Tuesday 12 January 2010

Well, I'm glad that's over....

....and I'm not talking about Christmas!

It's been a while since I've blogged, and there are some very good reasons for that, in my personal opinion at any rate.

The week and a bit running up to Christmas, and the week after we came back (my council closed all but "essential" services over the Christmas/New Year week) have been absolutely stuffed with work. Our branch AGM is coming up in February, and I've been getting documentation for that sorted, as well as writing and editing our branch news letter and writing the content for the rebooted branch website. They say a branch secretaries work is never done, and by God were they right!

As I face the end of my first year as Branch Secretary, I can't believe how quickly it's flown by. I'm going to have to write my report for the AGM (it's not going to be as glossy as Surrey County's though) over the next week or two, as well as co-ordinate the nomination papers for stewards and officers.

Still, it's been highly entertaining, and I've got to meet some very interesting people. And some un-interesting, but important people as well, so it can't be all bad...right?

Thursday 17 December 2009

Unite strike banned by High Court

So, once again a judge has made law by interpreting the harsh anti-union laws in this country in the worst possible way for democracy and workers rights.

The High Court ruling strikes at the very heart of democracy - the numbers who may or may not have been properly balloted (and of course, one should point out that an injunction only means that the court thinks that there is a case to try, not that Unite actually did get it's ballot wrong) were tiny, and considering the high turnout, and overwhelming proportion of those voting yes, would have had naff all effect on the result.

The anti-TU laws in this country have all but crippled the unions over the last fifteen - twenty years, thanks to the Tories who passed them and the Labour government that hasn't had the balls to remember where the party came from and repeal them. The principle has always been that you ballot your members - how the hell were Unite meant to know these people were leaving, even if the members told them, they stay members until their subs stop coming in or they resign, and it's never been a problem in the past.

The laws in this country make it practically impossible to exercise the natural right to withdraw your labour in the event of an industrial dispute. If the employer fears bankruptcy, then they can get back round the table and talk. If BA is indeed losing £1.5 mill a day, then there are better ways of dealing with this than reducing staff and making the rest work dangerously long hours.

Unions don't call strikes lightly, with the costs involved and the hoops to jump through to get a ballot going we can't afford to, and even then we don't ask our members to sacrifice pay unless it's absolutely neccessary. And it does work, look at the Leeds binmen this year (nearly 12 weeks out), the Tanker drivers last year, there are success stories.

Collective bargaining essentially relies on the unions ability to organise workers to take action against an employer, which is a neccessary balance to the employers power to dismiss, lock out, or whatever. If the law in this country makes that all but impossible, then the law needs to be changed.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Why are we so vicious?

I've only been active in UNISON for just under two years, and blogging even less than that. But the one thing that has struck me is how vicious trade unionists, of whatever political persuasion can be to each other. Whether it's at conference or online, the vitriol just pours out and it surprised me. I thought I'd left flame wars behind at uni, but they are alive and well in TIGMOO as they say!
I'm uncertain why I started blogging bit if I ever get the urge to have a go at a fellow unionist on a personal level, I'll know why I stopped.

Institute of Employment Rights - Spectre of the ECJ Conference

A couple of weeks ago I attended another excellent event organised by the IER, and sponsored by the SERTUC (and therefore free and with lunch! - thank you comrades).

The conference focused on the repercussions for British TU's of a batch of judgements from the European Court of Justice, specifically, the Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxembourg cases. I knew nothing of these cases prior to the case, although they were familiar to the (law student) comrade who went with me.

Suffice to say, the cases put, potentially, severe restrictions on the abilities of unions to take industrial action if the organisation they are fighting operates in different areas of the EU - the ECJ has effectively said that the right of a company to do business in different EU states trumps the rights of unions to take action. And, overruling the principle of English law that limits the amount of damages a union can be liable for in the event of industrial action (which was enshrined in law following the Taff Vale case, a case I know well having cut my A-Level History teeth on it) the court ruled that the Union could be held liable for the total losses of the company, which would, frankly, bankrupt most unions taking on any large organisation, witness BA's threat against BALPA in its most recent case.

So the conference was about two things: what these cases meant and how to fight it. I'm sad to say that there was a lot of long faces and Ominous Words of Warning, and not too much in the way of tactics. What there was did come from two, I believe, respected sources in the union world, John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing. The proffered solutions were mostly legal, and I think my budding solicitor understood them better than I did, but there was some hope in legal challenges through the European Court of Human Rights, as well as trans-national collective bargaining.  Let us hope our leaderships rise to the challenge, if not, a motion or two to NDC might force them to (assuming they aren't too busy trying to figure out if they have to be re-elected or not).

The other issue highlighted by the last two cases is the matter of collective agreements. The ECJ essentially ruled that the Posted Workers Directive allows an employer to import labour, and pay them less and make them work under worse terms and conditions, and Unions can do nothing about it, unless there is a collective agreement that is universally applicable.

They took this definition to mean registered with a central body and applied to all employees working in a particular sector. Which, in the UK, means none, as even things like the NJC agreements don't apply to everyone (as Comrade Leary can tell us), and aren't "registered" as we have no body able to do this. So, should we try and fight such things, we are essentially screwed from the get go. It was pointed out that no action was taken against the Lyndsey dispute unions, although no one was clear as to why.

John Hendy did round off the conference with a lecture on why no UK union is going to challenge the rulings anytime soon, which is firstly because injunctions are so bloody easy to obtain in this country - the claimant just has to establish that there is a case to try (which, as he said "any employer cannot fail to do"), not that they are likely to win. The challenging of this can take 18 months, by which time the dispute is as dead as a proverbial dodo, so the employer wins by default.

