Sunday, May 24, 2015
Trade unionists are often complaining about the number of jobs which have been eliminated as a result of the savage spending cuts of the previous Government, now set to be accelerated.
So we should probably celebrate the creation of some useful new opportunities for gainful employment - for "independent assurers" who are now required to audit our compliance with our statutory duty to maintain an accurate membership register.
UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) is proposing a rule amendment to write into our Rule Book the requirement to appoint such an assurer - because we are required to do so by Part Three of the Lobbying Act.
Under the Membership Audit Certificate (Qualified Independent Person) (Specified Conditions) Order 2015 the independent assurer must be a solicitor, an auditor or a scrutineer (authorised to act as an external scrutineer of trade union ballots).
The subscription income collected from low paid workers can therefore now be spent paying a solicitor, an auditor or scrutineer to carry out a wholly unnecessary audit of our membership records.
We'll have to be careful if we want to use decent firms which recognise trade unions, since section 24ZB(4)(b) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (inserted by the Lobbying Act) prohibits from acting as an assurer anyone who employs "an officer" of the trade union or any of its branches.
Since an "officer" of the union could include a shop steward, unions who might seek to unionise solicitors clerks, or the employees of auditors will have to tread carefully.
Since trade unions have a vested interest in having accurate membership records in any case, and since the previous Government never really bothered to justify the imposition of the new auditing requirements, it's clear that the essential purpose of Part Three of the Lobbying Act is to put trip wires in the way of unions seeking to take industrial action - and to encourage vexatious litigation from the right-wing fringe.
This will impel diligence on the part of assurers, and therefore - over time - the administrative burden of the regular membership audit will tend to increase.
Whether or not our foes will need to tie us in knots with this requirement now that they have a Government free to legislate openly against trade unions, we will nevertheless be paying for our Membership Audit Certificates for years to come.
Anyone would think, given the vigour with which the legislature seeks to regulate and control us, that the trade unions posed a threat to the rule of, by and for the 1%...
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Friday, May 22, 2015
UNISON members employed in the Probation Service will be taking strike action on Thursday 11 June in a dispute over pay following near-unanimous rejection of a “zero per cent” pay offer and a decisive “yes” vote in a national strike ballot. This will be the first national UNISON strike action since the General Election – and all UNISON members and activists should do all we can to support our members in probation.
That is the most important point which I want to make in this blog post – that we must show solidarity with UNISON members in probation taking action, and take inspiration from their action to every UNISON member.
We must, however, also reflect upon the lessons which we can learn – throughout UNISON – from our recent national pay disputes. The pay freeze across our public services has slashed something like a fifth off the real earnings of UNISON members across most of the sectors in which we organise. Now that we face an even more hostile Government, holding the purse strings even where they do not directly employ us, we need to develop a more effective approach towards reversing the decline in our living standards that that which failed under the Coalition Government.
Although our General Secretary smashed an ice sculpture in the shape of a pound sign at our Conference in 2012 we have found the pay freeze itself less fragile.
Commenting at the time on his 2012 Conference speech, Dave Prentis said; “I called on the TUC to organise a national demonstration on October 20 and I told delegates that we have got to work together to make it bigger than last March – it must be massive. Building a movement, an unstoppable momentum an alliance of unions, community groups and the public taking on this Government’s austerity agenda. I want it to be the biggest campaign this union’s ever seen. The demo will be just the beginning as we campaign and battle through the autumn and winter into next year.”
In fact it took two years before we saw national industrial action over pay in health and local government, and when this action did come, it was not coordinated (either in the timing of the action which was taken or in the demands for which UNISON was fighting – in the health service we were striking for the implementation of a 1% pay rise, which was what we were striking against in local government!)
Of course the October 2012 demonstration called for by Dave Prentis, whilst massive, was smaller than the demonstration which had taken place eighteen months previously –as the tide of opposition which rose against the Coalition Government in its first year and a half receded thereafter.
The high point of trade union opposition to the previous Government had been reached on 30 November 2011, when coordinated strike action in defence of public service pensions, saw the largest mass strike action since the 1926 General Strike.
When, the following month, UNISON, led by Dave Prentis, initiated what became the settlement of those disputes on terms which no honest and intelligent person considers to have been a victory that set the tone for national industrial relations for the remainder of the Coalition’s term of office.
