Posts Tagged ‘Unison’

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.


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.

Unison’s “depressing” analysis of the industrial battles ahead

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The coalition government’s cuts to public sector pay, jobs and trade union rights will weaken the union movement on all sides. It’s a sobering report for a trade unionist to read. And no doubt it was sobering for Keith Sonnet, Unison’s deputy general secretary, to write.

In the report – circulated to union officials last week but written after the general election, and now seen by Tribune – Sonnet pulls no punches, summing up the challenges it faces from outside as “a depressing story”.

“The freezing of pay* and attacks on pensions will be unacceptable and force unions into industrial action that will be difficult to sustain”, he writes. “Locally deals will be sought to trade pay against jobs, but nationally it is not possible to implement such deals with meaning. These actions will undermine the bargaining machinery.”

It sounds as though he expects there to be little public support for strikes in the coming months and years as people soak up the pain from public service cuts and tax rises – not to mention if unemployment goes up.

If the government does want to actively undermine union power – as Sonnet says they do – there are many fronts to attack on.

Currently, unions are able to negotiate on pay and conditions nationally across the public sector – on behalf of doctors, nurses, other NHS staff, teachers, council workers and so on. Not to mention Whitehall civil servants.

We already know that national pay bargaining is going to be cut back: the Tories mentioned scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board in their election manifesto; and this week’s NHS white paper promises that national bargaining in the NHS will end. Sonnet reckons they will go for local government pay too.

Or as he puts it: “The growth in public sector jobs over the last 12 years will be reversed. Employers will seek to restructure to reduce costs with increased resort to outsourcing and strategic partnerships. Natural wastage may not be enough and enforced redundancies will occur.

“The greater fragmentation and restructuring of the public sector, together with greater emphasis on localisation and personalisation will put pressure on some of the national bargaining machinery. First, over time it will cover less of the workforce and secondly there will be ideological opposition”.

But he seems to have heard noises that not all pay bargaining is being tossed on the bonfire: “However, for key groups like doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants the Government will want to retain some form of pay review body”.

Meanwhile unions can expect more pain. “Recent months has seen the issue of trade union facilities being raised in the media by Conservative spokespeople, drawing attention to the cost to employers… Changes to the public sector will be used to weaken trade union influence and power. Time off for trade union activities will be restricted and employers may start to stop providing DOCAS [deduction of contributions at source, i.e. union subscriptions paid by the employer and deducted from pay packets]”.

Depressing indeed for unions. If the report is correct, it sounds as though they won’t be able to win every battle over cuts to pay, pensions, jobs and union rights. When I put this to Unison, they drew my attention to the strategy outlined by general secretary Dave Prentis in his speech to the union’s conference this year: “We will not take our members down dead end alleys. We will not exhaust ourselves in the first few months. But we will organise. We will organise public meetings and street demonstrations, in towns and cities, up and down the country. We will build lasting community alliances, to defend our public services. We will use our national campaign funds to raise public awareness about the consequences of cuts”. How that works out remains to be seen.

* there’ll be no pay rises for anyone earning over £21,000 in the public sector this year or next year, as George Osborne announced in the Budget.

(from Tribune blog)

Dave Prentis re-elected

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Since I’ve blogged about the Unison general secretary election, it’s only fair to note that Dave Prentis’ re-election as general secretary was announced this week. (If I sound a tad blasé, it’s because no shrewd observer expected him to lose). Prentis comfortably saw off challenges from Socialist Party member Roger Bannister and Unison United Left faction candidate Paul Holmes to get 67.2 per cent of the vote, down from 75.6 per cent in 2005.

Bannister polled 19.7 per cent and Holmes 13 per cent. Turnout was about 15.7 per cent (216,116 valid votes in all).

In a statement, Prentis said: “We are ready to face the tough times ahead, we are growing in strength and numbers.  Together we will stand up for quality public services, for the hardworking people that provide them, and for the poor, the sick and vulnerable people who rely on them for support.”

He’s right about the numbers – Unison put on over 30,000 members last year. What happens to those numbers, after the coalition government takes Labour’s public sector spending cut plans and builds on them, remains to be seen.

Paul Holmes to stand for Unison general secretary

Monday 1 February 2010

You read it here first (here to be precise). The man I tipped just over a week ago to be the left candidate for general secretary of Britain’s biggest public sector union – running against incumbent Dave Prentis – looks set to get endorsed as a candidate this week by the Unison United Left faction, having already told friends he wants to stand.

Paul Holmes is secretary of the Kirklees (West Yorkshire) Unison branch and a member of the Labour party and the Labour Representation Committee. This puts him firmly in the same camp as the other disaffected left-wingers in Unison, in both the Labour and Socialist parties, that are constantly clashing with the union leadership. Jon Rogers of the union’s national executive is clearly a fan, as he posts here in what looks like a thinly veiled advert for Holmes’ candidacy… Holmes needs about 20 nominations from branches to run; I suspect he’ll get them.

