Monday, 31 January 2011

Demo against the cuts / end the witch-hunt

I attended the excellent, lively demo on Saturday in London with my branch, staff from UCU and of course our students. Well done to SOAS UNISON for getting their (beautiful) banner on the BBC news report here!

I spoke at the initial rally as the crowds swelled to 10,000 at the beginning. However, the students and workers at the front of the march were so keen to get moving, by the time I got on the mic the march was already leaving Malet St! I'll post my speech, which I had to cut short, at some other point.

In the meantime, those of you, like me, who are sick of hearing about socialists being disciplined by UNISON, will (whilst glad of the result) be appalled to read this Employment Tribunal judgment. The judgment unanimously finds that the Socialist Party members were right to challenge their disciplinaries.

When we heard about 'The Four' Socialist Party activists who were barred from office, our branch committee greed to write to Dave Prentis to protest against this unfair treatment, and we requested that he calls this 'witch-hunt' off. We received no reply.

This ET judgment vindicates us and all those who have stood by them. Congratulations to all those involved. The disciplinary sanctions taken against Glenn Kelly, Onay Kasab, Suzanne Muna and Brian Debus should all now be lifted (they were barred from office from 3-5 years).

Where is their apology?

And where is the apology for all of us in London UNISON branches who have less full time officers to support us? Two of those branches (Bromley and Greenwich) that had secretaries barred from office, as a result of this unfair disciplinary, were then placed under regional supervision. That has burdened our already stretched resources.

At the recent D&O committee, I raised the pressing need to get these branches back under lay member control, because it effects us all in London - not only Local Government. Now that the ET has confirmed these were unfair disciplinary actions, it'll be quite easy to allow the members to have their AGMs and elect who they choose. Surely ... ?

We in UNISON have all suffered because of this witch-hunt: it was apparently due to a "don't rock the boat" under a Labour government attitude. It was bad enough then, and it would be absolutely criminal for it to continue under the present administration.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Kirklees UNISON victory leads the way / D&O report

Good to bump into Paul Holmes yesterday, as I hadn't heard about their successful fight against job cuts: an eleventh hour no compulsory redundancies deal mean the union branch could call off their five day strike. This is a massive success (see Morning Star photo click to enlarge).

I won't re-post the second photo as it'll simply stroke his ego too much ;)

I must have missed the e-mail to all UNISON members celebrating this important success. If someone can send me that link, it'll be helpful...

Still, I relayed this excellent news to some of our activists at a rally last night: "If anyone tells you that balloting for industrial action doesn't make a difference, tell them what happened with Kirklees UNISON branch."

I saw Paul at UNISON HQ because I'd just walked out of a 'D&O committee' meeting (Development and Organisation) .

Flocking to join UNISON - but then what?
We heard a detailed report over annual recruitment figures, which as to be expected and hoped, are up again. In fact, other than 2006, when we won 20,000 new members alone during the national dispute over pensions, 2010 was out best year for new members (163,000). The obvious lesson there, as Jon Rogers immediately pointed out, is to stop sitting on our hands and fight the current attacks on our pensions and we'd increase membership growth further still.

Quite right too - and I've always maintained that rather than only see the current Tory onslaught on our welfare state as a 'challenge' (which of course it is), we must also see it as an organizing opportunity - and so a motion was amended to this effect, I'm glad to say. Now is our time, as Dave says, so let's rise to the challenge and follow the lead of some other unions who are trying to coordinate some kind of resistance.

Five, three or two years, max?
A contentious part of the D&O was when discussing Rule I investigations: what time limit on suspension from holding office as a sanction should there be?

Last year's shocking news that Caroline Bedale was suspended for eight years (which would have take her past retirement, but was reduced to five on appeal) led to a rule change motion at NDC 2010, calling for a maximum of two years. The NEC opposed, and it was narrowly lost after a re-count (approx 65% voted for, but you need a two thirds majority at conference).

The good news is the new D&O committee has listened and now agrees there should be a time limit - but it should be five years. Another NEC member (guess who) and I welcomed this proposed capping but we argued three years would be plenty.

After all, how many employers can threaten you with a maximum sanction of more than two years on a final warning? Unfortunately we lost the vote by two to ... everybody else. Oh well, five years is better than indefinitely. It'll now have to go to the NEC and then NDC, of course.

