Sunday, 13 March 2011

Winning the Living Wage during the cuts

What a week! I attended three AGM meetings, a seminar on the Living Wage, a Women's Day lecture, a UCU branch meeting and by the end of the week, our branch was able to declare a complete victory for our Living Wage campaign.

At a time when it can feel like we're constantly on the back foot in defensive struggles, constantly fighting to 'stop' this or 'save' that, it feels like a real achievement to win a progressive demand - a step forward, rather than maintaining the status quo.

We can still win! We must get this important message out there, and as Jeremy Corbyn reflected on our success: "Who says Unions are not relevant?"

Of course, now the real work begins, organising the staff and ensuring we keep the companies to account by winning full recognition and their other demands. This agreement is the vital first step towards that.

Organising outsourced workers is hard work, but not impossible - I''ll be up early for next few weeks to meet more cleaners, for example. And as our motion at our AGM recognises, the fight for dignity at work is a fight for all our members and we have full support for this campaign, despite job cuts elsewhere and an imposed pay freeze ourselves.

Attending the AGM at UEL, who won their Living Wage campaign last November, vindicated that position. Over 60 members attended - more than most have seen in many years - which was clearly the result of an active, campaigning branch which has achieved something significant.
Three new stewards volunteered to get involved in a re-energised branch on the day.

Sandy Nicholl, secretary of SOAS branch, told a similar story at the seminar - their Living Wage campaign completely revitalised their branch.

The AGM in Bedfordshire was also well attended, and it's heartening to see new reps, and new members coming on board now that they can see unions gearing up for action in defence of our jobs, pensions and pay.

When Hutton reported on Thursday that we should now receive career average pensions not final salary schemes, the union movement rightly responded by threatening coordinated industrial action. As I pointed out at UEL, Bedfordshire and elsewhere where I've spoken, we beat the government before in 2006 when they came for our LGPS, and we can beat them again. Certainly, as others are pointing out, we're going to have to take determined action to win this one, not one day strikes here or there.

In some parts of the union movement, there is a misconception that we can only fight from a position of strength - that we must build and recruit more, before taking action. It's a two way process, in my view. We can build the union by visibly standing up for ourselves and our members.

We can gain strength by winning smaller battles, in my experience. UEL is a growing branch, London Met is a growing branch, SOAS has gone from strength to strength. An examination of the national membership figures from 2006 back this up - we recruited more than any other year, the same year we took action to defend our pensions.

London Met occasionally gets threatened with closure, and last week yet another report was published that suggested we're still 'at risk', so our press release on the Living Wage was overshadowed by the local paper wanting a quote in response to that. As I said at the time, this isn't helpful to any of us at London Met.

Meanwhile the UCU are preparing for strike action against the cuts - against job cuts, attacks on their pensions, and a pay freeze - and we had a good discussion at London Met branch on building for and supporting that on Thursday. We'll need maximum unity with sister unions if out action is to be effective, so we're continuing to maintain strong links locally.

I went to the annual Women's Day lecture at the Women's Library at London Met on Tuesday 8th, and as I'd been speaking all day at AGMs it was good discipline for me to shut up and listen to the women speak about their own experiences and concerns - something us men tend not to do so well. With two thirds of public sector workers female, it's obvious who these cuts will hurt most.

Now that we've got a commitment to the Living Wage at London Met, we need to think about ways to organise the workers at London Met, and have decided to focus on ESOL classes for the (usually migrant, often female) cleaners. Part of the purpose of the Living Wage Seminar, organised by the Hidden Workforce project, which was excellent, was to hear about other successful campaigns, share experiences and network, which is crucial.

We need to ensure the Hidden Workforce and the Living Wage campaign is rolled out and fully endorsed by the whole union - our survival as a union depends on it. Many are still reluctant to get stuck in organising contracted-out staff. So it was great to see the full backing of the recently appointed Assistant General Secretary, Roger McKenzie, who introduced.

The main thrust of my speeches at all the AGMs I've been to in the last few weeks - including our own - has been to build for the March 26th 'March for the alternative'. I've been posting on here occasional films building for this, and I quite like this song I've posted above - very catchy, and better than hearing me go on and on...

Keep going back to the TUC site for updates and more films, and I'll see you in London on 26th!

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