Saturday 31 January 2009

UNITE Executive Council, 28-30 January 2009

N.B.This is not an official Unite Report; it is based on my notes of the EC meeting. I believe it to be a fair account of some of the key decisions taken (rather than my views about them), and I will willingly correct any errors upon receipt of official notification from Unite.

This report is far from exhaustive – many more issues were debated and decisions taken over the three days.

Ian Allinson
UNITE EC member, Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT sector

The economic crisis ripping through members’ lives set the context for this Executive meeting.
1. At the November meeting, the council had heard a report about the poor support from MPs for the amendments to the Employment Bill which corresponded to elements from the Trade Union Freedom Bill. A council member had proposed that we write to the UNITE MPs who had not voted for them to ask why. Both Joint General Secretaries (JGS) had supported the idea and nobody had spoken against. Like many other uncontentious matters before the council, it was not put to a vote, but the council member and many of the rest of us believed it had been agreed. At this meeting, he queried why it wasn’t minuted and whether it had been actioned. Charlie Whelan said he didn’t think it had been agreed. This time is was agreed (with a specific request to be minuted) that a letter would go to the MPs expressing our disappointment and pushing the Early Day Motions which are now coming up.
2. In spring 2008 the Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT (EEE&IT) sector had asked UNITE to pledge funding for a research project into the cancer risks from the semiconductor and computer manufacturing industries, subject to this being matched by a number of employers. This had been referred to the Finance & General Purposes (F&GP) committee but no recommendation had yet been made, despite me raising this at every subsequent EC meeting. The EC agreed the funding.
3. The TUC, along with other organisations, has called a major demonstration in London on 28th March, just before the G20 meets in the UK to take key decisions on the response to the economic crisis. The summit will be the occasion for Obama’s first visit to the UK, and will attract massive media interest. The EC agreed that this would be a major mobilisation for the union, with transport etc. I think this is a key event which can be a focus for all our campaigning against job losses etc.
4. A campaign has been building up around the construction work at the Staythorpe power station in the East Midlands. The contractor has openly declared that it will not employ any UK labour, despite there being many unemployed workers with the necessary skills in the local area. It is clear that a number of construction companies are seeking to undermine pay, conditions and agreements in the industry through similar tactics. Many major construction sites (oil refineries, power stations) are on the coast, and contractors are now bringing in accommodation barges so that the workforce do not have contact with the local community. This is hitting the local economy, as well as stoking up hostility. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it seems impossible that the contractors could be paying the proper wages, plus travel and accommodation, and still under-cutting local companies by a huge degree. The union is exploring legal challenges to the contractors as well as seeking to exert political and industrial pressure. It was agreed to organise a major lobby at Westminster to demand government action. The BNP are trying to divert the struggle to focus anger against the exploited migrant workers, rather than the profiteering construction companies. During the EC meeting, an unofficial strike wave erupted from Humberside on the same issue and spread to various areas of the country. The anti-union laws are there to prevent the union backing such action. There is serious concern about the nationalist / racist element of the dispute.
5. The EC agreed to counter the attack on UNITE by the Times newspaper, which was using attacks on the JGSes to attack the trade union movement as a whole. The EC was concerned that the scale of the attack implied that it had been decided on high up in the Murdoch empire and that more would follow. The Tory press want to have a say in the internal affairs of our union, such as the current JGS election in the Amicus section. The EC was assured by the JGSes that the authority to deal with such attacks would not be used against our own members or staff.
6. The EC was informed that one candidate in the JGS election had included untrue statements about another candidate in their election address, that they been given the opportunity to correct them and that though they had made some changes, this had not resolved the problem. The EC was advised that legally the election address cannot be changed without the permission of the candidate, but that a separate statement can be included to correct any untrue points. The EC agreed to do this.
7. The union continues to press the government for more intervention to protect jobs. Some assistance has been promised, but it is not up to the scale of the problems.
8. The pensions dispute at Ineos which led to the Grangemouth refinery dispute has finally been settled. A report on the deal was circulated, and it looks like a real success, keeping open the final salary scheme for new starters.
9. There was a debate about how the organising and 100% campaigns can help strengthen the union’s ability to fight against job losses and offset the membership losses that are likely as unemployment rises.
10. The Irish government is saying that to re-run its referendum on the Lisbon treaty, it requires the inclusion of a social protocol. Disgracefully, the UK government is lobbying against this.
11. The demonstrations across Europe around the Working Time Directive have been put back to May. UNITE will mobilise for the one in Brussels.
12. The union can run “Globalisation Schools” for particular companies. This can be requested via Michelle Gracio.
13. It was agreed that in recognition of the fact that two of the UNITE regions cover two Labour Party regions rather than one, “London and Eastern” and “Yorkshire and North East” would have 6 seats on the National Political Committee instead of 4.
14. It was agreed that the “IT and Communications” sector will not include the Communication Managers Association (CMA), which would go into the “General, Clerical and Administrative” sector, which would be renamed APMS (“Administrative, Professional, Managerial”, I think). A document suggesting closer working between IT & Communications and Graphical, Paper and Media (GPM) sectors on areas of common interest was circulated for information.
15. A set of documents about the new lay member structures were agreed after an extensive debate. (Regional Industrial Committees & Area Activists Committees, Principles for Equalities Guidance, Timeline, Rule 9 Young Members, Rule 10 Retired Members). The EC was assured that the allocation of members to sectors was now complete for the Amicus section and “tantalisingly close” in the TGWU section. National Officers and Regional Secretaries were being briefed on 30th January. During February they are to draw up plans for each sector/region in direct consultation with Regional Councils, Regional Committees, EC members and chairs of National Sector Committees and Trade Groups, with as wide an involvement of activists as possible. These plans will come back to the March EC for approval.
16. The EC approved a Statement on the Situation in Gaza. It’s worth reading to the end, because it includes some useful action points:

