Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bread Lines or Picket Lines - Review of 2013

We began 2013 with three successes. Every year North Somerset Council meet in January to debate their budget and again in February to approve their budget. Since 2010, and even before, this has meant cuts to jobs and services. Again this year we asked the council to reject the council tax freeze bribe offered by central government, which far from helping their budget position has made matters worse by creating budget holes for future years. This year the council finally took on board what we had been saying, rejected the freeze grant, and increased council tax by a small amount in order to go someway to protecting vital public services. In January we also found out that the Court of Appeal had agreed to reconsider the judgement on the council’s cuts to Youth Services.

As part of our lobby of the council budget meeting in February a UNISON Rep spoke at the meeting asking councillors to set up a working group to look at paying the Living Wage to all council and schools staff. It will come as no surprise to many members to hear that almost 900 council and schools staff, mainly women, earn less than the living wage (at that point £7.45 an hour), with the bottom rate of local government pay being just above the national minimum wage (at that point £6.19 an hour). Other councils in the UK had begun to commit to increasing the wages of the lowest paid grades. At their meeting the leader of North Somerset Council agreed to our request to set up a Living Wage working group.

In March we continued to lobby the council over the Living Wage, as they had put the promised working group on hold pending the outcome of the local government pay claim for 2013. We also began to consult local government members over a 1% pay increase, which was eventually accepted by a ballot of members on only a 12% turnout. Also in March Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela died.

In April UNISON members working in the NHS were consulted on a 1% pay offer, which they also accepted. In April the new Health and Social Care Act came into force, and our greatest national institution the NHS was made ready to be sold off to private companies. Also in April North Somerset UNISON became an accredited Living Wage employer. We only employ 1 full-time member of staff and a couple of people on a casual basis, but given we were campaigning for the Living Wage we thought it was important to get accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. On 8th April one of the greatest enemies of the trade union movement - Margaret Thatcher - died, and her death divided the country, as her politics had done in life.

In May we found out that the South West NHS Pay Cartel which had threatened our members at Weston Hospital with regional pay had, at least temporarily, disbanded. But our members at Weston Hospital faced a new threat – that of the possible privatisation of the hospital. The branch immediately set up some training on procurement for Hospital Reps and launched a campaign to stop the privatisation. Also in May, in partnership with North Somerset Council, we organised an event for Learning at Work Day - the theme was saving money in an age of Austerity - organisations such as our local credit union Somerset Savings and Loans, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Centre for Sustainable Energy took part.

In June we organised a public meeting to draw attention and create awareness about the privatisation of our local hospital. A number of North Somerset councillors (Mike Bell, Don Davies and Catherine Gibbons) spoke at the meeting, as well as Dr Gabriel Scally from the University of the West of England, Dr Richard Lawson, UNISON South West Regional Secretary Joanne Kaye and Kay Carberry, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC. The People United and the TUC Austerity Uncovered buses which had been touring the UK also attended the meeting. The TUC bus went on to visit people on the Bournville Estate, one of whom was featured in the video made of the TUC tour, speaking about the impact of the Bedroom Tax. You can watch  Debbie from Weston super Mare at the following link 4 minutes 40 seconds in, as well as some coverage of the hospital meeting 10 minutes in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL46w8Jnzvw

In June the North Somerset Youth Services Cuts Appeal was heard in the High Court, but we had to wait until November to get the result. Also in June the branch organised an outing for UNISON members to the historic Curzon Cinema in Clevedon to see Ken Loach's film The Spirit of '45 - a film showing how our great welfare state was created, but also very sadly how much of it has been taken away by successive governments since Thatcher.

In July North Somerset Council’s Living Wage working group finally had their first meeting. Two UNISON Reps attended the meeting, along with a number of North Somerset councillors. The working group set out to look at the costs and benefits of implementing the living wage for North Somerset Council staff and Schools staff. It also looked at the possibility of encouraging council contractors and other North Somerset employers to pay their staff the living wage. Also in July we found out that 11 organisations including 5 private sector companies had expressed an interest in running Weston Hospital. UNISON’s campaign to stop the hospital being sold off became a community campaign – the new group met for the first time in July to set its priorities, one of which was to create more awareness of what was shaping up to be a very secretive process. The campaign group generated a lot of publicity over the summer, including a great photo opportunity on Weston beach with campaign members lying on the beach to form the NHS Logo for its 65th Birthday.

In July the School Crossing Patrols celebrated their Diamond Jubilee across the country. We had no idea at that point, but by the end of the year North Somerset's Lollipop men and women would be amongst the council's proposed cuts for 2014.

In August UNISON began consulting local government members on the pay claim for 2014. Over the summer Price Waterhouse Cooper were hired by the council to look at ways of making further cuts - their recommendations will be made public in January.

In September Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Weston super Mare for a Tory party lunch at the Royal Hotel. The Weston Hospital Campaign group were there to meet him, but sadly didn’t get to see him as Jeremy sneaked in the back way. The local TV news covered our demonstration as well as showing an extended item on the conflict of interest of one of the Hospital Procurement Project board members who is a consultant for one of the private companies who have expressed an interest in running the hospital.

