Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pension Strike and Rally: London 30 June

This lunchtime I met up with branch officer Joel Bodmer (picture bottom left) to go and support the Pension rally for striking London teachers and civil servants.

The rally took place at Westminster Central Hall. Unfortunately we were turned away since it was full. So we went to a overflow rally around the corner. The march was still ongoing
all the time we were there. This was a magnificent and well organised event.

At the rally I did note that one speaker mentioned that in the teachers pension fund there was already an agreement to cap employer contributions.  If teacher pension costs do go up then the state will not pay anymore.  So there is no need at all for this theft of pension contributions.  This is purely about those who work with the public being made to pay for the Bankers crisis rather than the financiers who caused it in the first place. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Rule Change Schedule F Branch Finance

On Thursday afternoon at NDC it is rule change time.  This is my speech on supporting Schedule F.  I went to a Finance fringe the previous evening and quickly gathered that this proposed rule change was in trouble.  There were genuine concerns by delegates but also the usual suspects were just out to cause trouble. The rule change was lost. This is a shame, but there you go.  Here is my speech:

President, Conference, John Gray, Housing Association Branch, Greater London Region speaking in favour of this Rule Change.

Conference, I am speaking as a former treasurer of a large branch which employed staff and had hundreds of thousand pounds in various saving accounts and industrial action funds. We even had in our accounts, strangely enough for a trade union, two hundred pounds of British government War bonds from Second World War, which I tried to redeem, but couldn't since we had lost the actual certificates sometime in the dim and distance past. I have also been a regional finance convenor for the past 5 years. I am now a branch secretary with practically no reserves yet we employ four staff - so money and good financial governance is vital.  We have 4 workers saleries to pay each month.

Conference, I have done a number of different jobs for the union. But to be honest the job of branch treasurer was one of the most difficult and most worrying. Not being that good at maths probably didn’t help. But making sure that this huge amount of money, more money that I had ever come across before in my life, was safe and secure and any use was properly accounted for was a worry. I also felt that the interest we received was grossly inadequate and did not protect the union’s money against inflation.

I appreciate that the great majority of branches are already well run and have sound financial procedures. But we must face the facts that some are not. NDC all of us must take responsibility for enabling the union to safe guard all our monies not just NEC. 

Conference I think that this proposal is complex as all financial matters are but potentially a good move for branches and for the union. We can satisfy our external auditors and the inland revenue that our money is being looked after properly, legally and it is safe.  

It will remove some, not all, of the everyday headaches, that treasurers and branch secretaries face. It will also increase income to branches at a time when you will need every penny you can get to defend your members.

Finally conference, I understand people have concerns but we are in a union. By definition a union is a collective organisation. We have spent a great deal of time this week defending collective investments such as our pensions, collective rights and agreements over pay and conditions and taking collective industrial action to achieve our aims. 

A collective financial policy is better than a series of individual ones. Collective investments are going to be better than individual investments. Conference, Please support this rule change.

UNISON NDC 2011: The Spirit Level Fringe

On Wednesday lunchtime there was a fringe sponsored by the UNISON "hidden workforce" project.  I have posted about "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is better for Everyonehere and here.  What was different about this meeting was that the first speaker was someone who had suffered first hand from income inequality.  Then we heard about the research from Professor Richard Wilkinson.

The meeting was chaired by UNISON AGS Roger McKenzie. Luis Ojeda spoke first, he is from Ecuador who has lived in the UK for 14 years and is employed as a cleaner at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He described how dreadful it was for him and his work colleagues surviving on minimum wages as contract cleaners with a exploitative employer.  UNISON, the other campus unions and SOAS students campaigned together and the School eventually introduced a Living wage policy for all.

Richard spoke as eloquently and persuasively as ever about how hard research showed that income inequality is simply bad for everyone.  Rich and poor. Even if the biggest cheer he got was when he said that having no friends in society is worse for your health than if you smoked (from smokers)!

He also thought that it was no co-incidence that countries such as Norway and Sweden do better in almost all national well being statistical outcomes, have high levels of trade union density and influence.

So join UNISON and live longer and better!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ardeley, Benington and Walkern Walk

Off message but on Sunday, as part of my post Conference recovery plan. I went for a countryside walk in deepest Hertfordshire. The walk was glorious as was the weather. Double click picture.

48 hours previously I was sitting with my delegation in a converted Mancunian Railway station, plotting and planning, listening to speeches, while struck down with the recognised UNISON medical condition - “Conference lergie”. 

But now I was walking along lovely peaceful ancient paths and byways. Enjoying the blue skies and the sunshine. Spotting wild deer, being blockaded in by greedy spoilt ponies, having a lunch in the 15th Century pub The Bell and investigating a Flower Festival in a medieval Church. For some inexplicable reason I wondered off route and this Pathfinder 7 mile walk actually turned into 10 miles. Obviously, I suspect UUL sabotage.

It is amazing how few other walkers you see. Every weekend Londoners in particular will travel enormous distances up and down the Country to go walking in the traditional often crowded National Park beauty spots. Yet practically on their doorstep there is fantastic countryside to explore with usually hardly a soul to bother you.

I’ll post other pictures of this wonderful walk on Facebook.

Monday, June 27, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Motion 89 Palestine

On Wednesday afternoon I spoke in favour of this important and controversial motion. In the past UNISON conference had voted to break links with Histadrut, the Israeli trade union organisation over its support of Israeli state policy towards Palestine.

Last year Conference voted for its NEC to review this policy. The NEC did so and carried out a fact finding mission to Palestine, including meeting up with representatives of its major union, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

During this visit UNISON representatives believe that they were clearly told that the PGFTU wanted them to not break off all links with Histadrut since there were advantages to the Palestine cause  from us having a "critical engagement" policy. 

