Holding a mirror, shining a light – Trade Unions, Liberty and Human rights

The annual Human Rights awards,  hosted by Liberty, has rightly become an important fixture in each autumn’s calendar.  An opportunity to be humbled and inspired in  equal measure – a chance to learn about and reflect upon the civil liberties challenges and responses of the past year.


This year co-incides with the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights – the forerunner of our own Human Rights Act., now in its own 15th year. And for something so long established, it is truly frightening that there are so many examples of adherence to this piece of international and domestic law being seen as voluntary, or partial.

So the awards evening was a time for, in my view, the true heroes of our age. Individuals and groups  who, Not for profit or personal recognition, but out of  what  Jude Kelly called “a ferocious idea that we all belong together”, stuck  their necks out, refused to  give in, drew their own lines in the sand and were determined to tell – or reveal – the truth.

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell, and that was a strong  theme throughout he evening.  Frances O’Grady and Chukka Umunna presented the “Collective Voice” award to the  Holocaust Educational Trust who spoke of the challenges of the transition from the Holocaust being living  history to just history. Jinan Younis received the Christine Jackson Young Person  award  for setting up  a  feminist society at her all-girls school and being  bullied and harassed because of it. Paul Houston spoke most movingly after receiving an award  for defending rights and  freedoms in response to sustained and “toxic” attacks on the Human Rights Act  by some  politicians and  media after the  death of his daughter. It surely cannot be right to usurp something like that for such undignified, dishonest ends.

Caroline Criado Perez – the woman whose campaign against all-male British banknotes    resulted in   Jane Austen going on the back of tenners from 2017 – used her acceptance speech to highlight the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (or in the UK, http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/).  A long title, but apparently police in England receive 1 call a minute on this  subject - but research shows it takes 35  attacks  before someone will pick up the phone and call for help. It is right to describe this, as she did, as a “global health emergency”.

Image of the night for me was the video of Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s award winning dance troupe. the first fully integrated disabled and able-bodied group. It was utterly amazing to see how, for example, differently abled people, together with whatever supporting aids they needed could meld so seamlessly together.


If you have stayed with this piece so far, you may be thinking “all well and good, but so what….”  There are two answers to that.

The first is that the right  for all of us to be treated equally under the law is truly under direct  threat. Barriers to access justice are being  erected. UK Newspapers carrying  Edward Snowden’s disclsoures are criticised – including having journalists gratuitously detained under the Terrorism Act, and editors summonsed   before select Parliamentary committees (although their counterparts in the US and Germany not subject too such measures. Whole communities are being placed beyond the law. Stephanie Harrison QC who won an award for her work on migrants’ rights, gave a cry from the heart:  “If we do not stand to defend our rights we will lose them.”

The second is that we as trade unionists are directly affected by all of this.  Not just because we are also members of society and citizens. But because we too do what we do and believe what we believe   because of that “ferocious idea”.  Because we - our society – achieves more by co-operation that conflict, because we dare to dream – because we assert a human right to the imagination. Because there are many, in politics, in the media who wish to deny our rights and   diminish our aspirations.

It remains my view that many more trade unions and trade unionists need to be part of Liberty. We  can’t leave this all to the lawyers. Human rights are everyone’s business. The awards evening  emphasised the connection with  our core and common purpose,  and that we can and do change things  by what we do.


Community organising is so important – in all its forms

I was privileged recently to spend some time in the company of iconic US community/union organiser Arnie Graf. Part of his current brief is to revitalise the Labour Party’s links with the community and his work has won many plaudits.


As someone who passionately believes that the future of trade unionism in the UK depends on us meaning as much to people in their communities as we do to them at work, the occasion,   a fringe event at the TUC, organised by Unite, on Community Trade Unionism, was “no miss” event.


There are, self-evidently, many models of “community organising” on display.


Unite has its Community section, now 4000 strong which is deliberately aimed at recruiting – and dare I say organising – unemployed people. Philosophically and practically you can see the attraction. High levels of unemployment undercut the terms and conditions of those in work. The young unemployed have no experience of trade unionism and involvement in the Community Section will mean that they already have access to support when they enter the workplace.  And it is also empowering for the individuals.


