Thursday 30 October 2008

Media finally begins to pick up Coop offshoring scandal

It is remarkable how little media coverage there has been of the plan to offshore to India work for Cooperative Financial Services (CFS) currently being carried out by Steria in Manchester - especially when this goes completely against the Coop's carefully cultivated brand image and is leading to threats of compulsory redundancies and a strike ballot.

Good to see this report, albeit in a fairly obscure publication.

IT National Advisory Committee

Last week I took part in a very well attended and interesting UNITE "National Advisory Committee" for the IT industry. Stripped of the jargon, this means a meeting of union reps from various companies in the IT industry.

The process of groups with union organisation TUPEing into the IT industry continues. In terms of UNITE organisation, this is predominantly from the Finance sector at the moment.

We had a video link-up and presentation from India, where we are building links with UNITES (no relation), a union beginning to build in the IT and Business Process Outsourcing industries. These are small but very important beginnings. When workers in the UK see employers cutting jobs and transferring work to India it is too easy to see Indian workers as the enemy, rather than seeing them as potential allies in resisting the attempts by employers to drive down pay and conditions globally. There was a good discussion about practical ways of supporting each other.

We had a brief update on the HQ response to the motion passed at the sector conference about the planned UNITE "IT and Communications" sector. Not much had changed, though we were told that the Communication Managers Association (CMA) were happy with being in our sector, even if we didn't think it was appropriate.

We had a presentation from Incomes Data Services (IDS) about pay trends in the IT industry, which provoked a considerable amount of discussion. They get data from both employers and unions, and are keen to get more so that the quality of their research is improved. We also had a look at a report from e-Skills UK, which is the "sector skills council". This sort of pay data is invaluable for any rep negotiating pay.

We had a brief update on the union's work on learning in our sector from Sunil Patel, who has been heavily involved in the development of the ITQ qualification, which are aimed at IT users. It's all too easy to forget that large numbers of those working in the IT industry aren't in IT-based jobs or don't have qualifications in IT.

We discussed progress with organising and recruitment in the sector. Best progress is being made in EDS and Fujitsu, where there have been sustained and fairly systematic efforts to build the union. A bigger, stronger union means better results for employees. This doesn't just mean people filling in Direct Debit forms - it has to mean getting members involved, recruiting and training new reps etc.

We discussed about the situation at Steria in Manchester, where members are being balloted for action as part of a campaign against compulsory redundancies. As is normally the case when you get a bunch of reps together, the discussion produced some fresh ideas for taking the campaign forward. We all felt that in the current economic climate it is becoming even more important to take a stand against redundancies wherever possible.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Cooperative, not! Steria dispute update.

UNITE has produced a helpful 1-page summary of the dispute at Steria in Manchester, where members are balloting for strike action against compulsory redundancies as jobs are offshored to India.

The jobs are providing IT services to Cooperative Financial Services (CFS), which is a merger of what used to be the Coop Bank and Cooperative Insurance Services (CIS).

It is vital that we see resistance to job losses starting as quickly as possible - this will be much harder as unemployment rises. Get those messages of support pouring in - the summary includes details of where to send them.

Saturday 25 October 2008

Inflation - what is it really?

Those of us who have to negotiate pay with our employers get very annoyed by the way the government and media confuse discussions about inflation and pay. They try to suggest that measures other than the Retail Price Index (RPI) are relevant for pay negotiations. Particular favourite for the government has been the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which excludes many items which form a substantial part of the cost of living for most human beings.

Ironically, the September figures which recently came out showed CPI actually higher than RPI, but I think it would be a mistake for union activists to chop and change rather than sticking to the idea that it's the real cost of living that matters.

One of the other problems in talking about inflation is that the figures are averages and the experience of inflation by different people varies widely. Current inflation is being driven by high fuel and food costs, which make up a large proportion of spending for those on low incomes, so the inflation experienced by the low paid is much higher than the average. Similarly, if you spend a lot on clothes, luxuries and electronic goods (a pattern of spending more associated with the rich) many of these prices have actually fallen.

Some time ago the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced a personal inflation calculator, which seemed like a really good idea. Unfortunately, for technical reasons, it was not very accessible - particularly from workplaces where the user may not have total control over how their computer is set up.

I'm pleased to see that the BBC has made available a version of the personal inflation calculator which is much more accessible - though it does still seem to require JavaScript to be enabled in your browser which not everyone will have. Why not get people in your workplace to use it and circulate the results as part of a pay campaign?