However, the motion was defeated when a number of speakers claimed that the PGFTU wanted us to continue to boycott and made reference to statements made by its leadership which appeared to clearly support that view.  This I think caused widespread confusion amongst delegates and led to the motion being lost. 

I have never been to Palestine (or Israel for that matter) and I am not in anyway an "expert" in these things but I suspect that the PGFTU do see tactical advantages for them if UNISON had links with Histadrut but they do not wish to do so publicly.

See what happens next year.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Protect our Pensions Fringe

On Tuesday lunch time there was a very well attended fringe on "Protecting our Pensions".  It was chaired by NEC member Steve Warwick, Roz Norman (Health service Group), Glyn Jenkins (UNISON Head of pensions)and Mo Baines (LGPS Pension rep). 
I missed the beginning.

In the Q&A I asked whether or not the true cost of past employer contribution holidays and lower than needed contributions had ever been calculated by the unions? If employers had always paid what they should have paid, what would our schemes look like now? 

I had been to a conference recently were it was asserted by a well known financial figure that £50 billion pounds had been taken (stolen says I ?) from final salary schemes due to past contribution holidays and reductions. Glyn responded by say thing he thought such a figure seemed plausible but he knows that for many years - employers paid far, fair less into schemes than employees.

My argument is of course that if the employers had paid in the traditional 10-12% of earnings into occupational pensions schemes every year for the past 30 years then things would look very different in the pension world than they do now. 

In other words many pension scheme members face now being Robert Maxwelled (aka robbed) due to the past misappropriation (theft?) of contributions?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

SERTUC Theatre Club: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

UNISON NDC 2011: Composite Motion E – Cuts are not the Cure

This is a picture of Joel Bodmer, who was also a delegate from Housing Association Branch.  Joel is the Branch Young member and Media officer.  He spoke in favour of Composite E and used his own experience as a mental health support worker to describe the impact of the cuts.  Not only on staff but also on clients and services.

Stephen Brown, the Chair of the Community Service Group Executive also spoke about the £5 billion in cuts that the voluntary and community sector will face.

In our sector there are rogue employers who are deliberately undercutting the good ones in Supporting People bids. Once they win the bids they then slash the pay and conditions to TUPE staff and reduce care to vulnerable clients. A real race to the gutter by employers who claim to be socially responsible organisations. What rubbish! The branch is putting together a plan to tackle such abuses in our region. 

Joel is a UNISON Labour Link levy payer and a Labour Party activist in Brixton. He was recently elected as a Greater London representative to the UNISON Labour Link national forum which takes place next month in Liverpool.

Arwyn Thomas reinstated: London tube strikes off

Sacked London Underground driver and RMT activist, Arwyn Thomas, has been reinstated and the strikes due next week have been cancelled.  I had thought that Arwyn (left) had been stitched up by his management based on the evidence from the interim Employment tribunal. I had posted this here.

Arwyn was held to have been unfairly dismissed in the full tribunal and the Underground has agreed to reinstate him. I don't know the full details of the outcome but this is on the RMT wedsite here and this is the version being put out by the right wing Evening Standard here that I read last night on the way home from UNISON conference in Manchester.
Hat tip Col. Roi.

UNISON NDC 2011: Guardian Focus Podcast "Unions Strike back".

This Guardian audio podcast was posted yesterday here.  The first 10 minutes were recorded on Tuesday morning at UNISON conference.

First they interviewed Karen Jennings (Head of UNISON Health), then me (Head of ums and uhs), Anne McCormack (Further Education), Monica Hirst (London Nurse), Mike Davey (London Nurse) and James Anthony (Birmingham nurse).

I think that (apart from me naturally) they gave a very good account of themselves and the reasons why UNISON members will go out on strike, if necessary, to defend their pensions.  They made calm but committed, articulate, logical and proportionate arguments.  No shouting, ranting or unintelligible sloganising.

This is the sort of modern, thoughtful trade unionism that will help win this dispute (...and drive the Tory tabloid gutter press bonkers with frustration).

Friday, June 24, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: End of Conference

I’m on the crowded 5.15pm train back to London after the close of UNISON conference. Yet again I am amazed to discover there is life outside the conference bubble.
I was chatting to my fellow passengers - an Easy Jet pilot and a Northern Irish tyre production manager, who unbelievably have no interest, what-so-ever, in standing order committee reports, points of order, the two tier code or even the infamous UNISON Friday afternoon snake. What strange people?

I have a touch of the “conference lergie”, which I hope I can shake off when I get some sleep and fresh air.

On the whole, I thought it was a good conference. The union is very united when it comes to opposing the cuts, especially over Pensions. This is despite the best efforts of a small but vocal minority who constantly attack the union and want to divide us. There was a bit of a row over policy towards Palestine and a finance rule change. Which was a shame, but there was genuine concerns. I hope these issues are sorted by next year.

I didn’t have time to post that often during conference but will catch up over the next few days. These posts will be well out of sequence but bear with me.

In the morning there was a good debate on the stupidity of Police civilian administration staff being made redundant to “save money” then giving their jobs to uniformed Police officers who cost twice as much as them to employ.

The Chair of Standing Orders Clytus Williams gave his traditional end of conference final report. A Karaoke style musical finale - to loud applause.

There was a motion on supporting members in the private and community sectors followed by another one on campaigning with the community and voluntary sector to fight the cuts. I tried to speak on the 2nd one but the motion was closed down before it was my turn. I’ll post my speech anyway later. In the afternoon we (Housing Association branch delegates) were disappointed that we just ran out of conference time to move and debate branch our motion on “The Death and Rebirth of Public Housing”. But these things happen. But I can always post that speech as well!

