Wednesday, November 22, 2006

UNISON witch-hunt?

A complaint to the General Secretary of UNISON following the UNISON South West Regional Council on 8th October 2006 stated that a 2-sided A4 colour newsletter of the UNISON UNITED Left South West, which contained my mobile phone number, was apparently printed using UNISON resources outside of the union's Rules.

Unannounced, a team of senior regional officials entered the UNISON offices on the ground floor of Plymouth's Civic Centre on Wednesday 1st November at 11:00am, having confirmed I was in London leading a delegation to lobby Plymouth MP against NHS cuts. All information on the office computers was downloaded, the Branch Administrator and Treasurer questioned, and all records and financial documents taken away.

I was contacted in London and required to hand across my Vaio Laptop and home Personal Computer the next day. I explained the computers had been in my possession for a period of years and contain data, files and information that is personal, confidential and not the property of UNISON.

Whilst I wish to co-operate with the Union and consider myself to have operated within the Rules of the union, I do not feel empowered to hand over the information contained on the machines. Such information includes individual confidential documents, e-mail and Windows XP accounts for three of my adult children as well as myself, work-related specific documents and politically sensitive information, including personal data not relevant to UNISON that I do not have permission to release to the union.

I have offered the investigatory team access to the computers at my home, for the documents to be viewed and UNISON files to be downloaded in my presence or the presence of an observer chosen by me, to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of myself and my family's personal documents is maintained.

I have confirmed that I have used both machines for my own personal use, including the production and storage of documents that are not the business of the trade union. I, like my predecessors, have been gifted computers by the City of Plymouth UNISON Branch in lieu of Honorarium, without any stated restriction placed on their use. I have considered the machines as my own and utilised them accordingly, and have received no guidance to the contrary over a period of 10 years. The current machines in question are registered in my name and contain software registered in my name.

I do not believe in Honoraria and would not accept payments for my union activities as a matter of principle, believing the tenet of voluntary collective organisation as reliant upon the voluntary work of activists. However, like most of my colleagues, I cannot afford the level of equipment required for high levels of publishing and correspondence and consider supply of such equipment as a reasonable trade for the long hours of unpaid work received by the union.

The provision of home and transportable equipment for lead officers has been the custom and practice of this Branch and a long-standing facility offered to activists. Poor and restricted facility time has ensured most branch machinery and administration is maintained outside working hours, with all Branch Secretary letters, all minutes of meetings, newsletters, flyers and other publications produced at home, outside of working hours, voluntarily and without payment. The provision of the tools with which to do the job has been an obvious requirement that the Branch has met in lieu of honoraria to myself as Branch Secretary and my predecessors, with a clear understanding that the equipment may also be for personal use, similar to the day-to-day practice of thousands of trade union representatives across the country.

I see no reason why UNISON has any right to have open access to these computers.
Further, I challenge the organisation and execution of this investigation, and question the practice and motives behind the complaint. Indeed, I am convinced that UNISON would challenge any employer that behaved in this way towards any of our members.

The unannounced arrival at the Branch Office of three UNISON officers was experienced as heavy-handed, unsupportive and offensive. The series of communications leading-up to the arrival of the team can only lead to one conclusion: that it was timed to coincide with my presence in London as the leader of a delegation from UNISON to lobby our MPs against the cuts in the Health Service, and checks were made to ensure I would not be at the Branch office. This implies a prejudgement that I would be a barrier to any investigation, which consequently had to be undertaken in my absence. The conduct of interviews was similarly accusatory, starting from an assumption of wrong-doing. The process was poorly managed and personally offensive. I was given no notice of the interview, no context or introductions and was not able to have anybody present to support me at the first interview. Again, such methods would not be tolerated by UNISON from any employer.

Such an approach to dedicated and hard-working UNISON representatives is inappropriate and, I find, outrageous. A shared approach to dealing with the complaint, and a reasoned dialogue should be a matter of course between colleagues. The methods used have been unnerving of the morale of key activists and a distraction from the urgent business of the Branch and union. Core Officers are under extreme pressure with insufficient capacity to match the newly published plans from the Employer for major Privatisation of Highways services, swiftly on the heels of attacks on discretionary payments and cuts of more than 200 jobs, alongside the pension and pay campaigns reaching a crucial point, and a challenging watershed in the local negotiations on Job Evaluation and Equal Pay.

