Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Europe and the left

We're moving from a horrendous year into what might be a horrifying year.

Workers need a Labour Government, but Scottish Labour's decision to elect a Blairite leader makes a majority much less likely - whilst the "austerity-lite" policies of Balls and Miliband‎ mean that even a majority Labour Government would have a pitiable offer to working people.

A Tory-led Government after the next General Election would effectively outlaw strike action (to which outrage the leadership of our unions would respond by retreating and surrendering). In this century, in which there is no global alternative to rapacious capitalism, our movement appears almost incapable of articulating an alternative to austerity.

Social democracy in one country is clearly no longer a viable option - and this means that the left has to reassess our traditional attitude to the European Union (EU). We have been right, for decades, to be hostile to a project which was always about cementing capitalism in Western Europe. As a 1980s leftist my kneejerk position is to call for departure from the EU.

However, in this twenty-first century workers have to face squarely what is in front of us. The link above is to a pamphlet written by German trade unionists addressing the important question of what the European Parliament should be doing to combat austerity. 

This is a vital question.

If, as workers and trade unionists, we organise solely and exclusively at the level of the individual nation state then our adversaries will forever escape us - because capital no longer organises itself in that way.

Our movement needs the international perspective of the German comrades expressed in the link at the head of this post. In the UK this means we must reconsider the left's traditional hostility to the EU.

That is not to say that we should not be hostile to the EU! We should be hostile to the EU as we are hostile to the UK. We represent the interests of the working class and are therefore opposed to the state apparatus (whether "national" or supra-national) which exists to perpetuate a society founded upon our exploitation.

However, we may need to think more about how to build pan-European working class unity and less about leaving the EU. Our trade unions face - from the protagonists of the neoliberal project - an existential threat. It is vital that our response to this threat is robust.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Judges uphold assault upon our legal rights

UNISON's application for judicial review of the regulations imposing extortionate fees upon claimants in employment tribunals has been defeated for a second time.

The fee regime imposed by the Tories has achieved their aim of a very dramatic reduction in the number of claims - and the failure of the legal challenge from UNISON (supported by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is a bitter blow.

Ironically one of the criticisms made of the claim by the judges is that the claimant could not produce evidence of an actual claimant who had not brought a claim because of the fees (even though it is glaringly obvious that thousands have been discouraged).

Of course UNISON couldn't produce a UNISON member who had been prevented from bringing a claim because of the fees! The Union has made every effort to ensure that this does not happen to our members (and rightly so).

It seems we'll have to rid ourselves of these fees at the ballot box.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time to pick ourselves up

The advent of, well, advent doesn’t spell a reduced workload in local government – on the contrary, next year’s budget proposals are emerging in local authorities up and down the country and – particularly in the deprived areas which this Government targets for the greatest reductions – things look bleak.

For those of us who want to find ways in which our trade union movement can be used as a tool to protect the interests of workers threatened by this bleak outlook, it is vitally important that we can make a clear-headed assessment of the current usefulness of this tool.

At this month’s meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) we received the latest in the (recently initiated and) useful reports on industrial action ballots in recent months. These reports are a valuable source of data which describe the current vitality of our trade union when it comes to taking action. They are a challenging read.

Between February and November this year, in addition to the major national industrial action ballots, UNISON ran 77 local ballots for which figures were presented to the NEC. In these ballots, some of which were successful and a smaller number of which were not, some of which led to the settlement of disputes and some of which did not (or have not yet), the average turnout was 31%.

This is a higher turnout (on average) than the turnouts in the larger national ballots (21% in local government outside Scotland, 23% in Scotland, 15% in the health service in England and 21% in Wales) – but it is nevertheless low. A majority Tory (or Tory-UKIP) Government could be expected to legislate in ways which could prevent many of our ballots leading to “lawful” industrial action.

A trade union which cannot (or will not) take industrial action is hardly a trade union. Given the scale of the challenges which we face, particularly in local government, it is essential that we are able to mobilise our members to take action, just as it is essential that we engage in workplace organising, political lobbying and public campaigning.

