Thursday 26 November 2015

Report from UNITE sector conference, November 2015

The conferences were organised over three days, with services sectors on Monday, manufacturing sectors on Tuesday, and transport sectors on Wednesday. The Graphical, Paper, Media & IT (GPM&IT) conference was on Tuesday. This report covers the plenary session on Tuesday morning, where the sectors were together, the GPM&IT conference itself and the immigration fringe meeting in the evening.


Len McCluskey described how media coverage of UNITE is through the lense of our relationship with Labour, rather than based on our primary role as an industrial organisation. UNITE was launching a new campaign on the themes "work, voice, pay" to give the union a more coherent industrial focus. He talked about the injustice of the Trade Union Bill. Referring to the debates about Trident, he argued that "above all" the union had to defend jobs and conditions.

Assistant General Secretary for manufacturing Tony Burke gave an update on various issues affecting our sectors and claimed that "we will do what it takes to save our steel industry".

Len gave a very long response to my question about whether UNITE would support deselecting Labour MPs who rebelled to support bombing Syria despite the lessons of the last fifteen years. He said that UNITE's strategy of encouraging members to get involved in the Labour Party and try to select working class MPs continues, and was being successful, having already resulted in some first class MPs being elected. He described how Corbyn had appealed to people sick of the idea that "There Is No Alternative". He thought that there was a learning curve in the Labour Party, as they adjusted to the new situation, and that this included Corbyn himself, who had said some things that were "inappropriate". He was having to get used to being a leader rather than a backbencher free to say what he liked. The Parliamentary Labour Party was on a learning curve too. They had to realise that the vast majority of Labour members had rejected the old style of politics. Len argued that he was not in favour of mandatory annual reselection, but he did support accountability. Some MPs are behaving despicably, and they should give the new leader a chance. John McDonnell is working on an industrial strategy - which would be the first in Britain for 40 years. The Labour conference had recently voted to oppose bombing Syria. Len condemned the Paris attacks, which he described as "fascist", but argued that it was important to keep a calm head. Syria was already being bombed daily. UK bombs would not make the difference. Hundreds or thousands are being kille daily. Some MPs want to vote for war merely to embarrass Corbyn. Len said he personally would vote to deselect them. He saw it as encouraging that young people were more engaged in politics thanks to Corbyn.

In response to a question about the government's attack on funding through FE colleges for education for union reps, Len said that rep training was key, and that the Executive Council's education sub-committee is looking at a strategy with Jim Mowatt.

A delegate from aerospace & shipbuilding asked about the prospects for diversification from Trident, given how the press had reported Len making disparaging comments around Labour Party conference. Len argued that there are tens of thousands of jobs in the defence sector, it would be devastating if they were lost, and it was our job to oppose such devastation. If it was feasible we shoudl engage in debate on diversification to guarantee the same type of jobs and skills. The National Officer, Ian Waddell, is preparing a report highlighting UNITE's own initiatives on diversification. We've never had a government that was interested, which has led to negative and frustrated responses. In 2001 the Labour government scrapped the body looking at diversification, so members in the sector felt nobody was listening. As general secretary, it was his job to defend ALL members' jobs and communities. At the same time we could try to do things differently. There are also issues around climate change, the civil nuclear industry, fracking etc. He would be guided by conference policy. UNITE would talk to anyone about diversification.

In response to a question about the junior doctors' dispute, Len ridiculed the attempts of the right to pretend that it would jeopardise people if there was an incident like the Paris killings. In such circumstances everyone knew where the doctors would be. Of course we should support their fight. UNITE members in the Medical Practitioners Association are involved.

In response to a question about the allegations that some union employees had been involved in blacklisting our own members in construction, Len paid tribute to the work done by our legal department in challenging blacklisting. Employers had now admitted liability and we were pushing for compensation. UNITE is in the lead on the issue. He argued that the allegations, which have been circulating for years, need to be proved - if there was evidence he would act. However, he argued that an internal investigation was impractical.

Len was asked how to respond to companies which wanted to cut costs by moving jobs offshore, threatening good jobs in the UK. He argued that multinational companies have no loyalty and would leave tomorrow if it could make them more money. The pro- free market government sees no issue with this, which is why our political work is important. This kind of thing doesn't happen in Germany. We also had to use our industrial strength. Siemens have an objective of protecting their "core workforce" in Germany, and when they make cuts they move work from the UK to Germany to do that. He asked who is protecting "British workers"? It is better for businesses to have local supply chains, who can fix issues that arise promptly. The UK needs an industrial strategy. He highlighted the case of Ford, for whom the UK is their most profitable market, despite not making a single car here, having moved jobs elsewhere, but they are still allowed access to the UK market. Len was excited to see Corbyn and McDonnell looking at an industrial strategy.

