Dave Prentis: Unions must join together to fight our common foe

Submitted by sglenister on Thu, 18/04/2013 - 15:03

18 April 2013

By Roger Jeary

This is not the time for trade unions to compete against one another, but a critical moment for members of the left to come together with voluntary organisations and campaigners to fight against a common foe, General Secretary of Unison Dave Prentis said at yesterday's Public Sector: cuts, privatisation and employment rights conference, organised by the Institute of Employment Rights.

It is ironic the day trade unionists joined together to discuss the Coalition's attack on the public sector, the architect of such ideological policies - Margaret Thatcher - was being buried in the very same city. While the UK said farewell to perhaps the most divisive Conservative leader in history, however, the drive behind her policies was still going strong in the party she left behind. And it was for this reason that a full attendance of delegates gathered in NUT Hamilton House with senior officials from Unison, Unite, GMB and PCS to discuss what can be done to protect vulnerable workers against the Coalition's scythe.

Summaries of what was heard and learned at this illuminating event are provided below:

Karen Jennings, Assistant General Secretary of Unison

Pay bargaining does not take place in a vacuum, Karen Jennings began, but this government is not focused entirely on the economics of pay. It is determined to pursue an ideology that attacks public sector workers and their pay and conditions to dismantle the public sector and achieve spending cuts at the expense of hundreds of thousands of employees.

Public sector workers have suffered swingeing cuts for the last four years leading to a real terms cut of 16% in earnings. Karen pointed to Unison's own experience amongst its members affected by this policy, with the union's welfare charity seeing a sharp increase in demand from its members in the shape of a doubling of applications. Against this background, Karen outlined the evidence of how the attack had impacted on its members and how Unison had responded.

The argument that public sector workers receive a pay premium compared with their private sector peers ignores the countless reports and research that undermine this contention. It's a myth based on spurious reports, which are now supported by questionable analysis by Institute of Financial Studies and Office of National Statistics figures. Now, however, Incomes Data Services (IDS) have published a report that lays to rest this particular myth. Public sector pay premium is a paper tiger created by the Tories for their own ideological purposes.

Karen then turned to the Living Wage and the need to raise the National Minimum Wage to a level that truly provides for people's needs. She reminded conference that in the public sector, the Living Wage must apply to both directly and indirectly employed workers. Further, she argued that the Living Wage should replace the NMW for every UK worker and called for the Low Pay Commission to be converted to the Living Wage Commission.

She then addressed the argument for regional pay and local pay bargaining, which has been pushed by right-wing think tanks such as Policy Exchange. Working with IDS, Unison found that many major private companies operate a national pay structure, as this is more efficient. Additionally, the myth that local pay bargaining would assist competitive local recruitment was laid to rest when a report found that public and private operators are not competing for the same workers. Performance-related pay, now being promoted by Michael Gove, is also being opposed by all trade unions as counterproductive.

Turning to pay progression, Karen asserted that government neither understands nor wants to understand how pay progression works in the public and private sectors. The scrapping of this provision shows how out of touch government is and that this approach is just another means to cut public sector pay.

Karen summed up by reminding us that the Coalition's current policies were designed to break up the public sector, but called on trade unionists not to be despondent. By building stronger unions, the government can be challenged.

Brian Strutton, National Secretary of GMB

The next speaker was Brian Strutton, GMB National Secretary for Public Services, who addressed the issue of local pay frameworks in the public sector. The government initiative to end national pay bargaining in the public sector was not supported generally by the public or even within the Coalition itself and was eventually dropped. The failure of the government's campaign to push such policies through is no real surprise, as the initiative was never really necessary, since much of public sector pay is determined by Pay Review bodies or through the dismantlement of civil service pay into separate departmental pay structures.

The largest national pay bargaining forum is in Local Government, where as many as 90% of workers are covered by national pay terms and conditions. However, the application of national agreements can vary between councils and can result in different positions on the national pay spine. There is no concept of a national rate for the job in local government, as pay is determined by the job description, which can vary significantly for similar jobs. Job evaluation is negotiated locally by the trade unions and thus pay outcomes are effectively determined locally already, albeit through a national pay structure.

