Sunday 30 March 2008

Prices and Wages

Pay is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for working people, with prices rising at over 4% and many months showing average earnings lagging behind, eating into our standard of living.

But "average" earnings can be pretty misleading as an indication of what working people are getting - they include the city bonuses and fat-cat salaries.

The government is also trying to muddy the waters by promoting the "Consumer Price Index" (CPI), which excludes housing costs. This may be useful for some purposes, but is utterly irrelevant to the cost of living for most of us!

There are some excellent resources available online to give you the data you need for campaigning:

1) Data about the Retail Price Index (RPI) can be found at

2) There's a wealth of information about earnings at, including data about the Average Earnings Index (AEI).

3) You can find out information about most employers from the TUC's excellent "WorkSmart" web site: This includes a lot of information extracted from the company accounts, including turnover, profits, directors pay, numbers of employees, holding companies, subsidiaries etc.

Most people find statistics a bid daunting, and they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I bet there's someone in nearly every workplace who can use Excel or some other spreadsheet to do you a pretty graph of the relevant data which would look great on a leaflet. Here's one someone did for us to use at Fujitsu:

Has your pay gone up 17% in the last 4 years?

The recent narrowing gap between prices and earnings shows how inflation has started eating into our standard of living. We need stronger unions!

Friday 28 March 2008

Draft UNITE rulebook

Officially, despite being on the Amicus NEC, I haven't seen a draft of any part of the proposed new UNITE rulebook - I've been in the same position as the vast majority of Amicus members - in the dark. It's therefore of great interest to see that Gill George has published on her blog what she believes to be the draft rulebook.

Gill's post raises a number of valid concerns about the draft. Here are my initial observations (mainly a comparison with the current Amicus structure):

National bodies are generally elected through the regions, rather than from national conferences. In some cases this will be beneficial, increasing accountability to the regions. In other cases (for example where a sector has several distinct components) it could reduce accountability.

Pace: The general cycle in the new rulebook is 2-yearly, as in the Amicus rulebook. Let's hope we don't still have to submit motions a year before a conference - a good way to ensure they're less relevant.

Rule 4 (contributions & benefits): The level of dispute benefit (stike pay) is not defined in rule, but set by the NEC

Rule 6 (lay office): NEC members being accountable to committees is a good idea, though it's unclear how that would work. Learning Reps are omitted from the list of "accountable representatives of workers" in clause 3, so it would require an NEC decision to allow them to hold lay office.

Rule 7 (sectors): Sector structure to be determined in May (i.e. AFTER the first UNITE NEC replaces the JEC) - this is a key issue for our sector. Sectors still have no money. The national conference looks even more toothless, no longer electing the national committee or sending motions into the wider union. There's no mention of regional sector conferences any more.

Rule 8 (regions): Only get up to 1% of subs, lower than either TWGU or Amicus. Regional responsibility for affiliating to local trades councils seems odd. In some ways the area activist meetings and committees seem strengthened (the regional committee is partially elected through them) but no frequency is defined and it's up to the Regional Secretary to call them. Regional Committees can have sub-committees and delegate powers to them - a really vital step for meaningful lay control.

Equality structures: Rules 9 & 11 have the young members' and equality committees elected from existing activist bodies. This may make them more representative, but would get in the way of using these structures to bring through a new layer of activists. No money.

Rule 9 (Young members): Unclear who goes to the national conference or what it's for.

Rule 10 (retired members): almost completely disconnected from the rest of the union structure. No money.

Rule 11 (equalities): Clause 2 on gender and ethnic balance is strong.

Rule 12 (policy conference): 1 delegate for 2000 members - as our union has got bigger the conference stays the same size and gets more distant from the membership. Branches can submit policy motions. Standing Order Committee consists of delegates from each region.

Rule 13 (rule amendment): 1 delegate for 4000 members! Takes place 4-yearly.

Rule 14 (NEC): Black and Ethnic Minority (BEM) members get a full seat. Women and BEM seats within other constituencies. NEC members who don't turn up or send apologies can be removed (we could have used this one in Amicus!). Can delegate powers to any person or committee in the rulebook. Officers are appointed, not elected. All promotion, allocation or reallocation of offices is supposed to be subject to NEC approval. Other than a "Finance & General Purposes" committee there's no reference to other sub-committees, but rule 29 clause 3 implies there could be.

Rule 15 (General Secretary/s): Officers under the control of the GSes subject to the "ultimate" control of the NEC

Rule 16 (elections): Only women vote for the women's seats and similar arrangements for BEM seats.

Rule 17 (branches): Preference for workplace rather than geographical branches. No facility for local industrial branches (like my own "Greater Manchester IT branch"). Clause 2 could cause problems for industrial branches not getting new members allocated to them. No subs income defined. Clause 5 is bizarre - how can a branch appeal against its suspension if it's already been suspended and can't meet to discuss it? There's a more sensible way of approving special branch meetings or changing branch meeting dates. Quorum of 5 members.

