Archive for October, 2009

Higson vs Unite: Royal Mail’s climbdown over orders to managers

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Last week I did a piece for Tribune about how Royal Mail was ordering managers to do postmens’ (and womens, thanks Enoch Was Right) work for them during the CWU strike. Royal Mail managers are represented by the union Unite. Now I learn it seems they’ve backtracked.

In response to my questions for last week’s article, Royal Mail emailed a statement saying: “Anyone who is not able to work directly in the operation for whatever reason is not required to do so”. A complete contradiction, it seems to me, of managing director (letters) Mark Higson’s words in his letter, to wit:

“You will recall, I wrote to you back in September, explaining that two days’ support per week would be the minimum expected level. The need to provide a service for customers relying on us means this can no longer be optional .”

What changed? Well, Unite’s Paul Reuter wasn’t happy with the order, as I said in my article. Managers have a flexibility clause in their contracts that means they have to cover for lower grade staff, but Higson’s order went too far for the liking of the union, who asked him to rescind it.

Moreover, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley wrote to their own members expressing solidarity with the CWU this week. Unite members can’t legally take unofficial strike action – there’s no dispute between them and Royal Mail – but it seems they can refuse to do postpersons’ work after a certain point of flexibility.

It seems Royal Mail have decided they can’t win this one. Managers’ cover could never break the  strike on its own – there aren’t enough of them, 12,000 out of 120,000 – but they could have damaged morale amongst the strikers.

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The machine behind the Royal Mail strike

Thursday 22 October 2009
Solystic MARS mail sequencing machine (pic: Solystic)

Solystic MARS mail sequencing machine (pic: Solystic)

Sometimes it feels like there’s nobody so ignorant as the British media. There is precious little explanation in today’s papers about what the national postal strike is actually about.

This is one of those whats. On the left is a mail sorting machine made by French firm Solystic. It’s Solystic machines which Royal Mail has been trying to introduce into mail centres, and whose adoption were a key part of the 2007 modernisation agreement. So why haven’t they been rolled out yet? Is it as simple as a Luddite union standing in the way of modern technology?

Er, not necessarily.

Walk sequencing machines are so called because they arrange mail in the correct sequence for a postperson’s walk. Business plans drawn up over a year ago envision rolling out the machines across the country, but a document last year suggests this had to be delayed.

In 2007, the then trade and industry secretary, a certain Alistair Darling, gave Royal Mail a £1.2 billion loan for modernisation. This money still hasn’t all been spent. Royal Mail planned to buy 1000 walk sequencing machines, but they never have. Current plans would only see 33 machines nationwide by April 2010.

Two months ago I reported on Communication Workers Union officials saying that the machines were being mothballed instead of trialled. CWU London divisional rep Mark Palfrey said Royal Mail were having second thoughts over the machines. As he said in my article:

“Do the machines do the job? Yes they do. Do they do it as quick as the current machinery? No they do not.”

“Distance mail [from distant parts of the country] does not arrive in inward mail centres till four o’clock in the morning… That mail would not now land in delivery offices till ten o’clock.”

“Royal Mail is having a debate. That’s clearly what’s going on, hence the attack on the front line postmen to reduce the cost, where they thought machinery was going to do that.”

If the machines are rolled out nationwide, he said, the public will have to get used to getting their mail even later than they do now.

Here’s the thing. Machines mean job losses. The CWU knows and accepts there have to be job losses. What they’ve told me (and I’ve no way of proving this as yet) is that Royal Mail are deliberately failing to consult on modernisation in order to justify a larger scale attack on jobs, and possibly union recognition, occasioned by a painful period of fallout and national strike.

It would be nice to have some sort of answer from Royal Mail to all this. Answer came there none.

Unite election: and then there were five

Tuesday 13 October 2009

One month after the election campaign to lead (all together now) Britain’s biggest union kicked off in earnest, it’s still pretty wide open. But yesterday came a milestone: the first proper, fully-fledged hustings meeting (complete with vote) of Workers Uniting Group, the main faction in unite alongside United Left (and keen readers of this blog).