Also in September the branch took a coach load of members to the TUC organised Save our NHS march at the Tory party conference in Manchester. We marched with 50,000 others right past the conference venue, but still the BBC failed to cover the demonstration, with one of their correspondents saying on Twitter that he was told by security guards at the conference venue that he could not film the march as it went past. Even so we were blessed with beautiful sunshine, and a great day was had by all the demonstrators.

In October we began our campaign to get North Somerset Council to sign up to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter. Currently many Home Care workers are not paid travelling time - this means that although their hourly rate of pay may be above the minimum wage, their actual pay falls below the minimum wage because of the time spent travelling. We met with senior officers in Adult Services who gave us contact details for all the local providers. We wrote to all of them, enclosing the charter and asking them to provide answers to a number of questions around paying for travelling time, paying the living wage, use of zero hours contracts, and paying sick pay. Once the results are in we will compile them into a report for the council. Two UNISON Reps also attended the Home Care providers forum to talk about the Ethical Care Charter. One of our members who works in a private sector care home provided a case study for the branch, which was also picked up by UNISON nationally and made available on the national website.

In November the Weston Hospital campaign continued with a demo outside the hospital on 5th November. Also in November the Local Government Pay Campaign for 2014 got off the ground. The branch wrote to all North Somerset councillors, both our local MPs, and all our Local Government members. We have also organised meetings for members into next year to keep them updated.

Also in November we got the news that the Youth Services appeal had been successful and North Somerset Council were found to have acted illegally in cutting youth services because of their failure to consult young people and also their failure to consider their equalities duties. But sadly the Appeal Court did not reverse the cuts because of the amount of time (almost 2 years) that had passed since the council made the decision in February 2012.

In December the Living Wage working group concluded its work and a draft report has been written which will be presented to the Community and Corporate Organisation Policy & Scrutiny Panel on 21st January. Sadly, although councillors agreed with the morality of paying a living wage, for financial reasons the recommendation is not to implement at this time. Also in December our local credit union Somerset Savings and Loans signed up to UNISON's national network of credit unions. We strongly encourage North Somerset UNISON members to look into opening an account with them as an ethical alternative to banks.

On 5th December we heard the sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela, and all over the world people were united in their great respect for a man whose struggle had resulted in the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa.

During 2013 we said Goodbye to a number of long standing UNISON Reps and branch officers. Jon Astridge, Lucinda Holdsworth and Sandy Flood all took retirement and stood down as Reps. Tina Baker stood down as Branch Treasurer, and Ollie Pratlett decided to stop running his retired members meetings. We thank them all for the hard work they have done for the branch over the years.

Throughout the year the branch has been involved in numerous service reviews and consultations on policies, as well as the TUPE transfer into the council of our members from Public Health. The branch has also represented well over 200 members in individual cases. Throughout the year we have also worked with colleagues in the PCS, NUT, UNITE and RMT through the Weston and North Somerset Trades Union Council. We have also sent delegates to a number of UNISON conferences, the national People's Assembly in London, as well as to the Bristol People's Assembly.

We will remember 2013 as a year of so-called welfare reform or social security cuts as I prefer to call them, including the most cruel of all - the bedroom tax. It will also be remembered as a year of foodbanks, zero hours contracts, pay day loans and low pay - what a civilised society we live in! The Tories showed what a truly nasty party they are by laughing and jeering during the foodbank debate in parliament, and our two local MPs in North Somerset both voted against the motion to investigate the causes of food poverty in Britain. We will also remember 2013 as the year the Royal Mail was privatised, with no consultation with the people that use it and own it - i.e. us.

In 2013 more employment rights were chipped away at by the Coalition government, including the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunals, and the reduction in time for consultation on redundancies. UNISON is going to court to challenge the employment tribunal fees. The government are also proposing a gagging law which will prevent trade unions, community groups, charities and others from campaigning in the year running up to the General Election by capping the amount of money that can be spent on campaigning. Even the party of the Trade Union movement, started to plan its split from working people with a proposal to break the Labour Link.

In Grangemouth we saw big bad capitalism in action, when the billionaire owner of the oil refinery held the workers, the union, the town and even the whole country of Scotland to ransom. 2013 was also a year of many strikes involving our sister unions - teachers, civil servants, postal workers, firefighters - all stood up for their rights by taking industrial action. Towards the end of the year they were joined by UNISON members working in Universities who rejected their 1% pay off, at a time when their bosses are earning on average £250,000 a year.

As we start 2014 we will continue to fight the cuts in North Somerset – we have lobbies planned for the council meetings in January and February, as well as members meetings on pay. In 2014 the recently merged Adults and Children's directorates at the council will be re-organised, and job losses seem likely. In January we will know what Price Waterhouse Cooper are recommending in terms of further cuts, and we will oppose any further job losses and privatisations.  We will also continue to campaign against the privatisation of Weston Hospital.

2014 will be the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 Miners Strike, and in the coming year UNISON members will need to show the solidarity and commitment that miners showed over that year long strike, if we want to achieve our aims of protecting terms and conditions, jobs and services. We all need to rediscover the collective aspect of our movement, and realise that our real power lies in us all standing together to fight injustice. In the words of Nelson Mandela  speaking to the ANC Transvaal Congress in 1953: "You must protect and defend your trade unions... You must make every home, every shack and every mud structure where our people live, a branch of the trade union movement and never surrender." UNISON members need to decide whether they want to stand in Bread Lines or on Picket Lines.