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.
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.
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.
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.
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