The subsequent national pay disputes in the intervening period have been poor simulacrums of the pensions strike, repeating that tragedy as farce. We have mobilised members around demands, in support of which – when the employers have rejected them – we have called a token strike action before rapidly retreating and letting members vote on unsatisfactory settlements in ballots in which we have resolutely refused to offer any leadership.
The living standards of our members continue to decline, but the boost to activism during the period up to and including strike action has helped to moderate the decline in UNISON membership, sustaining the financial viability of our organisation.
This half-hearted opposition from UNISON, and most trade unions, to the attacks on our members from (what we can now see was) a half-hearted Tory Government wasn’t good enough then – and it certainly won’t be good enough now that we face a whole-hearted Tory Government committed not only to austerity but to direct attacks upon trade union rights.
In three weeks delegates will gather at our National Delegate Conference. We need to use that occasion as an opportunity to rethink how we organise and how we fight if UNISON as a whole is going to live up to the example being set on 11 June by our members in Probation.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Much effort is being expended within UNISON to spread complacency about the threat to the survival of the Union posed by the Government’s manifesto commitment to “legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions.” Considerable hope is invested in the possibility that no new primary legislation to this effect will be flagged up in the Queen’s Speech next Wednesday.
This desperate imitation of an ostrich completely ignores, of course, the fact that our members in the civil service (for example in that part of probation which has not been privatised) are – along with all the other civil service trade unions facing the withdrawal of deduction of contributions at source (DOCAS) without there having been any legislation at all. There is little doubt that the Government has the same authority in the English health service that it had in the civil service departments to drive through similar changes without legislation should it wish to do so.
Obviously though, the Government would eventually need to legislate if it wanted to force organisations which it does not directly control to abandon DOCAS. Perhaps the silliest thing I have heard said this week on this topic was a report from UNISON’s Greater London Region Recruitment and Organisation Committee where – apparently – it was suggested that it would be difficult for the Government to legislate away DOCAS. This suggestion betrays a breathtaking ignorance of the recent history of employment legislation in the United Kingdom.
Section 15 of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 (as originally enacted) amended section 68 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to require employers deducting union subscriptions to have the signature of each employee at least once every three years (until the New Labour Government repealed this in 1998).
One option, if the Government wished to discourage DOCAS would be to re-impose this restriction, or to require more frequent approval (say annually). This would create a significant administrative burden on both unions and employers and would probably impel the withdrawal of DOCAS in many instances (since, as we know from the experience in the civil service, even contractual arrangements with employers provide no useful safeguard to DOCAS arrangements).
An even simpler legislative change would be to amend either s68 of the 1992 Act or Section 13 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 so that deductions in respect of union subscriptions could not be authorised deductions. This would mean that any employer making such deductions would be at risk that any union member might, at any point, ask for all the subscriptions deducted from their pay to be reimbursed to them. Unless trade unions indemnified employers (at incalculable financial risk) employers would clearly not bear that risk themselves.
Neither of these possible legal changes would be right, or fair, or justifiable and each would only be considered by a Government which cared nothing for fairness but was motivated by an ideological hostility to trade unionism per se. A bit like a Government that would introduce a 50% turnout threshold in strike ballots and a threshold of 40% of the total membership voting yes in ballots in “essential services.
The threat to DOCAS (the means whereby 70% of our members pay their union subs) is very real and very imminent and anyone who doesn’t think we should give a high priority to preparing an urgent response is not paying attention.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
An interested reader has asked that I elaborate upon an aside in a blog post earlier today.
Our sisters and brothers in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are meeting in Brighton for their Annual Delegate Conference.
Their National Executive has put a motion (A98) before their Conference which, whilst rightly noting the excellent grass roots cooperation between activists in our two trade unions, nevertheless asks the Conference to endorse the formal submission by PCS, to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of a complaint against UNISON.
This is obviously unwelcome news to any UNISON activist, but rather than respond in kind, UNISON members need to understand where PCS are coming from and have a sensible debate within UNISON - and with PCS and other trade unions - about the issues raised by this episode.
