Monday, 30 July 2012

"If you're out of your depth, tread water and smile" - Jim's story, part 1

Why has this happened to me?

Well I rang a woman, well to be precise she rang me after I sent her a text wanting to discuss the state of things where I worked. Quite frankly I was stunned at her attitude, considerate, personable and generally chatty. Not quite what I had been led to believe, I was expecting... to be honest, I didn't know what I was expecting. She could have told me to sod off, or even worse ignored me. The woman was Jennie Formby, Unite National Officer for food, drink & tobacco. "She's been on the telly" I thought, and she's pleased to talk to me, that hasn't happened since I rang my mum! Considering she was about to get on a plane and was involved with important stuff I was made to feel like I mattered. My concerns were her concerns, then I was advised to talk to my regional officer Rick Coyle who would get things moving. That's where it was all going to come crashing down surely, some platitudes and faux concern were coming my way. How wrong I was, a feeling I'm comfortable with because I'm married, he was of the same mind as Jennie.
The next thing knew I had been issued with emergency powers before holding a full election and we were "organising", I don't mean planning a birthday party for the wife, organising for solidarity. We were a couple of weeks away from Unilever's first strike action with no shop stewards on site... now I was it. So when people talk about pressure, try becoming acting senior steward, with a disparate membership in need of facts not fiction and the bitter stench of mutiny still in the air.

Never held office before, now all eyes are on me. So what was I to do, what could I get away with, would people take me seriously? One, way to find out I suppose, just get on with it, one day at a time, dodge the flack, soak up the advice, try to sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Rick, my handler, he wasn't what I was expecting, we met in a pub at short notice to inform the membership of the facts. The guy I had been talking to for the last couple of days was here in front of me. We hit it off instantly, best blind date either of us had been on. The promise of support had been fulfilled from national officer down, sound like a fairy tale, but its how it happened. Before we knew it we were standing outside the gate for over 13 hours with over half the membership, and media crawling all over the place. We had representatives from the local constabulary visit us, nice chaps, concerned about our well-being and full of advice on how to stave off the cold. I wasn't that worried about the cold, I was wearing a lovely warm thermal suit, some say it was cheating, I say it was forward planning. Having said that, I could possibly have taken note of which zip allowed instant access to the appropriate area when I needed the toilet.

Boredom was never far away, but I had a cunning plan to keep it at bay until the sun came out. What would you do with a big lotto win? Say 10 million or so, the silence was almost too much to bear, ok, I'll start you off, I filled the air with images of exotic cars, houses by race tracks and toys... remind me never to play that one again with people of a left wing persuasion. Going with the "property is theft" ethos for a moment, how does a big fat lotto win sit then?

It took a lot more than some stirring emails and a couple of posters to open people's eyes and show them they're not alone. I knew it would be difficult winning people's trust and enlightening them, even though I had worked side by side with these people it was going to be a challenge. Trying to convince people to fight for what's right can be difficult, trying to show people what is right is tricky, especially if money is at stake. Especially that they wont see for several years to come, pension are funny things, they don't really matter until you need them to pay out, for many its too late by the time they realise its not enough to live off.

The next instalment is going to be better, but like life, it’s not always what you want first...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Why all talk of "union fat-cats" is deliberately untrue and perversely misleading

Search “union fat-cats” and there will be plenty of articles to choose from.   

If we go back a generation in the UK, it was the norm for the CEO or leader of an organisation to earn 4, 5 or 6 times the average salary within that organisation.  This was true of the voluntary and charitable sector, banking and the private sector as a whole.

Hardly any organisations or businesses have escaped the pure greed of our leaders.  The old differential of upto 6 times the salary has been lost.  Social inequality had rocketed, and the salary differentials are now so extreme it is hard enough to even comprehend them.

How many times greater is the salary of your CEO compared to you?  Chances are, it will be well into the hundreds, possibly the thousands. Not even the charitable sector has escaped this top-salary exploding madness.

I’m now going to point something out that nobody ever does when these “union fat cat” stories are trotted out.  When it comes to pay for it's officials, Unions have not changed.  Unions have not recently started doing anything different. Unions still do what they always did, which is what everyone else used to do!

That’s right – Union top salaries still tend to be in that area of 4, 5 or 6 times higher than the average in that organisation.  So next time a journalist tries to wind you up and writes “this union fat-cat gets £122,000”, try dividing that salary by 4, 5 or 6.  

Then be re-assured that our Trade Unions remain overwhelmingly decent.

Finally I make one last observation, one that should be obvious.  Taking a rational, sensible view of top bosses salaries, unions are the last organisations in the UK that should be being attacked.  With the possible exception of top-bankers, unions get attacked more than any other group.  The current situation is nothing more, and nothing less, than spiteful union bashing from the political wing of the wealthy.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Are you offended by any of these questions?

Are you offended by any the questions below?

In the UK and in America, the vast majority of private sector employers would crush any employee asking these sorts of questions

1)    What is your job title?

2)    Do you have any children/other dependents)? If so, how many?

3)    Do you have a partner and if so, are they earning? Do they contribute to the household financially?

4)    Do you claim benefits? If so, which ones?

5)    Do you struggle to pay the bills?  

6)    At the end of the month, do you have any disposable income?

7)    How does low pay affect your life?

8)    When did you last take a holiday?

9)    Do you have a second job to subsidise your pay?

