Tuesday, March 09, 2010

PCS members battle, but Unison battles members

MEMBERS of the Public and Commercial Servants (PCS) Union are taking two days' strike action this week affecting a range of services from ports to job centres, the country's parliaments and the museums and art galleries. This is the opening shots of the conflict to come, whatever the results of coming elections, as both main parties are committed to cutting jobs and services, and government prepares to push through redundancies on the cheap.

The sight of pickets outside job centres is a reminder that when newspapers talk about "cuts in Whitehall" it is the services in your high street that face cuts. The jobs threatened are not Sir Humphreys, but clerks whose take home may be less than some clients, leaving the rest to cope with longer queues, or waits on the phone, and consequent frayed tempers.

One compensation for low paid public service workers over decades was the thought that jobs, pensions and redundancy money were safer. Now the government wants to reduce redundancy payments, and the workers are told their pensions are too high. Anyone would think they caused the crisis. Whereas as the PCS' Mark Serotka points out, the bankers who did are guaranteed their bonuses -under "contractual" agreement the government says, but not intending to honour its contractual obligation to civil servants who are made redundant.

It won't only be national government making cuts, of course. We've already seen one city council, Leeds, provoking a long binmen's strike by its chutzpah in claiming to achieve equal pay for women by lowering the men's wages. A whole number of Tory councils like Barnet and Hammersmith are privatising everything in sight to reduce jobs and workers wages. Hospitals are cutting back service provision wherever they can.
So how is the biggest union in local government and health services, Unison, gearing up for action?

Unison's general secretary Dave Prentiss has said "It's not just about a Labour government warning us that the Tories will cut spending. We know that – it's about Labour convincing us that it will not do the same." He warned last year at the union's conference that there would be no more "blank cheques" for Labour. Prentis is being challenged from the left by not one, but two or maybe three candidates. Paul Holmes, a member of the Labour Representation Committee which supported John McDonnell's battle with the Labour leadership is one, supported by Unison united left, another is Roger Bannister of the Socialist Party, who has stood before, and says the union should break its link with the Labour Party.

Once again, I am reminded of the man on the desert island who, when rescued, explained that the structure he had built on the beach was his synagogue (or chapel, depending on your tradition); whereas that other one further down was "the one I would never go to!"

I'm not a member of Unison, and don't know enough of the background, or which of the left-wing candidates I would vote for. I do know, because it is becoming notorious by now, how Unison' s non-elected full time machinery is operating. If this is a union gearing up for a fight, it is not with the employers or the government, but against its own membership.

It's not true that union officialdom is slow and indecisive. On Saturday, London NEC member Jon Rogers issued the following statement:
Early yesterday morning UNISON officials turned up at the offices of the Bromley, Greenwich and the Tenant Services Authority branches having given no notice. I understand that attempts have been made to seize control of computer hard drives and other resources, including documents on on-going personal cases.

This action follows immediately upon the conclusion of the disciplinary action against the Branch Secretaries of those branches, Glenn Kelly, Onay Kasab and Suzanne Muna, who have now been banned from holding office within UNISON for periods ranging from two years.

There are of course exceptional circumstances in which the Union does need to move in and run branches, the Rule Book deals with these thankfully very rare cases and the National Executive Council has a system of reporting where branches are placed under what is known as "Regional supervision." This procedure now appears to be being applied to these branches.

I also understand that our members in the Hackney branch, where Branch Chair, Brian Debus, has been banned from holding office, have been told that an election for a new Chair will be organised at Regional level. The basis on which this might be done is unclear to me and I am awaiting further information.

Although I and other members of the National Executive Council representing Greater London have been given notice of such action in the past, I had no notice of this action and my requests yesterday for an explanation from the Regional Secretary and the Chair of the NEC Development and Organisation Committee have thus far gone unanswered.

I am therefore unable to confirm that there are good grounds for the interventions in these branches. Indeed all the indications are that the action which is being taken breaches our Rule Book, undermines lay democracy and branch autonomy and threatens to waste scarce UNISON resources at a time when our members in local government, health and higher and further education all face the threat of unprecedented cuts in jobs in Greater London."

Another Unison member describes how six officers turned up at Greenwich:
"When Kaz made the point that the Union acting in this way had deeply upset the office staff he was told "we thought you'd be on your own". ... maybe this is a compliment to Kaz as the Region obviously believes it takes two Senior Officials and 4 "organisers" to replace Kaz.

The Regional Official, Dan Pappiett, had told Kaz on Thursday that he would meet with him next week to do a handover. This was obviously a lie. The officials claim that between Thursday and Friday the situation had changed and that they were instructed by the NEC to take the Branch into administration. No reason was given for the NEC decision, if indeed there was one. Instead, the aim of the raiding party is twofold - Firstly, to send a bullying message but secondly to attempt to uncover evidence to lay further charges, just in case the court cases are successful and also no doubt because the ban was reduced by one year.