I am left to conclude that the investigation represents an attack on the Branch and myself. The Branch has a long-established reputation for policy making and policy challenge at regional and national level. My role and political affiliation is widely recognised as challenging to current perspectives and strategies proposed by the national leadership. I am a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and an active member of the RESPECT Party in Plymouth.

This investigation was been initiated within days of my declaration of the intention to stand in the forthcoming National Executive Committee elections. The timing of a strategic investigation into myself and the Branch about practices of supply and use of equipment - practices that have been in place for many years, is questionable. It has, therefore, subjected me to significant personal distress, and subjected those close to me to unnecessary anxiety.

Following initial interview with me the lead investigating officer offered his opinion that this would progress towards a disciplinary process under Rule I. I have since received recorded delivery letters and a series of calls requiring the machines to be handed over to UNISON, with no acknowledgement of the issues relating to confidential information.

I am therefore unable to pass across either of the computers. I wish to comply with the investigation and stay within the rules of the trade union. I am now subject to an instruction from the Regional Secretary hand over the equipment or be deemed to have broken Rule. I consider this instruction as unreasonable and therefore not enforceable, because:
Contested possession: The computers are gifts in place of honorarium to myself, as part of a common approach to resourcing the voluntary work of lead officers of this Branch. To hand over equipment I believe to be mine may compromise my claim to ownership and thereby place me in jeopardy under Rule.

Custom & Practice: I have been supplied with a succession of pieces of computer equipment by a number of UNISON agencies in the South West over a period of 8 years. All equipment has been donated to myself as a volunteer for the trade union, in return for a wide range of data construction, storage and production. At no time have I received guidance or instruction as to the parameters for use of the equipment, nor the ownership of work produced on the machine. I have utilised the equipment in the same way that any private person is entitled to use their personal computers. I therefore contest that this equipment is not within the parameters of the investigation.

Privacy: the computers contain data not the property of UNISON that is subject to protection. There is private information stored about individuals, including memberships of organisations that are not affiliates of UNISON. There is also, accessible through technological trace, up to 8 years of private and confidential e-mail communications, undertaken daily by myself and my family using our own e-mail accounts on all matters, all of which it is my right and the right of my family to have protected as private under Human Rights legislation often used by UNISON in defence of our own members. In addition, there are articles, personal accounts and reflections that detail my personally held beliefs, my political expression and thoughts that were not intended for publication or view, and to which I am unwilling for UNISON representatives, their agents or mediators to have access. To hand over the computers in their current state would, necessarily, compromise the right to privacy of myself and others to whom I am responsible and liable, and therefore place me in jeopardy.

UNISON is now taking legal advice to recover the equipment and information contained on them. I find this excessive and intimidatory given the period of investigation as pre-disciplinary, but assume that I should seek legal advice also. I remain appalled at such treatment at the hands of a trade union to which I have offered unstinting unpaid service for many years.
I intend to defend myself vigorously. I have not broken and would not knowingly break the rules of the union. I remain committed to the aims and objectives of UNISON and a devoted trade union activist. I ask for your formal support, including a letter of concern to :

The General Secretary UNISON, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ

Regional Secretary UNISON, UNISON House, The Crescent, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4DU

And a message of support to:

Tony Staunton
21 Bayswater Road

Strike ballot in Network Rail

SIGNALLERS THROUGHOUT Network Rail’s West Midlands area are being balloted for strike action by Britain’s biggest rail union after the company failed to step back from the imposition of rosters at Madeley Junction box.

The ballot, of some 175 signallers and supervisory staff, will close on November 30.
RMT today renewed its call on Network Rail to negotiate a settlement as signallers at Madeley Junction held their second 24-hour strike over the imposition of single staffing rosters. Action was also taken on October 23-24.

The dispute began when Network Rail refused to negotiate over new rosters for Madeley Junction as it took on the responsibility for work previously covered by the now closed Lightmoor, Cosford and Codsall boxes.

"Our local reps have made every effort to resolve this dispute by talking, but the company has insisted on going ahead with single staffing and simply refused to consider an alternative that would have provided essential relief," RMT general secretary Bob Crow said today.

"Network Rail has ignored the need for operators to get adequate time away from their VDU workstations and that is completely unacceptable, not least on safety grounds.

"If Network Rail can impose rosters in one box they will try to do it elsewhere and that holds serious implications for our operations members throughout the West Midlands, and the RMT executive has therefore triggered a ballot of all our signallers in the area," Bob Crow said

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

National Shop Stewards Network

A national meeting called by the RMT attended by 250 union reps has agreed to launch a 'National Shop Stewards Network'.