10) Do you use credit cards or pay day loans? If so, are you in debt?

11) Over the last five years, have you had to change the way you live your life as a result of low pay?

12)  Is there anything else you want to tell us that you think is relevant?

The freedom to be able to ask these questions - to survey a workforce, to recruit and to unionise, is an essential part of living in a free society.

Because these and other questions are "not allowed" in our private sector, it is impossible to bargain on behalf of workers. Politicians and media often say that "private sector workers have rejected unions".  But this is simply wrong - the truth is that unions have been largely frozen out, and getting in requires enormous effort, usually as part of a concerted campaign , paid for by a national Trade Union such as Unite.   Of course, Unions simply don't have the resources to sort this crises out by themselves.

And it is a crises. I don't just mean the human rights abuse of it being ridiculously difficult to form a union. I mean the wider consequences for our economy.

Perhaps the biggest problem for "the taxpayer" is that the poverty pay of our richest companies is topped up via the benefits system.  The likes of Amazon and Marks & Spencer should not employ full time workers on poverty pay rates. But they do. The rest of us then pick up the price.

The low wages of millions of workers in rich firms causes a stagnating, depressed economy.  A unionised private sector would halt the ever growing differentials of bosses pay compared to workers pay. It would reduce reliance upon the state, and would give people more money to spends on goods and services. It would reduce stress on families, and would almost certainly reduce the number of marriage breakdowns.

And for those of us in the UK who are unionised, what we are allowed to do falls way beneath the minimum of worker rights as spelt out in global human rights international law, see this

We are not free. And it's time we started saying so.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Roger was fairly dismissed. How Unite got him his job back...

I can't complain at the decision to dismiss.

Roger made the classic mistake so many workers make.  He thought "I'll make it as easy for them as possible, I'll be good, I won't argue, I'll just accept I was in the wrong and I'll say sorry".  Although a Unite member for many years, for these reasons he chose not to be represented.

With fourteen years service and a clean record, Roger never imagined his one breach of Health & Safety would result in dismissal.  But it did.  And to be fair, it was a really serious breach.

The worst possible thing anybody can say in a disciplinary hearing is nothing at all.  This means you have nothing in mitigation, ie nothing to say for yourself, no excuses, no good reasons to account for your actions, nothing to be taken into consideration on your behalf. This then gives the green light to the employer to throw the book at you.  A hearing manager makes a decision based on the information in front of him/her.  If you don't say "I've got a clean record of fourteen years", you cannot assume that point will be in front of the decision maker.   In this case, the decision was (legally) reasonable in view of the information the manager had at the time of the decision.

It's much harder to change a decision that's been made rather than influence one that's still hanging in the balance.  But Unite interviewed our member and discovered the points of mitigation that ought to have been raised at the dismissal hearing:

* Severe (and unusual) domestic problems at the time the H&S training was delivered.  Management were already aware of the issues, but these were not raised at the dismissal hearing.
* Critically, the same H&S breach was committed by our members manager - on the same day!  Yet no disciplinary action had been taken against the manager.....

The employer ( a midlands based FTSE top 100 company ) accepted our argument that the business had not been consistent and that our member had received "less favourable treatment" than his manager. Also, that there were mitigating factors our member experienced, and there was good reason to believe that trust in this worker could be restored with refresher training and appropriate support.

So three weeks after having been sacked, our member got the job that he loves back again, complete with back pay to the date of dismissal.


* Always be Union
* Always take advice when facing a difficult or disciplinary situation at work
* Always insist upon representation, and never have nothing to say for yourself !

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Why it is naive, bordering on stupid, not to be represented in a disciplinary hearing

Emma has worked in a major supermarket since leaving school 19 years ago.  After 18 years without any sickness absence, life became very sad last year following the death of one close family member, and the serious illness of another. Emma has become depressed and has had four periods of sickness during - as our employers put it - " a rolling twelve month period".

Back in March this year, a disciplinary hearing was held to discuss absence as the "trigger points had been exceeded".  A first written warning was issued, which was later overturned on appeal.  The reason? Depression is covered under the Equalities Act, and the grocer had a legal responsibility to consider what "reasonable adjustments" it could make. They'd failed to consider this. It was agreed that monthly meetings would take place to support Emma, and the warning was binned.

Fast forward to last week.  Emma had been unlucky enough to suffer an accident at work and needed a few days off while the swelling died down.  Now the manager is very clearly pushing for a formal warning to be issued. and is not being pleasant.  Rumour has it that the manager is still smarting that the warning she'd issued in March was overturned....

I point out that while it is very good that the employer has identified the "reasonable adjustments" Emma needs, it is at best unfortunate that these have not yet been implemented (not one monthly meeting ever took place, despite many efforts from Emma to sort them out).  I point out the obvious - that it would be unreasonable to discipline Emma for absence in these circumstances - that the important thing is that we get the reasonable adjustments implemented and trust that this will have the desired effect of improving attendance

The grumpy manager then calls an adjournment.  I smile drinking my coffee with the smug satisfaction that a manager who ten minutes ago knew exactly what she was going to do - no longer does!

Ten minutes later we have our decision - no action to be taken


* This is a typical example of how the Equalities Act can be used to help workers
* Workers cannot rely on laws to help them.  In this case, having a representative present forced the employer to consider the law.  The law is usually pointless unless there is somebody there enforcing it for you
* It is naive bordering upon stupid not to be represented in any disciplinary situation