Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Health workers - vote "YES" for action

The UNISON ballot of health workers in England started today.

This is a ballot for strike action for fair pay. The same issue that has already led to strike action in local government.

Health workers who want to know can calculate how much they have already lost.

UNISON activists should do all we can to maximise the turnout in the health service ballot.

And if we are serious about winning better living standards for both health and local government workers we will campaign for joint action.

"Commissioning" undermines care

Well done Barnet UNISON for this link to a story about the treatment of care workers in today’s “commissioning” culture – which is also a story about how care is made inadequate and uncaring.

For all those who think that a split between “commissioning” and “delivery” is the “modern” way to improve public services in a time of scarcity, the actual experience of zero hours contracts and fifteen minute appointments is an important corrective.

It’s not just that it is odious and counterproductive that profit should be made out of social care – it’s that outsourcing encourages the commissioners to offer contracts which can only be made to pay by cutting corners.

UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter is the least that is needed. Beyond that our movement needs to organise these workers to reverse the casualisation of social care – and we need a Government that will bring social care where it belongs, into the public sector.

The Care UK strikers are leading this fight right now. We have to find ways to spread this struggle.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Strike whilst the iron is hot!

The willingness of workers to take strike action is less than it was when I was young. 

As I have observed in previous posts, there is more work to be done now in explaining the rationale and justification for the collective withdrawal of labour (even in principle) than was the case in the 1980s.

However, given determined and positive leadership workers will still strike - which is just as well since without that willingness to take action we often have little with which to negotiate.

The idea that somehow "world class negotiators" could resolve the issues which confront trade union members without the need for collective action turned out to have no more shelf-life than the former UNISON NEC member who once expressed that view.

Preparedness to take action is, however, a fairly delicate flower. Weeks (or months) of preparation can be confounded by days (or even hours) of delay.

The "common sense" of our sadly reactionary age is that collective action is as futile as solidarity is misguided - and this "common sense" all too easily reasserts itself - particularly when the conduct of our union seems to reinforce cynicism.

In fact this "common sense", whilst common, is not sensible. ‎Workers standing together can achieve greater justice - and our trade union is far from weak, albeit we are weaker than we were (and our members - and potential members - would have much to gain if we were stronger once more).

If we wish to rebuild the strength of our movement (which is probably the most important task we face) then we must cherish above all a willingness to take collective action - particularly when guided by principled and pragmatic local leadership.

We must ensure that we empower and enable our members to strike whilst the iron is hot.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Can we get a "warm autumn" in 2014?

We may not be getting much of an Indian summer at the moment, but as we return from the summer holidays, it almost feels as if we might be going to have a “hot autumn” of industrial action.

The local government pay dispute continues with strike action scheduled for 14 October (unless, which is unlikely, the further discussions between the joint secretaries of the National Joint Council produce an improved pay offer). In the health service the strike ballot in England begins next week. Meat inspectors employed by the Food Standards Agency will stage two four hour strikes on the mornings of Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 August, having been offered a miserly 0.75% increase. UNISON’s members in the police service are being recommended to reject a 1% pay offer and prepare for strike action.

Mobilising our members to take action is not a swift or simple matter however. Strike action is hardly now a routine in our movement and, in many cases, we are having to argue almost from first principles to persuade members to take action. We are absolutely right to do this – a trade union movement that did not fight in these circumstances would be on a fast track to irrelevance – but we’ll do ourselves no favours by pretending either that it is easy to get effective strike action, or by exaggerating our successes.

The fragmentation of the public service workforce also means that many doing jobs which would, a generation ago, have been covered by the national pay disputes are now outside national pay determination  – we therefore need (and generally have yet to find) ways to generalise the fight for fair pay to the fragmented workforce beyond some isolated examples - in Doncaster for example the inspirational fight for the living wage for Care UK workers is continuing – and tomorrow will link up with the People’s March for the NHS as it passes through SouthYorkshire.

Local defensive struggles are also springing up wherever local trade union organisation is capable of articulating collective opposition to the more vicious assaults upon workers’ living standards. In Barnet, where the local Tories’ extreme voted to strike – and will be demonstrating at Hendon Town Hall at 6pm on Monday 1 September. Similarly, workers at Aberystwyth University are now balloting for action over plans to eliminate their pension scheme.

UNISON activists (and trade union activists generally) need to publicise, and show solidarity with, these local disputes at the same time as we try to mobilise members for national action. We may not thereby get a "hot autumn" but if we warm things up a bit we may be better placed to rebuild our movement and our living standards.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Unity is healthy - we should act in unison

As local government workers prepare for tomorrow's day of protest about our pay dispute, health workers are beginning to plan a similar protest on Monday week.

When, more than twenty years ago, we chose the name for our (then) new trade union, it was clear that we chose the word "unison" because of what it implies.

Those who sing in unison sing together - and sing the same tune. (Those of us prone to occasional dissonance are often reminded of this very fact). Groups taking action on different days are not acting "in unison".