In fact, this  seem to be the most  noticeable achievement of the section so far – enabling people  who  do not have a voice,  or  who  feel they cannot exercise influence, the means to do just that.


But whilst self-empowerment and the democratisation of society are central aims of trade unions, they are not our only defining qualities.  The Unite initiative arguably takes unions into new territory. “Ultimately isn’t about numbers signed up?” asked someone at the fringe event.


I think that is a question for another day.  The increase in people who are active is the most important thing of all at present. Whose logo they have on their t-shirt is a secondary issue.


An alternative model of community organising in TSSA, the small but impressive Transport and Salaried Staffs Association, is articulated by their National Organiser Nadine Rae.  There is clearly a community of interests shared by all those who use the rail network, either for employment, commerce or just travel.  TSSA has appointed three organisers whose brief is to make the links with the users of the services their members provide – principally the travelling public.


I believe that this is important in a number of ways.


First, it broadens the alliance of people with the same overall strategic objective – better funding for and management of the rail network. More people equals louder voice.


Second,  it  isn’t just numbers -  it  broadens the base of the campaign, and it is  a fair bet that many commuters in, say,  the Home Counties  may not  share the same overall politics as the  union – so there is a real increase in the “reach” of the campaign.


And third, it makes trade unions a relevant voice in  the community and not just the workplace.


Incidentally, a potential hypothetical criticism is that the campaign does not add to the “bottom line” of increased   numbers of members.  But I think (and it is  for the TSSA NEC, of course, not me  to say) the advantages  could well eclipse the membership issue – not least the way in which   this has helped make  rail  a key political issue now and in the 2015  general election too.


There is a   third model of community trade unionism that my own union, CWU, has developed. This takes the form  of  specific campaigns to  root  trade unions in  the communities where  our members live, rather than   have a  dedicated resource for  community  organising  that  is  separate   to those campaigns.


That is clear a prerequisite for our largest campaigns – Keep the Post Public and Save Our Royal Mail for example. But that is more about engaging the public as part of a grand coalition, than getting our members to take our union home with them.


Our campaigns on Climate Change, Mental Health and Housing are all about practical ways in which the union can – and does – respond to issues that affect members at home and at work.  These issues self-select by virtue, for example, of policy motions to our conference. They are therefore being generated and driven by our members and local reps, and not Head Office.


The advantage of this approach is – clearly – that is it “organic”.  It grows up from the roots of our union. The next stage of development would be see if these stand-alone campaigns should or could to be joined together to make a comprehensive “community programme.”


In my view, the approach adopted by the NZCTU is one which deserves much wider recognition. There, affiliates have ceded some autonomy and money to create a dedicated organisation looking to mobilise support from the community for trade unions and issues identified as trade union priorities.  Here, the emphasis is on additional resource and leverage initially through attracting supporters in this way and from this constituency rather than increasing membership.


Graf himself talks of   the transformational value of focussing on Community Leaders – essentially this means that these leaders bring their supporters with them rather than the union having to try to engage the self-same supporters directly.  Within the CWU, we have had direct examples of this with pockets of potential members from the same non-English speaking demographic.  Making contact with and then working with a respected member of this group’s community was not just an effective way to step up recruitment of this group – it was the only way.


In some unions, historically there has been a close overlap between community and workplace  – Community’s membership, for example, was based in what were known as “steel towns” or “mill towns”. For much of the last century,  the  NUM occupied  similar   territory  with  pits  dominating  (or in some cases  generating)  the surrounding  communities.


But now we have a different challenge – on the one hand we are living through a political hurricane, uprooting old certainties and structures. As one senior shadow cabinet member remarked to me recently “Who would have thought that everything we built over 13 years could be swept away so easily.”  The effect on our values is chilling and destructive.  So we need a political, organisational response.


But on the other hand, our members and potential members, our supporters and sympathisers are suffering and many feel marginalised and disempowered.


And that is why community organising is so important – in all its forms – in 2013. A movement rooted in both workplace and community is better placed to withstand attacks on either. Informed, and empowered and organised people are not only a defensive tactic – it also increases the resources and power of progressive agents for change. We must not let any confusion about what is meant by “community organising” distract from that key objective.