The closing session is a vote of thanks to this years’ President, the no nonsense, Angela Lynes, for her term of office and past service to the Union. It is half humorous and half serious. The President is gently teased with pictures of her as a toddler flashed on the main screen while also recounting her time as President and her past service as the branch secretary of Glasgow City.

Straight after conference I went to my first meeting as a member of the UNISON National Executive Council. Which, when I catch up on my sleep (next month?) I will probably blog about.

So – a good conference. The forces of light and reason largely triumphed. UNISON is in very good shape to protect members and public services from this Tory led government and its ideologically driven hatred of public service workers and any form of collective provision.
Next year - Bournemouth.

(Caption shows Scottish newspaper “The Daily Record” in 1999 attacking Angela as being “hard left”.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Building a Future for Public Housing

These are some of my notes from the UNISON housing fringe on Monday evening. The meeting was chaired by Heather Wakefield, Head of Local Government. Other speakers were Lord Whitty (Housing Voice) and Mo Baines (APSE). I was billed for the first time as “NEC”.

Aim: What are housing associations up to and how will they respond to government policy?

Does the so called “affordable rent” model make any sense? Is it viable? Will it work for housing associations and those seeking decent, affordable homes?

Key points Housing Associations are operating in a difficult financial environment. Almost ££50 billion of debt is held by larger housing associations (with more than a thousand homes), £18 billion will be paid through re-financing. Housing associations see re-financing as a threat, as rates on new loans are likely to be higher than those currently held.

Under the new system housing associations will get, on average, about £32k per new home, instead of £80k that they received previously. They will be expected to make the difference by charging higher rents – at 80 per cent of the market rate – and use the increase in rents to support more borrowing. The government hope that this model, based on lower grant per home but increased borrowing, will deliver 150,000 new affordable homes by 2015. Remember this is not only on new build but could be also for existing stock.

A recent survey by Inside Housing magazine suggest that while the majority of the largest associations will make bids to gov to build homes under the new system, the extra risk and borrowing is leading to associations scaling back development plans. We will know more in July, when the Homes and Communities Agency awards contracts.

It is also becoming blatantly obvious that this new funding system doesn’t work for all regions. Whilst the difference between existing social rent (which as a rule of thumb is about 50% of market rent) and an 80% of market affordable rent in the South East is in the region of £60 per week, in the Midlands and the North it ranges from about £17 to about £25. Unsurprisingly such associations aren’t likely to generate the kinds of revenue that would enable the model to work.

UNISON, as a housing union, operating in an environment in which half of the public housing is delivered by housing associations and half by local authorities and ALMOs, has to work out two sets of issues. The first set of issues are will this so called affordable rent, based on 80 per cent of market rents, will deliver more decent homes for our members and their families, and working people on low to middle incomes people more broadly.

We know from internal surveys that more of our members are in the private rented sector than the social rented sector, and that this where most people who can’t afford to buy now find themselves. Would this group of people see Affordable Rent as a better option than the private rented sector? How would it work alongside traditional social housing?

As yet we don’t the answers, but we can see problems. In London the average housing association rent on a two bedroom property is £102 per week. An Tory unaffordable rent would be £248. How many low paid workers could afford that? Clearly this is unsustainable – especially when considered alongside cuts to Local Housing Allowance. (housing benefit)

The second set of issues does the new funding system impact on the sustainability and character of housing associations as employers of our members and potential members. Can employers make the new arrangements work in a way which guarantees their survival, and the jobs of our members? Is the business model this implies one that necessarily entails a tougher environment for people at work in housing associations? We have the private sector companies claiming they could save money by managing staff and estates on behalf of housing association. Of course this will be by the slashing and burning of our terms and conditions.

Its already tough out there, with pay cuts and attacks on terms and conditions. Would this make things worse? But as well as a threat is this also an opportunity? Can we organise around this new model in a way that is appealing to housing workers?

Again its early days. The signs are that everyone is cautious about trying to implement this system in the current economic climate. The least we can do, as a union that wants to grow in the sector, with a wider commitment to the provision of affordable housing, is to watch carefully how these issues develop over the months ahead and be prepared to speak out and act as necessary.

UNISON NDC 2011: Forces of light & reason Quiz at last night's London Regional Reception

Guess who? :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Defending our Pensions Composite B

I managed to speak during this important debate. “President, Conference, John Gray Housing Association Branch, Greater London Region speaking in favour of Composite B.

Conference, also speaking as a member of the Community Service Group I think it is important to remember that it is not only it not only those in Health and Local government who face a bleak future in retirement. There are hundreds of thousands of workers who now work in the private and voluntary sector who depend and rely on public sector pensions for their future. In my own employer we have around 500 staff who like me, are still members of the local government pension scheme.

My members, like those in the traditional public sector, cannot afford a 50% hike in pension contributions. They have also suffered from years of no pay rises. Many who work in care and support have also seen their pay savagely cut due to the race to the gutter in Supporting People commissioning. They will be forced to leave the pension scheme.

So, in the Community Service Group we also face being robbed of our pensions. That is why, for the first time ever for many in my sector we are organising for strike action. However, delivering sustained and successful strike action is not going to be easy in any sector. That is why it is even more important than ever that our union keeps up the pressure on the government while working with our sister unions to organise effective campaigns, inform our members of the facts and carefully build for action. Caroline previously called it SMART

We have to recognise that our pension arrangements are different and sector specific. While we all face a common threat, we must make it clear to our members the exact reasons why we are calling for strike action and what we expect that particular action to achieve. Conference, the prize for us if this is successful will be worth it. Solid and committed strike action by everyone in UNISON. Conference please support this composite.

(Photo Phil Lewis)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

UNISON NDC 2011: Abolition of Two Tier Code - Motion 28

This is a copy of my speech today on Motion 28: Abolition of Two Tier Code

"President, Conference, John Gray, Housing Association Branch, Greater London Region. Speaking in favour of Motion 28 and this amendment.

