2014 was another challenging year for the branch, and thanks must go to all North Somerset UNISON members who have got involved in the branch, either by becoming branch officers, reps and contacts, or by simply standing up and attending lobbies, marches and rallies.
The year began with some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that North Somerset Council's Living Wage working group had concluded that for financial reasons they could not afford to pay the living wage - it would have cost them £435,000. Only one month later the council's budget documents showed the council's reserves had shot up to £11.6 million - £3 million above their approved prudential level and a sum which had been built up in part by the £3 million underspend on staff salaries over the previous 4 years - the Living Wage now seemed very affordable indeed! In January the Information Commissioner ordered the council to release the detailed version of KPMG's report into the Support Services contract. The council had tried to keep this report secret, even denying its existence at one point. UNISON had spent over a year trying to get the report, but our work finally paid off. We also got lots of good news coverage, and a UNISON Rep spoke on BBC Radio Bristol.
In February as part of the 2014 Local Government pay claim the branch ran information events at the Town Hall and Castlewood. We also finally got to see the detailed KPMG report, which outlined some serious issues with the Support Services contract, and which also came at a time when the council had begun negotiations with Agilisys on extending the contract. The branch wrote to all North Somerset councillors outlining KPMG's and our concerns with the Agilisys contract. Also in February we held our annual lobby of the council's budget setting meeting, and a UNISON Rep spoke at the meeting. We were joined at our demo outside the Town Hall by Labour and Lib-Dem councillors, and members of the Green Party. Tory councillors went on to vote through another £11 million of cuts, including 50 full-time job losses, as well as freezing council tax for the majority, but increasing it for the poorest.
In March North Somerset Council announced it's 4 year Transformation Programme - effectively a massive cuts programme, which is likely to result in further privatisation of services, as well as more redundancies for council staff. Although the initial proposals were for more staff and services (admin and front office) to be transferred to the Agilisys contract, the branch wrote to all Local Government members to make them aware of the impact for all council staff. The council are also looking to further integrate Health and Social Care, as well as share services with other councils, and this is likely to lead to redundancies. We also started to run regular members meetings to keep members up to date, and conducted a consultative ballot on the Transformation Programme. In March we also ran a consultative ballot on the Local Government pay claim. 12th March marked the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 Miners strike and the branch made a donation to help fund the making of a new documentary - Still the Enemy Within. Sadly in March the world lost two great socialists, when Tony Benn and Bob Crow died.
On April Fools Day we published the results of our Transformation Programme consultative ballot - members voted overwhelmingly to campaign against privatisations and redundancies (75%), with 20% saying they'd like redundancy and 5% saying that they would transfer to Agilisys if it meant saving their jobs. In April the TUC published statistics on workers earning less than the living wage - it was 28% in Weston super Mare parliamentary constituency, over a third of whom are women, and many are Local Government workers. Also in April North Somerset Council created some new Assistant Executive members, and gave the councillors that took on those roles pay increases - but they still couldn't afford to pay their staff the living wage! At the end of April our consultative ballot of Local Government and Schools members over the derisory 1% pay increase showed that 70% wanted to reject and move to a ballot for strike action.
May was taken up with campaigning against the council's Transformation Programme, including a lobby of the council meeting on 6th May where councillors met to approve entering further negotiations with Agilisys to transfer more staff and services into the Support Services contract. We had a really good turnout at our lobby, a UNISON Rep spoke at the meeting, and we had also submitted a long list of questions to councillors ahead of the meeting. As a result of our work one of the opposition councillors proposed an amendment to include an in-house service plan, at the same time as negotiating with Agilisys. This amendment, slightly reworded, was voted through - a victory for the councillor and for UNISON, but one, that as we were to find out later in the year, was not all we thought it was. In May we also began the ballot for strike action over the Local Government and Schools Pay Claim. Also in May European Elections were held with UKIP gaining ground in North Somerset - a very worrying prospect for next year's General and Local elections.
In June we got the brilliant news that Weston General Hospital had decided it would stop the open procurement process which allowed private companies to bid for the hospital, and look at NHS partners only. Three local hospitals were now in the running to take it over - University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, Taunton and Musgrove Park NHS Foundation Trust and Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The branch had been working with the local Protect Our NHS group campaigning against the privatisation of Weston Hospital for over a year. The work we did on raising the issue in the media, and collecting hundreds of signatures on a petition had paid off - it was a victory for common sense. Also in June UNISON members in Local Government and Schools rejected the 1% pay offer and voted for industrial action. At the end of June the People's Assembly held a demonstration against Austerity in Parliament Square in London, and a few North Somerset UNISON members attended it.
