Thursday, February 11, 2016

The state of our unions?

This anonymous contribution to the debate that isn't really happening about the crisis of our trade union movement is well worth a read.

For many at the top of our trade unions it is controversial even to suggest that our movement is in crisis (because that can be taken to imply criticism of leadership).

It's true that we are not suffering a cataclysmic decline in union membership on the scale of (say) the 1920s. However, we have not been able to reverse a generation of declining membership, density and influence.

In some ways though, the (relative) stability of some of our unions is almost part of our problem, as it breeds complacency on the part of officials and lay "activists" prepared to coast gently downwards to retirement.

(I oughtn't to have to point out that this does not apply to all full-time and lay officials as that is obvious, but it is as well to make that point to head off the mischevious characterisation of practical criticism as hostile disloyalty).

I think our unions are, by and large, in crisis because we have not been able to reverse our decline. Regardless of changes of Government or the changing state of the economy since our peak in 1979, our movement has continued to diminish (now faster, now slower).

Upsurges in radicalism and militancy in wider society, whether the opposition to the Iraq war more than a decade ago or last year's "Corbyn surge" have largely passed the trade unions by.

There are a wide range of factors (both internal and external) contributing to this state of affairs - and the interesting article to which I link above deals with some of these.

If we are to stand any chance of changing our trade unions for the better (a question to which I know an increasing number of UNISON colleagues are now turning their minds) then we have to have the debate about the state of our unions out in the open.

In some way's it's not the right time for this debate - but that's mostly because we should have been having it for thirty years now.

Workers need trade unions more than ever and I think we have to hope it's not too late.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Trade unionism and collective bargaining in London local government

As a UNISON Branch Secretary in London local government I get all manner of excitement. This Thursday that will include a meeting of the Greater London Employers Forum, the remnant of the provincial bargaining machinery which the employers’ sabotaged during the London Weighting dispute early this century.
The London local government workforce consists of some 92,000 employees in a single city. We ought to be a powerful force but, only a minority of us are in trade unions and (whilst UNISON organises the majority of those trade unionists) we are divided both between three different trade unions as well as by the inherent parochialism of our (rightly and inevitably) borough based structures.
UNISON’s Regional Office in Greater London has little apparent interest in organising local government workers or strengthening our bargaining position and each initiative which seeks to defend or improve the position of London local government workers has its origin at branch level (for example this week’s strike in Lambeth libraries, Barnet’s long struggle against cuts and outsourcing and Camden’s success in defeating performance related pay).
When UNISON’s Greater London Regional Council Annual General Meeting was told that the elected lay Chair of our Regional Local Government Committee had not seen the report from that Committee to the meeting before it was printed you know that UNISON’s Regional level organisation of local government workers in London has hit rock bottom.

It’s up to activists in the active branches to turn UNISON into the Union which it could be, worthy of our members and effective in protect our interests. To do this we will need to ensure a healthy quorum at our Regional Local Government Annual General Meeting, and an organised approach to raising our game.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Support the Junior Doctors

Anyone who saw the Health Secretary speaking over the weekend will understand why the junior doctors’ strike is going ahead from 8am on Wednesday 10 February.

The junior doctors are not the only group of public servants under attack from this Government. We all need to be fighting back, and any victory strengthens all of us.

When will the public sector exit payment cap come into force?

A reader recently asked the question above.
The draft Regulations to implement the public sector exit payment cap don’t (yet) help us to know when the cap will come into force (they currently say it will come into force on XXX...)
They do reveal that, for those local government workers whose total cost of departure (including “strain” on the pension fund for the cost of an unreduced pension) where an exit payment restriction would otherwise prevent immediate retirement on an unreduced pension on redundancy or efficiency, amendments to the LGPS Regulations will result in the member paying for the removal of this restriction. This could be either by paying the excess amount in full, suffering an ongoing reduction to their pension or a combination of the two.
Hymans Robertson (to whom I am indebted for the information above) speculate that the Government published the draft Regulations before the primrary legislation under which they are intended to be made had received Royal Assent because they want to avoid delay – which suggests that there could be an early implementation of the exit payment cap.
Given that the Enterprise Bill made it from the House of Lords to the Commons with section 35 (which gives the power to make the Regulations) intact, that the Committee stage in the Commons is scheduled to conclude by 25 February, and that the Regulations will require only an affirmative vote of both Houses of Parliament to become law, it might be unwise to bank on any significant delay.
It’s worth remembering not only that this exit payment cap will not only hit “fat cats” but also that the Taxpayers Alliance driven agenda of vilifying high payments in public service is, essentially, an attempt to justify spending cuts.