Amendments to the Employment Bill

A number of MPs have succeeded in tabling amendments to the Employment Bill which is currently going through parliament. They replicate some aspects of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, and aim to address some of the serious shortfalls in our human rights.

The specific clauses cover:

  1. Protection from dismissal and victimisation for those taking part in official strike action
  2. Making it easier for unions to conduct ballots and making employers cooperate with the process
  3. Closing loopholes in the protection against employment agencies supplying replacement labour during strikes
There are more detailed explanations and model letters you can send to your MP prepared by both the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti Union Laws and the Institute of Employment Rights.

Friday 24 October 2008

Agency & Temporary Workers Directive approved by MEPs

On Wednesday the European Parliament gave a second reading to the Temporary (Agency) Workers Directive. Employer reaction has been predictably negative at this small step to restrict the unfair treatment of vulnerable workers.

This is an important decision not just for those of us having to temp, but for everyone. The position of temps is a good example of the old union adage "an injury to one is an injury to all". Agency labour being used to undercut terms and conditions for permanent staff is a familiar complaint in many workplaces. Hopefully the legislation will discourage the long-term use of temps.

It is a disgrace that the UK government did the CBI's bidding and blocked this legislation for so long. Even now, the UK intends to allow temps to be discriminated against for the first 12 weeks of any job - unlike many countries where protection is from day-one.

I hope the union will swiftly issue guidance to negotiators on the issue, so that we can start establishing more agreements with employers on implementation. This is particularly important because it's not easy to get behind the hype and work out what the directive will actually mean.

Firstly, you have to find the damn thing. I think the version on the BERR web site is the final one.

Secondly, you have to work out what it means.

The principle is of equal treatment (after 12 weeks in the UK) compared to a directly employed worker doing the same job, but the principle does not apply to everything.

  • It covers the basic working and employment provisions
  • It specifically covers pay, working time, overtime, breaks, rest periods, night work, paid holidays and public holidays, protection from discrimination
  • It specifically includes basic working and employment provisions arising from collective agreements
  • The definition of what counts as "pay" is left up to member states
  • Member states can decide whether temps are included or excluded from the thresholds in procedures for setting up bodies to represent workers in the "user undertaking" - this could affect European Works Councils (EWCs), national Information & Consultation (I&C) bodies and union recognition.
  • User organisations must provide information about the use of temporary workers to EWCs and I&C bodies
  • Temps must be informed about vacant posts in the user undertaking and have the same opportunity as other workers in the user undertaking to find permanent employment. I find this provision confusing, as other workers in the user undertaking presumably already have permanent employment, so what does it mean?
  • Temps must have equal access to amenities and collective services (canteens, childcare, transport etc) unless there are genuine reasons
The passing of the Directive is a step forward, albeit a smaller one than could have been achieved if the UK government had not been so vigorous in pursuing the employers' agenda.

We need to keep the pressure up on the UK government to transpose the Directive into UK law as quickly and favourably as possible.

It's also interesting to read that employers are concerned that a deal on the Working Time Directive may be voted down by MEPs. The CBI claim the deal (which would make things worse in a number of ways) was agreed by the TUC as a trade-off for getting the legislation for temporary workers. This is something that UNITE denies, but which the government appears to believe - apparently there was even reference to it in the paperwork for the recent Warwick 2 National Policy Forum.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

UNITE EEE&IT sector conference report published

The report from the Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT national sector conference in June has now been published on the union's web site.

Opposing 3400 UK job cuts at HP

UNITE is starting a campaign over the massive proposed job cuts at HP, which took over EDS not so long ago.

In the current economic climate I think it is incredibly important that the union doesn't just deal with redundancies in the same way we might have a year ago. The consequences of redundancy for individuals are much more severe as we go into recession. But also the options for resistance have got wider. Firstly the ideological prop of "market forces" to justify decisions that hurt working people has got a lot weaker. Secondly the scope for gaining widespread support from across the movement and the public has grown. Thirdly the potential to pressure the government to intervene is much wider.

These relatively favourable conditions may not continue indefinitely - a significant rise in unemployment could make it harder to fight job losses. It is crucial that we try to draw a line now and that the whole movement piles in behind any group prepared to fight job cuts.

Is the action of the Ford Southampton workers the beginning of something bigger?

Monday 20 October 2008

Right to work flexibly - race to the bottom

What a disgrace that the government is talking about delaying the extension of the right to work flexibly.