Rule 18 (workplace representation): No money. No "Green" or "Environmental Reps". Clause 5 says that the constituency of a rep is their workplace, which conflicts with the (good) practice in most large workplaces of dividing it into multiple constituencies and electing one or more reps from each. There's no defined structure within the workplace - committees, convenors, senior reps etc.

Rule 19 (funds): Clause 8 is worrying, maybe because it's so badly worded. It could be interpreted to mean that all hardship funds, stewards funds etc are included in the union's accounts, or even that you couldn't circulate any appeal for funds for any campaign without approval from all over the place. We had a "policy" nearly this stupid in the dying days of MSF, and it was used to victimise a convenor doing his job.

Rule 21 (expenses): Rules on expenses to be ratified by policy conference.

Rule 22 (Political organisation): Explicitly and exclusively tied to the Labour Party. Some of the fund is under regional control. Regional Political conferences (the bottom level of the structure) are only open to CLP delegates and individual LP members elected from other union structures. This means that (as in Amicus rules) even the vast majority of Labour Party members are excluded, never mind the rest of the membership.

Rule 23 (political fund): Clause 8 doesn't yet specify the size of the political levy.

Rule 25 (Republic of Ireland political fund): A masterpiece of drafting. Taken literally, doesn't this mean that the affiliation etc is still to the British Labour Party?

Rule 29 (membership discipline): Clause 3 refers to a "branch committee" which isn't defined anywhere. Overall, this is a clearer process than in Amicus, with issues more likely to be dealt with locally. The bit on the appeals "tribunal" is odd - can a tribunal consist of only one person? It seems anti-democratic to give the final decision to someone appointed by ACAS rather than to a body elected by the members.

What do you think?

Friday 21 March 2008

Murderous b%#?&$£s

I'm used to getting angry at how New Labour ministers suck up to the CBI and company bosses who are busy throwing our members out of work, breaking safety law or attacking union organisation. But Kim Howells performance in sucking up to General Montoya takes the biscuit.

General Montoya is the Commander of Colombian National Army, who even the US Department of State says is involved with the militia groups who murder our brothers and sisters in the Columbian trade unions. Getting bullied or sacked for standing up for your rights in the UK is scary enough. But in Columbia more than 550 trade unionists have been assassinated since 2002 - with government backing.

Meanwhile our government continues giving military aid to the Columbian government, and Kim Howells poses for photos with General Montoya and has now even made false comments linking a solidarity organisation to terrorism - putting the lives of trade unionists at further risk.

I'm delighted that UNITE has called on Kim Howells to withdraw his comments or be sacked.

We should draw the wider lesson too. With our government signed up to the "war on terror" it's easy for people to be labeled "terrorist" just because they challenge US policy, wear the wrong clothes or pray in the wrong way. Repressive legislation and racism are both inextricably linked to our government's attachment to an aggressive US foreign policy. To defend our rights and freedoms, and those of working people around the world, UNITE needs to take a clear position against the war. Both Amicus & TGWU sections have policy against the war, but while TGWU is affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition, Amicus is not yet.

EEE&IT and the new UNITE rulebook

I previously reported that I had written to the UNITE Rules Commission about the concerns of activists about the draft proposed sector structure for the new union and its impact on the IT industry in particular.

I have now had a response from Steve Davison, who chairs both the Amicus section NEC and the Rules Commission. He has advised that the Rules Commission noted the letter and that this is a matter for the Joint Executive Council (JEC). I have written to ask Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, the Joint General Secretaries, to bring the matter to the attention of the JEC.

Bullying & Stress

I attended UNITE's north-west Health & Safety Reps' conference on Tuesday. It was an impressive event, with about 200 H&S reps in attendance. The regional conferences are a positive initiative, which I hope will be developed further.

The event included a session by the HSE on stress, focusing on the "management standards" they have set out, intended to get employers (with unions) taking a proactive approach to remove the organisational causes of stress, rather than dealing with it as individual weakness. The HSE has published quite a bit of material on their web site. Annoyingly, they aren't making the key publication available online, but charging for copies.

There was a lot of anger at the cuts in funding for the HSE and safety enforcement generally - the government are going along with the CBI view that safety is "red tape", despite the terrible toll of deaths and injuries in our workplaces each year.

Bullying in the workplace is a major contributor to stress, so it's good to see Computer Weekly covering UNITE's survey on bullying in the IT industry.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Magnificent demo: 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Ericsson factory closure threat

UNITE has issued a press release about the threat to close the Ericsson factory in Nottingham, which employs 350 people.