For the first time, the number of candidates seems to be getting narrower, not wider. Because WUG have now closed their doors to new candidates for their nomination. Other names which I’ve heard bandied about now seem unlikely to stand, because UL have a nominated candidate, Len McCluskey, and without a faction’s support nobody – except maybe Jerry Hicks, who lest we forget came second in the Amicus election – seems to have a good chance of winning.

So who have we got? McCluskey, Hicks and on the WUG side, Les Bayliss (assistant general secretary, responsible for finance), Brian Boyd (national officer for aerospace) and Paul Reuter (national officer for communication managers; in charge of Royal Mail management members.)

Here’s what happened when the last three turned up to the hustings in Doncaster yesterday.

About 45 people turned up to hear them speak; the remarks were pretty temperate by all accounts. But Paul Reuter did have a little pop at Len McCluskey:

“I am led to believe that someone has already declared himself as the TGWU candidate. If that’s the case then I would question their judgement.” [Clearly McCluskey would not agree, before anyone writes in to tell me]

Much talk of the importance of being one union, supporting and changing Labour, fighting the Tories etc. After their speeches, the audience sent them out and had half an hour’s debate. Then they voted. Bayliss came first, then Paul Reuter, and Brian Boyd came third. Some say the audience had decided how they were going to vote before hearing the speeches; but the point is moot. This is only the first hustings meeting of ten; WUG will not have a candidate for another month. All three candidates have geographical areas of support so there’s no knowing how the votes will stack up.

Where does this leave us? Both Reuter and Bayliss, from the Amicus side, claim support from people in the former T&G side. How big that support is remains to be seen; I know McCluskey has support from certain Amicus groups. Everyone talks of making Unite properly merged (everyone I talk to in general admits in public or private that the merger still isn’t complete) but only Reuter suggested that it hadn’t really gone according to plan recently, and things should be happening a little bit quicker than they are under the leadership. Sounds like a pitch to those who’d like to see a new broom.

Bayliss and Boyd point to the difficulties, and Bayliss – a veteran of the mergers that created Amicus in 2001 – speaks of “a number of colleagues in the union looking backwards instead of looking forwards”. Who he means I couldn’t say. But Derek Simpson made an attack on the “tribalist” T&G in a previous address to WUG, and Bayliss has made remarks about the T&G not expecting too much change.

Conclusion: Two unions, five candidates. Watch this space.

What the Ofgem energy price news means for unions

Saturday 10 October 2009

In two words: more work. Unions will decry the profits made by ‘fat cat’ energy bosses, as they always have, but even if directors and shareholders do benefit from the rising prices warned of in today’s Ofgem report, at least the brothers in the engineering construction sector will be able to feel reassured that demand for their services – building power stations, liquefied natural gas terminals, oil refineries, flue gas desulfurisation plants (you learn something new every day) and more – is going to go up.

That is the inescapable conclusion from the Ofgem report. In 2008, energy companies’ capital expenditure was about £8 billion. The report models four possible scenarios, ranging from low investment and a lack of  new renewable energy generation (costing about £95 billion over the next 11 years) to a fast transition to green energy (costing about £200 billion over the same period). Even in the lowest cost scenario, which would see the UK miss its carbon reduction targets, there will have to be more investment in new plants in the years leading up to 2020 than there was last year – itself a rise on the 2007 figures.

If Ed Miliband/David Cameron wants to meet those carbon targets, there will have to be more new build power stations, probably including ‘clean’ coal and nuclear.

This can’t come too soon for the sector, which has admittedly (despite my own optimistic noises below) taken a hit during the recession, as the latest industry report shows. That trend looks set to be reversed in a year. Employment will rise and the pool of skilled workers will shrink.

If a new national agreement has been threashed out by then (which it currently hasn’t) that could mean more militancy and strikes. Alternatively if there is a new NAECI, it will help unions as more workers get jobs and pay their union subs. But in the meantime, this Ofgem report is likely to steel those workers and union negotiators holding out for a better deal…

Take the champagne bubbles out of your own eyes

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Today’s Daily Mirror splash about David Cameron flouting his own champagne ban is certainly amusing. But a sign of Tory hubris? Because he’s talking about stringent public sector cuts with one side of his mouth and pouring Moet/Bollinger/Tesco Value Champagne into the other?