[Comment: I'm getting increasingly concerned about the amount of UNITE material talking about "British workers". Our members come from all over the world and we all need to unite if we are to win. Talk of "British workers" is divisive and weakens us, as it did during the disgraceful period when Derek Simpson followed Gordon Brown in arguing for "British Jobs for British Workers"]

George Hickman, Dave Roseaman, Sheila Rowley and Pasty Turner were elected unopposed to the Standing Orders Committee for 2017. Other elections took place on Monday & Wednesday.

Sharon Graham introduced the outline of the new UNITE industrial strategy, aimed at tackling declining living standards by extending collective bargaining and improving bargaining outcomes. An intensified focus on our core industrial work would also regenerate the union's industrial "brand" against the media representation. UNITE is an industrial organisation, not a political party.

The idea behind the "work, voice, pay" strategy is to establish core themes that are relevant across all sectors. Every worker can understand what UNITE stands for, and we can establish standards for negotating issues. The themes can be expanded and adapted as appropriate, for example:

  • Work: secure, permanent jobs, without zero hours contracts. No compulsory redundancies. Apprenticeships. "Rate for the job" to stop undercutting. Safe environment without discrimination.
  • Voice: Union voice for non-recognised workers. Extending the scope of bargaining (e.g. agency workers, job security). National and sectoral bargaining that covers everyone, looking beyond individual workplaces. Negotiations on service/product to shape the future.
  • Pay: RPI means a falling share when productivity goes up - focus on ability to pay. Life/work balance. Training. Pensions.
UNITE has begun building a database of workplaces showing the anniversary date for pay deals, agreements etc. Preliminary analysis of our pay deals against data from the Office of National Statistics shows 18 out of 20 sectors have a "UNITE premium" on pay. For example, in the GPM&IT sector (SIC codes 18,62,63) Office of National Statistics data shows pay falling by 1.2%, whereas UNITE agreements in the sector averaged a 2.2% increase. The second phase will be to add unorganised workplaces to the database. Sharon wants to know what fields would be useful to add to the database.

The information about the strategy and database will be disseminated and discussed at NISCs and RISCs. Sectors can develop plans for coordinated bargaining including industrial principles and standards, aligning anniversary dates, or targetting particular companies or sub-sectors. "Best in sector" agreements and clauses can be identified". Combines and networks can be established across sites, companies and sectors. Activists will be able to access the database of collective agreements as well as various templates and model agreements.

GPM&IT conference

Tony Burke introduced a new report "A digital new world" which has been produced by some members in the IT & Comms part of the sector along with the research department and Mike Eatwell, an officer in London & Eastern. It includes information about the profile and importance of the industry and discussed future trends and their possible implications for the employment and the whole economy. In due course this should be available on the UNITE web site.

Ian Tonks presented his report, covering developments in firms across the sector.

Richard Wileman was elected as the delegate to the 2016 TUC conference, with Raja Hussain as the substitute.
Aleksandra Tomczak (Ola) was elected as the delegate to the 2017 TUC conference, with Ged Dempsey the substitute.

There were international speakers from the USW in North America and the UNI, the international union federation.

Alan Tate, the head of UNI Global's ICTS (Information & Communication Technology Services) sector explained that packaging and IT are seen as the parts of the sector with most potential. The UNI strategy is to focus on key multinational corporations in the services side of ICTS.

Nicola Konstantinou from UNI Europa Graphical described how they had been organising round European Works Councils, then building trade union alliances for the companies, approaching management for global agreements on basic rights.

Leeann Foster and Alex Perkins from the USW described their efforts to protect members in US papermaking from what they saw as unfair competition. They had been bringing cases under WTO rules about "unfair subsidies" resulting in selling products below fair market value, which they described as "dumping". They are only allowed to bring cases if they have a company's support, and there is no governmental assistance. Multinationals tend to be reluctant to get involved in such issues. They had won some cases against China, Portugal, Brazil, Australia and Indonesia. While the USW is against trade deals such as TPP and TTIP, they are pushing for "three strikes and you are out" banning companies from the US market if they violate market rules three times.

[Comment: The strategy seemed to be to try to persuade US employers to join the union in a fight against foreign employers seen as unfairly undercutting them. This doesn't seem to me a likely strategy to develop the international solidarity needed to beat the companies dominating world markets and defend jobs.]

