Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unions21 Conference 2013


This post is a little late but is about the excellent Unions21 20th Anniversary conference, which took place on International Women's Day 8 March last month at Congress House. I was there in my personal capacity.

The first speaker was its director, Dan Whittle, who reminded everyone that Unions21 was set up to support the miners during their strike in 1983.

Next was Jon Cruddas MP who gave his usual individual slant on the Labour movement. He pointed out that the Labour Party had always lost elections in the past after crisis's in capitalism.

He thinks that Labour has changed since 2010 and is now having a conversation about workers rights, board representation, reform of Banking, infrastructure, housing and having a real partnership with the unions.

As an aside he said that before he had been appointed to co-ordinate the Labour Party policy review there had been 40 different policy groups including one on combating loneliness which had been inquorate and had never quite manged to meet. Now there were only 3 groups.

New General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, Frances O'Grady, described Unions21 as the Labour Movement equivalent of the Taxpayers Alliance, except they had more brains and less money. She called for a return of wage councils especially for sectors that can afford more than the minimum wage. Even the shock troops of capitalism such as the IMF recognise that we need to increase wages to increase demand in the economy.

The City has acted as one armed bandit in pushing up the pay of Chief Executives. There is no real checks and balances to hold them to account. Capitalism has reformed but the trade unions have not. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Strong trade unions are necessary for both wings of the Labour Movement to build one nation.

Other speakers were Lesley Mercer, TUC President who pointed out that the Australian trade unions had managed during the last general election campaign to take employment rights from being a non issue politically to the 2nd most important and this was probably responsible for the narrow Labour Party victory.

Carl Roper from TUC spoke about the clear link between the decline in collective bargaining and greater income inequality and that the unique selling point of union reps is that they are independent of the employer. Union reps actually save employers money. The government is suppose to love volunteers but the voice of employers who value reps and the way we deal with everyday difficult problems is absent.

Community John Park attacked the SNP Scottish Government for failing to ensure that (tax dodgers) Amazon used the £5 million subsidy they received to open a new warehouse to create permanent jobs. Instead nearly all the new 800 jobs were subcontracted to 3 employment agencies who employ workers on poorly paid, insecure 0 hour contracts.

In a presentation on "The future for union image" by Dr Brian Walker & Lesley Jeffries. Linguistic media data from 1993 and 2012 were compared. In 1993 unions were linked with disputes and aggression. All references were male. While in 2012 unions were linked with money and pay. Unions are still labelled as being angry, aggressive with reference to “Bosses and Barons”. Press ignore the fact that individuals can be taxpayers and union activists. Will Frances O’Grady be labelled a Baron?
Christine Payne from Equity spoke about her union realising that instead of the union telling its members how good the union was that it is better to have members telling members their stories.

Scarlet Harris, TUC Women’s officer, reminded us that more women are in unions than men. Unions have changed but only 25% of General Secretaries are women. There is still lots wrong and there exists a macho culture in too many unions. Unless we can keep our own house in order we cannot change society.

Ian Lavery MP is the Chair of the Trade Union Parliamentary Group (I once stayed at the same B&B with Ian at Party conference and had some interesting conversations with him). As a former coal face worker, he was on strike for 12 months during the miner’s strike and took over as President of the NUM from Author Scargill. He still sees himself as a Trade Unionist first and his role is to reduce the gulf between the trade unions and the Labour Party.

How do we get back the millions of trade union members and Labour Party voters both parts of the movement has lost over the years. We have no divine right to demand people to join. Need to attract people, explain and reach out. Politicians must be seen on the side of working people. He still sees himself as working class even though as an MP he earns £65k per year. Class is not means tested. We want more people with actual work experience, from the shop floor into Parliament. No more elites parachuted into CLPs as MPs. It is essential that the Labour is not just seen as being less nasty than the Tories. Together the Party and the trade unions can reframe the political argument.

Journalist Owen Jones reminded everyone that while the numbers of members of trade unions is down to 50% in public sector and 14% in the private sector, trade unions are still by far with 6 million members the largest democratic organisation in the UK. Trade unions also need to follow changes in workforce. There are now more workers in call centres than use to work in the coal mines.

John Slinger from “Pragmatic Radicalism led a "Change the Nation: 10 ideas, campaigns & wider social concerns unions can make common cause". This was 10 ideas pitched by individuals in 90 seconds with a 90 second Q&A from panel and floor. This was great fun.

There was an UnionHome award on the best post on the blog which was presented by Tim Lezard of Union News to Simon Sapper.

The last presentation was a fringe by Polling experts Survation on unions who have used opinion polling to argument their campaigns.

This was my first Unions21 annual conference and I was really impressed. This was just the sort of stuff that all unions should be thinking about and debating. My question to one of the panels about "whether or not the traditional Anglo-American trade union model that all bosses are the enemy is broke but what do we do about those bosses who do think unions are the enemy" got a little lost in translation but my fault for being too wordy.

While Unions21 is not affiliated to the Labour Party and there was plenty of criticism (often justified) of the Party during this conference. It was largely constructive and aimed at improving the relationships of both wings of the Labour movement rather than just moaning and finger pointing. I shall look forward to Unions21 Conference 2014.

(apologies for missing out some contributers out since I had to dash out of the hall a few times to deal with member problems)
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