This must be a new entry for the ongoing competition for the most blatant example of the government bailing out the rich while piling the costs on the most vulnerable. Previous "top of the pops" had to be the news of the massive rise in house repossessions by the government (aka Northern Rock), which is repossessing far more homes than most lenders.

What the latest announcement means is a signal to businesses that when times are hard, they should ditch those with caring responsibilities first.

I fear that over the coming months there may be many occasions to use this excellent cartoon about the race to the bottom.

How about putting people before profit for a change? It's not as if the doctrine of "competitiveness at any price" has worked, is it.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Working Class Movement Library

Today I went on a tour of the Working Class Movement Library, organised by the Union Learning Reps at my workplace. Embarrassingly, I've never got round to visiting before, even though being in Salford it's pretty local for me.

A library might sound a little dull, but the visit was anything but. While showing us round the amazing collection, our guide gave us a whizz through Labour movement history, relating the collection to people and events. It was a great way to introduce people to some events and ideas that school history never does justice to.

All of us left understanding how people could spend a lifetime poring through the collection, which includes both books about our movement and original documents such as minutes. The most amazing to me was a scroll of signatures that they believe was for the first (1839) Charter. It would seem that the organisers in Ashton-under-Lyne forgot to hand in that section. Oops! A familiar tale to most activists I suspect...

Talking to the other activists on the tour afterwards, it struck us that we didn't know of any book or pamphlet giving an overview of the history of the British working class movement, though the TUC have attempted to do this online. If you know of such a book - I'd certainly be interested.

Disgracefully, the library's funding from Salford City Council has been cut, so they are more than ever reliant on donations and affiliations from union bodies - you know what to do...

If you have old union documents, they'd rather you donated them than put them in the bin. You might not want them, but they may be a great help for research to help us learn from our past.

Redundancy selection ruling - LIFO and age discrimination

For a number of years, many employers who couldn't care less about equality have used it as an argument to attack long-standing redundancy agreements.

Traditionally, unions pushed for any redundancy selection (if we couldn't stop compulsory redundancies in the first place) to be on a "Last In, First Out" (LIFO) basis. The arguments for this were firstly that it was objective and prevented management picking and choosing who they wanted to get rid of (often undermining union organisation in the process), and secondly that the longer you work somewhere the more you build your life around that job so the more impact redundancy would have on you. Sadly, the age discrimination practiced by many employers also means it is often harder for older workers to find other employment.

There can sometimes be some genuine equality problems with LIFO, for example where the composition of the workforce has changed significantly over time, and LIFO could result in a much higher proportion of one group being picked than another. This has often been addressed by making LIFO one of a "basket" of criteria.

UNITE has just won a case at the High Court to protect the use of LIFO in redundancy selection against a challenge from Rolls Royce based on the age discrimination legislation.

In a lot of the debates about the age discrimination legislation, employers do seem to lose sight of the fact that the intention of the legislation was to protect workers from discrimination, not to undermine the rights of all workers.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Letter about UNITE Joint General Secretary election

A letter has been sent out to UNITE (Amicus Section) branches, chapels and workplace representatives explaining the process for the election for the Joint General Secretary.

If my email and phone are anything to go by, the union is a flurry of speculation about potential candidates and what it all means.

Anyone on the left should be at the Amicus Unity Gazette national meeting on 1st November where I hope we will hear from all the potential left candidates and all agree to unite behind a good one. Nomination meetings must be held in November or December, so this should be in good time to maximise the campaign.

Whoever the left backs, we must try to ensure the contest doesn't get bogged down with personalities or power squabbles at the top, or for that matter with "tribal" allegiances to unions which no longer exist, but focuses on genuine debates about the future direction of UNITE, the response to the economic crisis etc.

Fighting redundancies at Steria, job losses at Freescale

In the current economic climate it is vital that unions take a robust opposition to job cuts. It's therefore good to see the UNITE press release about the industrial action ballot of members at Steria in Manchester. They are fighting against plans for compulsory redundancies arising from work being offshored to India.

The members provide IT services to CFS (Coop Financial Services) - does this really fit with the "ethical" image the coop tries to portray?

I don't yet have permission to publish details of where to send messages of support, but will pass on any sent to me for the time being.

Meanwhile the jobs massacre in the manufacturing part of our sector continues with 800 jobs going at Freescale in Scotland.

UNITE NEC, GEC, Executive - what?