Conference heard a report on the disgraceful events at Tullis Russell papermakers in Fife. Despite being employee-owned, the directors had managed to put the company into administration, land and assets sold without the owners' knowledge or any warning. Over 400 workers had lost their jobs and had not been paid £18m they were owed. One family lost £90K as three people worked there. The CEO had walked off with a £500K bonus. As neither HMRC or banks were owed money, there was no proper investigation and no illegality has been proved. The Scottish government and local councils had been supportive with funding retraining, and 85% of the workers now had jobs in other industries. However, the impact locally had been devastating with shops closing etc. A few reps can't get work and fear they have been blacklisted. If this can happen in an employee owned company it shows how inadequate UK corporate law is.

Howard Beckett from the legal department talked about the need to see legal work as part of industrial strategy, rather than as a member benefit or something that is used when an industrial strategy has failed. He highlighted several examples where an aggressive legal stance had been important for industrial campaigns, and argued that was why the government was attacking unions' ability to use the law. When we choose to fight outside the law, we want to be able demonstrate how we tried to stay within it and that the issue is significant enough that members will take the action required to win.

Howard highlighted three recent ballots which had topped the proposed thresholds in the Trade Union Bill (Rolls Royce, GKN, and Syngenta chemicals). In each case it had been important to work out a proper strategy to win in advance. At Rolls Royce, only 60% of members were affected by the pensions issue. Normally that would make it hard to get a big yes vote. Reps had carefully chosen one key site to ballot, and workers at the other sites pledged to contribute financially to make up their wages. The site returned an 80% turnout and a 96% yes vote. After UNITE explained its action plans to the employer, including plans to move action to other sites after an initial 12 weeks, an agreement was reached without any action being needed. GKN had followed a similar strategy. Howard urged sectors to consider what strategies would fit in their industries and identify key powerful groups.

Employers often seek injunctions when protests take place at the same time as industrial disputes. Sometimes they even claim protests are secondary picketing. Where protests take place without any individuals, organisation or structure (e.g. committee, Facebook page) organising them, it is much harder for employers to blame them on the union or to find any other "target" for an injunction. Protests with speakers are harder to ban because they can also benefit from the right to freedom of speech.

Howard is keen to get feedback on the new Unite Legal Services web site, to which examples of the many cases we win for members in each sector are being added.

The new "low pay rate" of subs (currently just £2 a week) for those earning below the Living Wage or less than £15,000 a year, hasn't had much publicity. To pay for this the standard subs rate had risen significantly in 2015, but there will be no rise in 2016.

Legal officers are being appointed and trained in the regions to improve legal support to officers and reps and help ensure legal issues are considered early in campaign planning.

Mark Metcalf highlighted the books being published by UNITE, book of the month recommendations and rebel road (lists of plaques, museums, statues, pubs etc commemorating labour movement heroes) which are all on the learning section of the UNITE web site.

Industrial strategy

Sharon Graham was unable to attend the GPM&IT conference to discuss the outline she presented at the plenary, so this agenda item was not discussed fully. The National Officer undertook to circulate to all delegates the exercise that Sharon had intended to do, and encouraged us all to canvass views so that it could be discussed at the next NISC meeting. It was agreed to invite Sharon to that meeting.


The following motions were agreed:

1 Industrial Strategy for the Sector (from the National Industrial Sector Committee)

Conference welcomes the outstanding election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader with 59.5% of the vote on a platform of anti-austerity, and a bold new vision of a fair and just society for working people.

We congratulate Unite Executive Council for the decision to endorse Jeremy Corbyn and to recommend support for him by Unite members. We also congratulate the work of the Unite Political Department for the tremendous effort they put in to sign up more than 100,000 Unite affiliated supporters, more than half of the total number of affiliated supporters signed up by all affiliated unions. There is no doubt that Unite's Political Strategy to engage with and win back the Labour Party for working class values has been hugely important in achieving this success.

We therefore call upon the NISC to work with the Unite EC to:
  • lobby the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn to develop an industrial strategy that seeks to support the GPM&IT sector in the UK
  • lobby the Labour Party to adopt a policy towards National Sector bargaining
  • Lobby support for our Sector fight on procurement and public authorities use of GPM&IT recognised companies
2 Organising Strategy (from the National Industrial Sector Committee)

This conference recognises that large sections of the industries in the GPMIT sector are un-unionised or under-unionised, and that this weakens the bargaining position of every worker in the sector. Organising is therefore a high priority if we are to help workers in our sector to build more power to defend and improve their lives.

