Sunday 29 June 2008

What are the rules of UNITE?

I've had quite a few people asking me this question, and there seems to be a lot of confusion around.

At the moment, UNITE is balloting members on whether they accept the proposed new rules of the union. If accepted, the new rules would come into force from 1st November 2008.

Until the new rules are adopted, the rules are made up of four documents.

At the top level, there is the instrument of amalgamation and general rules that members voted on when they approved the merger.

Underneath these two documents sit the old Amicus and TGWU rulebooks, which form the rules of the two sections of the union. These are subsidiary to the instrument of amalgamation and general rules and only apply in so far as they don't conflict with them.

If you want to understand the process of merger, it's well worth looking at the timeline.

National Shop Stewards Network conference

I took part in the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference yesterday, which I felt was another useful step in getting union activists together to exchange news and ideas, build links and promote solidarity. I helped run a workshop on organising in the workplace, which had a particular emphasis on young workers.

The anger and gradually increasing confidence over inflation and pay was very apparent, as was the enthusiasm for united action across different unions.

It was also clear that employers in public and private sector alike are trying to victimise good union reps - shooting the messenger rather than dealing with the issues. It is vital that there is a robust response to victimisation because that is the only way to stop it. Though the law bans victimisation for union activity, employers are not obliged to implement tribunal orders for reinstatement, and can merely pay compensation instead. It is a disgrace that this legal position continues after so many years of a supposedly Labour government. There's also a second reason why a robust response is important. Whether or not we are successful in stopping the victimisation, we can prevent it leaving union organisation in tatters. The purpose of victimisation is to smash the union - strong resistance (as in the case of Karen Reissmann) can leave the union strong even though she still isn't reinstated yet.

The frustration with New Labour and lack of an effective political voice for working people was also a recurring theme.

Monday 23 June 2008

Pay, Shell and the Government

As a movement, we aren't very good at celebrating our successes. So let's say it clearly - the outcome of the Shell dispute is a victory.

At a time when most workers are feeling the pinch, what we need is hope. A clear and public demonstration that union action is an effective way of increasing our wages is long overdue. Congratulations to those involved.

As an issue, it's clear that pay is becoming more and more important, with RPI rising by 4.3% and lower paid workers (who spend a higher proportion of earnings on food and fuel) often experiencing inflation much higher than that.

The government has put itself at the centre of the pay debate for some time, by trying to hold down public sector pay on the ludicrous notion that this would hold down inflation, rather than increasing the risk of recession. Alistair Darling now appears to be widening his attack to the private sector as well, calling on us all to accept pay rises far below inflation (around the government's 2% target).

It's a crazy strategy for avoiding recession, and a crazy strategy for a government whose support from working people is melting away. It's good to see Derek Simpson speaking out against it.

672 Fujitsu jobs at risk

On Friday, Fujitsu put the jobs of 672 people working on the NHS account at risk of redundancy, following the company's decision to pull out of contract negotiations and the NHS decision to terminate the contract.

As well as pressing Fujitsu to redeploy people, UNITE is also pressing the government to decide what will happen to the work in future. At present, staff simply don't know where they stand. The government should give a commitment that whatever supplier(s) take over the work, they will be obliged to take the staff under a TUPE transfer, protecting the jobs.

UNITE has begun briefing MPs and has issued press releases. It is good to see the FT picking this up, albeit not very accurately.

Monday 16 June 2008

Protecting jobs at Fujitsu - NHS fallout

Following the decision of Fujitsu to pull out of contract negotiations with the NHS and the subsequent termination of the contract, it's far from clear what this will mean for Fujitsu staff. We had nearly 1000 working on the contract, mainly in the Thames Valley, London and the south.

While UNITE is talking to Fujitsu about the future, the union is also urging the government to decide what it's going to do. Until the government decides what contracts there will be in future and who will get them, there's no possibility of preserving the jobs whether by keeping them in Fujitsu or TUPE transferring people to other suppliers.