Conference, I am speaking as someone who was actually“contracted out” of a local authority without the benefit of the Two tier code and now the UNISON Secretary of a Branch that organises in over 160 employers and has to try and deal with the consequences of staff transfers "in" and "out" on a daily basis. London as a region also has a higher % of private contractors than the rest of the country. We therefore have to represent members in organisations where staff are on hugely different terms and conditions. One employer with 2000 staff has 15 different terms and conditions and 1000 different job descriptions. This will give you a flavour of what is to come unless you organise against it.

And what happens if you have all these workers on different terms and conditions? Apart from the obvious confusion about what annual leave entitlements and what sickness benefits a worker is getting. HR tell us that as a rule of thumb the add on costs to salary for a former local authority employer is £10k per year. For a directly recruited employee the add on cost is £5k. So, do the maths. It is inevitable that the employer will try repeat try and harmonise conditions and get everyone on the same job evaluation and the same terms.

Now, will these jobs be harmonised upwards or downwards? Again conference, do the maths. Regardless of TUPE some employers are trying to slash and burn pay and benefits and bring them down to the lowest possible levels. To be fair, some responsible employers have not done this. But, the inevitable but , what we have found that new terms and conditions tend to penalise already low paid manual and caring roles while rewarding the already higher paid managerial grades.

Conference, this is plea to organise your members against the coming onslaught. I don’t think people get it, they don’t know how bad it will get. They need to know, they need to get ready, they need to be ready to act. Conference, please support this amendment and motion".

I ve posted on this Two Tier Code outcome before here (and pinched the caption).  What do those who say that there is no difference between a Labour government and these CONDEM Tories say now?

UNISON Housing Association Branch NDC Blog

My branch has set up a NDC blog and twitter for our delegates to post on conference.  Check out the blog here. I haven't had the chance to post anything on it yet. Many thanks to Mary Powell for doing the leg work.

I will point out that I will not necessarily agree with all the posts (and comments).  The reports so far
will save me writing up some posts on this blog.

I do think that it is a good idea that delegates let their members know what is happening. It would be great to get more comments from branch members.

UNISON National Delegate Conference 2011

This morning the UNISON National Delegate Conference opened in Manchester. This is one of the largest trade union gatherings in the world. There are 1.4 million UNISON members and we have delegates from all over the UK representing public service workers.

I am there as part of the Housing Association branch delegation with Mary Powell and Joel Bodmer.

I spoke at a Housing fringe meeting yesterday evening (will post on it later) after the close of the Local Government Conference. After the fringe I went to the London regional welcome meeting to delegates. Next was a UNISON Labour Link social which was held in the historic Manchester City Hall.

There is huge media interest in this years’ conference due to the threat of strike action over pensions. I was interviewed briefly by Sky News. The main debate on Pensions will be on Wednesday. It is a shame that nowadays the media are only interested in trade unions when strikes are on the agenda. There will be a number of important debates during conference which will never be reported upon. Despite the fact that trade unions are still the biggest mass movement in the UK.

I was in Manchester at the same venue last September for the Labour Party conference. So I am getting to know the area quite well. This morning I went for a run to clear my head and prepare for the day. Just after 7am I ran past the conference hall and saw the UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis, standing outside being interviewed by a film camera team. I gave him the thumbs up, got a grin in return then I ran back along the Rochdale canal.

Monday, June 20, 2011

UNISON trade union recognition in Civil Service?

I suppose that many people will be surprised that the largest public sector trade union in the country is not recognised by the Government. There are around 2000 UNISON members who work for the “Core” Civil
Service and probably another 10,000 who work for related outside bodies.  Yet there is no formal recognition agreement with UNISON. This is not to say that the traditional Civil Service unions, the PCS,
Prospect and FDA are not doing an excellent job for their members.  It only seems fair that UNISON should take their place alongside the other unions.

Especially now that the Civil Service is doing away with devolved bargaining and negotiations and having a national framework instead.

Without recognition this could mean that UNISON members have changes to their terms and conditions without their union even being consulted.  This cannot be right.  Even worse, if the government does
go ahead and bring in universal credit.  One consequence of this could be another 10,000 UNISON members who are currently housing benefit officers in local councils may well find themselves under Civil
Services terms (again).

In the run up to the Tolpuddle Festival next month this is a good time to remind the Civil Service managers that everyone is entitled to collective bargaining.  Never mind universal credits this is a universal and fundamental human right.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Don’t protect your staff from Harassment???

It is perhaps unsurprising that employers do such stupid things from time to time when you consider the quality of advice they can receive from their “professional advisors”.  A case in point is this load of old nonsense from solicitors Towers & Hamlins published on the “Inside Housing” website here regarding cyber harassment of employees by clients or residents. 
“...employers, including housing associations, have a duty of care to their staff. Richie Alder, partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins, says they must demonstrate they have taken reasonable steps to protect staff but are under no obligation to investigate harassment claims.
‘Reasonable steps could include putting a filter on emails for instance, and if necessary, reporting the matter to the police,’ he adds. ‘In most cases an employer would not be required to do anything in terms of investigation, although it might if it feels the organisation itself is under threat.’
So there is no duty or obligation for employers to investigate a complaint from one of its employees that they are being harassed by a client or resident?  Apart from this advice being  morally bankrupt, there is a clear and specific duty under health and safety legislation to risk assess in order to protect staff and then take action.  If any organisation fails to investigate harassment and this harasser then went on to harm or even murder an employee I would expect that employer to be charged under criminal law.  Putting not only that organisation at risk of fines but also possible imprisonment for individual managers and directors.  Furthermore huge fines can be levied on directors personally for such inaction and they will be liable to pay not the employer or any liability insurer. 
Needless to say – I am writing to Inside Housing.  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"It will be the biggest since the general strike. It won't be the miners' strike. We are going to win."