Oh and he blogs here.

Update: Bugger me if I didn’t forget the most important thing about Holmes’ candidacy – to outside observers anyway: he’s promised to give members an annual ballot on affiliation to Labour, which they don’t have currently.

Dave Prentis has a campaign website, and Unison Active has more on a third candidate, the Socialist Party’s Roger Bannister, as TonyC points out below.

Unison election: what happens next

Saturday 23 January 2010

Readers of more frequently updated blogs (and Tribune) will have noted that Unison’s Dave Prentis did indeed decide to stand for re-election, a decision that was promptly approved by his national executive committee this week.

In Tribune this week I also revealed that Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, has decided not to stand. This makes it likely that the election will be between Prentis – widely tipped to be endorsed by his NEC as their approved candidate at a meeting early next month – and a left candidate approved by the Unison United Left faction, who’ll need the support of 25 branches to stand.

NEC member and perennial critic of Unison head office Jon Rogers has a report of Wednesday’s meeting which is both colourful and revealing:

Many NEC members felt immediately driven to compete for superlatives with which to describe our General Secretary (and his passionate and unswerving commitment to our democracy).

Dave was brave. He was brilliant. Bob Oram from the North West Region went furthest when he said that he hoped that there would not need to be an election as we would all unite behind Dave. (I have a feeling that that approach to socialist politics – one party which gets 100% of the vote – was tried somewhere in the twentieth century and did not get on too well…)

Leading NEC member, Paul Holmes made an obvious and important point when Dave left the meeting[…] Dave had told us first that he would graciously permit an election, then that he would be a candidate, and then which timetable he felt we ought to have for the election.

Paul wondered whether there might have been a conflict of interest in the leading candidate for election to a post recommending the timetable for that election (but in any case the candidate had in effect determined that timetable himself by the timing of his announcement of his intentions).

Jon goes on to say that:

Paul was also first to respond when our President, Gerry Gallagher, suggested that anyone else who might be seeking nominations should withdraw from the discussion. As Paul said, NEC members had had no notice of the decision of our General Secretary, and no one could yet know whether they would be a candidate.

This is not suprising. Paul Holmes is a well-known figure among the Unison left and tipped to be their candidate. He has the advantage of being both a left-wing critic of Unison policy and a Labour Party supporter, which prevents Prentis from writing him off as a “trot” or similar. Looks like he’s considering his options.

So what happens now? Nominations close on 1 April (insert joke here) but Unison United Left wants to pick a candidate long before then. So watch this space.

Will Unison election overshadow general election?

Monday 18 January 2010

First one, now two union elections threaten to overshadow Labour’s prospects in the general election. This week, Unison – the biggest public sector union and one of Labour’s biggest donors, will decide whether to hold an election this summer for general secretary. And there may be a challenger in the wings, which would drag the union’s loyal links to Labour into the spotlight.

Dave Prentis, Unison’s current general secertary and a Labour loyalist, was last elected in 2005, and by law union bosses have to be elected every five years. But here’s the thing. Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Prentis was born in 1948, not 1950, and turns 62 this year. The law also states that a union leader within five years of retirement can stay on till they do retire – in 2013 in Prentis’ case.

But the last union general secretary to try to stay in office past five years without an election was Derek Simpson – and he was forced to stand for election in the end. True, he’d have been over 65 by the end of his term. But Unison’s national executive have been asked to rule on the issue at a meeting this week, suggesting that there’s no great certainty. The meeting was unscheduled and announced with just two weeks’ notice.

Will Prentis tell his executive he wants to stay on without a vote? Will he call an election and run? Or call an election and not run? I don’t know.

But I have learned that one person is being encouraged to seek to replace Prentis. Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, is the preferred candidate of a number of senior figures in the union, according to reliable accounts. Wakefield is seen as somewhat to the left of Prentis, and several of her supporters expect her to hold a ballot on the union’s affiliation to Labour and shake up the political fund. (Disclaimer: this blog in no way suggests that she will do that, or even that she’ll stand, and has no desire to put words into Heather Wakefield’s mouth!)

If an election is called and Wakefield wins, she could be in power by the end of June. So the direction of Britain’s second biggest Labour-supporting union would be being argued over at the same time as Labour was trying to drum up support… including among Unison’s 1.3 million members in local government and other public services. Core vote, anyone?

This is exciting stuff. If Prentis decides to soldier on, one of Unison’s left-wing activists could well mount a legal challenge. Even if an election is called, it wouldn’t necessarily please everyone. NEC member Jon Rogers (who incidentally challenged Prentis for the top job  in 2005) has blogged about how he fears the union being forced to hold a snap election that would conclude just after the general election – an unecessary distraction from the issue of keeping Labour in power, he argues, when an election could be held on a longer timetable.

Unison head office will doubtless want to avoid the acrimony that accompanied the Unite Amicus election in 2008. Question is, can they avoid it? And when it’s all over, will the union opt to tighten the financial screws on the party?