I was - as I have mentioned on this blog before - pleased to have been at the TUC in 2010 to witness Dave Prentis and Mark Serwotka sign a "memorandum of understanding" - part of which put in place machinery to resolve any potential disagreements where members of one union found their jobs transferred into the "sphere of influence" of the other.
This was plainly intended to avoid embarrassing incidents such as the failed attempt by UNISON to recruit staff of the Welsh Assembly. It was seen to be clear that UNISON has "spheres of influence" (health and local government for example) where PCS ought not to recruit and seek to organise - and that the civil service is, likewise, the "sphere of influence" of PCS.
Over the years, Governments do move services between central and local Government and - thanks to the memorandum of understanding - in 2011 the two unions were able to agree the smooth transfer of members employed by Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs), who were moving between central and local government, from PCS to UNISON.
This made sense in the same way that members in public health jobs were transferred from health to local government within UNISON recently when that was what had happened to their jobs.
Then however - as PCS see it - things started to go wrong. It may (or may not) be coincidental that this happened after major policy differences emerged within the movement over the disputes over public service pensions, with UNISON withdrawing from further action after 30 November 2011 whilst PCS held out for a better deal.
In May 2013, UNISON contacted the trade union side body for the national civil service, seeking recognition for collective bargaining purposes in the civil service because several thousand UNISON members had transferred into the civil service. PCS opposed this move, which was rejected by the trade union side. PCS instead sought discussion (under our "memorandum of understanding") about transferring these members from UNISON to PCS.
Nevertheless, UNISON was offered, and accepted national recognition across the civil service as a whole, which PCS view as undermining their position.
When this was discussed at our NEC, the General Secretary made the point that we were not seeking recognition with the civil service departments where PCS lead the collective bargaining over the jobs, pay and conditions of civil servants - and showed a standard letter which UNISON sends to applicants for membership employed in the civil service encouraging them to join another appropriate trade union.
Unfortunately UNISON did foolishly seek negotiating rights for a few hundred fraud investigators whose jobs are transferring from local authorities to the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have blogged before, since this was a mirror image of the LSC transfer, in the case of which, PCS complied with their obligations under the memorandum of understanding, our position is as difficult to justify as it is to understand. It was a terrible waste of the precious time of national officials to try to organise scattered members who could better be represented by PCS post-transfer when we have so much work to do to organise in local government.
The PCS NEC see this as a simple case of UNISON abrogating our memorandum of understanding and failing to comply with the relevant TUC Code of Practice - and it's clear that their arguments are not without force.
However, the evolution and fragmentation of public services is clearly changing the scenery which is the backdrop to inter-union relations, as outsourcing and reorganisations mean that more and more jobs are in contested areas between the formerly so obvious "spheres of influence" of our respective trade unions.
In a world in which the law precludes the operation of the legendary "Bridlington Agreement" of 1939, under the terms of which the TUC could transfer members between unions to resolve disputes, in which the TUC has lost power and influence to ever fewer, ever (relatively) larger unions, and in which members joining online and paying subscriptions by direct debit change jobs and industries without telling the trade union of which they are a member, we have to reconsider how any agreement about "spheres of influence" between trade unions can operate.
But that's the point - we have to reconsider this together. We have to discuss this, come to agreements and stick to them. With three quarters of all workers outside our movement and beyond the reach of collective bargaining we should not be squabbling over the unionised minority.
UNISON cannot prevent civil servants from joining our trade union, any more than we could prevent teachers or firefighters - but we shouldn't be seeking to bargain for civil servants any more than we would for teachers or firefighters. We have our work cut out for us organising in the areas where we organise already - and reaching out to the unorganised millions in the fragmented public service workforce.
That's why, as I said earlier today, if I am re-elected to our NEC I will argue for a lay-led dialogue to resolve the unnecessary differences between UNISON and PCS.
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The final speaker at this morning's (inquorate) meeting of the Regional Council was John Burgess, Branch Secretary of Barnet UNISON.
Barnet are in the front line of resisting privatisation - and are demonstrating how such resistance can sustain trade union membership, density and organisation even as services are outsourced.
UNISON members in Barnet who are fighting to remain Council employees are taking a further two days of strike action on Monday 1 and Tuesday 2 June.
UNISON members elsewhere in London are particularly encouraged to support a march at noon on Tuesday 2 June from the North London Business Park to a rally at St John's Church Hall in Friern Barnet Lane, N20.