New UNISON website
More exciting news from the D&O committee: expect a summer launch of a new, all singing all dancing UNISON website. Will there be an iPhone App as one member asked? I hope so. Someone at the Morning Star should commission one too, by the way.

As my (dwindling) supporters will agree, I spend far too much time online already so this new website might be a bad thing for me ... but I was first to jump in on this debate. Although we could be tempted to use a new 'extranet' facility if they can provide this for local branches too (in phase II), but until then we would need to see a lot of improvements before we migrate our successful London Met website to a new system.

In the meantime, we're sometimes using 'Spambook', to chat online and share info in our branch, so a more secure login space would be great. Any alternative suggestions?

We need an audit of local branch websites, I suggested, and these need to be linked up into a network - an online directory - of unison branch websites and email addresses. That's what the internet should be about after all.

I enjoyed my first committee but I am now exhausted... so I won't write up my thoughts on this morning's Finance Committee other than to say: two surveyors who actually like Mabledon Place have been found! No comment.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Max Watson: why I'm supporting Carole Hanson

I'm supporting Carole Hanson for the NEC Female HE seat because it was her branch that won an inspired campaign to save their Nursery last year. When we were fighting hard to save ours, and Westminster Uni were doing the same, Brighton UNISON branch scored an important victory that showed all other branches what we need to hear - that occasionally we can win!

I've since been impressed not only with their high density in Brighton UNISON branch, and their continuing resistance against job cuts at Brighton Uni, but also a strong engagement in their local community campaigns against cuts generally.

We need a fighting, democratic union, and this new era calls for a new leadership to be given a chance. Please nominate Carole Hanson.

CAROLE HANSON - Call for nominations to NEC Female HE Seat



Branch number: 09225

19 January 2011

Dear colleague


I am writing to ask your branch to nominate me for the Higher Education female seat on the NEC.

Higher Education is facing unprecedented challenges and the wholesale privatisation which is planned by the government will ensure that education as an end in itself and as a public good which enriches society will be replaced by a watered-down system functioning only as a servant to business. The huge increase in tuition fees will ensure that access will be denied to the majority of working people.

My branch was one of the few in the South East region to forcefully reject this year’s insulting pay offer. We’ve campaigned hard to save our campus nursery, launching a successful defence in the press and on TV. Through our local campaigns, our branch has grown and we have a strong branch committee with committed activists.

My branch listens to our members’ concerns and we know that members will take action if the union shows strong national leadership. Members will develop confidence in their strength if they see that there is united, concerted opposition to the cuts. At our recent special general meeting, our members voted unanimously to take action in the event of compulsory redundancies.

It is vital that we prepare for co-ordinated action against pay cuts, attacks on our pension and attacks on the basic funding of our higher education. We need to make good links with our sister trade unions and with our student unions, locally and nationally.

I am not a member of any political party. I am an unaligned socialist and a supporter of UNISON United Left, which supports a democratic, lay-member led union.

I have been active in my branch for 11 years, as a steward, safety rep and branch secretary for the past 5 years. I’m a delegate to our local Trades Council, which takes a leading role in organising local opposition to the cuts. I’m also a delegate to the South East Regional Higher Education Committee.

Please feel free to invite me to speak to your branch committee. You can contact me by email and by phone, work number: 01273 642450 or mobile: 07880 553193.

I will be at the Higher Education conference in Harrogate next month and I’ll be happy to meet and talk to branch delegates there.

Please note the nomination period closes on 18 February 2011, so you can only nominate during that period. Please also nominate Max Watson, from London Metropolitan, who is standing for the Higher Education general seat.

Yours in solidarity

Carole Hanson

Branch Secretary, University of Brighton Unison Branch

Students and workers unite

On Wed 19th, whilst students were out protesting against the abolition of EMA, UNISON's Higher Education Service Group Executive, which is made up of regional Higher Education reps and our two NEC reps, came to the consensus that we should pass the following motion:

"It is proposed that UNSION's national HESGE supports the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts demonstration in London on the 29th January in addition to the TUC demonstration in Manchester."

Whilst this is only a small step forward, it's a good sign, showing that we are actively going to support the students movement even if they don't have the official backing of the TUC or indeed the NUS.