Read the Unions21 publication The Future for Union Community Organising


The Lobbying Bill: The Ultimate Gagging Order

Regular readers of my blogs will have often seen me use the mantra of “everything’s political”.  Well here comes a frightening endorsement of that line in the form of government proposals that will radically affect how we campaign.


By “we” I don’t just mean political parties – these regulations will affect charities or voluntary sector organisations, campaigning or membership organisations, blogs (perhaps like this one) engaging in campaigning or public policy debate, friendly societies, religious groups, think tanks, public policy institutes, quangos and even companies and their representative trade bodies.


In short, these proposals have the frightening potential to close down debate and in effect almost outlaw democracy in the year before a General Election.


The proposals are in the government-introduced Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill which first appeared in the middle of July.


Originally portrayed as legislation to introduce (a very much watered-down) register of lobbyists, it imposed new administrative restrictions on trade unions and, it has now emerged, some appalling proposals to restrict campaigning activity.


The proposed administrative arrangements for trade unions are bad enough, and together with the TUC, our union has made sure that our criticisms have been clearly relayed to government. 


However, the proposed restrictions on campaigning, which would apply in the year running up to a General Election, are game-changing.


Currently the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 restricts the amount of money that can be spent by organisations and individuals who are not political parties during the year before a General Election.


What is proposed to change is the cap on the amount of money, and the definition of what type of activity will be included.


The current cap of £793,000 (for England) will be halved to £390,000.


The new proposals are intended to cover any organisation or individual that wishes to spend more than £5,000 in England or £2,000 in the other UK nations on regulated material.  You have to register in order to do this and if you can’t register as a so-called “third party for non-party campaigning purposes” then you cannot spend more than these thresholds.


The game-changing impact that this will have is that many organisatios will be covered by the new rules regardless of any existing rules around charitable status or political campaigning, and regardless of whether or not they consider themselves non-political, independent or not to be a campaigning organisation.


These new rules will apply regardless of whether you believe you are engaging in the election process or not.  So working with politicians, seeking to educate and inform the wider public on policy issues or looking to engage with the creation and development of public policy through changing legislation or government policy will bring you within the parameters of the new rules.


You don’t have to mention the name of any party or candidate, and it doesn’t matter if you’re primary purpose was to raise awareness of a local, national or international policy issue.  Critics have already argued that it is almost impossible to envisage campaign groups that do not undertake that would fall under the scope of the new legislation.


A whole range of activities are likely to be captured by the new rules – a manifest or document which sets out policies, market research and canvassing, press conferences and media work, rallies and public meetings, advertising and unsolicited materials.


The limits will include all spending on activities including staff costs, design, service, transport, logistics and services provided “in kind”.


Although there will be exemptions for communications with “committee supporters” (namely those who pay a subscription or make a donation or are actively involved), those who sign up through Twitter-feeds or Facebook groups or who appear on certain mailing lists will not be included.  The government’s timetable is designed to put this legislation in place before the European and Local Elections in 2014.


Organisations like the TUC have already observed that under these rules the cost of the annual TUC Congress would breach the limits that have been proposed just on its own.


There are two ways of looking at this proposed legislation. Either it is an example of incompetence where the consequences of what is being proposed have not been properly or fully though out.  Or it is a deliberate attempt not so much to gag democracy, but positively garrotte it.


No one is suggesting that political activity should just be limited to self-declared political organisations.  Nor is anyone suggesting that this activity, whoever is it undertaken by, should be completely unregulated.  But rarely can there have been such a comprehensive and patently one-sided attempt to fix the terms of campaigning activity as this Bill.


The TUC  are seeking an urgent meeting with ministers to press for a  more considered approach.  Let’s hope the government is in listening mode.


With thanks  to Sam Tarry,  @SamTarry,  on whose  excellent  briefing note this blog piece is largely  based.

A climate of fear: employees face greater stress and job insecurity while working harder

The abbreviation UKCES doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue in the same way as, for example, CWU, or TUC.  But the contribution that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is making to industrial relations is nevertheless very important.


But I would be surprised if many readers had ever heard of UKCES or was aware of the really impressive research work that has been undertaken by them.


The Commission itself contains representatives from business, education and the trade unions.  It was set up in 2008 and has survived the twin challenges of public expenditure cuts and deep antipathy to organised labour in some sections of government.


