Archive for January, 2009

What the wildcat strikes tell us

Friday 30 January 2009

To see Unite shop steward Kenny Ward, dressed in dayglo orange and Unite flag in hand, addressing crowds outside the Lindsay oil refinery this morning – and railing against greedy bankers* – was to see industrial action of the sort we thought we would not see again. Secondary strike action? From workers in companies other than the ones to blame? Oil workers striking in support of construction workers? Have we gone back to the 1970s?

I’m shocked. Did anyone expect to see workers at 17 heavy industrial sites across the UK walk out on unofficial strike action? The leadership of the big unions appears to have been taken by surprise; certainly these protests have not been coordinated from their headquarters. How they managed to co-ordinate the protests I’m not yet sure, but I’ll have to find out soon.

Logistics apart, that workers see the point in striking at all in these straightened times is somewhat remarkable. Shouldn’t they be grateful they have jobs at all, one might say. At the end of last year, after threats of national strike action from the National Union of Teachers and the PCS civil service union bit the dust, I was confidently predicting that there’d be no more strikes for the foreseeable future. Hell, I was predicting it last week.

In fact, it’s not too hard to see why workers have chosen to take action in support of ‘British jobs for British workers’. First of all, as that Unite flag indicates, these people are unionised; at the Ineos plant at Gragemouth in Scotland, where workers successfully went on strike last year over pensions, Unite represents 1500 people. In construction the main specialist union, UCATT, repreasents 125,000. Big construction projects are bound in terms of pay and conditions by a national agreement, and the big unions talk to each other both informally and through a national council. That may explain the co-ordinated action today.

Then there’s the fact that, unlike, say, car workers asking for a pay rise, these people have a lot to play for. Recently I spoke to Tom Hardacre, Unite’s national officer for construction, for a Tribune article on just this very issue: UK workers being denied construction jobs on projects run by foreign contractors. He said: “We are complaining that people can’t get work where there is work. At this moment in time, in engineering and construction there’s quite a lot of work, but they’ve been denied that through the importation of non-UK labour.”

Recession or no recession, construction is not dead. Power stations are being built – and just last week,the Government announced the shortlist for a Severn tidal energy scheme. There are jobs to go round, and if (as has happened several times) companies say flatly “British workers need not apply”, British workers get angry – but this is intelligent anger, anger with a purpose. I’m inclined to think the workers are going to win concessions.

Ian King of The Times has an interesting take on the dispute, in which he blames Gordon Brown (I couldn’t possibly comment…)

*Update, 10:36 Friday: Actually, it was “greedy employers”. Sorry, my mistake.

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Trouble at Unite – Part III: “Unsinkable… but so was the Titanic”

Saturday 24 January 2009

journalists jostling Just what is going on? Are these people obsessive? Have they got nothing better to do?

I’m not referring to the candidates for general secretary of Amicus, which went back down to four this week, but the political correspondents who have suddenly decided that trade union politics are interesting after all – and therefore crowded onto my patch. By popular demand*, I’m returning to the ever-fertile subject that is Britain’s biggest union. Where to begin?

No, not with whether all this threatens Labour’s funding. Wait till the end.

The Times’ recent coverage of Derek Simpson’s impressive pay and benefits package, together with a piece recapping on the alleged tensions between Simpson and Woodley, were not massively topical or on-the-day. Far from being driven by events, they have all the hallmarks of some particularly nasty briefing from deep within the union. Not without irony did The Times itself report that “damaging stories about both men appeared to be the result of tit-for-tat briefings”.

This is not surprising. The election got personal a while ago, as I recorded in my last post on the subject. Kevin Coyne, who came a close second to Simpson in the nominations race, sees himself as the frontrunner now. He and Simpson were once brothers in arms in the (now defunct-looking) ATU Network Amicus political caucus, whose politics could be variously described as “moderate”, “centrist” or “Blairite”. Judging from his website, Coyne’s main beef with Simpson is that he hasn’t delivered the merger – an allegation which touches a nerve. Coyne’s recent attack on Simpson’s pay and benefits (a bit later than Jerry Hicks’ own jibes), together with – horror of horrors! – being endorsed by a Murdoch paper can’t have helped matters between the men, not least as it suggests Labour MPs (many of whom are Unite members) are turning against Simpson.

Charlie Whelan, who as Unite’s political director takes a keen interest in maintaining the transmission belt between Number 10 and Derek Simpson, and who likes his MPs to be keen on both, can’t be too pleased.

And this is what makes the two issues of election and merger inseparable. Apart from Jerry Hicks, all the candidates for general secretary engage in the rather amusing (however sincere) exercise of saying the election they’re trying to win is unnecessary. So if they can’t play the man (apart from his pay package), what can they play? The merger.