In July UNISON members working in Local Government and Schools (excluding Academies) took industrial action, along with UNITE, GMB, FBU and PCS. We had a brilliant turnout on our picket lines at Castlewood and the Town Hall, had huge support from members of the public, and were blessed by glorious sunshine. It was so hot on the day we used our branch banner to create a tent to give us some shade, and at lunch time we had a Picnic for Pay on the grass outside the town hall . Also in July we started a petition for an Ethical Care Charter for North Somerset. At the very end of the month UNISON announced it would be balloting NHS members for industrial action after the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt overruled the NHS Pay Review Body and announced that only those NHS staff not due an increment would get a 1% pay increase. This meant that 60% of NHS staff would not be getting a cost of living increase this year.
In August UNISON members previously working for Learning Partnership West TUPE transferred into the council to become the Youth Employment Service. North Somerset UNISON branch officers met with UNISON colleagues at Bath & North East Somerset Council to discuss both councils decision to share services. UNISON also announced a second day of industrial action for Local Government and Schools workers in October - this time including Academies. At the end of the month the strike ballot for NHS workers began.
In September more of our work on the Agilisys contract paid off, with the council taking a decision to postpone their vote on awarding the contract from 23rd September to 21st October, pending more scrutiny. UNISON had made numerous submissions to the Agilisys Contract Working Group, as well as attending and speaking at the meetings. We also attended a Scrutiny meeting, where council officers tried to get councillors to vote to exclude the public from the meeting on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but councillors disagreed and the public (consisting of 1 UNISON Rep) were allowed to stay. The so-called commercially confidential presentation that councillors were given made it apparent that no work on an in-house plan had been done. In September, before councillors had voted to approve extending the contract, 200 council staff received letters either advising them they would be TUPE transferred or have their service redesigned and then possibly be transferred, if the councillors voted in favour of it in October. In September the People's March for the NHS arrived in London - the Darlo Mums had marched 300 miles from Jarrow to highlight what is happening as a result of the Health and Social Care Act, which has opened the NHS up to privatisation. A few members of North Somerset UNISON were part of the huge crowd that met them in Trafalgar Square. Also in September UNISON members working in the NHS voted yes to industrial action, and action short of industrial action, i.e. work to rule.
We knew October was going to be a busy month with strike action at Weston General Hospital and at North Somerset Council, Schools and Academies - all over pay. But the Local Government and Schools strike was called off at the eleventh hour after a very slightly improved offer from the employers, and UNISON balloted members on whether they were prepared to accept the offer or continue with industrial action. UNISON members working in the NHS, along with members from many other Health Unions went out on strike over pay on 13th October followed by a week of working to rule. On 18th October the branch took a coach load of members to London for the TUC's Britain Needs a Pay Rise march and rally, and we ended up meeting former UNISON General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe and Russell Brand - who says there isn't power in a union! Just a few days later UNISON members did themselves proud at our lobby of the council meeting on 21st, when despite our best efforts Tory councillors voted to extend the Support Services contract to a 15 year term, and transfer 130 full-time jobs to Agilisys. Opposition councillors and UNISON found out that our definition of an in-house plan was not the same as that of senior council officers and Tory Executive members. Straight after the lobby a few of us drove up to the Curzon Cinema in Clevedon to see a documentary we had helped to fund about the 1984-85 Miners Strike called Still the Enemy Within, followed by a Q&A with one of the film makers and a former miner.
In November we continued to hold regular meetings for UNISON members who will now TUPE transfer to Agilisys as a result of the council's decision to privatise more services. The first week of November was Living Wage week, and the yearly increase of the Living Wage was announced - it now stands at £7.85 per hour outside London. UNISON workers in Local Government and Schools voted to accept the latest pay offer, which through industrial action had been improved, but still only brings the lowest level of Local Government pay up to £7.06 an hour - still well below the Living Wage, with a 2.2% increase over 2 years for most staff. At the same time North Somerset Council appointed a consultant as the interim Head of Finance on a salary of £825 a day - but they still couldn't afford to pay their staff the living wage! Also in November the branch wrote to all members with the good news about a European Court case won by UNISON, which had ruled that workers who receive regular additional payments such as unsocial hours and overtime payments, should still be paid them during annual leave, and if they do not receive them then they may have a claim against their employer. Towards the end of November UNISON members in the NHS took their second day of industrial action, again joined by many other Health Unions and again followed by a work to rule.
