Archive for December, 2010

Christmas wrapping-up: Goodbye blogging

Friday 24 December 2010

Avid readers of this blog (err, my mum, Jerry Hicks, a few people who used to support Les Bayliss) may have noticed I’ve not updated it much recently. Mainly that’s because I’ve left Tribune magazine and started a new job in financial reporting. Unlike Tribune it’s full time and hard work, so I’ve much les time on my hands to get in touch with trade unionists and blog about industrial stuff and politics.

So I’ve decided/been forced to mothball this blog, at least for the time being. For the next few weeks I won’t even attempt to update it regularly. There isn’t time, I’m afraid. The update I wrote today will be the last one for a while, if not forever.

But before I go, there are a few thing that need saying and can be safely said here. I started this blog in mid-2008 in a desperate attempt to get more reader than the low-circulation pages of Tribune would allow. But if that was selfish, then hopefully the way I have written it hasn’t been entirely so: I have tried, quite hard sometimes, to tell the truth about things which don’t see the light of day often enough. That’s especially the case with trade union politics. The demise of industrial reporting means journalist aren’t reporting and scrutinising trade unions in the way that their members or the public deserve.

I have quite enjoyed writing the blog. I am grateful to everyone who has read it for reading it. And I’m particularly grateful to people who’ve read it and then come forward with information and assistance with my stories. You know who you are. Your generosity is touching, and I offer big thanks. How couldn’t it be? I can’t offer anything in reward, and indeed I shouldn’t, so more often than not I think this has been a selfless act [update – on their part, I meant]. As a journalist I am humbled by people who give those precious nuggets of info with no thought of reward. I won’t try and name names, partly because some people might get into trouble if they were so named. That’s one of the problems with internal trade union politics especially, and politics generally.

Most of the people I’ve met in trade unions and politics have been either okay or nice; some have been exceptionally nice, cheerful, kind, sunny, helpful and so on. They’ve made life more worth living. A small number however have chosen to be hostile, or even malevolent. I mean they’ve tried to get me into trouble for no good reason. The reason, as far as I could make out, was that I was writing things which didn’t agree with the PR line they were trying to enforce and they saw it as their (paid) job to squash anyone who threatened that line. Sometimes this has been actually scary. Again, a problem with internal union politics, though that doesn’t wipe away personal responsibility. But spare a thought for the people who have to deal with that all the time, and not just because of a blog. Not everyone involved worked for a union either.

And I won’t mention the MP who upset me a bit by texting me in fury, called me “disgracefull” [sic] and said “please do not speak to me again” over something I wrote he found unhelpful. (Oh all right, it was Jon Cruddas. To be fair, I’m sure he was under a great deal of stress at the time – but I had not misreported him.)

These people didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, that I am not interested in helping the Labour Party, the TUC, Ed Miliband, or any of those trade union general secretaries through my journalism. That’s the difference between journalism and PR. This may sound obvious to you. I can assure you that it is not obvious to them.

Anyway, that’s a wrap, for now. Diehard fans can check this blog again in mid-February by which time I’ll have hopefully made my mind up what to do with it. I don’t want to abandon industrial affairs: it’s been far too stimulating and fun.

Again thanks to all my readers and those who’ve helped out. I’ll not forget. And since ’tis the season to be jolly, even if you’re out of work or otherwise feeling the pinch, I’ll leave you with Christmas wrapping of a different kind. When not obsessing about unions I obsess about music, and this is one band I like a lot. Merry Christmas! (Even you, Jon).

Update, 21 January: Tribune editor Chris McLaughlin has been in touch to say that some people took the comment above about Tribune being a ‘low circulation’ magazine to signify that it was in financial difficulty, or otherwise in trouble. I’m sorry if anyone took it that way; that wasn’t my intention, nor did I want to put the magazine down, so I’m happy to set the record straight and say so. For the record also, Chris tells me that it’s inaccurate to call Tribune ‘low circulation’. However I stand by what I’ve written.

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What is Len McCluskey to do now?

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The short answer is: unite Unite the union, win the argument on public sector cuts vs. investment and stop the union’s membership from collapsing any further (I hear Unison general secretary Dave Prentis is going around telling activists that his union’s membership – over 1.37 million at the last count – is now higher than Unite’s – over 1.57 million last year).

The first will be hard enough. See my post below for a comment from a Unite member complaining that McCluskey’s victory amounts to a coup by the T&G half of Unite and its former general secertary’s preferred candidate. Not everyone will oppose that – the Amicus officials shunted around by Derek Simpson, for instance, or the officials of the MSF union who felt that their merger with the AEEU (to form Amicus) amounted to an aggressive takeover by an undemocratic Simpson.

There’s also the ‘fear factor’ – which McCluskey mentioned in his speech at his victory party. Accusations of bullying and harassment within Unite, among full-time and lay officials are not hard to come by, although I wouldn’t suggest it is the norm. And they can’t all have appeared out of thin air. These claims often have their roots in trade union politics – like which general secertary candidate you support, for example.