Not got your ballot paper?

If you're a UNITE (Amicus section) member, today is the day from which you should be complaining if you haven't had your ballot paper for the Executive Council elections.

Amicus section members
As the union's web site explains, there are a few exceptions.

You won't get a ballot paper if:

  1. You joined on 4th February 2008 or later, or
  2. You are a retired member and your regional seat is uncontested: South West, West Midlands, Scotland and Wales
Otherwise, if you haven't had one or more ballot papers, you should contact the Membership Department on 0845 8504242 (UK) or 1890 946241 (Ireland).

TGWU section members
You should complain if you haven't received a ballot paper by 18th March. The union web site explains the criteria etc.

Go Whistle

An excellent piece in today's Guardian about the sacking of NHS whistleblowers Graham Pink and Karen Reissmann.

Monday 10 March 2008

Members at Shelter on strike again

The general public image of the "Not For Profit" sector is pretty "fluffy", yet the reality of employment practices is often pretty grim. Bosses (often pretty well paid) often expect those at the bottom of the pile to put up with anything if it helps achieve the organisation's objectives. Low pay and bullying are rife.

It's sad to see members at Shelter being forced to take a second day's strike action today to resist attempts to force them to sign up to new employment contracts.

I popped down to the Shelter office in Manchester this morning before work to show some support for the members braving the storms on the picket line.

Just because they're doing a useful job, why should they have to put up with being treated so shoddily?

If the government continues to block council house building - driving up the cost of housing - we're likely to see even more repossessions and homelessness in coming months.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Private Equity v Democracy

When most of us have such a low opinion of the vast majority of politicians, it's easy to lose sight of why democracy has always been a central plank of the labour movement agenda.

Before working people got the vote, parliament was simply a club for the rich and powerful to sort out their affairs - almost invariably at our expense.

Previous generations of working people fought to gain more power by both winning the vote. The rich and powerful sought to safeguard their interests by moving lots of decisions out of parliament, to prevent us getting our grubby hands on them.

The push for nationalisation in the early and mid 20th century was an attempt to counter this by bringing more of the economy under democratic control. However, in many cases the extent of democracy actually achieved in state-owned industries was extremely limited.

Since the 1980s the rich and powerful have been on the offensive, trying to roll back what limited democratic say we've had. Think about a few examples:

  • Privatisation
  • Stopping council house building in favour of property speculation
  • "Independence" of the Bank of England (from democratic control)
  • The World Trade Organisation (WTO) imposing rules which over-ride national laws, so that taking account of labour standards, health & safety or the environment in trade is banned
  • The rise of QUANGOs
  • Chopping up public services into "trusts", "foundations" etc
  • Government accepting "commercial confidentiality" to stop voters knowing how our money is being spent with private companies
If the people we elect go along with declining influence over our lives, is it any wonder that voters take a decreasing interest in who is elected?

Another factor is the international nature of business undermining the national nature of democracy. For example, companies play governments off against each other for tax-breaks and grants.

The TUPE legistation has given us some limited protection when our jobs are bought and sold between different companies. But the "share purchase" method of takeover completely bypasses this protection. You can be working for company X, all its shares are bought by company Y, which may have a radical impact on your future, and you currently have no say at all.

This is becoming a bigger issue at the moment because of the rise of Private Equity companies. Not only do they buy business through share purchase, avoiding TUPE, but they are not publicly listed companies, so are even more secretive than your normal PLC.

In it's campaign to give working people more say over private equity, UNITE is focussing on the example of Telent (formerly Marconi, GEC etc) in our sector, which was bought by the Pensions Corporation. There's more information about the general issue on both the Amicus and TGWU web sites. Why we don't have the same information on both is a mystery to me!

If you're interested in the wider issues about democracy, there's a brilliant book by the late Paul Foot "The Vote - How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined".

Wednesday 5 March 2008

UNITE NEC elections - TGWU side

While the list of nominations for the 40 Amicus section seats on the new UNITE Executive Council is published on the union web site, trying to find out who's standing for the 40 TGWU section seats is more difficult.

I wouldn't guarantee it's accurate, but the rumour is that a massive 25 of the 40 seats were elected unopposed - apparently by candidates backed by the TGWU Broad Left.

I believe there are still contests in:

  • Civil Air Transport
  • Docks & Waterways
  • Food, Drink & Tobacco
  • Passenger Transport
  • Road Transport (Commercial)
  • Region 1 (South East & East Anglia)
  • Region 4 (Wales)
  • Region 5 (Southern)
  • Region 8 (North & North-East)
  • National Black And Ethnic Minority
Whichever section of UNITE you're in - if you get a vote - USE IT.