In December UNISON announced that there will be two further days of industrial action in the NHS in January and February, with a work to rule in between those dates. We also found out that Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust were the only bidders for Weston General Hospital and so will take it over in Summer 2015. We ended the year as we began it with some good news and some bad news. The good news was that North Somerset Council have begun consulting on the recommissioning of Home Care services - the majority of which is now privatised - and have included stage 1 of UNISON's Ethical Care Charter as part of the quality assessment of bids, along with a commitment to stages 2 and 3 in the future. Our Ethical Care campaign had begun just over a year ago. The bad news was that it looks likely that the council's only remaining in-house Home Care - the START reablement team - will be outsourced as part of this recommissioning. In addition just before Christmas the council presented the trade unions with their proposals to reduce enhancements such as overtime and unsocial hours payments, call out and standby allowances. Just over 2 years ago UNISON had managed to get the council to postpone reductions to enhancements pending a cost of living pay increase - now they are back on the table and early in the new year we will be balloting UNISON members on whether they want to accept the reductions or whether they are prepared to take action to stop them.
As usual, throughout the year the branch has been involved in numerous service reviews and consultations on policies, as well as meetings on the integration of health and social care.. The branch has also represented well over 200 members in individual cases. We have also sent delegates to a number of UNISON conferences and regional councils.
2015 looks like it will be another difficult year. Our Branch Secretary Helen Davies and our Branch Chair Martin Toleman are retiring. Whoever steps into their roles will have their work cut out for them as North Somerset Council plan to make another £15 million of cuts to services in 2015/16 on top of £63 million of cuts made since 2010, with a further £22 million of cuts to come up to 2018. This is likely to mean redundancies for a number of council staff, as well as further privatisations of services. On 31st January the council will transfer many of their admin and front office staff to Agilisys and Liberata - we'll see how that works out for them, particularly as it coincides with the implementation of the ICT transformation. UNISON members in Health will be taking further industrial action - it's going to take a lot to get Jeremy Hunt to back down, although the closer we get to the election the more likely that might be. Our members at Weston General Hospital will also face being TUPE transferred to Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust by Summer 2015.
George Osborne's Autumn statement, delivered in December, confirmed that if re-elected the Tories will continue with their austerity programme. It is now crystal clear (if it wasn't already) that the public spending cuts are not necessary, and that the Tories always intended to roll back the state, and return the country to 1930s levels of public spending - that is before the creation of the welfare state. But in 2015 we have an opportunity to decide what sort of country we want to live in when we vote in both the general and local elections. If the Tories get another 5 year term nationally, they will have destroyed what remains of the welfare state, local government will cease to exist or only exist as a commissioner of services, our NHS will have been mainly privatised, and employment and trade union rights will have been further reduced. If this is not the country you want to live in then you need to seriously think about voting for parties other than the Conservatives. And don't be fooled by UKIP - they are racist wolves in sheep's clothing or "pound shop Enoch Powell's" as Russell Brand described Nigel Farage.
Over the past four and half years the Tories both nationally and locally have shown that they govern in the interests of the wealthy. Those at the very top of society - the 1% - have been completely unaffected by the government's austerity programme, while ordinary people have seen their incomes and living standards fall. Here in North Somerset the council thought it was absolutely fine to increase the allowances of some councillors as well as hiring an interim Finance Chief and paying her £825 a day, but at the same time they claim that they cannot afford to pay their staff the living wage, and in the new year they want to reduce payments for unsocial hours working. In addition right at the beginning of the year the council froze council tax for the majority, but increased it for the poorest when they reduced the Council Tax Support Scheme.
2014 has been another year of headlines about food banks, the bedroom tax, homelessness, social security cuts, zero hours contracts, underemployment and low pay. UNISON members in the NHS, Local Government and Schools, as well as trade union members in other industries and public services have taken industrial action over pay (and pensions in the case of the Firefighters). Low Pay and the Living Wage have been the big issues of 2014 for the trade union movement, and will continue to be the big issues for 2015.
In 1857 Frederick Douglass, the great African American abolitionist said that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Almost 100 years later in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." If workers want their fair share of the enormous wealth which is currently owned and controlled by the 1% we need to demand it and be prepared to fight for it. If we do that then we've got a good chance of winning - as the Occupy movement have so aptly put it - we are the 99% and if we stand together against the 1%, 99 to 1 are great odds.
Image above (c) Jared Davidson - http://garagecollective.blogspot.com