At least one national officer of Unite is convinced that their phone is tapped – yes, tapped – by the leadership. Even if they are wrong, this suggests paranoia on a grand scale. It is these sorts of obstacles that McCluskey will have to overcome.

And all the while, he’ll have to persuade non-members that the unino is worth joining and win industrial battles – not least at British Airways, where the dispute, now over a year old, drags on, to the weariness of cabin crew who complain of sackings and bullying.

McCluskey, who used to be in charge of the dispute but whose name does not appear on the now-scrapped draft agreement between BA and Unite, has been taunted by election runner-up Jerry Hicks over the dispute and other things, like his union’s support for Labour.

Hicks told me after the result: “Our campaign is the official opposition within Unite, because our election address was so different from the others. Our priority is to resist the cuts. Our eyes are on him [McCluskey]. He needs to do the right thing.” Hicks doesn’t think McCluskey is any good at doing the right thing though, and scorns the McCluskey camp for, he claims, not expecting him to come second. “When are people at  least going to give me credit for at least having a better analysis than them?”

So is Hicks really going to be a thorn in McCluskey’s side? I asked what his “official opposition” amounted to (would he encourage lay officials not tocarry out union policy if he thought it was wrong?), but didn’t get an answer.

Friends of the departed Les Bayliss and almost-departed Derek Simpson may also be seen as a source of opposition. The Workers Uniting Group faction soldiers on under the leadership of officials like assistant general secertary Tony Burke. No doubt they would say that they back the new leader, but will the bitterness of the election campaign – and the long, hidden battle for the future of Unite that preceded it – be forgotten so easily?

Belated update, 24 Dec: I’ve been asked, strenuously, to clarify matters. Workers’ Uniting Group has been wound up, according to a notice on its website (which was not there when I wrote this piece – the site and its blog were live and being updated at the time). The officials behind it, I am equally strenuously told, are right behind Len McCluskey. They were, of course, right behind his arch-rival Les Bayliss less than a month ago. But this blog shouldn’t speculate about people’s motives without any facts  – so I won’t.

I’m also told that Les Bayliss has not walked into a new job – my blogpost below mentioned an unconfirmed report that he had a new job. I never insisted that Bayliss did have a new job; that’s why I said it was an unconfirmed report. Right now, I’m told, he has no job. Whether  he’s totally bereft or taking a break is another matter. More to the point, he’s out of Unite – I did say that, and it was right.

London fire strike ballot : not on after all

Thursday 2 December 2010

Last week I blogged that there was definitely going to be a strike ballot amongst support staff at London Fire Brigade. It turns out I was wrong.

I wasn’t lying or turning a maybe into a definite; I was just given information that changed. After I spoke to Clive Smith at the GMB’s regional office, he and his colleagues decided that they needed to do more work to make their paperwork “shipshape”.

He wouldn’t say what that means, but my understanding is the union’s membership records for LFB aren’t deemed to be 100% accurate. Which is what the British Airways strike fell foul of. If it turns out that the GMB have balloted a few members who’ve left their jobs, or even have different job types now from when their details were gathered, a court could rule the strike ballot unlawful. So they’re not taking any chances.

Smith said he was hopeful that industrial action was still capable of being taken before the end of the year, if they vote for it. But it’s now December, holidays are approaching fast and the employer needs seven days’ notice of a ballot: time has almost run out.

So. Farewell then, Les Bayliss

Wednesday 1 December 2010

As I write, Les Bayliss, former Unite assistant general secretary for finance and third-placed candidate in the general secretary election, has quit his job and supporters of Len McCluskey are celebrating their election victory at a Central London hotel. Bayliss was of course the preferred candidate of joint gen sec Derek Simpson, who leaves his post formally on New Year’s Eve, leaving McCluskey and his backer Tony Woodley in charge.

Unconfirmed reports say that Bayliss is to join the Joint Industry Board for the Electrical Contracting Industry, which regulates relations between electrical contracting companies and one union (guess which).

A Unite official tells me: “The general secretary’s [Simpson] gone. The power base has gone. If they stay on after that, they risk getting insulted.”

This is a family blog, and my mum reads it, so I won’t report some of the other things said about Bayliss by his critics at McCluskey’s leaving party – you can probably guess. The serious point is: now he’s gone, will the union be able to unite around McCluskey, his bitter adversary for the top job? On which more later.

P.S. The number of Unite election casualties now stands at two. The first was Richard O’Brien, former joint head of communications for Unite and PR man for the Bayliss campaign, who resigned, and walked, as soon as the result was announced.

Another Unite official (and McCluskey supporter) asked if anyone else from the Bayliss camp should quit, said: “I don’t think it should go any further” and denounced the practice of purging officials in the former Amicus section.