Outsourcing, TUPE and Organising

To most working people, outsourcing is seen as a threat. The "TUPE" regulations provide some protection, but don't adequately protect pensions in particular. Union representation during consultation over TUPE transfers is vital to ensure the rights and terms & conditions of employees are protected. Even so, many people ask why an employer would outsource work unless they wanted to wash their hands of the workforce as costs are driven down at their expense.

One of the strange things about being a union activist in the IT industry is that we are usually on the other end of the outsourcing equation. All the big IT companies increasingly offer services rather than products - they offer to run an organisation's IT functions for them - outsourced.

When groups of unionised workers are outsourced from other industries into IT companies, it is really helpful when the reps and officers dealing with the transfer make contact with the reps and officers dealing with the proposed new employer. They can often suggest questions to ask during the TUPE consultation or ring the alarm bells when the whole truth isn't being told. Making contact in this way is also the best guarantee that the workers transferring maintain and develop effective union organisation post-transfer. Ironically, one effect of outsourcing is to spread union organisation into many companies and sectors that were previously un-unionised. This is a flip-side to outsourcing that unions should make the most of.

Whereas in most industries, TUPE transfers are relatively rare, for reps in the IT industry they are among our bread and butter issues. Every time contracts are won and lost, groups of IT workers are shuffled around between the companies. In some IT companies it is actually a minority of the workforce who chose to work there.

Just as we need reps and officers in other sectors to be on-the-ball when staff are TUPEing into our sector, we all need to be on our toes when these TUPEs between IT companies take place. Usually there is already UNITE organisation in the receiving company, with reps who've been through it before. Often the contract changing hands involves more than one company, either when services are delivered through a consortium or joint-venture, or when a prime contractor sub-contracts much of the work. There is no excuse for us treating these transfers separately. We should all be comparing notes about the various employers, not allowing them to play us off against each other.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Reinstate Karen Reissmann

I went along to the campaign meeting on Monday night, discussing how we continue the campaign to get sacked local nurse and UNISON activist Karen Reissmann reinstated.

Karen was victimised for speaking out about problems in the trust, where she led a fight against cut-backs in mental health services. Now it emerges that the trust management doing their sums to justify the cuts failed to count so many patients that they are equivalent to the work of a whole team. The community staff who the trust has been trying to force into other jobs have now been told that they are needed after all. This is an important win. But for the resistance of the staff, users and community, these jobs would have gone long ago. A grievance about similar issues for Occupational Therapists is awaiting a response.

If trust management could count, or had listened to staff and users who highlighted the error, perhaps they wouldn't have proposed the cuts, Karen wouldn't have needed to speak out, and the whole dispute could have been avoided. If Sheila Foley and the trust management had any decency they would resign.

On past performance we would be ill advised to put our faith in Sheila & Co having any decency, so it's good news that the campaign is making more plans to keep the pressure up, including:

  1. Campaign organising meeting, 6pm, Monday 7th April, Mechanics Institute
  2. Public meeting & social, 7:30pm, Monday 14th April, Manchester. This is timed to be a fringe event for the UNISON Health Conference, as well as being a public meeting for Manchester supporters.
  3. Please badger your MP to sign Early Day Motion 443 calling for Karen's reinstatement.
  4. National Lobby of Parliament (called by UNISON nationally), Wednesday 7th May. There will be a meeting hosted by Tony Lloyd MP. Transport from Manchester being organised.

International Women's Day, Lil-lets and Pensions

The Amicus Manchester Area Activists Quarterly decided to do some campaigning on Saturday (which is International Women's Day) in support of members at Lil-lets who are protesting against attacks on their pensions.

If you can lend a hand, please meet outside Manchester Town Hall at 10:30am. The plan is to have a stall inside the Town Hall, where International Women's Day festivities are taking place, and also to do some leafleting on Market Street. Help how you can.

Monday 3 March 2008

UNITE NEC Election - Voting Opens

Today is the first day of voting in the elections for UNITE's first Executive Council, so members should start receiving ballot papers now.

The pattern with all postal ballots is that most people vote straight away - or not at all, so the higher the profile of the election within each workplace the better.

For more information about the elections (and the candidates I'm supporting), please see my previous posts or

Voting is taking place in both the Amicus and TGWU sections of UNITE, but information about candidates in the TGWU section is hard to come by.

Amicus section members who joined before 4 February 2008 (except retired members in the South West, West Midlands, Scotland and Wales regions) and who have not received a voting paper by Wednesday 12 March 2008 should contact the Membership Department on 0845 8504242 (UK) or 1890 946241 (Ireland). The Amicus web site includes more information about which ballot papers you should receive (towards the bottom of the page).

TGWU section members who haven't received a ballot paper by 18 March should contact the T&G section ballot enquiry service on 0800 374 461. For members in the Republic of Ireland the number is 1800 535 141.