Unsurprisingly, quite a lot of visitors to this site are looking for information about the UNITE Executive Council and its meetings. Unfortunately, they aren't all finding what they want because of inconsistent terminology.

The Amicus Executive was called the National Executive Council (NEC). The TGWU Executive was called the General Executive Council (GEC). The UNITE Executive is called the Executive Council (EC).

To help you find what you're looking for, I am going to use the label "Executive Council" for posts about the UNITE body from now on.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Economic Crisis - what does it mean for us?

It's hard to keep pace with the development of the current economic crisis, and the numbers are so large they are mind-boggling. There's a real danger of the labour movement not responding adequately to the scale of the changes that are taking place. This is not the time to be stuck in a rut.

The old saying that "there's no crisis so bad that the bosses can't get out of - if we're prepared to pay" should stand as a stark warning to us all.

We're already seeing recession in many countries, jobs being lost, house repossessions on the rise etc. How will governments raise the billions being pumped in to prop up the casinos? Will they get away with forcing through tax rises and service cuts?

Will employers get away with increasing their share of wealth by holding pay rises below inflation?

Can we press the government to reduce dependence on increasingly vulnerable pension funds (many of which held shares in the banks) which gamble on the stock market by a boost to the state pension on a similar scale to the support for banks?

Ideology and Resistance
For some decades the ideology of the free market (neo-liberalism) has been used as a barrier to workers fighting to improve or defend their standard of living. The arguments came in a variety of forms:

  • The money isn't there
  • Governments are helpless in the face of the markets
  • Any interference in the market would only make things worse
All these arguments now stand threadbare. The money is there - on a scale that we in the labour movement never dared ask for. Governments can and have intervened in the market.

The stark truth is that governments chose not to intervene when jobs, livelihoods, homes and whole industries were under threat. Because many in the labour movement accepted the neoliberal arguments to a greater or lesser extent, we were disarmed. We didn't believe we could fight and win the things we needed. It's high time this changed.

There is no escaping the political dimension to the current crisis.

With the government now owning most banking activities in the UK, will they press on with repossessions? How can it be right to make someone homeless for failing to service their mortgage, while bailing out the billionaires? As other industries suffer from the recession, how can the government justify non-intervention? We're not just talking about a few small companies on the ropes here - for example GM, Ford and Chrysler are reportedly talking about mergers and wholesale job cuts.

Friday 10 October 2008

National Economic Council - without the workers

Thanks to IansRedLog (a different Ian) for spotting an excellent piece on John McDonnell's blog which highlights the way the government is still looking to the bankers and bosses who got us all into the current economic crisis for advice.

UNITE Executive Council meeting, 9 October 2008

I'd briefly posted previously about the planned EC meeting on 9th October. Since I wrote that the Amicus Unity Gazette (grouping with which I stood for election to the EC) came out against the intended proposals.

The Executive Council was asked to approve a single motion which included:

  1. Amendment to the Amicus Section Rules
  2. Amendments to the Unite General Rules
  3. Adoption of a timetable for an Amicus Section Joint General Secretary election
The resolution was approved with 68 votes, more than the 60 required for a rule change. I was one of a small number who actually voted against the resolution (though more were deeply unhappy with it). The decision is now made, and we all have to try to make the best of it.

You can read the actual resolution here, but I think it's worth first explaining in plainer language what this means:
  1. The new rulebook will not come into force until 1 May 2009, instead of 1 November 2008. Existing structures (including separate Amicus and TGWU sections) remain in place for now. Apart from the EC, there are no other lay-member constitutional structures.
  2. An election will take place for Derek Simpson's current job as Joint General Secretary. Nominations will be in November-December, voting February-March. The term of office will be from 23 December 2009 to 23 December 2010.
  3. The Amicus section rules are changed to allow Derek to stand despite his age.
Everyone on both sides of the argument is frustrated that we are facing this distraction from the real business of the union, especially in such turbulent times when members need the full strength of UNITE behind them.

There is an official UNITE press release about the election and the media coverage has already started to appear, including references to potential candidates.

Let's work to get through this with the minimum possible tribalism, without ripping the union in half, and with a real debate about the direction of the union - the issues that actually matter to our members.

One small silver lining (I'm getting really desperate here) for members in my own EEE&IT sector is that this gives us an extra 6 months to sort out the contentious issue of who ends up in the new "IT and Communications" sector.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Job losses at Accenture

Worrying news about "softness in the marketplace" (or should that be brutality in the boardroom), cutting 3-4% of the UK workforce.