Unite’s official line is that the merger is effectively complete. Whether or not that is true, it is hard for me to find someone outside the press office who will tell me this. Even optimists say that the merger is well advanced or unstoppable rather than finished. “So,” I asked a senior source last year, “the merger is unsinkable?” Yes, came the reply. But then so was the Titanic. Kevin Coyne is less witty but more downbeat. “The union still needs to be brought together,” he says. “The merger is very far from complete. We still have two support offices, two systems for communication…” Agreeing to merge departments is not the same as actually merging them, he argues. The two headquarters are an embarrassment, he says.

He might go on to say that having two heads of each ‘merged’ department is unsustainable. The finance department, which for obvious reasons has been fought over, now has as its heads Les Bayliss, former Amicus head of finance, and T&G finance man Ed Sabisky. And unlike Simpson and Woodley, there’s no election for them.

Where does this leave us? Well, the dropping out of left-but-not-far-left candidate Laurence Faircloth has polarised things a little. Faircloth’s call for his supporters to back Simpson – having previously written him off as over-ambitious – will raise some eyebrows; both Coyne and Hicks are now going after his fan base. The fourth candidate, Paul Reuter, is trailing somewhat behind the other two challengers, probably because he’s less well known than Coyne and not radically different (oh, and his website is hard to find.) But Amicus members won’t get the chance to vote till the week beginning 16 February.

It also reminds us that personal ties count for a lot in a union. Old friends stick together, old enemies stay apart. And old friends who become enemies are the bitterest enemies of all. As the merger continues, and key jobs get divided up, these are coming to the fore.

And finally; what of Unite’s multi-million pound funding of Labour, and its promise to save the party from bankruptcy? Is it under threat, as the FT’s assiduous Jim Pickard tantalisingly suggested recently? Well, no. A new general secretary may not follow Derek Simpson’s example and spend £50,000 of union money on a work of art at a Labour fundraising auction, but neither would they cut off  the political fund. The only candidate who doesn’t support the Labour Party is Jerry Hicks, and even he hasn’t threatened to reduce funding to zero. Moreover he’d have a job and a half to touch the political fund at all. Such a matter would have to go tho the union’s annual conference, where a fight would break out.

*I am reliably informed that Jerry Hicks reads this blog

The Treasury minister with a soft spot for Lenin

Saturday 17 January 2009

Among the ministers at today’s Fabian Society new year conference – Peter Mandelson, Ed Miliband, James Purnell – was Angela Eagle, exchequer secretary to the Treasury.  Last year Ms Eagle made herself rather unpopular in front of a BBC audience when she defended Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate by insisting that the Budget had to be fair to everyone, and not just a few (million) low earners.

Well, tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis*. Today, the minister spoke at a fringe meeting on “unjust rewards” (coincidentally the title of a book by Polly Toynbee, who coincidentally was speaking at the same meeting, and coincidentally on sale at the bookshop downstairs). The subject was what to do about the rich, in the context of making Britain fairer for everybody.

Nobody can have been surprised when Toynbee called for crowds of people banging pots and pans to demonstrate against inflated bonuses and multi-million pound pay packets for the richest**. But then Angela Eagle said this:

“After decades out of power, perhaps New Labour was trying to accommodate to the consensus that was forged by our failure”. [i.e. in 1979 and thereafter]We’re now in a third era since the Second World War to make structures that are far more progressive.”

“The collapse of Soviet communism and the Berlin Wall in 1989 left no example of something different [to the capitalist model]”.

And then, when Eagle rejected the idea that markets could just be abolished:

“Even Lenin realised it wasn’t working before his untimely demise.”

So there we have it. George Galloway isn’t the only MP to look back wistfully on the collapse of the Soviet Union. I wonder if the Treasury subscribes to the Morning Star?

On a more serious point. These comments, coming from a minister who is more determinedly on-message than some, seem to show that the sands really have shifted in the Brown government in the past three months. Rewind to last November, when Harriet Harman at another public meeting appeared to shrug off the mantle of New Labour slightly, but little more than that. Some people at that meeting (not Labour MPs) said that the Government needed to change the political atmosphere, so that the public would reject the free-market consensus created by Thatcher and welcome more left-wing policies. Harman walked away from that meeting telling people how she would think hard about what had been said.

Now we have Angela Eagle actually criticising New Labour itself for accepting that consensus, and firmly depositing it in the dustbin of politics.

Nobody should get too carried away by that, of course: Eagle did not join in calls later that day for a maximum wage law, and don’t expect them to stop building PFI hospitals either. But when you take such comments alongside the Government’s social mobility white paper, it’s hard to argue that they’re not trying to change the terms of the political debate and confront the danger of being perceived as ‘loony left’.

The message  – or the spin, if you prefer – from ministers today was clear: We are into social engineering, and we’re proud of it.

*”Times change and we change in them”. Sorry, I did Classics and it sort of sticks.

** Apparently to be in the richest 0.5% of the UK population, you need to earn £500,000 or more. A lot of people overestimate the threshold. To be in the richest 10%, you need only earn £40,000 or more.