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis warns the government of the biggest strike in 100 years (today's Guardian & also BBC report). 

All power to Dave's elbow.  Let us be absolutely clear.  Public sector pension funds are not in crisis.  They are not unaffordable.  They are not "gold plated".  The massive 50% plus proposed increase in contributions as well as increases in retirement age are an excuse to cut spending.  Nothing more and nothing less.  So nurse, teachers, carers, receptionists and town hall clerks are being forced to pay for the past theft, fraud and corruption of the financial services sector and the Banks.  Who are now returning to their bad old ways with huge increases in their bonuses and bankrolling their mates in the Tory Party.  While at the same time said public sector workers are having their pension contributions increased they are facing years of pay freezes while inflation cuts their pay by 5% per year (and gas prices going up by 20%).  If pension subs go up by 50% many people will leave the schemes and they could collapse.

Only a few years ago there was a serious dispute over pensions which brought about radical change.  Much of which the unions were not happy about but compromised in order to secure the funds future.  Now this agreement is being ripped up.  Forget the fibs and scare mongering of the Daily Hate and the Tax Evaders Alliance.  The Local Government Pension Scheme is cash rich and worth over £160 billion.  The NHS pension scheme has a cost sharing agreement.  If employer contribution goes over 14% (close to the traditional final salary norm) then the employees will bear the cost.  Even the Conservative Party dominated Public Accounts committee accept that public penisons are affordable. Finally, never forget that Hutton found that the average public sector pension for a women is only about £4000 a year.

Dave Prentis makes it clear that he still wants to negotiate and that we will not be taking industrial action for industrial actions sake - but as a means to get an acceptable agreement.  Dave quite rightly expects the full support of the Labour Party over this dispute.  I am pleased that Newham Council recently passed this motion at our Annual General Meeting.

Tomorrow UNISON begins its Service Group conferences in Manchester and its National Delegate Conference begins on Tuesday morning.  Pensions will be the top issue.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"From the British People. To Victory! We are With You!"

"From the British People. To Victory! We are With You!" Sleeveprint: Second Front
against Nazism 1941-2011 1941 To Victory!

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This is another greatpolitical and historical teeshirt offer from philosphyfootball. Related products1941 Arctic Convoy T-shirt 1941 Life and Fate T-shirt 1941 Leningrad T-shirt

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Newham Trades Council relaunch: What was Good, Bad and at times Ugly

Last night I went to the relaunch of Newham Trades Council which took place inside the Town Hall Council Chamber. I was late due to another meeting and missed the opening speeches by NUT General secretary Christine Blower;  PCS assistant General secretary Chris Baugh and
Steve Hedley from the RMT. Steve had left by the time I arrived.

I must admit to being impressed with the turn out, which pretty much filled the Council Chamber. People were  making contributions as I took my seat.  Most of which were very good and constructive.  Pointing out that we must build unity to defeat this Tory led coalition. I was surprised though that quite a few of the speakers admited that they did not live or work in the borough.

However, there were some extremely silly and sectarian grandstanding going on.  Repeating almost word for word in some instances, the Tory lies that Labour Council cuts are all unnecessary and are only being carried out to embarrass the government.  I could imagine the Evil one himself in the corner chuckling to himself at some of the comments made.  How anyone thinks they can build opposition by splitting and wreaking is beyond me?  I'm more than happy to have a row with such people but I would rather be fighting Tories.  Honest!

Overall there were many good points made and of course it is entirely legitimate to constructively criticise the Party and hold elected representatives to account.  However one contributor ended his thoughts by calling for people to stop voting Labour.  There was some clapping to this. My response is yes, if you do not agree with Labour, then don't vote Labour.  It is a free vote. No one is forcing you to vote Labour in the borough with the biggest Labour vote in the entire country.

Chris and Christine made excellent closing speeches.  Chris reminded everyone that the anti poll tax campaign was successful because everyone was under attack and everyone was united in opposition.  While Christine pointed out the ludicrous situation that there is no legal requirement for a school to have a library but there is for a prison to have one. Both of them urge support for the likely Pension's strike on June 30th and look forward to possible further strikes over Pensions involving all the public sector unions later on in the year.

I thought this was on the whole a successful meeting and well done to Newham Trades Council Secretary, Peter Smith (left of picture) for a well organised and well chaired event.  This could be the basis of a successful relaunch of the trades council.  But not if some just want to use it to bash Labour.  We must agree on what we can agree and leave the rest to be fought over elsewhere and another day. I didn't stand up and say my piece last night out of respect for the speakers present.  Because a good meeting would have just descended into a shouting match (both ways).  But I doubt I would hold my tongue again.  It also desperately needs the centre left to participate and not stay away because they cannot be bothered to go to a meeting and be lectured by those they consider (rightly or wrongly) to be weirdo la la fantasists. 

We should also recognise that the majority of workers in Newham are not in the public sector and many desperately need our help to organise.  Our fight over the Tory cuts affects everyone, but we must also support and campaign on bread and butter trade union issues in Newham such as Living wage plus, trade union recognition and health & safety in small businesses.  As the UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis said, Trade unions were not created for the good times, we were created for the bad times.  That bad time has come under this Government.  We need to organise centrally and locally in the Labour movement. Newham Trades Council has a proud history and I hope a bright future.   

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Draft Defamation Bill Scrutiny and the three Labour blogger comrades!

On Friday evening I made a (very last minute) submission to the House of Commons Joint Committee on the
Draft Defamation Bill. For nearly 4 years Labour bloggers Dave Osler, myself and Alex Hilton had to fight a series of completely daft and ludicrous defamation claims in the Royal Court of Justice.  Thanks to pro bono (free!) help by expert solicitors David Allen Green and Robert Dougans the claims were eventually dismissed.