Saturday 14 June 2008

Pay, Inflation, Credit Crunch and Shell

This morning I went over to the Stanlow fuel depot in Ellesmere Port, to show support for members there striking for better pay.

The pickets were understandably angry at the press reports claiming ridiculous earnings - many of which are either fictitious or based on massive amounts of overtime and unsocial hours.

The strikers work for two haulage companies doing fuel deliveries for Shell, whose profits are astronomical. Why shouldn't the drivers get a fair share?

The strike has been given a huge boost by solidarity from drivers for other oil companies, who had all refused to cross the picket lines. The drivers from this one depot normally deliver around 20 million litres of fuel a day, so the strike is certain to have a real impact.

After chatting to the pickets, I came back to Manchester and took part in a workshop on the Economics of the Pay Freeze hosted by Graham Turner, an economist whose book "Credit Crunch: Housing Bubbles, Globalisation And The Worldwide" was recently published by Pluto Press.

When most politicians and the media are either trying to blame working people for inflation or arguing that even if it isn't our fault, we are going to have to accept reduced living standards, this discussion couldn't have come at a better time.

Turner argues that the roots of the credit crunch lie in the way companies have taken advantage of defeats for organised workers to hold down real wages over the last few decades. At the same time, they have increased profits by moving work around the world in pursuit of lower wages. If wages are held down and well-paid jobs replaced by poor ones, this would normally cut consumer demand. As we haven't succeeded in winning good enough wages through collective struggle, working people have got by on credit (debt), which has expanded enormously. This expansion has happened in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, not just in the US, EU and Japan.

I've heard the growth of personal debt described elsewhere as "privatised Keynesianism" - whereas in the post-war decades governments would inject money into the economy to ward off recession, in recent years it is working people who have done so by building up debt.

Turner was extremely critical of governments and central banks who seem obsessed with warding off inflation following the credit crunch, whereas he sees the main risk being a 1930s style slump. He sees strong parallels with the experience in Japan over the last couple of decades.

It's clear that the causes of inflation are rising energy and food prices. Turner is amongst those who believe the world has reached "peak oil" production and that therefore oil prices are likely to continue rising as supply declines. He argues that the main causes of the rise in food prices are the massive increase in use of wheat for bio-fuels in the USA, combined with poor rice crops which may be linked to climate change. In previous famines those of us on the left could point to there being ample food in the world (the issue being poverty). If the oil price keeps rising, using wheat for fuel instead of food will become even more profitable and famine is likely to become and even bigger threat.

Not only aren't wages the cause of rising prices, many workers are seeing their living standards eroded further by inflation - we are failing to keep up. This is often masked by "average earnings" figures including a (very) lucky few.

So what solutions were discussed? Here were a few ideas:

  • Push for wage rises above inflation, protecting workers from rising prices and helping bring housing costs under control without the need for a slump
  • Introduce controls on credit to avoid a bubble building up again and prevent debt becoming a substitute for adequate wages
  • Instead of allowing banks to repossess homes and sell them cheap - further fueling the slump, why not bring them into public ownership, helping tackle the shortage of council housing while protecting people's homes?
  • Why not nationalise the oil company profits and spend them on a mixture of developing alternative energy provision/conservation and fuel subsidies for the poor?
  • Cut interest rates to prevent a slump, rather than pushing them up to ward off inflation which isn't coming from too much consumption
If we are entering a period of recession and rising fuel and food prices, it is inevitable that groups of workers will resist, regardless of which industry they work in, or whether they happen to be in the public or private sector. I think the danger is the idea that fighting to preserve your standard of living is a selfish act which will undermine the economy and leave other workers worse off. This idea is a cancer which could eat away at workers' confidence and unity. It's not enough just to fight for better pay - we have to put those fights in a wider context if we're not going to be on the back foot all the time. I thought the workshop was a useful attempt to grapple with these problems.

Sunday 1 June 2008

CWU gives notice of strike at Fujitsu Solihull

CWU members at Fujitsu Telecommunications Limited (FTEL) in Solihull have given notice of their intention to strike on 9th June, in protest against plans to end manufacturing in the UK.