Brian then turned to the outsourcing of work and the difficulties faced to ensure continuity of collective agreements. Despite EU decisions that under TUPE, collective agreements move with the members, this government has signalled its intent to undermine this position through its review of UK TUPE regulations. Brian questioned the importance of retaining national collective bargaining in the public sector and suggested that the need for this may vary from workplace to workplace, and that trade unions need to consider the realities of the current environment and how best to achieve the outcomes desired.

Pamela Cole, Policy Officer at PCS

Conference next turned to trade union facility time with Pamela Cole from PCS talking about the attacks on facility time as a means of undermining trade union influence in the public sector. She described what had been happening in the civil service and how PCS had been responding. Government perception of trade union facility time is not based on reality. Theirs is an ideological approach not seen by local management as a key issue. It uses austerity as a justification, but with no attempt to calculate the benefits that will be lost through reduction of trade union facility time. Government has ignored evidence from previous research by Department of Business on a review of facilities and facility time in 2007, which highlighted the benefits of trade union organisation and representation. Pamela pointed to the benefits that the Civil Service has achieved through working collaboratively with trade union reps on joint projects and in helping to achieve change.

Missed this event?

A similar conference will be held in Liverpool on May 8th

Pamela then went on to a describe the Facility Time Framework, which was subject to a short consultation period and a unilateral document published by government in November 2012. Whilst there were central discussions where PCS made a number of suggestions to the minister and senior civil servants, these were cut short by the Minister when he wanted to publish his document. Departments were instructed to apply the Framework - paid facility time only for duties not activities - with a narrow definition; limitation on amount of facility time normally no more than 50% of their working time; includes health & safety reps and union learning reps; a guide of 0.1% of pay bill; and less generous use of notice boards in the workplace. Pamela described the new arrangements as having become standardised, but not agreed. She described it as presenting a fundamental rupture of industrial relations in the Civil Service.

The impact amongst other things had been to undermine union democracy and representation, reduce equality and diversity, lower the ability to deliver statutory duties, and reduce members' rights. She expressed concern that the outcome would lead to less diversity in the union, create difficulties in returning reps to suitable jobs when their term of office ceases, and create more stress and lower morale. PCS' response has been to devise a strategy based on organising and to develop a national campaign around facility time. It has developed a support mechanism for reps, and PCS is also looking at any possibility to develop a legal strategy by ensuring reps are aware of statutory rights.

Pamela referred to the wider attacks on trade union and employment rights attacks across both the public and private sectors. She called for emphasis to be placed in our campaigning of the importance of facility time, and argued that workers need to have representatives available when problems arise in the workplace.

Rachael Maskell, Head of Health at Unite

The conference then heard from Rachael Maskell, Head of Health at Unite, on the impact of the cuts on the NHS. Rachael reminded the conference of the importance of the NHS to everyone in our society. She highlighted the cuts that occurred over the history of the NHS, but the majority were applied during the Thatcher years and subsequent governments. The Coalition announced there would be no more top down reorganisation of the NHS as it came to power in 2010, yet the following months and years have produced the greatest reorganisation ever, based on the privatisation of great parts of the NHS. This, Rachael told the conference, has produced fundamental changes to structures and the meltdown of some of its services. She listed the changes, amongst which was the creation of 400 bodies from the original 175 to run the NHS; the movement of public health to local authorities; the introduction of private providers, such as Virgin, which is running hundreds of contracts within the NHS; and fragmentation and constant change leading to reductions in quality. The Secretary of State is no longer responsible for much of this now.

Rachael asserted that this was all about money, not service improvement. The cost of the internal market, estimated at around £20m by the last government, is spiralling upwards as a result of these changes. Greater demand on services is arising from people's increasing longevity, but less money is available for those services.