Lib Dems attack time off for union duties

With New Labour so unpopular, many members are tempted to vote Lib Dem, in the belief that they would pursue less Tory policies.

A story carried by the Birmingham Post highlights how the Lib Dems try to be all things to all people, and are no friends of trade unionists. Not only are the Lib Dems querying why there are 106 reps with some facility time (for how many employees in this huge council?), but they are attacking the principle of employers paying for time off for union duties - something that even Thatcher left in place. One can't help wondering if this isn't a thinly disguised attempt to attack the unions for their achievements in the single status dispute in the city.

Monday 6 October 2008

UNITE-Amicus NW Regional Council

An interesting meeting today. The highlight was a discussion introduced by Carolyn Jones from the Institute of Employment Rights. By coincidence, my own branch had decided to affiliate to IER last week.

Carolyn made the point that the failure of the "free-market" neo-liberal agenda in recent months doesn't yet seem to have filtered through to governments. They still prefer the discredited free market to effective regulation. The best way to regulate employment is through effective free trade union organisation.

The IER is campaigning to get three of the key aspects of the Trade Union Freedom Bill added as amendments to the Employment Bill currently going through parliament. These cover:

  1. Simplifying the industrial action ballot procedures. This would speed up the process and action being outlawed just because of some trivial problem with the union membership records.
  2. Restricting employers' use of injunctions to where there was a probability of a successful legal challenge to the action, rather than just a vague threat as at present.
  3. Tightening up restrictions on the use of replacement labour during official industrial action (e.g. the use of agencies).
The important European Court of Justice (ECJ) cases (Laval, Viking, Ruffert) were also discussed - these mark a fundamental threat to union rights. Counsel for the UK government outrageously argued at the ECJ that there was no fundamental right to strike, despite this being part of ILO standards.

The UNITE EC had decided to back the IER postcard campaign to MPs in relation to the Employment Bill. The North-West regional council decided to take several important steps to help:
  1. Writing to branches telling them about the campaign, encouraging them to affiliate to IER (there's a discount for UNITE branches at the moment), and offering them postcards to distribute.
  2. Reimbursing branches for postage costs for sending off the postcards.
  3. Emailing out to workplace reps in the region.
  4. Getting officers to distribute postcards to workplaces.
  5. Paying for places at the upcoming IER conferences (12th November is in Liverpool).
  6. Donating £500 to IER.
Sometimes union meetings can seem a bit disconnected from the business of strengthening our campaigning and organising, so it was a delight to be part of such a constructive debate.

There was a good debate on the proposed Manchester Congestion Charge, with strong opposition to the plan as it stands. A referendum is due to be help for all Greater Manchester residents in November - December. I understand the Congestion Charge will be the main topic at the next Manchester Area Activists meeting, on 18th November.

Sadly, the representative from the Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT sector (my own) had to step down from the Regional Council for family reasons. Best wishes to her. Unfortunately there is no facility in our rules to replace missing delegates, so our sector is now joins the Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals, Motor Vehicles and Process sectors which are already unrepresented, as is the Disabled Members Forum.

The council has become increasingly frustrated with some of its members who rarely attend, so it was agreed to post the attendance records on the union web site in the hope that sectors can encourage their delegates to carry out the function for which they were elected.

The elephant in the room (the emergency Executive Council meeting planned for Thursday) got a lot of references. If the EC does change the union's rules to delay their implementation, this would have implications for every lay structure in the union - further extending the current limbo and divisions. This cannot be in the interests of members.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Bus workers step up pay fight

With "our" government egging on employers to hold wages down below inflation (making working people pay for an economic crisis we didn't cause), UNITE members working on the buses in London are picking up the challenge.

Thanks to privatisation, not only are services fragmented, but so are terms and conditions. UNITE is coordinating action between the various bus companies, stepping up a fight for a London-wide pay rate.

A hefty 88% majority of UNITE members at Metroline (and there are 2500 of them) voted to join with the 2500 members at other companies already taking action. More companies are being balloted in time to join action planned for 22nd October.

Just as with Shell, a good win here can send ripples across the working class, raising confidence that there is an alternative to accepting real-terms pay-cuts.

UNITE shenanigans: rules, elections, integration

While the economic crisis threatens the livelihoods of our members, some people seem to put defending the job of a General Secretary ahead of the jobs of our members. I've commented on a piece on Gill George's blog about the current shenanigans in UNITE.