Posts Tagged ‘unions’

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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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.

Strike ballot on at London’s fire authority

Saturday 27 November 2010

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. As Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, finds his colourful remarks about the Fire Brigades Union are disapproved of upstairs, so the two other unions represented at London Fire Brigade prepare to take action in defence of their redundancy pay. (I first wrote about the likelihood of this happening earlier this month).

Unison and the GMB union, who represent about 80 per cent of LFB’s 1000 or so support and office staff, served notice on their employer this week to ballot for strike action after LFB decided to cut severance pay from three weeks for every year worked to one week. The unions say this is a breach of contract; the bosses say it isn’t.

“Although further talks were mooted, we got the impression the employer wasn’t particularly serious about them,” says GMB regional organiser Clive Smith. “There’s been no proper offer for us to consider.”

The ballot should start next week and, in case of a yes vote (which they expect) the strike could theoretically be as soon as the week after that, though it seems unlikely.

Meanwhile the FBU dispute remains unresolved – and the possibility remains that all three unions could co-ordinate action.

Unite election: decoded

Monday 22 November 2010

I didn’t get a chance to blog yesterday about Len McCluskey’s victory in the Unite election, which has now been covered everywhere from the Morning Star to ConservativeHome*. However I did gather some thoughts and views…

1) Len McCluskey’s impressive vote share – 42.4 per cent, about 101,000 votes – was (just) more than Jerry Hicks and Les Bayliss combined, which will have surprised some. Hicks and McCluskey were vying for the left-wing vote, and for one reason or another the insurgent didn’t persuade nearly enough supporters to desert the favourite.

Asked why, Hicks says: “McCluskey had a thumping great army of officers working on his behalf.” It’s true that a lot of full-time officers supported McCluskey; whether they ‘worked’ for him I can’t really say. This impressive list of McCluskey supporters left out two key people – Simon Dubbins, director of the international department and former candidate, and Andrew Murray, director of communications and long-standing right hand-man of Tony Woodley, who anointed McCluskey as his successor.

2) That said, Hicks has again pulled off the trick of beating a full-time officer into third place in a leadership election (last year it was Kevin Coyne, this year Les Bayliss). Speaking to me yesterday, Hicks was full of scorn for those who though the election was a straight fight between Bayliss and McCluskey: “If the United Left [the McCluskey faction] and their candidate see Les Bayliss as their threat, they’re not going to get the analysis right beyond the union.”

3) We shouldn’t overlook Gail Cartmail,  who was only three percentage points behind Les Bayliss (16.4 per cent to his 19.3 per cent) despite a rather lower profile. “I think this shows I ran a very strong campaign”, the Star quotes her as saying.

4) But overshadowing all this, as I noted on Saturday night, is the low turnout of 16 per cent. Unite executive member and blogger Ian Allinson bemoans the “worrying sign of the lack of engagement of members with the union”. There could be any number of reasons for this low turnout, only slightly more than the 13 per cent for the Amicus election despite more publicity. But the fact is that many Unite members don’t subscribe to their leadership’s politics, whichever brand of leader they get – as evidenced by the fact that, when asked, many vote Conservative.

I will post more views from the blog fan club when I get the chance…

*I wonder which is more pleased about McCluskey’s victory? ConHome quotes Conservative chairman Baroness Warsi saying it marks the end of a “terrible week for Ed Miliband” because Unite will, she argues, force Labour to dance to a far-left tune. Whereas last time I looked, Les Bayliss sat on the Morning Star’s management committee… Just a passing thought.

Update: It’s been pointed out that Simon Dubbins’ name does in fact feature on a later version of McCluskey’s campaign advert. Andrew Murray’s does not.

 

The London fire strike nobody’s talking about

Friday 5 November 2010

So the FBU have called off their Bonfire Night strike. But their dispute rumbles on, unresolved albeit with an improved offer from the London Fire Brigade. There could yet be another strike. And that could set the scene for major co-ordinated action.

As I report in Tribune today, another strike is looming at the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the civil authority that directs the LFB’s policy. Unison and the GMB – who together represent 80 per cent of the authority’s 1,000 or so control centre and other support staff – are planning strike ballots:

Charles Adje, GMB branch secretary for LFEPA, said: “We will be co-ordinating the ballot [with Unison]. If the FBU wants to work with us, we are happy to work with them.” Unison branch secretary Tony Philips said: “If the FBU are in dispute, we’ll definitely have action with them.” Both unions have voted to strike in consultative ballots in the last two months.