Book some leave and bring a banner!
(Oh - and enjoy the link above!)
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Dennis Goldberg, President of Community HEART, gave an encouraging and inspiring address to the (regrettably inquorate) meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional this morning.
The Region is going to consider regular donations - and so should our branches.
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This morning, at a meeting of UNISON's Greater London Regional Council, I have listened to our Regional Secretary give a considered presentation about how UNISON should respond to the result of the General Election.
Although this presentation - in common with the contributions made this week by our General Secretary - didn't quite match the clarity and urgency which informed the decisions already taken by the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the National Executive Council (NEC) - it was a wide ranging and comprehensive overview of the range of issues which we need to consider.
As has just been pointed out to me, the emphasis in the presentation on political education for union members echoes some of the lively discussion at yesterday's Lambeth Branch Committee.
We had a quorum at yesterday's Branch Committee - there were twenty people in the room when we agreed an Emergency Motion which has been admitted to the agenda for today's Regional Council. The motion addressed the result of the General Election.
Unfortunately, the presentation given by the Regional Secretary was given to just sixty people in Mander Hall, in the basement of the Headquarters of the National Union of Teachers. That's a long way short of the quorum which we would have needed to have been able to debate the Emergency Motion.
I've blogged before about why I think it is that we have not now had a quorate meeting of the Greater London Regional Council (other than the Annual General Meeting) - and I'm not shy about criticising our Regional office when I think it right to do so.
However, it's a great shame that so many branch delegates weren't here this morning to hear the presentation from the Regional Secretary at a meeting which is part of the formal, organised structure of our democratic trade union.
If UNISON's Greater London Region is to be part of the response to the outcome of the General Election, which the presentation from the Regional Secretary indicates is necessary, we need a quorum of delegates at the autumn meeting of the Regional Council. Happily it is within the power of the Regional Secretary, through the many staff reporting to her, to encourage attendance at the Regional Council.
I hope this is the last inquorate meeting of our Regional Council.
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It's apt that PCS - the largest of the civil service trade unions - which was in the front line of the assault on trade union organising under the Coalition Government - is the first major union to hold a Conference since the General Election.
Mark Serwotka is right that PCS, like all unions, needs to learn the lesson that what works best for us is standing up to a bullying Government. A policy of appeasement of the Coalition on the part of many other unions (my own included) gave us a 20% reduction in living standards, increased pension contributions and massive job cuts.
We cannot afford to pursue a similar line now that the Tories are unleashed upon us blue in tooth and claw.
We need a twin track approach of campaigning hard against the Government whilst preparing our organisation for the attacks we can see coming (and those senior union officials who looked on and thought that PCS were too slow to start moving their members in the civil service to paying subscriptions by direct debit need not to repeat that error in the health service, education and local government).
Serwotka's welcome call for unity has to be unity in action, not the quiet, cautious unity of those who believe they can broker deals with Tories on the rampage.
Unity also requires a resolution of the issues between senior officials of UNISON and PCS which recognises that there is right (and wrong) on both sides and that it would be an irresponsible diversion from the challenges we now face for either side to fail to approach the question with humility and a focus on the interests of our movement as a whole.
If I am re-elected to UNISON's National Executive Council, I will suggest to our next President that senior lay members of each union should get together to resolve differences and agree a way forward for joint working.
Of course I can't say whether such a suggestion will find favour with anyone - but I think that lay activists in each union have a responsibility to rebuild bridges (rather than echo the mutual hostility of some officials).
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Our General Secretary has told the North West Regional Council that, had he been at the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) last week he would have advised us differently.
Seemingly he thinks our decision to crack on with transferring membership subscriptions to direct debit in anticipation of the coming assaults from the Tory Government may have been premature.
He is, of course, entitled to his opinion - but since I can't recall his presence often (if ever?) in twelve years on the Committee, his advice might not have carried much weight.
In any case, the NEC has delegated authority to the D&O and the opinions of a General Secretary have no status in Rule - and certainly not compared to the unanimous decision of a Strategic Committee of our NEC.
