state of adult social care reliant upon private sector provision and the public sector exit payment cap (about which I asked that UNISON circulate our comments made in the recent consultation).
Further contributions were made welcoming UNISON’s support for Jeremy Corbyn and the decision of the Scottish Government to abolish employment tribunal fees in Scotland, and asking about UNISON’s response to changes in tax credits (which will massively hit lower paid workers with children) and support for the campaign in defence of overseas nurses. In responding, Dave Prentis made an impassioned plea for fair treatment of migrants and refugees, which will be made public.

Pope still Catholic. Bears...

‎The UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) has voted to nominate Dave Prentis in the election for UNISON General Secretary.

Dave got 32 votes to 16 for leading left challenger John Burgess, 4 for Roger Bannister, 1 for Hayley Garner and 1 abstention. The NEC has 65 members in total.

Whilst the Prentis camp will claim this as a significant result it is really as expected as Papal Catholicism and the arboreal toilet habits of ursine mammals.

‎What is remarkable is that the NEC nomination was decided by a minority of NEC members - and that a rank and file challenger, John Burgess of the Barnet branch made the strongest showing in such a vote of any left candidate in UNISON.

I will blog a further report of the NEC meeting later - but thought I should report this now for a particularly eager reader.

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