I was going to post on my submission but yesterday I got an acknowledgement from the  committee which suggested that I would be unable to post on it until they published my evidence.  So (if this is correct) I will have to keep stum for now.  It is an interesting story I think.  I hope it will help help organisations such as "Sense about Science" to fight the good fight against censorship and the current gross abuse of our Libel laws.

(This picture was taken at a curry house near to the Royal Court of Justice after something sensible was decided)

Dave is on the left of picture, then me, then Alex.  I do enjoy getting facebook reports about when Dave goes to lefty Trot parties and social events he is introduced as "this is Dave Osler, a friend of John Gray" :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rude Labour?

You do feel like holding your head in your hands when you read such accounts of how long standing Labour Party members, who actually decide to tip up to a local Party meeting, feel they are received. 

If an Assistant General Secretary of one of the world's largest trade unions feels he is treated in such a way by his local Party, then imagine how a new member turning up for the first time may feel?

They just had to be of course discussing "Refounding Labour" at the meeting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" UNISON, IER & The Equality Trust

 Last Thursday evening I went to a talk by Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" in the new UNISON HQ in Euston. It was co-sponsored by The Institute of Employment Rights (IER), UNISON and the Equality Trust.

The meeting was Chaired by John Hendy QC (below 2nd left). UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Bronwyn McKenna (3rd left) welcomed everyone and spoke about the grim environment that Unions face. "We are being attacked by the Government, employers and the Courts. The information in The Spirit Level could be one of our ways to stop being defensive and go on the attack. It is clear that the health and well being of a country is also linked positively to levels of trade union density. Since countries where trade unions are strong tend to be more equal and successful societies". I love her quote from the Supreme Court

The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.” Unfortunately of course this was not the British Supreme Court - but the Canadian.
UNISON Head of Health, Karen Jennings (4th left) was the next speaker and she told us that she believes this book is as important as the research carried out in the 18th and 19th century into poverty which proved that those who lived in filth and overcrowding died the earliest. 

Professor Richard Wilkinson (left) and Kate Pickett (absent) wrote the "The Spirit Level”. I’ve read the book and seen him speak at least twice now. He keeps trying to say he is a boring speaker and you should not want to see him at all if you have read the book. However, each time I have heard him he has been entertaining and informative. 

Some key stuff (to me anyway):  Richard enjoys countering the arguments of the right who attack his book and who appear to believe that grinding poverty is actually good for you! Yep.

He believes that “the left” lost its way when Marxism was discredited by the loss of freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  We should be confident of a better future, but this must be based on empirical research. It’s not good enough just to say we want an alternative without doing the maths. He thinks that his book is a small contribution to change.

I only really understood that night that it is not only the right who will have “a problem” with the “The Spirit Level”. While the United States is the most unequal country with the corresponding worse health and social failings. The 2nd greatest advanced capitalist society, Japan, is the most equal and has by far the best health and social outcomes. Both societies are very different with regard to individualism and paternalism but their actual economic systems are pretty similar.

Richard thinks it is bizarre that we have such a wealthy material society for so many but still have so many social failings. We are richer than ever but look at levels of self harm at schools, drug abuse, violence and levels of mental health. When you map economic growth in rich countries there is a diminishing returns curve. There is no significant difference in life expectancy amongst the very rich countries but there is when related to income.

The Spirit Level is not a theory of everything but a theory of a problem that tends to be common.  

How can you explain why 23% of the UK have mental health problems but only 8% of Germans? Why have some countries 300% increases in mental health when compared to others?

Why does Canada and the USA have such different homicide rates from the use of firearms - yet similar levels of Gun ownership?  

How can the prison population of countries be predicted so accurately by the degree of income inequality in that country?

Why do harsher prison sentences and use of the death penalty tend to be found in more unequal societies?

Why is social mobility (the Cameron “Big Society” wanted outcome) higher in more equal societies? Why is Richard able to tease audiences across the pond by saying that if they want to live the American dream then statistically they should move to Denmark?

Why is infant mortality in Sweden when compared to England and Wales better in all social classes including the rich?

Why is income inequality so damaging to health and well being?  This question is I think a problem that has not yet been properly explained.  On the one hand it may seem like the "bleeding obvious". But where is the empirical proof? Richard thinks it is down to Psychosocial risk factors such as
"Feeling of inferiority"..."low social status"... weak social affiliations" and maybe the sheer stress of being poor and downtrodden.   This makes sense but not entirely convincing in the absence of the statistical proof that makes the rest of the book so compelling.  Still, this proves that it is not the theory of everything and does not distract from the overwhelming power of the main argument which is backed by tons of research.

In the Q&A I mentioned that we are trying in our sector (the “not for profit” and voluntary sector) to introduce the principles of “The Spirit Level”. Since surely if it is bad for society to be unequal then it is as corrosive and damaging for such inequality to take place in the workplace? I asked if there was a trade union guide to becoming a “Spirit Level Negotiator”. Richard replied that apparently the Swedish Trade unions have published a cartoon guide and others have done some work on this. One member of the panel said "you only have to ask".  I will.

So there you have it. If you work for any organisation where the income gap between the top and the bottom is too high - then you work for a bad, bad company

UPDATE: Richard will be speaking to a fringe at this years UNISON NDC conference.  I will post timings and venue as soon as poss.

Robin Hood takes on the City Empire

Hat tip TUC ToUChstone "This Wednesday, the annual bankers’ and merchants’ dinner will be held at Mansion House. Before they start quaffing champagne and knocking back the caviar (ok, we’re not certain they’ll be on the menu, but it won’t be pork pies and stout, you can be sure of that!) you can take action to call for an end to the reckless gambling of the finance sector and demand a Robin Hood Tax to control speculation and raise billions every year for good things like spending on education, health and action against climate change here and around the world.