At a national meeting organised by the RMT and supported by major unions including the TGWU, PCS, FBU, UCU and NUJ, it was decided to organise a delegate conference next year to launch a ‘National Shop Stewards Network’. A steering committee of 10 people was elected to organise it.

Bob Crow in his introduction said that the organisation of workplace reps had always been a barometer of the general health of the trade union movement. “If we are to roll back the tide of privatisation and war…rebuilding the grassroots of the movement is an essential part of that process.”

Barry Camfield for the TGWU said:“We need to change the centre of gravity towards shop floor reps if we are to create the conditions for change.”

Paul Mackney for the University & Colleges Union spoke about the need to rebuild a ‘cadre’ of workplace activists.

A statement drafted by the RMT was agreed. It said:

“We recognise that our ability to protect and advance these values (workers rights, solidarity, equality and unity) and to achieve our shared goals – such as the implementation of the Trade Union Freedom Bill – will be assisted by the development of the broadest possible unity of grassroots trade union activity at the workplace and between workplaces.”

The title ‘shop stewards network’ was shorthand for workplace reps; these could obviously include health & safety and other reps. So the Network would be comprised of workplace reps from TUC affiliated unions. Whilst full-time officials could participate they would only have observer status, with speaking rights.

The aims of the Network would be:

To offer support to TUC affiliated unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes;
To offer support to existing workplace reps and Trades Councils.

Obviously this is only a framework. To the extent that such a body developed it would determine and develop its agenda. Such a Network could be an important development in the light of the crisis facing the unions. Aside from the loss of 5 million trade union members, the decline in workplace organisation has been steep. Despite ‘organising’ efforts there has yet to be a significant rise in union membership. This is not only as a result of a generation of defeats. It also results from the so-called ‘service model’ with its concentration on individual services, creating a culture of a passive membership with no understanding of their responsibility for building their own organisation.

In many industries shop stewards have been trained in the methods of ‘social partnership’, identifying the interests of the workforce with market ‘success’ of ‘their’ company. This has meant that the drive for profitability and productivity has been seen as primary, and some unions have collaborated in the destruction of jobs.

Aside from the obvious role of building support and solidarity, a Network could play a role a key role in developing a serious discussion about rebuilding workplace organisation. It could enable activists to exchange experience and to draw on positive organising efforts in other workplaces.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary, speaking at the meeting reported on the experience of NUJ members at the Daily Star. They managed to stop the production of an article entitled the ‘Daily Fatwa’, a supposedly satirical piece directed against Muslims. They took action completely outside the framework of existing employment legislation, a rare event these days, and they got away with it.

Probably the only industry where the example of solidarity action has survived is the Royal Mail, where there is a tradition of refusing to touch mail coming from an area on strike. Challenging the anti-union laws, of course, depends on strong workplace organisation.

The Network which is being proposed will obviously be built at the national level. But its success will depend upon the building of networks in towns and cities, on a cross union basis. Trades Councils could play an important role in this regard. They should be able to participate in it. They strive, albeit under difficult conditions, to build a labour movement in a locality rather than leaving isolated individual unions ploughing their own furrow.

The rebuilding of the unions requires a different culture to the one that has dominated them since the Thatcher years: the building of an active membership which understands that the ‘service’ which a union provides depends upon the collective organisation of the membership on the ground. The role of the Network should include striving to develop a consciousness of the need for independent, fighting, and democratic unions, controlled at every level by the members.

As Dave Chapple said, “we need a democratic grassroots movement that is not dominated by any single party.” The Network should be a framework for practical work rather than an arena for flowery speeches, in which organisations compete against each other.

When John McDonnell spoke in Swindon recently he said that we were on the verge of losing what remains of the gains of the welfare state. The idea that in the face of such attacks, the neo-liberal Blair government can be persuaded to abandon its programme, is pure delusion. Only industrial action will have any impact on it. Yet there is no sign of an industrial response, for instance, in relation to the destruction of the NHS. Building a Network of reps can play an important role in creating conditions in which the government’s programme is answered by struggle instead of the pleading of trade union leaders.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pathways to progress
Reproduced from the Morning Star

(Tuesday 31 October 2006)

GREGOR GALL looks at the potential for progress from two initiatives to get the trade union movement reactivated and draws positives from both approaches.

At the RMT-initiated national shop stewards' conference last Saturday, the 250 trade unionists present passed an enabling statement from the union's executive.

