Who Watches The Watchmen?

Musings from the Mess Table

You may have seen in the press and media somewhere, the ‘#WeAre5FRS’ campaign, celebrating that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has reached it’s fifth birthday. And like most toddlers, it’s just learning to walk after crawling and stumbling, often incoherently, and not without a few accidents along the way.

At the outset we had 8 Fire Brigades, each doing things very differently, effectively having firefighters around the country on different rates of pay for doing the same job. So we all had to be brought on to the same terms and conditions, and quite rightly, the FBU said that they wanted this to be done to the highest level and that nobody should suffer any detriment as a result.

The negotiations on the ‘Harmonisation of Uniformed Terms and Conditions’ began way back but only really started around 2 years ago. When I say started, I mean that the FBU…

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Striking for Equality

Last week the STUC hosted an event on strike-ready unions. It was an energising day hearing from union organisers about how they are taking industrial action and winning.

From the inspirational Bifab ‘work-in’ led by GMB and Unite workers; to CWU’s threshold defying ballot for strike action; the EIS FELA college dispute; PCS’s consultative ballot; and the recent UCU strike, it seems workers are increasingly willing to stand up, fight for their rights and withdraw their labour.

The link between trade union membership, collective bargaining and inequality is well-established. However it is not simply through having high membership levels and collective bargaining coverage that unions reduce inequality. The reality is that without the threat of strike action, workers power is limited. So while we need high density unions, we also need active, high participation unions.

gini graph

The table above shows that as the number of strikes has fallen, the Gini coefficient has increased. This doesn’t mean that in order to reduce inequality all unions should go out on strike. Indeed, low membership levels are inherently linked to declining industrial action. However, it does suggest that it is important for unions to think about how they effectively organise large numbers of workers to be able to take industrial action in the workplace, rather than simply a servicing offer for workers.

Trade Unions Key To Tackling Poverty & Inequality

New figures out yesterday show poverty & inequality in Scotland on the rise.

In Scotland, in 2016/17, more than one million people live in poverty. That’s one in five of our population. The likelihood of being in poverty is higher still for women, lone parents, ethnic minorities, and families with a disabled person.

In-work poverty is also on the rise, increasing from 440,000 in 2011-2014 to 540,000 in 2014-17.

That paid work is no longer a protection against poverty should concern us all. So how can we address this?

I’ve written previously about the historical link between trade union membership and inequality in the UK. But the more recent creep of rising in-work poverty can also be seen to be associated with falling trade union membership levels.

fs graph

Falling trade union membership levels isn’t a pre-determined scenario. Membership only began to fall in 1979 due to a concerted and deliberate political attack by Government and elites. It can be undone through workplace organising and political support from outside the workplace.

Rising poverty isn’t predetermined either – it is driven by low-paid, precarious work; high housing costs and a diminishing welfare state. Yes addressing these issues requires policy change from Government but, as the link to trade unions shows, we also need institutions and political movements that fight for that change.

Scotland has a Child Poverty Act which aims to eradicate child poverty by 2030. If we are to meet these important targets we need to build the kind of political movements that can fundamentally transform the power dynamics of our economy.

Positively, there are a range of inspiring efforts underway. Better than Zero, Unite Hospitality and the Bakers Union are taking on rogue employers and organising workers in low-paid sectors; a number of other trade unions are taking sustained industrial action over fair work, and winning; Living Rent are fighting exorbitant rent increases and building a genuinely tenants-led movement; and a number of community and anti-poverty groups are led by those with first-hand experience of poverty. Let’s learn the lessons from these organisations and movements. Not to stop making the case for policy change but to ensure that it is led and sustained by those that need it most.

 

Mary Barbour’s Army

We believe it is overdue that Mary Barbour be remembered in this way. Not just becausemb001 of the successful working-class campaign she led, but also because she’s a woman and women haven’t been given a proper place in history books or, indeed, in our street accolades. Therefore, it is particularly pertinent that this statue will be unveiled on International Womens Day.

However, women are still not given their rightful place in today’s workplaces. We need look no further than the ongoing equal-pay campaigns.

Mary Barbour – and the army she led in 1915 – recognised the importance of housing costs as a political issue. That’s not too different to today. Private rent has increased in some of areas of the city by 36% in the past 5 years. We haven’t seen wages increase to match the cost of living since austerity began, so clearly 2018 Scotland isn’t too different.

The Living Rent campaign is now working with trade union campaigns, such as Better than Zero, to highlight the link between wages and rent in creating culture of precarious lives. The campaigns have been at the forefront of challenging unscrupulous landlords and exploitative bosses; winning concessions from both over the past two years and, similarly to MB’s campaign, grabbing the attention of Parliament.

In Glasgow, the Council are now looking at introducing rent pressure zones, partly due to the work of the Living Rent tenants union; and the Scottish Government today announced that they will be refocussing efforts to implement a fair work charter following Better than Zero’s work in highlighting employers not paying staff who couldn’t make to work during storm.