It works closely with other organisations with mysterious acronyms such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies  (LLAKES).


So in short, the research commissioned by UKCES and its partners is really top notch.  There can be no doubt about its quality or the integrity of the research methods, statistical analysis or the eminent academics who have been involved in writing the final reports.


And what reports they are.  In 2012, UKCES surveyed 3,200 working peopled aged between 20 and 65.  They made sure the sample size was balanced in terms of gender, what people were doing, age and residency.  The interviews were conducted face-to-face by experienced and skilled researchers.


And crucially, the 2012 survey built on the results of previous surveys in 2006, 2001, 1997, 1992 and 1986.  In other words we can go back over 25 years to see how things have changed in key areas in the workplace.


Six papers were produced dealing with various aspects of the research findings: the title of the papers themselves gives you an inkling of what those results might be.


  • Skills at work
  • Training
  • Job Control
  • Fear at work
  • Work intensification
  • Job-related well-being


The papers were presented at two linked seminars in London.  There were close to 200 people in the audience at each event and the attendance list read like a who’s who of industrial relations practice and research.  In other words, this stuff matters.  And in the words of Professor Duncan Gallie who lead much of the research, it matters because it is centred on data from those who know most about these issues -  the workers themselves.


The research confirmed feelings that most of us have had for some time.  On one level involvement in decision making seems to have improved.  There has been more formal consultation, but this finding is not reflected in questions about job control – or in questions about fear at work.  Those interviewed feel that they have less control and more frightened of arbitrary and unfair treatment.  The trend over the last 25 years is absolutely clear on this.


This to me is the stand out feature of the results of the survey.  There are, of course, other conclusions and these are summarised very helpfully on the front page of each of the download-for-free research papers.


Because without wanting to jump on the table and shout “we told you so”, it is clear that you cannot pay lip service to consultation and expect it to have no impact. 


As the researchers themselves have acknowledged: Even though there maybe formal consultation, if people feel they have less control over their work, this can lead to “organisational dysfunctionality”. For “organisational dysfunctionality” read tension at the workplace, lower productivity and poorer economic performance.


When combined with the recession and constraints on public expenditure, it is no surprise that public sector workers now feel more vulnerable than those in the private sector – and it is no surprise either that now 51% of all those surveyed believe that it is likely they will suffer the consequence of an unfair decision affecting them at work.  Indeed 1 in 6 of those surveyed believe that there is a likely chance of them losing their job within the next year.


More people are now more concerned about victimisation than discrimination,  which  given the change in the makeup  of the workforce over the last 20 years is a striking shift.


For union negotiators and policy makers this is a very valuable resource.  It validates the concerns that we have and the arguments that we have been making over the last many years.  But for government – and opposition – politicians there is an even clearer message: the current strategy is not working, it is in fact making things worse – and there is no reasonable prospect of that improving.


Those who commissioned and carried the research should be rightly praised for their diligence and professionalism in making sure that we have the opportunity to develop policy on the basis of evidence.


All titles are downloadable free from  www.llakes.org – the 20 May 2013 news item on the front page  has all the links you need.


*This is the title LLAKES themselves gave to their news release when the  survey results were published.

Unions21 Tech Seminar – What’s Next?

Simon Sapper made the opening speech and chaired the morning session of the Unions21 Tech Seminar on 24th January at CWU HQ


Like all unions, we are on a journey to make the best use of new media.


Is it an organising tool with servicing elements – or a strategy for servicing existing members, with some organisational dividends? In our experience, it is both.


So in looking ahead to today’s agenda, I think we see these twin tracks of what new media means to unions.


When I started writing about this in Unions Today, over 10 years ago, interactivity was the exception rather than standard or routine. I don’t even think the magazine was available online.


But now we seem to assume that there is a union dimension to every new app or piece of kit. And we look to dedicated new media campaigning organisations to help us identify and exploit those sorts of opportunities.


If we are all very candid, I suspect two truths would emerge about trade union engagement with new media.  First, that every new media savvy union will have a techhie or two who just love gadgets.  They are often the agents for change.


And second, we all wanted, really wanted, new media to be a sort of magic bullet.  To fix a particular problem – raising the union’s profile to hitherto only imagined heights?  Reaching out to potential members in hard-to-recruit areas?  Virtual workplace meetings? On-line surgery sessions, and (before they were possibly illegal) cyber pickets to give a decisive edge in disputes.


