Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Support grows for Barnet UNISON strike as Shadow Chancellor prepares to join pickets


Tomorrow's strike action by UNISON members in the North London Borough of Barnet - opposing Tory plans for cuts and outsourcing - has won the support of our "Peoples' Chancellor", UNISON member John McDonnell MP, expected on the picket line.

The strike action by Barnet workers is a robust and effective response to the hypocritical claptrap of the Tories in Manchester, claiming to be a Party for working people.

Those who truly support workers will be supporting Barnet workers tomorrow.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

UNISON refusing to face the future?

‎Supporters of the campaign to re-elect UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis are busily celebrating the ability of his campaign to engineer nominations from Regional Councils and National Committees. 

They are studiously ignoring the fact that support for his campaign at branch level is remarkably less than it has been in the past.

Dave won a convincing victory in 1999 and trounced his opponents (myself included) five years later. In his third campaign (another five years on) he won once more, having sold his campaign to his supporters as his final attempt to remain our General Secretary.

In Dave's third term he achieved his goal of recruiting five new Assistant General Secretaries, removing the previous Assistant General Secretary (who, having chaired one of the recruitment panels for his own successors, left the Union with his reputation unsullied) and deleting the Deputy General Secretary.

However, our General Secretary proved himself incapable of promoting a successor and has therefore sought a fourth term. It would be churlish to remark that this decision will help us to understand why UNISON has consistently failed to support the "68 is too late" campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn shows that there is nothing at all wrong with supporting a candidate for leadership in their mid 60s.

But do you (dear reader) really think that, had Jeremy Corbyn been elected in 1999 he would still be holding on now, having failed time and again to develop a successor?

Do you?


UNISON needs a future - and the campaign of John Burgess (who has won unprecedented branch level support) offers that future.

The campaign for the re-election of Dave Prentis is a pitiable campaign of failure and foolishness. It is a shame that Dave did this and the outcome of the campaign can only be unfortunate.

UNISON needs a future.

John Burgess offers that now.

A vote for Dave Prentis is a vote to defer the decision.

And a shame.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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...

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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?