Unite’s EC deplores the fact that since Israel’s military offensive in Gaza began on December 24th 2008, over nine hundred Palestinians have been killed of whom 292 are children (UN OCHA Report 12/01/2009). The Government of Israel has ignored the UN Security Council Resolution 1860 (2009) which “calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.”
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, the United Nations most senior human rights official, has stated that the Israeli military may have committed war crimes in Gaza. The United Nations Human Rights Council (12/01/2009) Resolution on The Grave Violations of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks against the occupied Gaza Strip, calls for an immediate ceasefire and condemns the “massive violations of Human Rights of the Palestinian people and the systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure”. The UN Resolution also demands the immediate withdrawal of Israel’s military forces from the Gaza.
The EC is further appalled that Israel’s blockade of Gaza has now continued for over eighteen months preventing vital supplies, including food and medicine, from reaching the people of Gaza.
The Israeli Government has acted in contravention of the IV Geneva Convention by imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza. The World Health Organisation and other aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and have called for an immediate ceasefire. Furthermore the International Committee of the Red Cross has accused Israel of failing to honour its obligation under international law to treat and evacuate injured civilians in Gaza. The situation has led Amnesty International to call for an immediate humanitarian truce.
The Unite EC therefore resolves:
To demand an end to Israel’s military attacks and immediate withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and for Israel to lift its siege of Gaza.
To demand a halt to the bombardment of Israeli targets by missiles fired from Gaza by Hamas.
To demand that the British government unequivocally condemns the Israeli military aggression.
To demand the British government ends arms sales to Israel noting the sale of more than £18.8 million worth of British arms to Israel in 2008, up from £7.5 million on 2007.
To call for the immediate suspension of the EU-Israel Agreement providing preferential trade facilities to Israel.
To support the demonstrations against Israel’s attack on Gaza, and to encourage our members to attend.
To encourage our members to boycott goods, and especially agricultural produce, produced in the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
To investigate Unite’s holdings in companies engaged in building the Wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and to divest from them.
To encourage branches to affiliate to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition.
To encourage donations to the TUC Gaza Appeal and other relevant initiatives such as Medical Aid for Palestinians and to agree a donation of £5000 to the TUC appeal.
To agree to make a donation to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to further the objectives of the campaign on Gaza of £1000.

17. The proposal from the EE&IT national officer to contribute to and participate in an IPPR study on “green jobs” will be discussed at the February F&GP.
18. The pay deal for union officers and staff was approved.

Sunday 25 January 2009

"BBC - Shame on You" - Gaza Appeal

Yesterday I joined the protest outside the BBC in Manchester about their outrageous decision to ban the appeal from the Disaster Emergency Committee for aid for the Gaza crisis.

Extending "impartiality" to being impartial between life and death is a step too far. As Tony Benn pointed out, people will die as a result of this decision.

Benn has been magnificent on this issue, even managing to make the appeal on BBC news when they were trying to interview him about banning it. The clip is below:

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Nortel into administration, ICL, STC and Nortel pensions impact

Disgracefully, most of the coverage of Nortel (UK) going into administration focuses more on the impact on the 2012 Olympics (for which Nortel is a sponsor) than on the 2000 UK employees, many of whom are UNITE members. This BBC report is typical.