All these things are linked. Thankfully, we have examples such as Mary Barbour and the rent strike to show that working class women can lead fearlessly lead campaigns, challenge those in power, change the law, and ultimately transform the balance of power in society.

Sarah Collins
Policy Officer

Step Aside, Brother!

On International Women’s Day, our Vice-President and PCS National Political Officer, Lynn Henderson, has a call to men in our movement – step aside, brother!

What with all this “discovery” of embedded sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, one thing is sure, time is called on underrepresentation of women in the trade union movement.

There are 5.5 million unionised workers in the UK. Women make up half the workforce. So why are they still so under-represented in union structures and in union visibility?

The trade union movement collectively represents and gives voice to working people from all walks of life. Yet the stereotypical trade unionist presents as an older, blue-collar, straight, white, able-bodied man.  How can this be when over the past forty to fifty years, union strength has declined in traditionally male occupied industries, with manufacturing jobs. Union strength has rapidly grown in the public sector where more women occupy a larger part of the workforce.

So where are all the sisters?

Underrepresentation of women in trade union leadership and structures is a serious blight. In these times of heightened individual awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, underrepresentation of women is actually dangerous. Without collective representation individual women suffering the abuse of power feel helpless, isolated and victimised. The #MeToo social media campaign is not enough to challenge every day workplace power abuse. The time is now to dig out and eradicate the blight of underrepresentation.

As a union, PCS collectively bargains for a female dominated industrial sector, civil and public services. Over 60% of our members are women. Yet, even here, with a long serving woman president, and three women Vice Presidents, our activist base at large does not reflect that membership. In fact it is almost a direct reversal of the ratio.

This too is true of most unions. Not only are women significantly under-represented, black, disabled, LGBT and young members are almost invisible in sections of our movement.

If under-representation is a reflection of our unequal society, it is no excuse! Workers deserve better from their movement. If we are serious about strengthening the power of workers, then our structures must reflect the society we wish for, not the unequal one we are in.

Thus far, few in the labour and trade union movement disagree with me on this. Yet, little changes. Most of our good committed leaders, reps and activists in position do not think that it is they who have the power or individual responsibility to make that change. I want to challenge that.

In PCS, our union advocate role as a route in for new activists from more diverse backgrounds. Other unions give the role different names. If we are successful in recruiting under-represented workers to more active roles, then we hope they succeed to full rep positions over time. Step Aside, Brother however is about a conscious and deeply political choice to accelerate that journey.

So let me be more exact and address the men in our movement directly.

Are you a man occupying multiple Union positions?

Are you a man that has held leading Officer posts for years?

Are you a man who is a regular union conference delegate?

Are you a man who is always first to sign up to a union activity?

Hand up first to speak at meetings, Brother?

Yes? Then I am asking you to Step Aside, Brother.

 

Please don’t be alarmed.

Don’t be threatened.

Don’t think you are not valued, or not wanted in our movement, Brother.

You know you are.

We all benefit because your experience is vast, Brother

We value your tirelessly representation of workers, fighting employer injustice, inequality and discrimination.

We commend the personal sacrifices you make for the collective gains of the workers you represent.

We applaud and thank you for your commitment and your achievements.

You still have much to do, Brother, and much for us to learn from you.

 

This ask is not for you to resign, Jack it in, give up all or step out, Brother.

The ask is for you to Step Aside from just one of your multiple union positions.

And actively mentor an under-represented member into the role.

 

Why you, Brother? Ask yourself:

Is it really necessary or in the best interest of our movement that I hold all these offices?

Is there, perhaps, by stepping aside from just one of my positions, I can create space for and bring on someone on?

Perhaps a woman, black or disabled member, an LGBT or young member in need of a step up?

 

It is not that hard to Step Aside, Brother. Truly it’s not.

It requires foresight, genuine commitment, opportunity and timing.

Step Aside, Brother is no witch hunt or attempt to cull, disempower or punish good brothers for their privilege.

Not at all.

 

Step Aside, Brother does not seek to subvert union democracy, undermine political leadership or “take out” individuals.

Step Aside Brother is a big Ask to men in our movement to make an individual and conscious act to grow the movement for the future.

Step Aside, Brother recognises to valiant effort and genuine leadership.  Most of the greatest displays of leadership witnessed among men in our movement are those that already practice what I am preaching. I am confronted with action in practice everywhere I go. Those brothers that have stepped aside still hold office and influence. The power of those men lies in their politics, not their position. Their Stepping Aside makes way for more leaders and future leaders. We need more men to do this too.

As Vice President of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, I have spoken on many platforms to extend the Step Aside, Brother message. So far, it is received with great interest – from leading Sisters from many different unions. Some of whom say to me the Step Aside message has inspired them to think about how they can give up a position to mentor someone through. That’s great, but it is not sisters we need to make a concerted effort to step aside.

Brothers, think about it. True power is present not when you grasp it and hold on to it, but when you give it to someone else.

 

This post also appears on the Public & Commercial Union’s blog site.

Snow Justice: Hinkley Points to the Power of a Union

As the snow thaws, relations between staff and employers remain frosty in many workplaces over the docking of pay during the weather crisis.