My branch had already passed a motion to build for this demo, and I expect most other London and south branches will want to do the same. As I've argued already, it's crucial that we stand shoulder to shoulder with students as they continue to lead the fight against fees and cuts. So, I'll see you in London on the 29th.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

December NEC report: Max Watson - HE Gen Seat

December NEC report: Max Watson

These are my notes on the National Executive Council (NEC) meeting held in December – my first meeting as UNISON’s HE General Seat Rep. Another NEC member has lead the way in reporting regularly to members from the NEC and I agree it’s important to do this in terms of democratic accountability. Apologies it’s so late (and too long) – I aim to refine these and type them quicker in future.

Fighting against the cuts

"We need to be bolder and more radical in the way we oppose the cuts, raising our profile and showing real leadership," concluded a report from our General Secretary titled "defending our members – defending public services," which was adopted by the NEC meeting in London.

What followed was a long debate, and we could all agree that a £10M fighting fund was a good thing to publicize in a press release and sends a strong message to our members (although it’s a drop in the ocean to the bankers in the city and their politician friends, as one member pointed out). Another member pointed out we also have another £10M in the Industrial Action fund, so the total was doubled to £20M.

Students of the world ignite!
The mood was also for maximum unity with the students, although in the end a letter sent to the NUS President would probably not have electrified the 40-odd campuses that were in occupation at the time.

“Students are in a beautiful position – they can call out students quickly, with no need to ballot, they’re in the position we were in during the 1980s,” lamented Dave. The problem for those students is, the NUS was not calling students out from colleges and schools, in fact the NUS was not endorsing the student actions, led by the Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the EAN. Their actions were the equivalent of unofficial wild-cat strikes without sanction from the national union. No wonder some students’ unions have been calling for a vote of no confidence in Aaron Porter.

Most delegates pointed out how their local university had been in occupation, or had walked out or had an inspiring demo of some kind, and when Jon Rogers suggested we go to visit UCL at lunch time to show some solidarity (just round the corner) I of course supported this by voting with my feet later on. In terms of urgency, I have to say the debates inside the occupation at London Met (and elsewhere) were much more determined, urgent, and less fearful of the catastrophe we’re about to face and more angry instead. And certainly more radical, more bold – as we really do need to be...

The NEC had also agreed to support the TUC national rally for young people in Manchester – by that time an indoor rally. Now that the students’ movement have called a national demo in London on the same day, some of us are torn between the two. So tomorrow I’ll be proposing to UNISON’s Higher Education Service Group that, just like other key TUC-affiliated unions , we should support both the students’ demo in London and the TUC-organised rally in Manchester.

Paul Holmes compared the mood to 1979, and I’ve already pointed out, 1968 is a more pertinent comparison for the students right now, though it remains to be seen if the student uprising of 2010 will be followed by the necessary waves of strike action in 2011.

National TUC demonstration March 26th
For trade unionists, all roads will lead to London on 26th March (unless a monarch decides to get married, of course, in which case we must cancel everything). All action from now on should be geared around mobilising for this event, and all stewards should commit to getting there. There was the inevitable complaints about this being ‘too little too late’ from some on the left, but now this is what we’ve got to work with we’re all agreed we need to build for it. My branch already has posters up and leaflets on the way, and we intend to blitz the campus and plan to go all out for building this one. Go to UNISON's website to help building for this demo.

Alliances with PCS & NUT
The NUT is balloting over pensions and looking to coordinate with other public sector unions, so some members want to know why we’re not doing the same (we’d not been formally approached was the disappointing answer). Further working relationships with the PCS are also being developed - see UNISON's press pack here and the full joint statement here PCS's website here.

Fighting as Citizens, not just workers
One northern member talked about the importance of organising not only as workers but as ‘citizens’, with community groups and as ‘service users’, in an alliance against the cuts. The Citizens Forum (our branch recently affiliated to London Citizens – more on this another time) had recently launched in Nottingham with UNISON aiming to work closely with them.

Saving for a rainy day
Another member, highlighted the huge amount of money still in some local government branch reserves, and that we need to spend that money saved up for a ‘rainy day’ (it’s chucking it down, after all). The chances of forcing branches to part with their hard earned money via a motion at National Delegates' Conference was laughed at but I’m not sure if a cap on branch savings can’t be thought through.