Turning to terms and conditions, Rachael outlined the impact these changes were having on staff, with some facing up to a third of their pay being cut. She also pointed to staff being moved down their pay grades by changing their job remit, conflicting their professional conduct with management demands. Rachael also referred to pensions as a big issue for NHS staff, many of whom would find working to 68 is not an option due to the nature of their work and the cost of this will fall upon the local employer. She referred to the move to performance pay as something that simply won't work in the NHS and could put patients at risk. Indeed, Unite has campaigned strongly against this. All of this has contributed to low morale and high levels of work-related stress amongst staff, plus an allocation of blame for being "uncaring and cruising". Rachael reminded us that many staff are working an average of 8 unpaid hours a week.

The impact on services and patients was emphasised and Rachael stressed the importance of the union building a partnership with patients as a priority. She pointed to too many conflicting agendas, too many vested interests, too many people who have control, except professionals and patients, as the overall picture of where this government is taking the NHS. Trade unions have to determine which side they are on - an insurance based system or restoration of the NHS as it was designed back in 1945 - the answer is clear. Rachael suggested the possibly this would be a clear issue around which the next election campaign needs to be based to restore a Labour government.

General discussion ensued on how best to present the content of this conference to the wider trade union movement and their members. Reference was made to the work of the TUC in bringing together thousands of trade unionists to wiring these messages to the fore. Use of local press and community groups can widen awareness of issues as had happened significantly in the Brighton experience.

The decision by the government to reinstate the clause on "employee shareholders" after the Lords had voted it out could result in this system being used in the formation and management of organisations which take on delivery of public services.

Dave Prentis

The conference's final speaker was the General Secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis who posed the question "Where next: the future for trade unions in the public sector?"

Dave started off by stating that the intention of this government is to break up the public sector. Unions exist to protect ordinary working people, whether they are working in public sector, charities or private companies. Over the last two and half years - since the beginning of the Coalition - 446 public service jobs have been scrapped every single day. It is expected that another 800,000 jobs will go before the next election.

Reviewing some of the Coalition's most damaging polices - privatisation, procurement and austerity - he stated that we are at war, fighting a battle far worse than the 1980s. We have to work with others as well as together. We cannot seek to dominate voluntary bodies but to work with them; to work with community groups. He told conference that we cannot always lead, we must work behind the scenes as well as on the ground.

He also spoke on the need to raise public awareness. We need Tories and Lib Dems to pay the price for their actions, but we also need the Labour movement to put forward a plan for better services and growth. The broader issues must be understood as well as the traditional trade union issues of pay and conditions and jobs. He called for trade unions to pool their resources, to put aside competition and focus on the bigger picture. Today is the start of the next general election he told conference.

He went on to talk about decisions that trade unions have to make about the future of pay bargaining in the public sector. Do we defend the whole or do we allow others to go ahead with local bargaining and the problems that they would inevitably lead to? Similarly, we have to address the arguments surrounding the Living Wage. But some argue that all you are doing is swapping pay for benefits - yes we are and rightly so. Others argue it only affects a few - yes it does and it is part of a bigger picture, but these were the arguments heard at the time the Minimum Wage was introduced.

Trade unions have to organise and that is achieved by being present where the members are. He told conference that perhaps unions have spent too much time consulting with government, we now need to return to the basics of regular contact with members and potential members. Dave reminded us that we are still 60% organised in the public sector, which gives us the potential to recruit on a firm base. His message to conference was one of having confidence in our ability to build and organise together, which will restore our strength to fight and win.

The final Q&A raised the question of a general strike. Dave Prentis responded by saying the TUC will consider this issue next week and Chair of the IER John Hendy has been invited to address the general council on the issue. He said it was a complex issue in the UK given our legislation, but in any event it can at best be only a weapon in a broader campaign.

Carolyn closed the Conference by thanking speakers and delegates for their contributions to this vital debate. She acknowledged that the government was hitting people hard but asserted that we can do the same if we have the willingness amongst members and the ability to work together and the IER will continue to play its part through the information it disseminates on a regular basis.

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