The truly wealthy, those whose interests drive the current onslaught upon our public services and our trade unions pay themselves to excess out of the (largely untaxed) profits of the corporations they control.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Come to the big workplace meeting (in your workplace)

On Tuesday 9 February, as part of the strangely-titled “heart unions” week, the TUC will be staging a big workplace meeting, which we can all access online.
Although you may need to use your own device if your employer (like mine) blocks live streaming of videos over their network.
The point of the week is to highlight the threat which the Trade Union Bill poses, not just to our trade unions but to our human and civil rights.
Stronger trade unions are good for equality, good for health and safety and union members earn more than non-members.
Not only do we need to get this message across to the three quarters of workers in the UK who are not union members – we also need to engage more effectively with our members to develop informed and assertive rank and file activism.

I hope the big workplace meeting contributes to these objectives.

Striking to save Libraries on Monday 8 February

UNISON members in Lambeth libraries and UNITE members in Greenwich libraries are on strike on Monday 8 February to defend library services. It is good to see that action can be coordinated between members of different trade unions!
In Lambeth the strike is to defend all ten of Lambeth’s libraries in the face of plans agreed by the Council Cabinet to retrench to five main libraries (with two libraries given to community organisations without staff and three turned into “bookish gyms” by Greenwich Leisure Limited, GLL, - in the face of opposition from the local Labour Party and alternative plans supported by managers and Libraries Friends’ Groups ).
In Greenwich – where GLL run the libraries – the strike is to defend the mobile library service. What both these strikes have in common, and share with the lobby of Parliament on the following day is a commitment to defend the library service from the threats of underfunding and outsourcing driven by Government policies.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

FE strike set for 24 February

Members of UNISON and of our sister union for lecturers UCU (the University and Colleges Union) employed in Further Education (FE) in England will be striking for fair pay on Wednesday 24 February.

These workers in a vital public service of particular value to working class people have an unquestionably just cause. Although pay in the economy as a whole is beginning to recover from the impact of the banking crisis, FE workers aren't even being offered the Government's 1% public sector pay norm.

Perhaps because the FE workforce was recently re-categorised (for the purposes of national statistics) as private sector, the employers' side negotiators "offered" a 0% "increase". Of course a 0% "increase" isn't an increase - it's nothing. And an "offer" of nothing isn't an offer - it's an insult.

FE workers are absolutely right to strike against the pay freeze being imposed across the entire sector.

Well not quite the entire sector, at least not everyone in the sector.

‎Not everyone in the FE sector is suffering from a pay freeze. (‎) The link is to a report of last year's data on the pay of Principals in FE, who seem to be doing rather better than most of their staff.

‎The Chief Executive of the employers' body, the Association of Colleges, was prepared to justify the burgeoning pay of the College Principals - it would be nice to hear him speak up in the same way to justify an increase in pay for the FE workers without whom there would be no Principals.

For now, workers in FE need to prepare to strike, UNISON and UCU need to stand together - and UNISON activists in other sectors need to contact local College stewards to offer assistance.

In particular, those of us in local government branches with FE members need to lend a hand now getting the message across to members (and recruiting non-members) and on the day on picket lines (lay branch officials, including shop stewards, have a very legitimate and important role to play supporting our brothers and sisters in FE).

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

National Executive Council report to Regional Council AGM

‎I was very pleased to move (very briefly as I still have an impressive cough) a report from National Executive Council (NEC) members to the Annual General Meeting of UNISON's Greater London Regional Council this morning.

There had been an earlier misunderstanding, in that the report circulated before the meeting to delegates had been edited without the agreement of its authors.

The Regional Convenor had subsequently agreed to table the full report, which meant I did not have to warn delegates that this was something which had been obtained unofficially, which they had not seen and ought not to hand out.