At the moment we generally lack the ability to carry out this necessary action.

We certainly shall not improve our position by the defeatist option of refusing to consider action (“until we have built up our organisation” – because in that way we never will).

However, we need to start from a clear understanding of the enormous scale of the challenge which we face.

It may be more than six months until our members have the opportunity to debate UNISON’s future in a General Secretary election, but UNISON activists and members cannot wait. We need to find a way to pick our trade union up from the trough in which we find ourselves.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A Left Platform for the Election?

John McDonnell is right, in the link above, that there is a sizeable constituency with an appetite for the policies to the left of the main parties.

As a local government trade unionist in a Council which has already shed 29% of its workforce since 2010 I am aghast at the prospect of no more than a choice between different flavours of austerity after the next General Election.

Establishment politicians might mistake the relative quiescence of the population (and the organised workforce!) for contentment or approval, but I think cynicism bordering on despair is nearer the mark. 

With the partial (and very localised) exception of the Greens, people are not turning to parties of the left because to do so requires hope and belief as well as anger. (I'm not in a position to comment on the surge of support for the SNP north of the border but it seems to me, from afar, that there is some positive motivation for their supporters).

I'm not starry eyed about our polity. I don't think we can claim a popular majority supports every policy of the left (although there is evidence that on many issues there is such support). I don't expect a Government legislating in the interests of working people in the near future.

What we can do is articulate a policy platform which a real Labour Government would pursue. ‎We need to recover hope and belief for working class people.

That's why I was pleased to add my support for the meeting which John McDonnell has called for Saturday 7 February to do just that.

At the moment the election appears set to be a fascinating tale of coalitions. It should be about the policies we need for working people.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Think solidarity. Act locally. (Support Lambeth UCU)

‎This morning I supported a picket line of striking UCU members at Lambeth College and was, this lunchtime, one of the speakers at their strike rally. 

Today is the first of a series of planned strikes by UCU members at the College, continuing an earlier series of strikes in opposition to the unilateral imposition of worse terms and conditions on new staff from 1 April.

UNISON members took five days of strike action in June as part of a related dispute arising from the same imposition, and UNISON also remains in dispute with the College, which faces an OFSTED inspection next week.

Although the fight at Lambeth College is essentially a defensive struggle, it is also, importantly, an expression of solidarity as strikers - themselves not on the new, worse conditions - take action in furtherance of a dispute which aims to protect new starters and future workers.

Without wishing to give any ground to the utter defeatism voiced by one member of UNISON's NEC yesterday (who declared national action to be off the agenda until we were stronger)(of which more later) I think we have to recognise the likely continuing importance of local disputes in all sectors, and to do all we can to show effective solidarity with these disputes when they arise.

Whether we should also be looking to encourage local offensive struggles, to secure local improvements above the nationally-negotiated floor of conditions of service in sectors such as local government is a question for a future blog post.‎..

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Congratulations Manchester UNISON

In the first of a few brief blog posts extracted from the report which I am preparing of yesterday's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) I am very happy to confirm the accuracy of the news posted by our Manchester branch in the link above.

The threshold for calling a Special Service Group Conference, that it should be requisitioned by branches representing in excess of 25% of the relevant membership, having been passed, the NEC formally agreed that the Conference be convened.

As the General Secretary explained, this was only a formality, since it is a Rule Book requirement that a Special Conference be convened in these circumstances. 

Since no venue has yet been identified, the NEC delegated practical details of this nature to the Presidential Team‎, in consultation with the Chair of the Local Government Service Group Executive.

The timetable for the Conference will be agreed by the Standing Orders Committee for Local Government Conference at a meeting today. The General Secretary pointed out that, since the requisition specifically provided for the submission of motions from branches and Regions, which would then need to be open to amendment, a sixteen week timetable would be likely.

This puts the Conference in late March or early April, depending upon the availability of a venue.