To suggest that we wait and see whether there is a reference to the collection of union subscriptions in the Queens Speech is the worse form of dilly-dallying informed by crass political illiteracy. The Government doesn't need legislation to impose the withdrawal of DOCAS on UNISON members in the civil service - and it won't need that in the health service either. A predictable political steer from the Government will see an attack on DOCAS that might not come for a year or two - but could start tomorrow.
Hoping against hope that a vicious Tory Government with a small majority won't hastily mount every attack they can upon their major adversaries in civil society takes wishful thinking way too far.
The General Secretary may think it looks wise and reassuring to tell people not to panic, but to err on the side of indolence (as those wishing to avoid acting on the clear decision of the D&O Committee clearly wish to do) will simply ensure that we do have to panic when the attack we can now foresee, but for which they would have us fail to prepare, is upon us.
This Government has already declared war on the trade unions. Our only decision is whether we try to defend ourselves - and our members - with an organising response.
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Monday, May 18, 2015
Oh dearie me "senior Labour figures" are worried that "modernisers" may be squeezed out of the premature election for Labour's next Leader (in which we can enjoy hasty and unconvincing explanations for electoral failure).
The real omission from the field of potential candidates is that of a socialist (surely the truly "modernising" tendency within the Party, since we want to work for a better future, rather than to make the Party over in the image of Blair). I remain of the view that a socialist MP should put themselves forward - but that doesn't look likely.
Most amusing of all the complaints from "senior Labour figures" is the suggestion that the trade unions (and UNITE in particular) are somehow responsible for the nomination decisions of Members of Parliament.
Hang on a minute.
Thanks to the poor negotiating skills of those who tried to deal with the Collins Review for the trade unions, we - as trade unionists - have less influence than ever before over this leadership election.
The power of the Parliamentary Labour Party to exclude candidates has increased just as the possibility of any collective intervention in the election by one or more trade unions has diminished.
The whining from the far-right of the Party (Progress) about union influence (or what little is left of it) shows just how determined they are to eradicate any political presence for the organised working class.
The challenge to the trade unions is not - surely - whether we abandon our relationship with the Labour Party (the electoral performance of TUSC shows if nothing else that this would be futile in England at least). This is precisely what Progress seek and, in completing the political project of Blair, would also crown the hideous achievements of Thatcher.
The challenge must be whether we can get anything out of the relationship for our members. There being no likelihood that a candidate genuinely deserving of the enthusiastic support of trade unionists will get nominations from 35 MPs (and how I wish that were wrong), we need to find a way to organise around demands upon the Party and upon the candidates who do reach the ballot paper.
These need to be demands about Party policy for a future Government, but also (and - in the short term - more importantly) about what the Party does now, as the Parliamentary opposition, as the Welsh Government, as the administration of many local authorities and as (we wish) a campaigning organisation.
These demands - and not whether Len McCluskey likes Andy Burnham more than Dave Prentis likes Yvette Cooper - are what trade unionists should try to focus on.
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Sunday, May 17, 2015
The highest profile of the particular attacks on trade unions and our members in this year’s Conservative manifesto are the new, further restrictions upon the circumstances in which trade unions are protected from civil liability for losses caused by industrial action.
Since we are likely to have to debate this question a fair bit over coming months, it is worth recollecting the background to the legal restrictions on the right to strike in English law. There is no legal right to strike, strike action is a breach of contract and would traditionally have permitted dismissal of striking employees – and civil legal action against trade unions for encouraging members to breach their contracts. The latter was the basis of the “Taff Vale” judgement which led, in response, to the establishment in statute of the principle that trade unions could be immune from civil liability for industrial action.
Without this immunity, industrial action organised by trade unions would become almost impossible, since the damages caused by strike action could easily dwarf the resources of the trade unions organising that action.
It is this immunity which has been circumscribed by successive Acts of Parliament since the 1980s (with no significant remission during thirteen years of New Labour). Now the Tories propose to erect further obstacles which trade unions must overcome if they are to escape legal liability for damages suffered as a result of industrial action by their members.
The proposed changes to employment law, set to be included in the Queen’s Speech, include;
· A 50% turnout threshold in ballots for official strike action;
· A higher threshold of support from 40% of all those entitled to vote in ballots for official strike action in health, education, fire and transport;
· Repeal of regulations which prevent the use of agency staff to break strikes;
· A time limit on the validity of strike ballot results.