On entering the Office, Chris Remington from the Regional Office told Kaz to "disappear sharpish". By midday, the Region had organised the changing of the locks to the office. Most disturbing of all is the obvious collusion with the employer. Two days prior to the raid, Kaz received minutes of a TU Liaison meeting that he had attended. In it, it was minuted that "the Branch would be taken into administration and significant decisions would be taken by the Regional Office ".

This was a coordinated and vicious action by the Union to the extent that when the office administrator arrived and turned on the Union computer, it turned out that it had been disabled for membership use centrally".
Behind this seizure of control in London branches is the absurd case we have commented on before, in which members were accused of "racialism" and then of "failing to show due care in not anticipating that someone might take offence", for using the traditional "three wise monkeys" image in a cartoon on a leaflet criticising a union steering committee. The accused have made clear there was no intent to offend, and apologised to anyone who was offended, but that was not good enough.

We might contrast this apparent hypersensitivity and determination to pursue the four members with Unison's performance in the North East, where Yunus Bakhsh was both sacked by the employer and expelled by the union, without regard to the fact that accusations against him were coming from racialists, and a far-Right 'Stormfront' website seemed well-informed about moves against Yunus before he heard anything.

Yunus Bakhsh had upset NHS management by contrasting the rises they had awarded themselves with their meanness towards the workers. Union members said he had also strengthened union organisation in the area. One of Yunus Bakhsh's supporters in the union, Darlington local government branch secretary Alan Doherty wrote at the end of last year saying members had not had a proper opportunity to discuss the case. He went on:

"You may not know that at the same time another SWP member Tony Staunton, Branch Secretary of Plymouth LG, who was to stand in an NEC election against Steve Warwick (Labour Link Chairperson) and stood a good chance of winning, was also witch hunted from the union and expelled. This was followed by Socialist Party member, Pat Lawlor, convenor Royal Victoria Hospitals, Belfast, being expelled for sending a message of support to a ’rival’ union on strike.

In the last few months, three branch secretaries and a branch chair, Glenn Kelly, Susan Muna, Onay Kasab and Brian Debus, in the Greater London Region, all members of the Socialist Party, were disqualified from office ranging from 3 to 5 years for criticising the Standing Orders Committee of National Conference, in a leaflet, for ruling out a third of motions from being admitted on to the conference agenda.

However last month, this witch hunt took a new turn. Caroline Bedale, Joint Branch Secretary of Manchester Community Health Branch, was disqualified from office for eight years - yes eight years. Her crime was supporting one of her victimised members, Karen Reissmann, to get her job back. Apparently such an action has brought Unison into disrepute. I consider from what I know of Caroline’s case, the sanctions imposed against her constitute a direct attack on branch autonomy, Unison lay democracy, and individual civil rights. Caroline is not a member of a left wing political party.

Now it is my turn. What is my crime? Despite being given a hearing date commencing on the 7th January, I do not yet know the charges which will be sent to me within 21 days of the hearing date. I suspect these 21 days will include the Christmas holiday period.

I suspect the charges are to do with an incident precipitated by another branch secretary who complained about my conduct. At the time I was a declared candidate in the NEC elections. I spoke to this branch secretary about a motion that his branch was discussing concerning the North East Shop Stewards Network because this motion directly attacked me and another branch secretary. When was it a crime to talk to other branch secretaries in private? Is it not reasonable that I would want to investigate a public criticism against me?

I have no faith in the Union’s disciplinary procedure being fair, as shown by its recent decisions. I know that unless there is genuine objection from lay activists, my days as a Unison activist are numbered.

I believe the real reason they want me out is that I have challenged, through the democratic process, the actions of our ’leadership’ and also that I express my socialist political opinions which often conflict with the interests of the Labour Party. This is despite the hard work I do to support Darlington LG members at work. During my recent NEC election campaign I was told by several senior Unison officials that the union would move heaven and earth to make sure I was not elected to the NEC.

Our union will prove itself to be unhealthy and undemocratic if it has to use the full might of its disciplinary machinery to silence the criticisms of lay activists".


Tony Staunton's case was classic, and an earlier example of the "dawn raid". That's to say the mid-morning raid. Acting on a complaint that the Plymouth branch secretary might have used union equipment - actually gifted to him by the branch - to produce an unofficial Unison united left leaflet, officials went to his home on a morning when the brother was away in London lobbying against NHS cuts, and seized his lap top, discs, etc.

Though everything he had done was for his members, Staunton was expelled from the union which he had served for more than twenty years.

And sure enough, last month Alan Docherty in Darlington was removed and banned from office for three years.




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