The NEC also noted that, although this was not specifically mentioned in the requisition‎, Self-Organised Groups and the Service Group Executive would be able to submit motions and amendments in accordance with Rule.

There was some discussion of the anomaly whereby concerns in relation to a dispute in one sector (albeit the largest) had given rise to the requisitioning of a Conference of the entire Service Group, and also of the position of Scottish branches - however neither of these red herrings swam far.

Our National Delegate Conference specifically rejected delegating responsibility for collective bargaining from Service Groups to sectors some years ago (and not least because there are no "sector Conferences" which could meet the need for which this Special Conference has been requisitioned). As for Scottish branches, our Rule Book gives our Standing Orders Committee the power to determine who may vote on what in relation to devolved issues.

It was also reported to the NEC that the Conference should be a closed Conference (i.e. not open to the public). Although this is a decision for the SOC to report to the Conference itself, there was no disagreement at the NEC. 

This is not so much because of the need for a full and frank exchange of views‎ (for which we might not want Eric Pickles to have sent someone to sit and watch) as for fear that some random reactionary might seek to use the largely untested provisions of the Lobbying Act to argue that our expenditure on any public Conference in the run up to the General Election might count against our spending for the election campaign.

This could be overly cautious, but what is important about the Special Conference is that it should enable us to analyse the reasons for our catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Government and employers, and consider how we rebuild our trade union so that we can raise the living standards of local government workers in future. A closed Conference does not impair this - and the precedent set a few years ago in the closed session debate on Equal Pay at National Delegate Conference is that visitors who are UNISON members should be able to be present.

I will blog separately about the substantive issues for debate at the Conference, concerning which there were a number of considered and thoughtful contributions yesterday (as well as some others).

For now, congratulations to Manchester UNISON for having taken the initiative which means that local government branches can have a positive focus ‎in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The UNISON General Secretary election 2015

‎I have today been assured that budget provision is available to resource an election in 2015 for the election of a General Secretary for UNISON, should such an election be necessary.

It will be.

I don't intend, in this post, to comment on the lamentable succession planning of the full-time leadership of our trade union, and the consequent absence of either an inspiring candidate or of a meaningful choice from amongst the current leadership.

I want to share here, in public (as it were - you shouldn't assume anyone other than you is reading this) some comments which I made at tonight's meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) Left Caucus.

First, those of us who have ever come third in a General Secretary election should not again be a candidate (This is a shame as it deprives UNISON of my enlightened and principled leadership - but it is a pragmatic necessity).

Secondly, anyone who ever chaired a session of a Conference of a political party at which the victim of an alleged rape was refused a voice must understand that they would be a toxic candidate in such an election. Their comrades must cease to promote such a candidate forthwith if they have the slightest concern for rank and file organisation in our trade union.

Thirdly, I regret that comrades in the Socialist Party care more for being seen to be "leaders" of the left than for transforming our trade union. However, the undimmed enthusiasm of these comrades for a candidate who has come a (more or less) respectable second in each election for the General Secretary of UNISON is a factor to be taken into account.

No decisions have yet been taken about the coming (and unavoidable) election for General Secretary, neither (as far as your blogger knows) at the UNISON Centre nor on the left.

I await with interest the outcome of these decisions.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

What next?

‎After a long day at work, and ahead of a lengthy, (if less long) meeting of the Left Caucus of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) I had the opportunity today to pop by the annual seasonal social event for UNISON staff and NEC members.

Whilst I missed the opportunity to purchase raffle tickets by my late arrival, I did take the chance to discuss current UNISON issues with colleagues who were present.

It seems clear that elements of our leadership, whilst concerned at the criticism which they may face at the forthcoming Special Conference on Local Government pay, are equally concerned to find a positive outcome.

Ironically, those of us on the left who may welcome this deserved discomfort which gives rise to this aspiration share it nevertheless.

‎We need to find a way forward in which delegates to the Special Conference leave that Conference with the belief that we can at least try to do better.