The ballot threshold proposals would have meant that none of the national strike action taken by UNISON members in the last Parliament would have attracted legal protection (nor would almost all of the other strike action).
Bearing in mind that strike action has been an enduring feature of industrial relations in the United Kingdom for two centuries and more (regardless of legal restrictions) – and that strike action has been – and is – ubiquitous in capitalist economies (including even those where employment law is even worse than here), it is time to consider how we deal with a future in which our members take action in respect of which we may not have been able to jump all the legal hurdles.
If UNISON members were to take strike action which did not attract legal protection, and if UNISON did not repudiate such action as specified by law, UNISON would be liable and could face an award of damages of up to £250,000 to each person bringing civil action against the Union (as well as the possibility that a judge would grant an injunction, failure to comply with which could amount to contempt of court).
Were UNISON to repudiate such action that would render any members continuing to take action liable to be dismissed without the right to complain of unfair dismissal (as workers taking unofficial strike action lose the limited protection from dismissal which applies in the case of action which is within the legal restrictions.
This is the stark reality of our situation and we desperately need an informed, open-minded debate about what we do next. Unfortunately this is unlikely – at least at UNISON National Delegate Conference. For some years, the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) have ruled out of order any suggestion that UNISON would ever do anything other than slavishly comply with the law.
UNISON Rule B.2.5 provides that UNISON may engage in “activity which a union may lawfully undertake”, and proposals to adopt a policy of non-compliance with the anti-trade union laws have been ruled out of order for discussion at our Conference in the past on this basis. UNISON Rule O.1 gives the power to authorise strike or other industrial action to the National Executive Council (NEC) and SOC has concluded that this precludes Conference trying to issue instructions to the NEC about such matters.
Therefore it is probably the responsibility of our NEC to try to find a way in which UNISON can support members who find that they have no option but to take action outside the law, without jeopardising the functioning of the Union.
I don’t think we’ll get the debate going with a straightforward call for action which would not have legal protection (as some on the left advocate). Such a call would not, in current circumstances, be an attempt to initiate a debate to change union policy – it would just be an attempt to sort out the majority sheep from the minority goats by a would-be leader of the goats.
Given how hard it is to mobilise members to take lawful, official strike action, the idea that we could credibly campaign for action outside legal protection “from above” is fanciful. The point is that the Government is going to legislate to create circumstances in which members will come to take such action – and that we need to prepare for this eventuality.
If we want to work out a positive way forward we cannot simply ignore the interests of paid union officials whose salaries and pensions would be at risk if UNISON were to be subject to massive fines, or to the sequestration of its assets. Those officials are a part of our trade union, and their distinct and particular interests (which help to explain why our trade unions act so often to prioritise the interests of the organisation over those of its members) need to be taken into account if we want to achieve any change.
So what can we do?
Those who prefer brief blog posts will be happy to know that I don’t claim to have an answer, less still one I can expand on this evening in another thousand words. I do have a couple of thoughts though, one of which may have more mileage than the other.
One recent attempt to circumvent the conservative response of the trade union bureaucracy to the legal restrictions on industrial action was the “pop-up union” at Sussex University. We should study this experiment further, because we could – in principle – create a separate union, alongside UNISON, which had no significant resources and employed no staff (or none not willing to bear the risks). That union could call for strike action and UNISON would not be implicated.
There would certainly be enormous practical and cultural obstacles to the widespread application of this approach (I can, for example, confidently predict that recruitment to a “pop-up union” in the Greater London Region would lead to attempts to discipline any UNISON activists involved – given that there are some union officials for whom their power over members and activists is more important to them than the power of our trade union to defend its members). Nevertheless, we need to explore this possibility.
Secondly, we should reflect upon why it is that some of those who work daily for our trade union would not need to lose sleep at the prospect of fines and sequestration in the same way as our directly-employed staff. This is because they are employed by separate legal entities which have a contractual relationship with our trade union, whether that is Thompsons solicitors, UNISON Insurance Association or the contractors who run the canteen at the UNISON Centre.
If we are to be governed by Tories who want to ensure that we end up in circumstances in which, lawful industrial action having been rendered all but impossible, our members find themselves compelled to act outside the law (and we are) – then, if we wish to avoid being compelled to repudiate such action and therefore side against our members in their hour of need (as we must) then we need to find a way to put distance between the actions of our trade union and the assets, resources and staff which might otherwise be put in jeopardy.