This conference congratulates the NISC on the creation of an organising strategy subcommittee in July 2014. To support their work we call on our National Officer, research department, RISC members, workplace reps, branch officers and officers with GPMIT in their allocations to work on mapping the sector so that we build a more accurate, complete and up to date picture of GPMIT workplaces. The mapping should identify, for each workplace, factors including:
  1. Address
  2. Number of workers by employer (including agency, subcontractors etc)
  3. Number of members by employer
  4. Details of all reps and branch officers
  5. Details of recognition, I&C and EWC agreements
  6. Other workplaces of the same employer
  7. Unite branch
  8. Officer
  9. Any other unions present
  10. Any union structures linking Unite at this workplace with other unions or other workplaces in the same employer
  11. Subsector (appropriate categories to be defined)
Communication is at the heart of organising. We call on all RISCs to email out a short bulletin following each meeting to all GPMIT reps in their sector, with a copy to the National Officer for consideration of the NISC. This can help engage more activists with our RISCs and involve them in the mapping and organising.

RISCs should use the mapping decide which of the following organising categories best fits each workplace in their region:
  1. Substantial single workplaces with recognition – “100%”
  2. Workplaces in employers with membership but no recognition – “green field”
  3. Workplaces in multi-site companies/groups where we have recognition in parts – “extend horizontally”
  4. Unionised workplaces in other industries with ITC outsourced on site to an employer with >20 employees – “client site”
  5. The rest – “nurture”
The NISC’s organising strategy subcommittee should develop proposals for organising and servicing each of these categories more effectively for consideration by the NISC and RISCs. These may include recommendations on officer allocation, branch structure and use of lay companions to allow resources to be focussed on building power for members to win more.

The NISC should provide a report to RISCs after each meeting on progress with the organising strategy.

[Comment: The mapping described in this motion clearly overlaps with that Sharon Graham was talking about for developing an industrial strategy, as well as with motion 3. In the discussion, it was clarified that the reports from NISC to RISCs are not intended to be full minutes or reports, but prompt updates on progress with the organising strategy. Similarly, the RISC updates to reps would focus on key points for information or action.]

3 100% Organising (from East Midlands)

Conference applauds the commitment of the Union to organising and the work of the organising department in growing our Union, which is key for the movement to survive. As activists we understand the need to look at new industries and to organise the non-unionised sectors of the economy, but this cannot be at the cost of losing traditionally well unionised industries.

This Conference calls for a membership audit of all national and international employers within the Sector; this could be achieved with the aid of the Research Department, and lead Regaional Officers. The information would be used to develop an organising strategy for the Sector, involving activists within recognised sites of the targeted companies to strive to 100% membership across the sites.

5 Collective Bargaining with the Sector (from East Midlands)

Over the last ten years we have witnessed the loss of our major National Agreement, the BPIF, which covered the majority of the printing industry. The Agreement was not only responsible for negotiating annual pay increases but more importantly it set out the minimum terms and conditions for employment within the industry.

As a result of this sector representatives have nothing to refer to when trying to negotiate rates of pay for new technology or changes in working practices within their workplaces. This vacuum has led to a decline in rates of pay and terms and conditions within the Sector.

Conference believe that the Union needs to address these issues or face a race to the bottom as companies play our members off against each other on terms and conditions of members working in this sector.

Conference calls upon the EC to publish a Unite Guide for activists working within the Sector, based on both past and present National Agreements held within the Sector. The Guide will be a useful tool in organising and as a means to try and ensure we maintian minimum terms and conditions within the Sector and protect the interests of our members.

6 Collective Bargaining Strategy (from South East)

Conference instructs Unite the union to facilitate, through the National Officer, group meetings of all the major companies in the sector, the aim being to coordinate a national collective strategy in group and sub-sector level.

7 Printing Industry National Bargaining (from South West)

For those GPM members not currently covered by a House Agreement or a National Agreement this conference demands that future wage negotiations revert to being carried out on a national basis or every effort made to re-establish national bargaining with the appropriate employers' organisation.

8 The March of the Robots (from London & Eastern)

World-wide sales of robots rose 23% in 2014 while prices fell by 14% meaning sophisticated automated systems can be purchased at £100,000 and some robots as low as £20,000.

In those manufacturing sectors that are most readily automated such as cars, other transport, computers, electronic and electrical equipment about 85% of tasks can be performed by robots.