The miserable outcome of the local government pay dispute justifies even the most intemperate condemnation of every aspect of the architecture of the trade union structure which misled us to this impasse.

However, workers need a better trade union - not the absence of one. The activist left has to find a way beyond condemnation (without failing to express heartfelt rage) in order to advocate for the better union we require.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Labour movement and the future of local government

‎After a very relaxing week away I return to prophecies of doom from the political leaders of English local government.

Having made savings of 40% in this Parliament, our leaders say that efficiency savings are coming to an end.‎ They warn against "further reductions" without "radical reform" (although how precisely one reforms a pint pot so that it can hold a quart is not made clear).

The timing and content of the letter published in today's Observer suggests that some form of devolution may be the twenty first alchemy which will transmute the base metal of inadequate funding into the pure gold of decent public services.

Whilst I am doubtful that there are constitutional solutions to economic problems, it is nevertheless remarkable that a layer of important leaders of all main political parties will join together to warn of the consequences of the policies of deliberate austerity which will be advocated (to a greater or lesser degree) by the national leaders of all those parties in next year's General Election.

In fairness, the national leaders of the political parties ought to pay attention to those of their colleagues who (unlike most Members of Parliament) are responsible for running important services and directing public expenditure - but I wouldn't hold out much hope that this correspondence will shake the hold of the consensus in favour of austerity which holds both Front Benches in its thrall.

‎Within the Labour Party - and wider labour movement - this ought to be the moment to renew the debate which some of us tried to have a few years ago about alternatives to compliance with austerity policies in local government. 

We tried and failed. Within the Labour Party the brave and principled handful of Councillors who were prepared to vote against savage reductions ‎in services they had been elected to deliver and protect were marginalised, disciplined and - in some cases - expelled.

Within UNISON, the Standing Orders Committee for our Local Government Conference ruled out even discussion of advocacy of approaches which didn't include setting a balanced budget (on the risible grounds that such a discussion might somehow place our trade union in legal jeopardy).

It is not always true that our union's policies or behaviour are dictated by our relationship with the Labour Party (and those who believe that therefore sometimes struggle to comprehend the behaviour and motivation of our leaders)‎. 

However, on the question of local government finance the attitude of most of those in leading positions, locally and nationally, in both the industrial and political wings of the movement has been shaped in recent years by an over riding concern with the electorate's presumed perception of the "economic competence" of a future Labour Government.

On the assumption that advocacy of any alternative to compliance, by Labour authorities, with Coalition policies of austerity, would have enabled Daily Mail leader writers successfully to shred the reputation of the Opposition Front Bench, we have stood by (as Labour Party members and trade unionists) and watched tens of thousands of redundancies and the related closures and reductions in services.

‎Some Labour authorities - sometimes under pressure from local trade unions - have done their best to limit damage and to pursue progressive policies in a harsh environment but the political wing of the labour movement has not presented a national alternative to the social and economic vandalism of the Coalition.

Nor, for that matter, has the industrial wing of our movement made any serious attempt to use such strength as we may have to mount a national challenge to the generalised implementation of Government economic policy by our employers. We have done nothing nationally to prevent cuts locally and have not stood in the way of local retreats on conditions of service.

Our one chance to take on and defeat the Coalition Government in this Parliament was squandered in December 2011 by a deliberate retreat from the defence of public service pensions choreographed from the Euston Road. If local government workers could console ourselves that the particular‎ nature of the Local Government Pension Scheme had protected us from the worst of that attack, we know now that our national trade unions are currently unwilling or unable to protect our living standards in a national pay dispute.

We are reduced to pleading with local authorities to raise up the living standards of the lowest paid of our colleagues by means which do not rely upon our collective strength and organisation - such as the living wage or the ethical care charter (just as those local authorities are today reduced to pleading with the Government to relent from imposing further cuts upon them).

‎In these desperate circumstances I am pleased to have returned to news of the success of the call for a Special Local Government Conference initiated by our Manchester branch. 