Concern about what has happened to Nortel will be even wider than its current employees, their families, friends and supporters.

As Electronics Weekly comments "Nortel is the first major vendor in the ICT industry to have gone into administration as a direct result of the credit crunch". Will it be the last?

There is also likely to be an impact on the pension fund for 43,000 people, as Nortel has asked the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) to rescue it.

The figure of 43,000 pension fund members seems extraordinarily large. At least part of the reason is that Nortel used to be Northern Telecom, a firm which took over STC in the 1990s. STC owned ICL (now Fujitsu Services) until 1991. When STC sold ICL to the Fujitsu group, STC kept most of the pension fund, along with all the current and deferred pensioners. In those days of pension fund surpluses, this must have seemed an attractive proposition - it certainly caused a lot of concern to those of us in ICL at the time.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Palestine and the Unions

While I'm sure everyone shares my relief that Israel is temporarily stopping its bombing and open warfare in Gaza, we shouldn't get too carried away with that relief.

Israeli troops remain in Gaza, and the siege which has inflicted so much suffering on the Palestinians is tighter than ever. The open warfare could start again at any time.

I was delighted that my own MP, Gerald Kaufman, spoke out so forcefully against the recent Israeli atrocities, arguing against using the holocaust against Jews to justify today's brutality.

The contrast with the UK government stance could not be more stark. At a time when surely we should be imposing an arms embargo, boycotting goods and using diplomatic sanctions against Israel, our government's response is to offer the use of the British navy and other resources to tighten the siege on Gaza!

Much of the coverage of this one-sided slaughter focuses on Hamas as much as the actions of the Israeli state. It is easy to forget that one side of this fight is the occupier, while the other is resisting occupation with meagre resources. I am reminded of the scene in the film "The Battle of Algiers" when a journalist interviews one of the Algerian leaders:

Journalist: M. Ben M'Hidi, don't you think it's a bit cowardly to use women's baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?
Ben M'Hidi: And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

In discussions at work, one point that comes out more and more strongly is the parallel with apartheid South Africa. Here we have a state founded on the principle that one racial group is treated worse than another, a state armed to the teeth and playing a major role in "policing" its neighbours. Now that he's treated almost like a saint, it's easy to forget that Nelson Mandela defended the ANC's use of armed resistance (terrorism) against the apartheid state. It's easy to forget that opposing apartheid was controversial - until we won.

To those who doubt that unions should get involved in contentious international issues, I suggest that we should take pride in the role the labour movement played in opposing apartheid, and that we must have the same courage today.

In that context, I was delighted that UNITE had a speaker on last weekend's demonstration against the Israeli attacks. I hope this will continue. I will be on today's demonstration in Manchester. There are demonstrations all over the country and another national demonstration in London on 24th January.

A good way to get people at work talking about Palestine is to do a collection for one of the charities such as Medical Aid for Palestine, Interpal or through TUC Aid.

We need to ensure that the tidal wave of support for the Palestinian cause is sustained beyond the immediate crisis, so that eventually they can secure justice and peace.

Monday 12 January 2009

Gaza demo

What a magnificent demonstration on Saturday against the atrocities in Gaza. This was the biggest protest in Britain ever held on the issue of Palestine.

The organisers have set up a web site: through which people could use Flickr to upload their photos for us all to see. What a brilliant idea.

There have also been protests in towns and cities around the world.

We should use the widespread outrage against what is going on in Gaza to massively strengthen campaigning on Palestine in the unions, in the workplace and generally. The TUC have been moved to launch an appeal for Aid to Gaza. As well as being desperately needed, raising funds for the appeal is a great way to involve people and get them discussing what is going on.

Saturday 3 January 2009

Unionising Procter & Gamble

I've been contacted by one of the activists busy unionising the Procter & Gamble (formerly Gillette) site in Reading.

It sounds like they're doing a great job of building up the union, despite an active anti-union campaign by the employer. They've even set up their own "Bring It On" blog to promote the campaign.

Despite organising being a central plank of UNITE's strategy, it's still common to find activists involved in campaigns like this who've had little or no training in organising techniques or in countering union-busting techniques from management. While they often manage to solve many of the problems through their own research and ingenuity, high quality training would surely help us win more often, more quickly and more decisively.

We really must make sure that one of the outcomes of the current review of UNITE education and training is to provide training aimed at activists in the process of building up union strength and fighting for union recognition. Not only must the content be good, but the courses must be readily available at times and locations which are accessible to new activists who don't yet have the legal rights to time off that come with recognition.