There may be sound tactical reasons why one group of workers will take some action on one date and others on another. There may be practical or logistical reasons why this is unavoidable.

However, if we, in UNISON, are serious about maximising political pressure in support of our fight against falling real wages then, when it comes to strike action, we will act "in unison."

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Marching to save the NHS - and more

I hope the weather improves for the Peoples' March to save the NHS, which has UNISON's full support.

It's shocking how far and how fast this Government has been able to go in the direction of dismantling our national health service, as it has in its general project of savaging public services.

‎Whilst it's true that our trade unions haven't suffered the sort of defeats and setbacks which we saw from the 80s onwards, I'm not sure that vindicates the decision to retreat from the pensions dispute two and a half years a go - which was the decisive moment of this Parliament.

In fact (as regular readers of this blog - Sid and Doris Marxist-Leninist - will be aware), I think we made a tragic error in 2011/12 which has overshadowed our ability to organise ever since. ‎Nevertheless, the spate of pay disputes, together with the forthcoming TUC demonstration, taken together with the modest indications of popular opposition to Government policy (of which the People's March for the NHS is an important example) provide a context for campaigning and organising in the run up to the General Election.

We need to aim clearly for the defeat of the Coalition Government (which means support for the only available national alternative) - but we also need to energise our movement so that we can place demands on a Prime Minister Miliband from the first day.

‎The next few months will require more activity than at any time in a generation if we are to turn the tide which has been flowing against us for so long.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Implementing Motion 53

‎The link above is to the speech given by the proposer of Motion 53, agreed on Friday 20 June at UNISON National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

This motion, reprioritised for debate by Conference delegates and overwhelmingly agreed by Conference, with the support of the National Executive Council (NEC) commits the Union to vigorous and wholehearted support for victimised activists.

This is vitally important to the future of our Union (and of trade unions generally). Our movement depends, more than anything else, upon the voluntary effort of our activists. In the current climate of austerity we are - inevitably - asking our volunteer army to engage in confrontation with employers.

Every one of us who has chosen to give years of our lives to the movement remembers the first time we realised that we had to face down people with the formal power to sack us. That's the moment at which you choose. 

Those who choose the movement are the lifeblood of the Union. Our activists must know that the Union stands behind them when they stand up to the employers to defend the interests of our members. That's why Conference delegates supported Motion 53.

In implementing Motion 53 our NEC will always need to be alive to tactical questions in particular cases. There's no single correct way to fight victimisation - and sometimes private political pressure can deliver a sensible result where an immediate public campaign would entrench positions unhelpfully.

However, what our Conference has told our NEC, by passing Motion 53, is that we have no higher priority than the defence of our activists - and that means that, whilst we may not immediately highlight every case, no UNISON activist will ever be victimised for their union activities without those responsible being held to account in public - and where employers fail to respond to reasonable pragmatism they should expect the full political weight of our 1.3 million members to fall upon them.

From a great height.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Friday, August 01, 2014

All out on 14 October! (rather than 30 September)

Better late than never?

It appears that we are now all out on Tuesday 14 October rather than Tuesday 30 September (as previously advertised...) in the fight for fair pay for local government workers.

UNISON activists need to turn all our efforts to building support for this action, but that doesn’t mean we have to be uncritical of tactical ineptitude. We should not, as local activists, have been put in the position in which our trade union announces strike action and then deletes that announcement without comment.

Most UNISON local government branches are used to being the largest union at a local level. As a rule, we would have a moral and political right to assert ourselves over other unions whose combined membership is considerably less than our own when determining tactics in an industrial dispute with our common employer.

However, those of us with some common sense, who know that divisions between trade unions benefit employers rather than workers, choose not to use that right in favour of building consensus (even in the face of irritated criticism from within our own organisation).

Obviously our senior officials (across trade unions) could and should have had a dialogue with a view to arriving at joint recommendations to the democratic decision-making bodies in each trade union. That runs a risk of undermining lay democracy (but that is what officials do anyway as a matter of routine!)

More importantly therefore, rank and file members of the various unions should have an unofficial forum in which we could have arrived at our own point of view. The disintegrating left which we are saddled with is not capable of generating such a forum.

The observation in the UNISON press release that “The strike will be just a few days before the TUC organised national demonstration on 18 October calling for decent pay” makes us vulnerable to the argument that we are asking our members to make the sacrifice of strike action as part of a stage army in the run up to the General Election.

However, given the refusal of the Labour Party (thanks to the approach of trade union delegates) to oppose austerity, the reality of our strike action (and of the TUC demonstration) is that we are as much putting down a marker to Eds Balls and Milliband as firing a shot at Cameron and Osborne.