But what  I suspect  we have  also all found  is that just as  we use  new media  to make communication  easier  with our members,   in so doing we have generated expectations about our members’  communications with us – easier, faster, more reliable.  We all have to work on economies of scale to a greater or lesser degree – and a philosophy of instant access can be a real challenge.


That’ s in addition to all the other challenges  of content management, branding (a whole new area for us), libel and the conflation  of our  work and personal identities, and the trouble our members  can get themselves into on FB and Twitter.


It’s become clear to me that what we as unions want from new media we cannot get on our own.  We have to look to partner with each other and with specialists.  Sharing  information  and  best  practice is a good start which is  why I feel  events like this and the UnionHome initiative are so important. Read More…

Employment rights and human rights are two sides of the same coin

MY starting point is that to separate out employment rights and human rights is to make a spurious distinction. Is there anyone who would disagree with that proposition? We do not take our human rights off like a coat and hang them on a peg when we walk through the door of the workplace.


So it is something of a mystery to me why there is only modest engagement with organisations like Liberty given that they are by far and away the most effective champion and protector of things like the Human Rights Act which is the umbrella over so many of the freedoms we believe are essential.


This week saw the annual Human Rights Awards ceremony, sponsored by Liberty and the Southbank Centre in London. And I was delighted to see presenting one of the awards Paul Kenny from the GMB (and of course the immediate past president of Congress plus vice-chair of TULO.)


But it was not the sprinkling of trade union representatives in the audience and on the platform that reinforced the two-sides-of-the-same-coin argument on Human Rights. No, I thought it was more those who were shortlisted and those who received the awards. Read More…

New Zealand shows how community unionism can bring us together

Together LogoI don’t think that anyone who heard Helen Kelly, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions speak at the TUC recently could have failed to be impressed. There was a great freshness and directness about her delivery and, of course, it’s great to see another national centre being lead by a woman. But it was the subject of her presentation – on the NZCTU’s “Together” programme that really set me thinking.


This is a different take on the “community-based” trade unionism championed not just by Unite and Community but also unions like my own CWU, who have always looked to support members and their families at home as well as work, and often when they are out of work as well as employed. Read More…

Bloggers United Could Help Strengthen Our Democracy and Marginalise Our Opponents

UnionHome is great, but surely it is long overdue? Why haven’t trade union websites, predicated on user-generated content, found a niche in cyberspace until now?


I can only speak from my personal experiences as an administrator for www.cwuyouth.org. We deal with the day-to-day challenges of promoting a safe space within which union activists, especially young union activists, can debate issues of importance to them within the requirement of respecting the integrity of the union’s democratic decision-making process.


In doing so, we have to accommodate some uncomfortable encounters with user-generated material from the union’s recent history. For example, there are well-established (not by us) online fora for employees of the companies where we organise and in the past the content has frequently been unpleasant. Generally speaking the standards that were reflected there would not be those that we wish the union nationally to be associated with.


So, how is it that CWU’s youth section has been able to establish and sustain (for over 4 years now) it’s own website as one which prides itself on user-generated content, especially when the parent main website, www.cwu.org, does not have discussion forums or threads?

Read More…

Unions are Political – Let’s Make the Most of It

ConferenceLabour Party Conference is a good time to reflect on the explicitly political nature of some of the CWU’s campaigning work.


I believe trade unions are inevitably political. The CWU is often explicitly so.  Any group of 205,000 workers and their families acting in a combined, collective way must have an impact on social and economic policy.  Especially when more than half of them work in a public sector body the government wants to sell off.


So even  though the  legislation  to  privatise has been  passed, we  continue to  work  hard on the regulatory structures,  to protect the  “Universal Service Obligation” which  we believe is very much under threat.  We also continue to press for the utilisation and development of the Post Office as a vehicle for   delivery of key services – hence our campaign with others for a Post Bank. Every  failure to  utilise this already  existing, publicly  funded  network (such as switching  the contract  for  benefit  payments (the so-called “Green Giros” ) to  a commercial company) demonstrates to us the ideological and hostile character of the government’s intentions.

Read More…