At the Respect-initiated Organising for fighting unions conference on Saturday November 11, those attending will be asked to vote on a statement called the Workers' Charter.

Many of the main speakers at the RMT conference, like Bob Crow and Matt Wrack, will also speak at the Respect conference and the Trade Union Freedom Bill, which was central to gathering at the weekend, will again be crucial.

The RMT statement outlined the basis for establishing a steering group whose task is to help orchestrate the first steps towards creating a national shop stewards network, primarily by organising a formal delegate conference in spring 2007. That conference would see the attempt to create the national shop stewards network itself.

The purpose of the national shop stewards network will be to offer trade unionists help and support in their campaigns and disputes as well as to support existing workplace committees and trades councils.

The proposed Workers' Charter has a much more ambitious task - to promote the right to living wages, union rights, decent public services, protection of the environment, wealth redistribution and the like.

More immediately, the proposed charter states that its priorities will be to organise lobbies and activities in support of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, the Public Services Not Private Profit initiative and so on.

So, although many on the left have commented on the great similarity of the two conferences, concluding that it would have been better to have just one united conference rather than two, the differences are actually quite stark. And they represent significantly different strategies.
If the RMT-initiated conference just gone had been called with the purpose of declaring the establishment of a national shop stewards movement, it would have rightly been derided for being unrealistic and far too ambitious. A conference, no matter how well attended, cannot simply call into being a movement. Movements emerge organically from mass struggles, where people engage in purposeful actions.

But the conference sought to begin the process of bringing together on a national level the workplace reps who have the potential to themselves constitute a national shop stewards network. The use of the term "network" and not "movement" is important, because it is more appropriate to the current state of workplace union organisation.

The conference, therefore, did not attempt to take on the lofty task of recreating the shop stewards movements of the past. Whether of the first world war period or the 1950s to 1970s, the shop steward movements of these periods emerged from more solid ground of entrenched workplace bargaining and in times of rising trade union struggle.

Today, we face the task of knitting together what grass-roots organisation has survived and is still working after a period of retreat and defeat. The job here is to try to make it into more than just the sum of its parts. So, the task of the shop stewards network is to support and encourage struggle when its breaks out rather than initiate it in the first place. Once this has been achieved, we may then be in a position to try as a network to initiate struggles.

There is where the Respect-initiated Workers' Charter is likely to come unstuck. All the demands are, in one sense, correct and sensible. The demands raise necessary and important issues, but they are also too wide-ranging and ambitious to be acted upon practically.
The social forces required to secure the charter's aims unfortunately do not yet exist. Put bluntly, the aims do not match up with the available means. No amount of exhortation and pulling of emotional, left-wing heartstrings can get around this. That is why the RMT initiative more squarely hits the nail on the head.

All of this should focus our attention on best way to introduce higher demands into the union movement, as well as to how higher demands can emerge themselves from within the union movement in a more organic manner.

Different organisations of varying sizes, but all of the far left, dating from the 1970s, have presented charters of rights and action programmes to the union movement. Some of these charters and programmes have been presented in more conducive times than those of the present.

Setting aside the barren party-building aspects of some of these attempts, what they have in common is that they have not connected with the active, non-aligned trade unionists in a widespread and concrete manner.

An obvious example of when this did happen concerns the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) at the time of the killing of both the In Place of Strife white paper in 1968 and the Industrial Relations Act 1971.

This lack of subsequent substantial connection of charters and programmes is because the demands either fail to do one or other or both of the following.

First, they do not match where the mass of the union movement is at, where the demands aim to take people two or three steps, as opposed to 10 or 20 steps, on from where they are. Second, the demands have not genuinely or organically arisen in a substantial way from the mass of workers' struggle.

Although only a single but, nonetheless, high-profile strike, the Gate Gourmet action highlighted to the workers involved and to a huge swathe of others looking on that legalised solidarity action is vitally needed to make trade unionism effective.
That is why the Trade Union Freedom Bill is so appropriate. Unfortunately, we have not seen any such similar examples since.

So, because the RMT initiative is more attuned to the lived experience of workplace reps as they are now and begins from where they are, it is more likely to be successful than the Respect initiative, which may serve the better purposes of raising ideas and creating discussion.
That does not mean that the RMT initiative is guaranteed success. In itself, it is quite ambitious. Its success will depend upon a higher level of trade union workplace struggle unfolding, workplace reps broadening their horizons out of their own industry and a clutch of successful struggles, aided by solidarity support, being seen as offering a way forward.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire's Centre for Research in Employment Studies.