Update: The Unite election was of course in 2009, not 2008 – my mistake.

Also, for the avoidance of doubt this blogpost is a personal blog based on personal information not obtained through Tribune.

Unison agrees with TaxPayers’ Alliance

Tuesday 15 September 2009

As I write, Brown is addressing the TUC Congress (I think). Unions have been drafting questions which hand-picked members of theirs are ready to ask him. Which questions get asked is down to the TUC president and officials, but I thought it’d be interesting to find out what the questions were.

I didn’t get very far, but I did manage to extract from Unison that they were planning to ask Brown if he will “make the bankers” pay; that is, ensure that they pay back the money they were bailed out with. (General secretary Dave Prentis said much the same thing himself).

That was yesterday. Today Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, writes on ConservativeHome:

“Some estimates suggest that of the total £1.2 trillion made available to the banks, taxpayers could lose at least £200 billion… whether the banks siphon off our money directly in the form of massive government handouts or indirectly from charging us more for services and loans and paying us less interest on savings, it will be the British taxpayer that foots the bill for the hundreds of billions in toxic loans, credit default swaps, collateral debt obligations and whatever other financial schemes… It makes political and financial sense to be tough on the bonuses of the state-run banks. Bankers’ bonuses were hugely unpopular before the crash and they have become a matter of public interest since taxpayers’ money bailed them out from their own mistakes. If the government is to claw back any of that £200 billion, it means closely monitoring the spending of these banks to give them an extra incentive to end their reliance on state handouts.” (my emphasis)

Well, at least they agree on something: the bailout should be clawed back. Just the small matters of national pay bargaining, public sector pensions and whatnot where they part company.

The PCS tries to bring the TUC together, again

Wednesday 5 August 2009

A friend of mine recently e-mailed to ask me for information about the Public and Commercial Services Union, which with over 300,000 members is the fifth biggest in the UK. In my reply I said: “As the TUC congress approaches, you can expect [general secretary Mark] Serwotka to be at the forefront of demands for concerted action to fight the Treasury’s efficiency programme and pay restraint.”

Lo and behold, I was right. A motion to the TUC congress (too long to copy and paste here; have a look at motion p49 on the draft agenda if you’re interested) from the PCS is callng on unions, under the leadership of the TUC, to band together in support of “protection of public services and an end to privatisation; ending the systematic tax evasion by corporations and the current tax privileges of the wealthy; opposing wage cuts” and more.

I don’t think it will lead to anything much. At last year’s TUC there was a strong motion passed on co-ordinated strike action against low pay which came to nothing. The year before there was another motion passed on co-ordinated action (the word ‘strike’ did not appear). Again, nothing. The PCS is keen to link up with other unions; other unions less so.

This isn’t really about ideology. What’s being demanded here is not revolutionary socialism. It’s closer to Labour party policy circa 1994 when John Smith died and the age of New Labour was ushered in. As far as privatisation goes, Unison are with them on that one; but they’ve never shown any willingness to link up with the PCS over it. Rivalry and suspicion between unions is likely to be factor, as is fear among Unite, Unison and other Labour-affiliated unions of damaging a Labour government.

Labour and the unions: Prentis lets the genie out

Wednesday 17 June 2009


That was my response on seeing what Unison’s Dave Prentis told his conference yesterday, at which he effectively said that a number of Labour MPs risk losing union funding to their constituencies. “No more blank cheques”, says Unison’s press release. It doesn’t get much more blunt than that.

I wasn’t the only one. Sources tell me that very few people knew of the general secretary’s remarks before he made them. And the remarks themselves are both astonishing and important.

Astonishing because Unison has shown itself until now to be a diehard supporter of the Labour Party and the Labour Government (much though it criticises policies such as the Private Finance Initiative). It was simply not done to mention the money – millions of pounds – it pays to Labour Party HQ, MPs through their constituencies and for campaigning support, every year. Cash for policies was never raised – partly because it is a stick the Conservatives used to beat Labour with, accusing it of being under the thumb of unions. Until now.

Important because it’s a step change in how Britain’s biggest public sector union, and its second biggest union overall, works. Or as a senior Unison officer said: “The genie’s out of the bottle”. Other Labour-supporting unions such as the CWU get the chance to debate their political funding at their annual conference. Not Unison: the obscure Rule J (I’ll spare you the details) means that the topic is off-limits.

Constituency funds are managed by regional committees and, as late as last week, I was being told that the situation would remain thus. But the rules seem to have been, erm, worked around. I can reveal there was an emergency meeting of Unison’s national Labour Link Committee last night, described to me as a “formality”. Prentis has spoken. As an activist put it: “The old settlement of Unison Labour Link being an autnomous part of the union is gone.”

Labour Party staff ought to be sweating. This is another snapping of threads in the ropes holding Labour’s trade union link together. And the fact nobody saw it coming makes it all the more powerful.

P.S. Cynics may suggest this is why the list of Unison Labour MPs disappeared from Unison’s website a couple of weeks ago.