LFEPA has decided to pay redundant staff a week’s pay per year served, instead of mutiplying the total sum by three as previously. The unions believe redundancy terms cannot be changed without new contracts. A spokesman for LFEPA said they had not been notified of any strike ballot and declined to comment on redundancy pay.

Even if the FBU doesn’t strike again, this would seem to be the biggest co-ordinated strike in the country since the coalition took power. In fact London is a veritable hotbed of public sector union agitation at the moment. Outside LFEPA, there isn’t a lot of actual, deliberate co-ordination going on, but watch this space.

Full story here.

Build a power station, get a nearly-five-per-cent pay rise

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Last year I blogged here about how, in a climate of austerity, engineering construction trade unions had secured an inflation-busting pay rise.

Well, strike two: they’ve done it again, only in a climate of even more austerity. Workers on engineering construction sites – power stations, gas terminals, motorways and the like – will get a 4.7 per cent pay rise from 2011, it’s been announced.

Phil Davies, who leads on the sector for the GMB union, told me this was a “good deal”. “It’s one of the top ones in the collective bargaining area.”

The deal reflects the fact that big things still need to be built – partly in the energy sector. Last year’s Ofgem report indicated there would be more capital investment, while this week three renewables firms announced they would build new factories.

But there’s also the prospect of big contracts being handed out for the government’s High Speed 2 rail link and the upgrading of trunk roads.

The latest industry reports show that, while orders in the sector fell last year they did not fall catastrophically, and orders are currently picking up. In engineering construction, the pay rises show no sign of abating.

Unite enters the post-Charlie Whelan age (and what’s next)

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Readers of this blog have got in touch and this week prompted me to return to a well worn subject. This week Unite’s political department enters its first week post-Charlie Whelan since Gordon Brown’s redoubtable ex-spinner joined the union as political director in 2007. It’s likely to remain that way until at least 1 December, when the result of the Unite general secretary election is announced.

“Holding the fort”, as he has described it to those around him, is political adviser John O’Regan. Since he was Whelan’s deputy in the department, and since they both speak with distinctive Cockney vocals, there’ll be continuity for now. O’Regan came up through the GPMU print union which merged into Amicus which in turn merged into Unite. So he’ll be used to managing change, and staying on the right side of new bosses – essential in a union with such complex and sometimes fraught politics.

Who is to be the new political director? It’s been reported (including here) that Joe Irvin, Gordon Brown’s former political secretary at No 10, was likely. Actually, I blogged that he had been chosen, following a Tribune story. This was swiftly denied by Unite.

Truth be told, I was a bit hasty. It’s true that no formal decision has been made. What’s also true, and interesting is that – after the subject came up at Unite’s executive committee three weeks ago – the consensus seems to have shifted towards appointing the new director after the new gen sec is announced.

Which of course makes sense. You wouldn’t want to be appointed and then find, weeks later, that you had a new boss who didn’t have full confidence in you. A view shared within the Unite political department, I’m told.

Both Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint leaders, have been backing Irvin for the job. But some at Unite are unhappy at his record working for Gordon Brown. In his time at No 10, Irvin reportedly helped to block the implementation of the agency workers’ directive, resisted the introduction of one-member-one-vote for the National Policy Forum (a policy supported by almost all Labour’s unions, as I reported here) and, most emotively of all, supported the Hayden Philips review of party funding, which would have capped union donations to Labour and put the party-union link under severe strain.

A new candidate has arisen in the form of form of Byron Taylor, the thirtysomething national officer of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation. Having been lead officer in negotiations with Labour over policy issues, Taylor enjoys the advantage of having been on the unions’ side of the argument. He’s also a Unite member and former industrial organiser, with widespread respect in the union movement. My understanding is Taylor has been approached.

Ed, cuts and the union agenda

Sunday 26 September 2010

Perhaps the biggest policy issue for Ed Miliband’s Labour is how they respond to the coalition’s cuts programme and present their alternative economic strategy.

Right here – in Manchester – and right now, that means deciding what stance to take at party conference. There isn’t much time for deliberation.

Labour’s affiliated unions have mostly decided to go for cuts and the economy in choosing their motions for debate this year.

The GMB and train drivers’ union ASLEF are pushing for a motion on tax avoidance, keen to argue that billions can be raised by collecting more tax. Unison is demanding an alternative to attacks on public services and a review of the effects of privatisation, with a view to reversing the New Labour privatisation trend, while Unite and Community want to get conference to agree to an alternative economic and industrial strategy. Community, in particular, will seek to get in a mention of Sheffield Forgemasters, the plant denied an £80 million loan by the coalition government. This should go in, given that the Labour frontbench have been trying to make merry hell for Sheffield MP Nick Clegg.