Well then, where do you draw the line? Derek Simpson’s £40 wine bottles consumed at his £100-a-head TUC congress meal, after positing himself as the poor man’s friend?

Or what about the Labour MP, with arguably less to celebrate polls-wise than Mr Cameron, ordered a bottle of Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin in the Grand at 2am during Labour’s conference?

I’m not saying any of these things are wrong (especially as someone who accepts other people’s hospitality at such conferences). Just that it is arguably silly to single out one side or another as immoral on such grounds. Union bosses who condemn boozy Tories tend to enjoy a few member-subsidised drinks too.

They’re still funny stories…

Number 10 rings… a clarification

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Just spoken to Jonathan Ashworth, trade union liaison man at Number 10, who (politely) raised a blogpost below referring to him. I admit that it could be misleading, so have clarified it – take a look.

Having established that Tory central office reads Tribune, it’s nice to know No 10 (or someone in it) reads this blog…

Wildcat strikes raise their head again

Monday 5 October 2009

Lindsey oil refinery protestShocking stuff just in from the GMB union: Workers on engineering construction sites have rejected the new pay and conditions offer put to them by their union shop stewards just a few weeks ago (which I wrote about below at the time).

This means that those 30,000 workers think they deserve a better deal from the employers – and are prepared to strike, officially or unofficially, to get it.

The union bosses though it was a good deal, and told me so. A pay rise scheduled to be above inflation, increased rights for union officials to instigate grievance proceedings, and a promise to pre-audit companies to make sure they were prepared to pay according to the national rate. “We’ve got what we want on auditing”, said GMB national secretary Phil Davies, one of the union negotiators. GMB and Unite shop stewards agreed.

Judging by the GMB press release put out this morning, part of which appears below, the workers aren’t happy at the lack of a promise to have an unemployed workers’ register to use to fill vacancies – the employers only promised them a working party to look at it, as I recall.

This news seems to confirm what I said in my last blogpost on the subject – it really does look as if the unions, and the workers, have employers over a barrel in this growing sector. More wildcat strikes perhaps. Be interesting if wind farm building sites come under the sector (I have asked Unite, but didn’t get a definite answer)…

The 30,000 engineering construction workforce have voted to reject the employers offer on pay and conditions in workplace individual ballots held over the past two weeks. The offer was in response to claims from the unions GMB and Unite… Workers on seven sites have already voted for industrial action in pursuit of the claim…

Phil Davies GMB National Secretary said “The members want more progress on the skills and unemployment registers and they want to copper-fasten the pre award audit to screen out employers who plan to undercut the agreed rates and terms and conditions.

“The employer’s offer of working parties on the registers is seen as jam tomorrow and the members no longer trust the employers to deliver.

“The members want the package to be completed now so that they can see what they are getting. The next step is to go back to the employers to see if they are up for further talks.”

That there Labour rule change I was on about

Friday 2 October 2009

I’m a bit late with confirming the change to Labour’s rules on elections to the national policy forum (see below), but some things are worth noting.

The results in full:

Constituency Labour parties for: 54.5%

CLPs against: 45.5%

Affiliates (trade unions and socialist societies) for: 79.02%

What this means is the CLPs were both organised by supporters of the OMOV rule change and resisted overtures from the Labour leadership – very unusual for both to happen. It also means that the unions were, as predicted, totally in favour except USDAW who abstained, basically ensuring the vote went through. “I can hear the Red Flag playing”, said a gleeful union backer at the Unite party on Wednesday night.

For CLPs AND big unions to unite in this way to defeat the party machine on a rule change is, I think, unprecedented in recent Labour history – in the last 10 years anyway.

I spoke earlier to Alon Or-bach, London NPF rep and a strong supporter of OMOV. He believes firmly that the change will lead to a change in the NPF’s makeup. Candidates for the NPF will have to be elected by a postal ballot of constituency members – i.e. the entire party membership in total –  so they will have to canvass at constituency meetings, meeting people and selling their candidacy to them. Instead of the current arrangement where conference delegates vote, and, it is complained, get pressurised by party staff. A different, better class of NPF rep will emerge, he believes.

The result, though it leaked out on Wednesday evening, was not announced until Thursday morning to minimise media interest. Just like the vote on bringing back those pesky votes on conference motions has been postponed till next year.