The decision to defer the strike called for by UNISON’s National Joint Council Committee will be proven right if – and only if – October 14 sees unified action including health workers as well as local government workers. Such action would give the best hope of a better outcome for local government pay and the most effective political impact upon the Government (and Opposition).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Unity is strength in the fight for fair pay

I blogged about the publicised decision of our National Joint Council to call for further strike action on 30 September. The news report on which I based that blog post is still online (thanks to Google) but is no longer available on the UNISON website.

The bulletin to local government branches of UNISON, dated Wednesday was unequivocal;
“The UNISON NJC Committee met yesterday to review the J10 strike and decide next steps in our campaign.  It has decided to hold a second day of strike action on Tuesday 30 September rather than the earlier dates suggested30th September is the last date local government pay is above the National Minimum Wage. On 1 October, SCP 5 will fall below the new NMW of £6.50 per hour.
This means that the ballot timetables for the 15 national MATs have now been revised to enable members to take action on 30 September. Education and Children’s Services will issue separate guidance about this and related matters shortly.
The NJC TU Side Executive is meeting on 29 July to discuss coordinating second wave action and further information will follow. The UNISON NJC Committee also agreed to set a date for industrial action in October should there be no movement by the Employers.”   

The news is out there. Branches have passed it on. It’s on our twitter feed.

The GMB Press Office on the other hand hasn’t tweeted about the dispute since announcing the success of action on 10 July. Informally I have been advised that “The GMB’s current position is further day of strike in the week commencing 13th October along with other public sector unions. But with a day of non-strike protest in August.”  

UNITE also lauded the success of the action but, the inconclusive outcome of the (National Joint Council ) NJC trade union side on 22 July hasn’ t  produced any subsequent reference to the local government pay dispute on twitter. It appears that the Executive of the NJC Trade Union Side, which will meet next Tuesday, may not produce a consensus in support of action on 30 September.

There are some interesting silences within UNISON over the past week also.

Our leaders – lay and full-time – across all three local government unions (and the other unions whose support we all need, as they need ours) need to be dunked repeatedly in cold water until an agreed strategy for action on public sector pay is arrived at.

I don’t have an easy or immediate answer. Certainly if we wanted effective unified  action across all unions we would not want to start from here – but that is the one thing about which we have no choice.

We should – but do not – have a unified rank and file movement across the major trade unions so that activists could try to hammer out a common position for which we could argue. We do not have such an effective body. All we have are risible front organisations, declining captives of sectarianism and obscure fossils (and worthy campaigns which are incapable of intervening in such matters).

In the absence of such a unifying force we probably need to start by finding some way to have an honest debate about our strengths, weaknesses and tactics. This has to be conducted in public, because otherwise it is hidden from our members, even though this means that it is also conducted in full view of the employers.
There are a few things we shouldn’t do.

We shouldn’t “talk up” the impact of and support for strike action to the extent that it bears no relation to the experience of our activists (ourselves) on our picket lines. We need to be honest about the room for improvement which always exists, and try to assess it accurately so that we can try to use it. To improve. This is difficult because such honesty will always be seized upon by the defeatists and careerists to call off action – but it is unavoidable if we are to make an informed assessment of what to do next.

We shouldn’t pull our punches when criticising the absurd timidity of our officials in the face of this year’s bugbear “legal jeopardy”. I confess to guilt on this point since I haven’t said before that it is both pathetic and absurd that UNISON has adopted such a restrictive approach to balloting members in Academies. (It is not acceptable that branches and Regions are told that the UNISON Centre may need them to chip in to run ballots as it lacks capacity. UNISON staff should be redeployed as necessary and immediately to ensure we ballot everyone we can.)

We shouldn’t fall in to the trap of “union chauvinism”. I don’t support UNISON for the sake of supporting my own union – indeed one of the most read posts on this blog dealt entirely with circumstances in which UNISON was falling short. In the same way, GMB members shouldn’t be precious about defending GMB, nor UNITE, nor NUT members – not even members of PCS. Socialist trade union activists are on the side of the workers (rather than this or that trade union) and, as a general rule, we want to see a meaningful unity of trade union leaderships, not to volunteer as cheerleaders even for the most leftwing.

We shouldn’t subordinate our fight for a decent pay rise to the cause of supporting a change of Government through support for the TUC demonstration in October. We should support that demonstration of course – and we should certainly be doing all we can to see that we have both a Labour Government and a movement capable of exerting meaningful pressure upon it. We are not, however, a stage army for Ed Miliband – and we’ll face a continuing fight under any Government a year from now.

Our members – across all the unions – expect us to deliver united action for fair pay in the autumn.

They know we didn’t get everyone out (and that we never will) but expect us to do our best to maximise the impact of their action (including the impact of favourable publicity).

They know the law is against us but don’t expect us to run away from it.

They know that the leaders of each union want to promote their own union – but can tolerate this if together our unions can show unity.

They know we would be less worse off under a Labour Government, but expect more than Labour will offer us.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Executive of the NJC Trade Union Side needs to start getting this right.