Everyone at this conference agrees that the coalition’s cuts are wrong. The question is: how wrong? And what would you do instead? Will Ed Miliband agree with wannabe Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls that this is the time or investment, not cuts (contrary to Labour’s pre-election plan to start cutting the deficit this year)? And will he welcome motions calling on him to agree to that?

On the one hand, he risks being seen as a hard-left deficit denier by the media and public. On the other, he risks failing to put blue water between Labour and the coalition, and sounding too much like his brother.

Union and constituency reps are sitting down today to agree composite motions on the economy, taxation and other issues. Ed M and his team will be watching, at very least.

(from Tribune blog)

Rip up the TUC and start again, says union leader

Friday 10 September 2010

That’s the stark call from Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. This week’s Tribune contains one of the more interesting and thought-provoking interventions from a union leader on the eve of next week’s TUC Congress in Manchester (okay, so Bob Crow is calling for a general strike, according to The Times, but it’s not going to happen).

Never mind resisting the coalition government’s cuts – Hunt says that if unions want to survive, and stop haemorrhaging members (union membership is less than half what it was in the 1970s), they need to rethink how they work – and start at the top, with the TUC’s ruling general council.

Calling the process of electing the TUC general secretary “more akin to the election of a pope than of the chief voice of British workers”, she proposes that both the general secretary and the roughly 60-strong general council of union bosses and senior officials should be directly elected. Meanwhile, the format of Congress should be turned on its head – less preaching to the converted, more strategy and target setting, she says.

It’s unusual for a union leader to admit to structural flaws in the union movement in such a public way. She writes:

“Over the course of the previous administration, the trade union movement lost more than a quarter of a million members. Public sector density fell as state employment soared and private sector density collapsed as statutory recognition was, at last, granted.

“The truth is that we failed. Blaming Labour, blaming the Tories, blaming the judges and blaming our members will not distract from the fact that union membership fell because we did not do enough to persuade British workers that we were worth joining.”

Hunt goes on to say that there should be only one union per sector to avoid competition for members (her own is an example of this, having merged in 2006-7), and says that the TUC “needs to up its game and speak more forcefully on occasions”. She adds:

“We spend too much time at our own union conferences and at TUC Congress agreeing with one another and not enough time developing a strategic approach to increasing membership and improving organisation.

“We should be using these four days in Manchester to set priorities and targets in conjunction with unions for increasing our membership. That may well mean turning our policy forum on its head and abandoning the motion-based format.”

A former senior union official this week told me that there was some appetite in the movement for such changes, but that major union bosses would on the whole resent Hunt’s intervention. We shall see.

More details in this week’s Tribune.

Is Ed Miliband about to get into bed with John McDonnell?

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Since the Labour leadership contest kicked off, the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaision Organisation, which goes between the party and its 15 affiliated unions has been sending questions to the candidates, including on industrial issues. Many of the answers have been, well, inconsequential in the wider context of the party’s future.

But not this time. Ed Miliband’s camp has (belatedly) responded to a question about the UK’s trade union laws, often called the strictest in Western Europe (including, as Ed Williams says in Tribune this week, by Tony Blair). The questioner asked: “What one restriction do you think most urgently needs lifting and why?”

Ed Miliband’s reply was received today, and in it he says:

“I am determined to make sure that the Trade Unions are able to fairly represent the interests of their members and the wider workforce. Of course industrial action is a last resort, but the right to strike is a fundamental human right which must be protected and I will make sure it is. The British Airways dispute showed that the rules governing strike ballots are in urgent need of reform.”

Brother David – the only other serious frontrunner, according to commentators and the Labour Uncut blog, has said no such thing, and merely comments on unions being a good thing.

Lefty Labour MP John McDonnell has a private member’s bill on this very subject, which seeks to extend legal protection for unions who have ballots for industrial aciton, in order to prevent more British Airways-style injunctions. So I asked his team if he intended to support the bill.

A spokesperson replied that he hasn’t seen the bill, but added: “I do know that he is indeed concerned with the rules governing strike ballots and that technicalities should not interfere with democratic balloting processes.”

Of the other candidates, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott also says strike law should be looked at, and Ed Balls says unions should have better access to workers who want to join.

(from Tribune blog)