I was therefore happy to move the report and to give the Convenor some special chocolate biscuits to express that pleasure and gratitude.

As always, if any UNISON members in the Greater London Region would like to ask any questions about the work of our NEC - please get in touch!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Fewer questions than answers?

Today saw the Annual General Meeting of the Greater London Regional Council of UNISON.

The meeting was noteworthy for the absence of the Regional Secretary, whose colleague from the Eastern Region ably filled in.

(It's worth reflecting that, since the Eastern Region is piloting an important organisational initiative for the Union, the unanticipated opportunity to share with a neighbouring Region is something which we in London could usefully make the most of).

The meeting was advised, quite correctly, on more than one occasion, that it ought not to discuss an investigation which is currently underway within the Union.

However, one delegate wanted the opportunity to ask a question of our guest speaker, UNISON's President Wendy Nichols, about her view as to the propriety of an email circulated on her behalf before Christmas which appeared (to that delegate) to have breached the spirit of the advice given to the Regional Council about not commenting upon an investigation whilst it is underway.

The Convenor therefore asked the meeting to vote on the question of whether or not questions should be put to the President. The meeting decided, by 65 votes to 64, that no questions should be asked.

The question was never asked and therefore could not be answered, but that was a democratic decision and those present respected it and moved on. 

‎I'll blog further about the rest of the meeting in due course.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sticking up for trade unions with all our heart This is the link to the TUC site promoting next week's "heart unions" week. Go there and sign up to the campaign.

(As an ageing curmudgeon and pedant I am happy to say that I love trade unionism and trade unionists but wouldn't necessarily want to "heart" them because that isn't a verb).

The "heart" symbolism is clearly intended to promote the fluffy, friendly face of trade unionism - and to win "hearts" and minds in the ongoing battle to force back this Government's unprecedented assault on our movement.

It makes sense for any working person (whether or not a union member) to care about the wellbeing of our movement. It's a plain historical truth that the unions gave us the weekend, since it was only the organised opposition of the workforce to an ever lengthening working day during the industrial revolution that forced employers to seek profit by innovating to increase productivity rather than simply intensifying exploitation.

More recent history shows us that the weakening of trade union power increases inequality, reduces the share of Gross Domestic Product going to wages and salaries and encourages reactionaries to attack social gains which were fought for over generations.

The stronger unions are the better for all working people.

Whether the sympathy which we may gain from the wider public will make any significant difference to the success of our current struggles is, of course, the question.

The best way to promote trade unionism may be to practice it vigorously, in order to demonstrate to unorganised workers the benefits to be gained from organisation.

The history of our movement is a history of struggle and the twenty first century poses us challenges no less than those we have faced in the past.

The "heart" our unions need is the heart to fight hard in the battles ahead.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Lambeth branch back online - to save Libraries is the web address for Lambeth UNISON, and I recommend readers of this blog bookmark the site to keep up to date with developments in the only borough to have a music hall song named for us.

This week the branch site will be keeping readers up to date with UNISON's campaign to save Lambeth's libraries, in connection with which, and in furtherance of a trade dispute, UNISON members in Lambeth libraries will be taking official strike action this coming Monday, 8 February.

As any other branch activist will understand, the disputes which lead to action and which we publicise online (and elsewhere) are the tip of the iceberg of union activity in the face of the Tory Government's onslaught on our public services.

UNISON in Greater London needs to raise our game if we are to be worthy of the members we organise and lead. The lay leadership of our lay led trade union needs to take seriously our responsibility to provide leadership to our members (and guidance and direction to our employees). Tomorrow's Annual General Meeting of our Regional Council will be an opportunity for us to rise to that challenge.

I may pop by here tomorrow to remark on how successful we have been.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

FE members back national pay strike

UNISON members working in further education (FE) colleges have voted decisively in favour of both strike action and action short of strike action in opposition to the employers' "offer" of 0%.

The Sector Committee meets tomorrow to decide what action to take on the basis of the mandate given them by their members (although a final decision will be for the Industrial Action Committee of the National Executive Council (NEC) - or its Chair.

