Saturday, March 07, 2009

Charles Clarke MP “The importance of joining a trade union”

Yesterday lunchtime I was at my Housing Association Group office at Norwich to chair a UNISON recruitment meeting. Our guest speaker was Charles Clarke MP, former Home Secretary and Labour MP for Norwich South. I had bumped into Charles at the Progress Conference last year and invited him to address one of our meetings on this theme. He immediately accepted.

The meeting was sponsored by UNISON Eastern Region Labour Link (APF) who provided lunch. We also had someone from trade unions solicitors Thompsons present and UNISON regional organising staff Jon Hartley and Gwen Williams.

The meeting itself was very relaxed and informal. Charles praised UNISON for having the very good reputation of a union that vigorously defends the interests of its members but also tries to be constructive. It is a “progressive” union that is listened to by the government and taken seriously by ministers.

He pointed out that there were always tensions in the relationship between the government and unions, and this is natural. We are not going to agree all the time. Especially over pay. He pointed out that pursuing better pay is not the only reason to join a union. Issues such as health & safety and equality of opportunity were very important. In fact being a voice for staff and striving to make sure that things are fair in the workplace is probably even more important.

As a MP he is always willing to meet up with trade unions to talk about particular problems with employers. At the moment he has been taken up with the redundancies that have been announced at major local firms.

Charles made an interesting comment that he felt that there was actually too much emphasis and belief on employment laws and regulations. Which he felt favoured solicitors (nothing personal against Thompsons) not ordinary workers? Legal remedies and employment tribunals should very much a last resort since even if successful they take years to complete are complex, expensive and bureaucratic. Instead he felt there should be more emphasis on collective bargaining between employers and trade unions which would result in better work relationships, fewer grievances and far less employment tribunals. In private companies were there are low levels of union protection then employment law is very necessary but in unionised organisations then collective bargaining is best for everyone.

During the Q&A Charles explained there needs to be an expansion of a programme of homes for rent. The current model of social housing finance which is based on assumptions of outright sales and shared ownership is broken. There has to be a new model. He is optimistic that a new model will be (have to be?) announced in the near future.

During a separate question he put forward the idea that public pension funds (LGPS?) could play a direct role in financing housing and other public investments to help revive the economy.

He agreed that having “Supporting People” programmes that only last 2 years is far too short and wrong. They should be at least 3-5 years. This will not only benefit staff but also clients. He offered to help us talk to local authorities to improve commissioning contracts were there are problems.

I asked Charles about the TULO campaign to support an increase in the minimum redundancy payments. He was aware of the private members bill by Labour MP, Lindsay Hoyle and understood that negotiations were going on and he hoped that there would be a good outcome.

There was a general discussion on further equality laws in the pipeline; fair trade; agency workers; religious freedoms at work and the important role that Europe has played in promoting workers rights. Charles stayed around afterwards chatting to people.

The meeting was held in the boardroom which overlooks the St Andrews Business Park were the office is located. Just as he was leaving Charles made the significant remark (to me) that he had never been to a trade union meeting in a business park before today. As we walked down the staircase we discussed how unions can make themselves relevant to such workers and organise in modern day work places.

It was a very positive meeting in a number of ways: we signed up a number of new members and I am confident that many more will join. I am hopeful we will also get another new local union representative out of it as well. There was a meaningful and "grown up" discussion with an informed speaker on the role of modern trade unions, work related housing issues as well as other important local and national matters. I'll try to arrange other similar events.

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