We’ll be playing a giant game of roulette with people’s jobs and lives in an iconic City of London location (to be announced) with a massive Peter Kennard photo-montage as a backdrop.
Come along on Wednesday lunchtime – dress up if you can! – and have fun while making a very serious point. If you can come, register to attend at and we’ll send you details nearer the time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Caroline Flint MP “a tough love sort of girl”

Caroline Flint, the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was the guest speaker at the Tower Hamlets Labour Party Housing Policy forum at The Centre in Merchant Street, E3 last month. I was invited as a member of Tower Hamlets TULO. She gave us a presentation followed by a Q&A.

Now, some of the things she said that I thought interesting. “Housing is not just about having a roof over your head. It is linked to your journey
through life and what are your aspirations. People still want to buy their own home.  Home ownership may be “the english disease” but this is what people want if they win the lottery. They want a stake in life.  Not only for their children but for help with social care when they are older. How to increase the supply? Look at finance and supply. There are uncompetitive banks and building societies. It is easier to get a mortgage on a £200k new build than get £50k to do up and refurbish a home. There are over a million empty homes in UK. New build is VAT free, with a refurbishment you pay VAT. A very narrow range of builders.  A few big ones and lots of very,very small ones.  

Caroline was brought up in the private rental sector then the family had a council flat.  But with secure tenancies with fair rents. This is nonexistent nowadays.  While the private sector needs to be part of the solution.  This governments unfettered faith in the private sector is wrong. Labour is now engaged in a completely open policy debate. Willing to look at piloting housing policies in Labour Councils. Turn a talking shop into reality. 

In the Q&A I made a comment about despairing about housing in London due to the very high land prices.  Each Social housing unit in London had cost an average £100k in subsidy.  My question was related to her comments about pension funds and housing investment.  The Local Government Pension scheme has £160 billion investments and wants to invest long term secure low risk asset based investments.  What joined up thinking can her Shadow CLG team bring on this matter?  She said they will be looking into such ideas.
Question about Paris having a more successful housing policy since most people rent. Caroline said they may rent in Paris but many own homes elsewhere. Then one on the sub-letting of social
Housing it not only immoral - but should it be made illegal? (No real answer to that one)  

Social housing should not be a refuse of last resort. We need mixed neighbourhoods. So if someone gets a pay rise and they then risk losing their home, what is the incentive to work? Cameron and Shapps have a lack of understanding about what is and what isn’t possible. We need to help people make the journey they want to make.

Caroline says she is a tough love sort of girl. You should respect your environment, your neighbours and pay your rent. There are not only entitlements but responsibilities.

Caroline has three messages to Labour Councils. Show that Labour can get good value for money for services, they can get more people involved and have a say and have a sense of what you want to do.

Finally “aspiration”. Not everyone can own their own home at the end of the day. It is sad that so many people from all walks of life think their children will not do better than them. We should be on the right side of these people. Most people don’t want too much from government. The 1945 victory was broad based coalition who believed that Labour was about offering them a better future”.

Great action picture taken by Dan McCurry (with my camera!). Many thanks to TH Labour Party for the invite (and well done for arranging such good events.  Next one is on Health in July with John Healey MP). 

This post was from the last time I attended a "meeting" with Caroline, also in Tower Hamlets.

iPad: A Rotton Apple? Exploitation of Workers by Foxconn

This shocking video exposes the Apple iPad production plant in China run by Foxconn.  The opening sequence is pretty horrific with some graphic pictures.   It seems pretty clear that Apple allows Foxconn to treat its workers with contempt.  A company that has to fit anti-suicide nets to its factory living quarters.  Apple has a responsibility to sort out its subcontractors.

The video was produced by SACOM the campaigning academic group. 

Hat tip to Johninnit who is in a genuine ethical delemma about whether or not he can in all conscience upgrade his existing smartphone

I wonder what pension funds who will own shares in Foxcann and Apple can do? Surely as owners of Apple and Foxconn we too have a responsibility for what is being done with our own money?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why the RMT is striking now over Arwyn Thomas

I've just sent off a message of protest to London Mayor, Boris Johnson and Transport for London via Labourstart.

Trade union activist Arwyn had been dismissed for alleged swearing and name calling on the picket line.

I must admit that I had been surprised that they were taking strike action before the outcome of the full tribunal hearing.  I could fully understand them doing so if afterwards if TFL didn't reinstate him.  However, rather than relying on the London Tory press I had a look at the Labourstart link and this article explaining the reasoning by London RMT.

This reminds everyone that there has already been an employment tribunal decision on whether Arwyn has been victimised for this trade union activities.  This was found in his favour.  I have also read this tribunal's decision on the 221 pages of evidence presented to it before granting him what is called "interim relief".  I would recommend that before anyone condemns this strike that they read the nine page decision. 

Arwyn is a leading London RMT activist.  He was acting under the instructions of his full time officer at the time investigating safety concerns about untrained staff being used as strike breakers. At worse he is accused by management of using a single swear word and calling someone a "scab" for crossing a picket line. An independent witness described him as being "a bit disrespectful" but not aggressive. Arwyn has 29 years of "unblemished service" he had been "regretful and apologetic for his actions".

The tribunal Chair pretty much ripped to pieces the decision by London Underground to dismiss him. It is clear that the RMT smell a rat.  I agree.  There is no way he should have been dismissed on that evidence. They think if the final tribunal finds that Arwyn was partly to blame (which he freely admits) then LU will simply refuse to reemploy him on that basis.  Mayor Boris needs to stop being a bystander, get his finger out and bring his out of control LU managers to heal.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tories and Libs Wring Working People: Now and then

 Hat tip to former MP, Harry Barns with his post on this great cartoon (right) which he titles "Clegg and Cameron 1895". Check out his blog here.