UNISON members in FE‎ face the same barrage of attacks as our members in other sectors, at the same time as our organisation is caught between the malevolent legislative intent of a viciously hostile Government on the one hand, and the organising challenge of a continuously fragmenting public service workforce on the other.

These other challenges are, however, not at all arguments against a focus on national pay claims and national pay disputes. On the contrary, the opportunity to mobilise (and recruit and organise) members around a unifying demand for fair pay is also an opportunity to face up to all our other challenges.

A vigorous national pay campaign can strengthen our hand in each locality to respond effectively to cuts and mergers. A commitment to use our right to strike is the very best response to the Tories' threat to that right. A high profile example of the use of trade unionism to promote the collective interests of organised workers is the best possible advertisement for trade unionism to the unorganised millions.

The decision to call for strike action is never an easy one, but, the members having spoken, UNISON needs now to show our members in FE the support and leadership which can inspire the effective national action which is needed.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

The General Secretary election and the complaint to the Certification Officer

‎As your blogger was dragging myself back to work following a particularly nasty chest infection I received word as follows from an informed source (as they say);

There is a hearing before the Certification Officer on Tuesday 1st March to consider a complaint made by Keith Henderson alleging that the GMB misapplied laws governing the General Secretary election in the GMB that prevented him or any other ordinary member of the union standing in that election. An election where only 4.5% of the members voted and where the victor won with the backing of 2.4% of GMB members.

The specifics of the complaints to be heard are as follows;

1.    On or around 1 July 2015 GMB breached section 47(1) of the 1992 Act in that the Union's by-law 13 relating to the Election of General Secretary and Treasurer 2015 prevented Mr Henderson, and other lay members of the Union, from contacting branches to advise them of their intention to stand as a candidate in the election for the post of General Secretary and Treasurer.
2.    On or around 1 July 2015 GMB breached section 47(1) of the 1992 Act in that the nomination period of 8 weeks was insufficient for intended nominees to gain the required nominations from 30 branches and was insufficient for branches to arrange and hold meetings to decide upon whether to support a given individual's nomination.
3.    On or around 1 July 2015 GMB breached section 47(1) of the 1992 Act in that the Union's London Central X58 branch was not provided with the necessary papers/information for the election of General Secretary and Treasurer, including the nomination form, until 3 weeks into the nomination period which curtailed the 8 week nomination period thereby leaving insufficient time to write to branch members, arrange a suitable date for a nomination meeting, arrange a venue and give reasonable notice to members of such a meeting.
4.    On or around 1 July 2015 GMB breached section 47(1) of the 1992 Act in that the Union did not provide sufficient information that the election of General Secretary and Treasure was being held and, in particular, most members did not know of the 22 June to 17 August 2015 nomination period as no written notification to the membership was allowed and there was no notification on the Union's website.
5.    On or around 30 June 2015 GMB breached the Union's by-law 13 in that Regional Secretaries Tim Roache, Paul McCarthy and Paul Maloney and National Secretary Gary Smith contacted the Morning Star newspaper directly or indirectly which published an article stating that these Union officials were seeking nominations from GMB branches for the election of General Secretary and Treasurer. This article constituted the issuing, on behalf of candidates in the election, of a text, circular or other material (whether written, typed or printed and whether communicated electronically or otherwise), other than an election address according with by-laws 6 to 12 inclusive, and so was prohibited under by-law 13.

You can read more about the background to this story from the Labour Representation Committee online at‎.

As‎ an interested observer from outside the GMB (and one who, like any UNISON activist in local government, has a pressing interest in how the GMB fights for, and is guided by, its members) it does seem bizarre that, having set a minimum number of branch nominations for a candidate to stand as General Secretary, a trade union would not then facilitate communication between would-be candidates and branches.

This blog has never, and will never, pull punches when making justified criticism of my own trade union - but UNISON's election procedures ‎do not erect such an obstacle course in the way of those challenging for office.

It is a matter of regret whenever an activist takes a complaint about their trade union to a Government official - but it is a matter of greater regret that ‎a socialist such as Keith Henderson should be left with no other option for redress.

If we one day want to win the argument against the ever more onerous regulation of our movement by the state we will need to develop democratic means to resolve such disputes transparently in front of (and in a way that is genuinely accountable to) our members.