As our treasurer will confirm, I’m a big believer in spending our way out of a crisis, and in our branch it’s paying dividends (massively increased visibility, full comp of activists, an increasing membership, high profile campaigns). So I’m always astonished at how much some branches keep earning the interest. That money must be spent on the highest profile campaign against these cuts we’ve ever seen.

Variations across the borders
The Welsh Assembly, one member reminded us, had chosen not to increase fees, and committed to paying for Welsh students to study in England, whilst the Scottish TUC appear to be gearing up for a one day public sector strike: if they can do it, why can’t we?

Public Sector Pay Negotiations
A report on pay was received. In HE we’ve been offered 0.4% and most branches agreed to accept this, though other unions are in dispute. It’s frustrating when your branch has successfully mobilised a ‘reject’ vote, as ours did, and you have to tell your members that we lost the vote nationally. A discussion followed about local bargaining and whether or not any public sector institutions that had broken with national bargaining had offered higher than elsewhere. They have not, and we remain opposed to local bargaining despite the national pay freeze being imposed.

Public Sector Pensions Commission
The debate on Pensions revealed the clear difference between those who want to coordinate action with other unions over this, and those are in the ‘not yet’ camp. The argument was that we must wait and see what the Hutton report actually says before we can begin to talk about strike action.

In my mind we’ve already had our pensions attacked and it is very clear Hutton is expected to recommend much worse – our pensions have already been attacked by pegging them to the Consumer Price Index instead of the Retail Price Index. We should also expect to face a recommendation of higher contributions, for longer working lives, and less money paid to us as pensions at the end of it, and probably not paid based on our final salary.

We must gear up now for that fight. And it’s true we do also need to educate our members about these attacks on our deferred wages, or we’ll get a confused ‘why bother’ vote in a ballot. To that end, a model letter to send to MPs, and a model letter to educate members was being produced. Got to start somewhere, I suppose.

Organising Update
One in four new members – and nearly all regions are growing above their turnover rate – are joining online. What does this mean? More and more people do everyday things on the internet? Workers, anxious about their jobs in the public sector, come across our website advertised in billboards in the street or in magazines and even on Youtube, so they join up that way? It’s great that it’s ‘easy to join online’, except this probably means around a quarter of new members aren’t joining via face-to-face contact with stewards.

Rather than become internet fetishists we must be aware of its pitfalls too. I’m a big user of social media as a networking tool – as those who follow my blog already know – and I do like to try my hand at new-fangled communication software (eg Twitter, Facebook etc). But we cannot let this be a substitute for one-to-one talks, whether it’s walking the corridors to talk to the shop floor about the mood, or meeting up in an office over a coffee not in a ‘chat room’.

Every membership form completed online should be followed up with a steward visiting that member to introduce them to the union as an organic, human organisation which values their input.

Swindon Fights Back
UNISON members in Swindon had been on strike for 6 weeks against cuts, and their strike action was beginning to escalate by the time we met. The NEC agreed to send a message of support. I know what a difference official support can mean for a strike, so I hope this at least helped boost morale.

UNISON Objectives
We then briefly discussed the following as our objectives summarised by the following bullet points:

  • Meet the recruitment and organising challenge posed by austerity measures, including public spending cuts and increased outsourcing

  • Protect and secure decent employment, pay and pensions for UNISON members, promoting equality and challenging discrimination

  • Develop our Million Voices campaign in support of quality public services, building our political influence and forging alliances with unions and community organisations

  • Ensure that the union’s information and communications infrastructure and internal management systems are efficient and effective to meet the changing needs of our membership.

Other items

We also heard that UNISON is following up the union-bashing ‘Dispatches’ programme, and celebrated the Million Voices Campaign won a prestigious advertising award (congrats).

After the NEC meeting

As others went off down the road to UCL’s student occupation in the leafy Russell Square area, I headed back up to Holloway Road to catch Alabama 3 and Lowkey at London Met's occupation. .

I was surprised at how quickly it was all over, before lunch – and at the fact I hadn’t spoken. Those who know me as an activist and in life – in my branch and beyond – will confirm it’s a rare thing for me to keep my gob shut. I’d decided to soak it all up, to get a feel and to learn the ropes. That shouldn’t last too long.

Please feel free to pass this on to others in the union, feed back your comments, thoughts and so on. Get in touch, use this blog for your own organising purposes.