It is expected that other sectors such as food preparation and manufacture, chemicals, metals, energy (drones are already replacing human riggers at oil sites), transport (driverless cars and trucks are being tested in California) and construction (remote controlled diggers are being tested in Sweden and 3D Printing in the Netherlands) will follow suit.

The US financial sector around Wall St employed 150,000 five years ago and that has now shrunk by a third due to technology.

Many work roles previously thought invulnerable to automation are now at a growing risk because the enhanced capacity of such systems have meant many job functions can be codified and with hugely advanced sensor systems they threaten hundreds of different service industry jobs.

This is happening now because processors that run computerised systems double in capacity every eighteen months. This has led to Cloud Computing that has freed a growing number of employers from the vast expenditure of owning their own large computer systems. That in turn has assisted the collection of Big Data using advanced mobile technology and the Internet of Things whereby machines communicate with each other generating even more data (50 billion devices connected by 2020). Technology observers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Oxford University have predicted between 35% and 47% of current employment roles are at high risk of automation.

The UK Tory Government has not been slow to see the advantages of such developments and alongside spending millions on R&D they have set up strategic bodies with academics and employers but notably no trade union representatives.

We call ont eh GPM&IT NISC to seek the support of the Executive to establish a working party of one senior lay rep per industrial sector to monitor these developments that threaten our members' (and future members') employment prospects.

The UK economy map highlighting work that is stategically important and future proofed needs revisiting in light of these innovations to ensure our organising efforts are flexible. Technology affects all sectors in some way or another.

Unite must lead the way on thhis by creating policies that result in technology helping to create a better society and environment and is not just used as the ultimate cheap labour resource to only create redundancies.

9 Agency Workers (from London & Eastern)

Conference calls upon our NISC to formulate a strategy to deal with the growth of agency workers within the sector. Conference would like to see a positive programme in place where workplace reps and regional officers are encouraged to firstly map the companies where agency workers exist and to proactively recruit and organise them, with the sole purpose of extending collective bargaining within the sector.

Agencies such as Aktrion and Ambtions Personnel are now the majority of the workforce in many of our companies, and their rates of pay, terms and conditions are usually set at the legal minimums. Using the statutory recognition legislation and the CAC we need to ensure that we provide a collective bargaining famework to remove this two tier workforce.

Our members need to understand that to ignore agency workers in their companies not only undermines our influence and power but put their own pay, terms and conditions and permanent roles at risk.

10 Holiday Pay (North East, Yorkshire & Humber)

Conference welcomes the campaigning work of Unite the union on holiday pay. This vital issue affects many employees across the Sector.

Immigration fringe

In the evening I attended a very useful meeting about the Immigration Bill 2015-16, which aims to create a "hostile environment for migrants" by laying "trip-wires" throughout society. The speaker was Don Flynn from the Migrants' Rights Network, who also handed out the TUC briefing on the bill.

The bill aims to increase requirements on employers, landlords, financial institutions and public servants to frequently check the immigration status of people they are dealing with. Employers and landlords can face hefty fines if they fail to do so. Immigration officials will be able to raid businesses and shut them down for 48 hours if they can't produce paperwork to show how they have checked their workers' immigration status.

The bill isn't just about people who the law says have no right to live or work in the UK, it also applies to the terms under which they are allowed to do so. The bill creates a new criminal offence of "working without permission". For example, if someone lets a room in their house to an overseas student, and they work 21 hours one week instead of 20 hours, the student could face up to 12 months in prison and deportation, while the landlord could face a hefty fine. The effect of these restrictions will be to increase harassment of anyone who looks or sounds as if they might not be British. Employers and landlords will feel under pressure to discriminate rather than taking the risk of falling foul of the law, making it even harder for workers from ethnic minorities to get jobs and housing. This will be made worse by requiring a high standard of English for jobs in the public sector - even where the role requires no dealing with the public.

Wages for anyone "working without permission" will be treated as "proceeds of crime", meaning someone who falls foul of the law has no right to their wages.

An excellent discussion covered many points. Immigration law has already been used by employers to break up workplace organisation and intimidate workers, as for the SOAS cleaners. Employers rely on migrant labour, and will increasingly do so as the UK population ages, but want workers feeling vulnerable and insecure.

The immigration bill will have a negative impact on many members, as well as on organisation. Reps need to be ready to support members affected. Don ended by pointing out that the bill relied on implementation to be oppressive, and there were many ways in which workers might fail to implement it, particularly when cuts force them to choose which aspects of their roles to neglect.

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