We need to begin to rebuild a trade union capable of waging a national dispute in local government just as we need a labour movement with a vision for local government which transcends today's cross party plea for sympathy.

I'm not sure precisely what we need to do to achieve either of these objectives (and I wouldn't be too inclined to believe anyone who was sure right now) - but it's clear we need the sort of honest discussion which, at least in relation to pay, Manchester's Special Conference requisition directs us to.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On the practical benefits of defending the conditions of service of the local government workforce

‎I have a very long period of continuous local government service (I am not young).

As I have more than ten years such service, with my employer, according to the conditions of service negotiated with the local trade unions, I have 34 days paid leave each year in addition to public holidays.

It was 17 years ago that the employer last tried to reduce our leave entitlement (under a "hung" Council). We saw them off.

Therefore I am pleased that, for the next five working days, I shall derive the benefit of conditions of service fought for, won and defended by trade union action, as I shall be on holiday!

You'll not see me blog again for more than a week (regular readers Sid and Doris Trotspotter will be accessing NHS mental health services to help them cope).

While I'm away I strongly recommend to all trade unionists that you don't agree to offer any concessions to your employer on conditions of service (they never do any good!)

I also recommend to all UNISON local government branches that you support the call from the Manchester Branch for a Special Local Government Conference.

After all, when I get back from holiday I'll still need something to look forward to!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

Local government pay - is there an alternative to national pay bargaining?

As I observed yesterday, the Special Conference (which informed sources in the Euston Road now confidently predict) will consider how we should go about getting a decent pay increase for local government workers.

Some will understandably question the very future of national bargaining (particularly those in the authority intending to break away from national bargaining who, having prematurely implemented the 1% pay offer, are now seeking to claw back from those staff who stand to get less in 2014/15 from the pay settlement than they received under the previous offer against which national strike action was taken!)

There are other means to try to improve the living standards of local government workers other than simply by pursuing national pay claims, but none of these alone are a credible alternative.

Ever since the adoption of the Green Book in 1997 we have had a degree of local autonomy in relation to pay and grading, and to many conditions of service. This autonomy is – in circumstances of declining organisation and limited confidence – something which has generally been taken advantage of by employers. There is, however, nothing in principle to prevent the trade unions in any particular local authority proposing (for example) that the points to grades relationship in their Council be varied by giving everyone an extra increment (or more).

Such a local claim would no more break away from national pay bargaining than have the various measures introduced by particular local authorities (some of whom have held back incremental progression in the past, arguing that this did not breach Part Two of the Green Book).

However, the fact that something is procedurally possible does not mean that it would be well-advised. For each local authority where we might successfully fight for such a local “uplift” within the framework of the Green Book there will be many more where individual authorities might thereby be tempted to propose a local “downshift” which the unions might struggle to resist.

At a “higher” level of the bargaining framework, we know that there is some pressure on the employers’ side to consider Regional pay bargaining. The increasing divergence on the trade union side between the local leadership in the North West (and Greater London) and other Regions could clearly point in a similar direction.

However, the unevenness of the strength of the trade unions is as great within Regions as it is between them. Even in the short term, any trade union acquiescence to fractures in national pay bargaining would be a threat to more of our members than those for whom they might be an opportunity.

With apologies to our friends in the North, trade unionists in Greater London do have an opportunity which does not exist elsewhere, because of the way in which “London Weighting” was incorporated into the Outer and Inner London pay spines in 2000. It would be entirely within the framework of national pay bargaining for the trade unions to make a claim to increase the differentials between these and the national pay spine. In spite of the miserable outcome of the London Weighting dispute of a decade ago, the changed political balance of our London employers means that our ability to take effective action is now better aligned to those authorities we would most need to influence in order to achieve change at a Regional level.

Whether we should or should not do this is a question which now needs to be considered within Greater London – but overall, I think we need to accept that, from the point of view of local government workers, our priority has to be to find a way to make national pay bargaining deliver for our members in future.