Secondly, the duty to disclose has become more onerous in these cases. Normally, a union will be expected to disclose information pertinent to the dispute, but now the employers are going after reams and reams of information to establish "proportionately". The example given on how this would work would be a meeting of, say, UNISON's industrial action committee to authorise a strike. If a member of this committee so much as suggested that a lesser action, such as work to rule, was a possibility, then an employer could use this to show that a lesser form of action was possible and therefore the strike was disproportionate. Employers have even been demanding hand written notes that members of a committee made during such discussions.

The final point was the unlimited damages problem. Even a union as large as UNISON or Unite, with substantial budgets and reserves, could face bankruptcy in such a dispute.

Christ, now I've written it down it sounds even more depressing.

I'll have to write about something cheerful soon!

Thursday 3 December 2009

South West Regional Committee

On Monday, I attended the above committee, which, like most committees in UNISON, does exactly what it says on the tin. It was my third time attending and it was, actually, one of the more interesting.
My experience of UNISON to date, or certainly the lay democratic structures, is that there tends to be very little real debate, just people making a series of points, often along the same lines (or if you are an NEC member "Supporting with qualifications") in support of a particular motion. SWRC isn't like that, there was genuine debate (a not inconsiderable amount of it around proposed changes to the Regional Rules and Constitution, colour me surprised) and also around the service group strucutres and various goings on.
One of the biggest items was a section that started as a discussion about Regional Objectives and expanded into a not inconsiderable report on the Three Companies project.
Jon Rogers has blogged about this, as have others, but it would appear that we are having some success in the westcountry. Our Regional Secretary highlighted one particular branch which had tripled the number of members in (if memory serves) an Aramark venture, using the techniques and tactics the project espouses, gaining us something like 100 members in the process. Now this can only be a good thing, whichever side of the debate on the SEIU you are on.
There were acknowledgements of concern, with the Secretary describing UNISON taking advice from a US union as "controversial", and one of the Regional Convenors referring to the controversy over SEIU's tactics, and the internet furore surrounding them. She reported that this had been discussed at a recent meeting of all the regional convenors, and that it was being looked into. I shall not, however be holding my breath for anything to come of it though - bearing in mind we are talking about a union which, if my memory of NDC serves me well, is having it's new HQ building constructed by one of the companies involved in the blacklisting scandal....however should the General Secretary announce that we are having nothing to do with SEIU in the future I shall, of course, be both surprised and pleased.
Having been through a branch assessment shortly after taking up the Branch Secretary role, I am intrigued to see that the process has been radically overhauled for the new year. Now, we have to do it before the Branch AGM, and only the first part is dealt with by the Branch Sec and the Regional Organiser. A new, second part, is then taken to the branch committee and objectives set, with named officers responsible for leading on them. My opinions on the matter are divided, whilst I think it may be a very useful tool for guiding the branch towards better organising, higher recruitment etc, I think the extended involvement of the branch committee may be an unwelcome intrusion into their independance for some. I'd be interested to hear from anyone with opinions on this matter, especially anyone who remembers the debates at conference that must have happened for this policy to start.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Competency Based Pay and morning sickness

Seeing as I'm now listed on tigmoo I thought I'd best post something!

One of the bugbears in Plymouth at the moment is the linking of appraisals to progression through the local government salary scales. We are currently negotiating on this, and tricky it is proving . From the employers side of things there is "an equality issue" with automatic progression based on length of service, not sure how much of an issue that actually is but it could be a runner.

I've been ringing round various branches of UNISON trying to see how they have implemented the link to pay, and by and large it ain't pretty. Appeals procedures are going to be a key part I think, and the fact that we want to make sure that those of us on full time release still get our increments if the link is put in place - and its done properly.

In other news, mrsplymdaz is suffering somewhat from what I have come to call Morning Sickness From Hell. She is not well at all and has had to take the last two days off work, poor thing. Much as I cannot wait for the arrival of the second member of the plymdaz flying picket team, I hate seeing her suffering, especially as there is little I can actually do about it, other than offer hugs.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Now I lay me down to sleep....

I actually carried out something of an experiment in the course of getting to the conference. First Great Western, a company I'm not particularly fond of for various reasons, still run a sleeper service between Plymouth and Paddington. I'd always thought that this was a bit pointless, and probably expensive.

How wrong I was.

A single berth cost £45. Contrast this with £100ish for a room in a hotel in London, or £55-70 on the outskirts. The service was excellent, with a friendly host greating me when I got on and showing me to the cabin, and demonstrating how everything worked, as well as taking my breakkie order ("bacon roll and a pint of coffee please" - I got a bacon roll) and wake up call. I left Plymouth just shy of midnight, had a  cup of cocoa from the buffet (free) and was asleep by 12.30.

The cabin was compact, but comfortable, with a good few pillows and blankets, as well as a fair amount of space to store luggage. A sink was concealed under a lifting shelf, and there was a tv (although this only showed a handful of pre-recorded programmes). Still, sleep came easily, althoiugh there was a slightly disconcerting moment when I woke up to find my head lower than my feet due to the camber of the track!

We pulled into Paddington at about 5.30am, and I had my wakeup and breakfast at 6.20. You have to be off the train by 7am, but you get access to the 1st class lounge (free drinks and croissants, and comfy chairs) as well as the showers.

All in all, a good journey, getting me into the heart of the capital in time to have a nice breakfast, a shave, shower and then make my way across to Euston. There is a train that leaves plymouth at about 5.30am, and gets in for 8.30/9ish, but it would probably not cost much less and I'd have to rush.

I can heartily reccomend the sleeper to any union  hacks (or indeed anyone) travelling up from the westcountry, and will certainly be using it again in the future!