It first appeared in the Independent Labour Party (ILP)
newspaper "Labour Leader" in 1895. Its message is nowadays even more clear.

So say "No" to "Same old, Same old". The Liberals and the Tories have been ripping off working people for more than 100 a years and are still doing it now.

There is still an ILP which is called the Independent Labour Publication

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Inside Housing censuring negative remarks about Notting Hill Housing Group?

"All together Better"? I hope it is not true that the Inside Housing magazine "web site" has been censuring forceful (but not I understand in any way offensive) comments made in response to this article.  Some employees and residents of a certain London Housing
Group have apparently taken exception to this article and made comments which were later removed from the site. Click on caption (left) to bring up detail.

Without at all criticising the people named in the report I must admit that the article does appear to be a "lift" from a typical daft and gushing insult to the intelligence RSL press release.  Something we see of far too often in our sector. I will try and find out more.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Nationalise Southern Cross?

"We cannot just sit back and allow frail, vulnerable people to suffer, we want to see the Government taking emergency action to safeguard these residents who are all at risk - even if that means taking over the assets of these homes and running them as a going concern".  This statement is by Judy Downey, chair of the Relatives & Residents Association (R&RA)  on the BBC website here.

This is in the wake of today's 3000 job losses of staff employed by care home provider Southern Cross and the continued threat to its 31,000 elderly and vulnerable residents.

The care of the old and the infirm in our society should not be motivated by profit. British people (obviously not this current Tory led government) fully accepts this principle when it comes to the NHS but most don't "get it" with regard to other forms of caring for the elderly, the sick, the infirm and the disabled.

We forget or ignore that private sector companies only owe a duty of care to their shareholders. This duty is to maximise returns for them. So on the one hand, if you allow a massive social care organisation to be run by hedge funds and speculators ( or spivs and gamblers according to St Vince) then it is in the nature of the beast, that these companies will go bust from time to time. Regardless of the stress and trauma suffered by residents and staff from the threats of evictions and redundancy.  

Still, the government probably thinks that if Blue Cross folds due to financial mismanagement then there are still plenty of other privately run for profit schemes that residents can move into (e.g. see picture caption of home above NOT run by Southern Cross).

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Tea time for change: Westminster Lobby Thurs 9 June

I've just signed up at the Tea time for change website here.  They are holding a lobby at Westminster on Thursday and have over 100 MP's who are planning to attend and have a cup of tea with a 1000 plus supporters to discuss taking a stand over global poverty.  I have emailed my MP.  I doubt I will be able to make this event but I will try and support this campaign whenever I can.

Guests include "Mitchell MP, Secretary of State for International Development, and Harriet Harman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development,...Jan Ravens, comedienne and impressionist from Dead Ringers and Spitting Image"

For once (please, please don't tell anyone) I actually s-u-p-p-o-r-t this Government over their commitment to match the Labour promise to spend 0.7% on overseas aid (imperfect as it is).  There is obviously a split in the Government and we all need to support those few elements in it who are actually worried about their soul.  

Monday, June 06, 2011

A prayer for Alberto Korda (of "Guerrillero Heroico" and Fidel Castro fame) in an English Medieval Church

This is a little unusual but an interesting tale - I think anyway.  Last week I was on holiday in the Cotswolds and went for this 7 mile Pathfinder country walk round Ilmington and Ebrington. It was a lovely bright, blue skies and sunshine day. Half way into the walk I stopped off to have a look around the 13th Century St. Eadburgha Church.

Ebrington is a simply beautiful thatched cottage Chocolate box Gloucestershire village.  Very old and very English - as was the church. Well worth a visit for anyone with any sense of history. So I was somewhat surprised to see this inscription in
the Visitors Comments book by Keith Cardwell.  Who had come to the Church on the 25 May this year to say a prayer for his old friend, Alberto Korda, who had died 10 years ago on this day. 

Alberto had been the personal photographer of Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, and had took the iconic picture above of the "Heroic Guerrilla" Che Guevara.  Which I am slightly embarrassed to admit (only slightly) that like many others I had a tee shirt in my dim and distance youth with this same image on it (which I still have somewhere!).

I really don't know whether Keith, Che or Fidel were or are at all religious (the last two are certainly most unlikely to be C of E - Church of England) but I think that Keith's prayer and comments remembering "a great friend and a good man" will strike a cord with most of us.  I'm not sure that the "God Bless Fidel" will go down all that well in the modern day Cotswolds never mind parts of Miami.

Of course we should not forget that if they were RC then this Church for the first 300 odd years of its long existence would have been a Roman Catholic Church. 

Lyn Brown MP attacks Tory Housing Policies

A good feature in this weeks Newham Recorder "West Ham MP Lyn Brown has launched a scathing attack on the government’s social housing policies.

During a House of Commons debate, Ms Brown said that the Coalition’s reforms were “confused” and would increase poverty and homelessness.

Ms Brown was commenting on a raft of measures, including a cap on housing benefit, ending secure tenancy and cutting allowances to tenants who under occupy their homes.

The West Ham MP said: “Taken together, the government’s policies will make it increasingly hard for people on low incomes to find a decent place to live in London.”

Ms Brown attacked the Coalition for slashing spending on building affordable homes and called for new investment in order to relieve chronic social housing waiting lists, which run to over 30,000 in Newham.

She added that as a result of changes to Local Housing Allowance, three-quarters of Newham claimants would struggle to pay their rent with some being forced from their homes.

Ms Brown also said the government’s introduction of the ‘affordable rent model’, which means that rents can be set at 80 per cent of the market level, would lead to an exodus of tenants from inner city areas to outer London boroughs such as Newham, therefore, increasing strain on already overstretched housing stock".