I think this latter suggestion may be more feasible than the “pop-up union” – but neither option (nor any other that might be thought of) has any chance if our trade unions continue to be led with conservatism and complacency. We cannot continue to stick our head in the sand of our Rule Book and refuse to contemplate supporting unlawful action even when lawful action becomes impossible, nor do we have time for a sterile “debate” about the principle of “defiance”.
Workers built trade unions as tools to use in the defence of our interests. As circumstances change we have to redesign and reshape these tools so that they remain fit for the purpose for which we created them.
I would suggest that a good test of whether or not to listen to proposal for how the trade union movement should respond to the unforeseen catastrophe of the General Election result is how similar those proposals are to the views held by the proposer before they knew the election result.
Those who, impervious to all evidence, cling to the conclusion that we must build a new workers’ party have as much to offer as the senior trade union official who said that, after the election it is “business as usual” for the trade unions.
It is certainly not that.
Any trade union activist who has started to rethink everything they thought they knew a week and a half ago hasn’t been thinking since they heard the result.
Thankfully – and thanks to some senior officials who can see that this is not “business as usual” – Wednesday’s meeting of the Development and Organisation Committee (D&O) of the UNISON National Executive Council did make a small but important start in rethinking. This related to the question of how we collect union subscriptions.
The Conservative manifesto has a few things to say about trade unionism – manifesto including a commitment to legislation to “ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscription.”
As the author of the report to D&O wryly observed, this commitment is itself hardly transparent – but if we want a clue as to what it means we have only to look at what the Tories were doing to the civil service trade unions under the Coalition Government.
The Government have unilaterally abandoned a decades-old practice of deducting union subscriptions from salaries, forcing PCS (and the other unions) to campaign to get their members to pay subscriptions by Direct Debit.
Similar measures could be taken in other areas of the public sector under direct control from Westminster (such as the NHS in England) - and whilst it would take legislation to force compliance from local authorities, it is likely that some at least of the increased number of Tory Councils would join such an attack voluntarily.
Deduction of contributions at source (DOCAS) has many advantages for trade unions and our members. It is the easiest and most reliable means to pay subscriptions. It facilitates keeping up to date the recording of where our members work, and makes it easier to comply with the statutory requirements to provide information to employers when we ballot for action. In unions like UNISON, which have the progressive approach of charging higher subscriptions to those who earn more, it makes it easier to ensure that members pay the correct rate of subscriptions, protecting their entitlements to representation and other benefits.
UNISON has spent years working on aligning the information in our membership records with the information generated by DOCAS – and has made progress which would have been unimaginable some years ago.
Although the exponential growth of online recruitment has trebled the proportion of UNISON members already paying their subscriptions by Direct Debit, 70% of UNISON members – almost one million people – still pay their subscriptions via DOCAS. DOCAS is central to UNISON’s organisation and our financial survival.
In the course of a morning last week UNISON’s D&O Committee turned our practice on its head, deciding that henceforth all new members will be recruited to pay by Direct Debit and that we will immediately start a campaign to move all members to pay by this route.
This bold and necessary decision challenges us to give meaning to our rhetorical commitment to an “organising approach” since it is clear that it will take hundreds of thousands of individual conversations to retain our existing membership and – as the Committee rightly decided – to seek to recruit so that we end the process of conversion to Direct Debit with more members than we started.
The Committee is recommending to the full NEC that the NEC submits an Emergency Motion to our National Delegate Conference in June building upon and taking forward a “whole union” campaign to give effect to this decision. It is evident that the change to Direct Debit will create more new work in branches to maintain the accuracy of our membership records.
We are at the point at which we turn UNISON outwards, towards our members and activists, to become the organising union we need – or drift on under “top-down” leadership which, nationally and Regionally, is so risk averse as to be almost comatose.
PCS are reportedly recruiting members and activists on the back of the enforced activism of the transition to Direct Debit. We need to learn from their experience (which also means that leaders on both sides need to put the movement before injured feelings).
UNISON’s Direct Debit campaign must be simply the first step in rejuvenating UNISON – and all our trade unions – to meet unprecedented challenges.