The STUC’s ‘how cold is your boss?’ survey, widely covered over the weekend, made clear that withheld pay was pervasive in hospitality, construction, and other sectors, leading to outrage and anger across Scotland.

Earlier this week the STUC and the Scottish Government agreed that some workers were placed at ‘unnecessary risk through being compelled to travel to work or placed under threat of lost pay’, and have committed to developing a charter focused on the treatment of workers affected by severe weather.

But today Jillian Merchant from Thompsons solicitors pointed out that ‘despite the Scottish Government’s sympathetic words, they have little – if any – power to change the law in this area’.

Meanwhile, she said, the law itself ‘is of very little, if any, assistance to those unable to attend work due to the adverse weather’. This put the law ‘grossly out of step with public opinion’.

It was a demonstration of the strength of feeling last week that the Scottish Government took the position it did, encouraging employers not to deduct wages from workers. But it is clear that the most effective way to ensure that your employer acts reasonably and fairly is by joining a union and taking collective action.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 16.36.36
Workers at Hinkley Point stage a sit-in

Across the UK, where companies have refused to pay staff, workers have taken action in response through their unions – such as the young workers in Livingstone who pressured their fast-food managers to close the store early, and the 500 workers at Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset who staged a sit-in in protest over wage deductions despite being available for work.

As employers can decide to withhold pay, so unions can decide to bargain, ballot members, and ultimately withhold labour. One story of the storm, then, is that where neither government not legal avenues provide routes to redress, trade unions provide the most potent and effective force for justice.

To find out what union you can join, email info [at] stuc.org.uk or message Better than Zero

 

‘I’m Doing Exactly What I Have to Do’

At the UCU rally in Dundee rally on the day the strike began two weeks ago, Dr Kate Cross spoke about the burden that threatens to fall on those who’ve done Everything They are Supposed to Do. Kate’s speech brought the pressures facing young academics to the surface, and brought the Caird Hall audience to its feet. As the industrial action enters its third week we publish the speech and a moving clip.

I’ve been asked to speak about the effect that the proposed pension changes will have on me, as an early career academic. So naturally I’ll start by telling you about my recent trip to the dentist. The only comment she made about the state of my mouth was: “It seems like you’ve been clenching your teeth a lot lately – are you aware of that?”

So I told her about my pension.

I’ve been paying into USS since 2006. I was working as a Teaching Assistant while doing my PhD. I was grateful for this job. I was working full time to earn half of what my graduate peers did, but I was doing what I loved. I took on all the extra tasks that were asked of me – all the things that no-one else wanted to do but would ‘look good on my CV’. And although I didn’t exactly have money to spare each month, I thought I was being really sensible by getting into the pension scheme right away – that this was tough now, but it would pay off later. I was Doing Exactly What I Was Supposed To. Everyone told me so.

After my PhD, there came a few years of 12-month contracts, here and there. I was grateful for those too – especially given that they were full-time. I did everything that was asked of me, even if it wasn’t what I signed up for in the job spec. I volunteered. I did Everything That I Was Supposed To. And I hoped that if I kept Doing Exactly What I Was Supposed To for long enough, and did it well enough, eventually I might get a permanent lectureship. OK, so my first few applications were turned down… and then the next few… but I just needed to hang in there, because although it was tough now it would pay off later.

A few months ago I got that lectureship and oh god, I was grateful! I am one of the lucky ones who didn’t get forced out but was invited to stay. I get to keep Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To. Only now, that pension I was hoping to be able to live on when I’m old is worth… Well, probably about half of what I signed up for, but nobody seems to be quite sure. Now the message is: “Sure, it’s tough now, but stop complaining, you’re too expensive.”

So I’m beginning to wonder about this whole Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To thing. It’s clear that it means precisely nothing to the people who decide how much my labour is worth. So far what it has earned me is the right to keep Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To. For less.

[Continues under video]

So what am I supposed to do now? I am supposed to believe that providing staff with pensions presents an ‘unacceptable risk’ to my employer, while working for the next 35 years with no idea how I’ll support myself if I’m lucky enough to get old is presumably an ‘acceptable’ risk for me. I’m supposed to get on with giving my labour to the university for less than I signed up for, less than they signed up for, less than it’s worth. Preferably with a smile. I’m supposed to be grateful that my situation isn’t worse – as if ‘it could be worse’ is a justification for anything. As if that should shut me up. I assure you I am quite capable of being outraged about pensions AND zero-hours contracts AND pay cuts AND a gender pay gap AND a staggering lack of diversity in academia because these things are all related anyway.

Another thing I’m supposed to do is refrain from taking part in strike action. Because I’m Supposed to ‘think of the students’, as if being taught by anxious and underpaid staff is somehow a good thing for them. As if the future academics among our students aren’t now facing decades of being underpaid, undervalued, and financially insecure.

So, like you, I have decided not to do Exactly What I’m Supposed To Do. I’m going to do Exactly What I Have To Do instead. And that is remain on strike until a resolution is reached to treat University staff like we’re actually worth something.

Before I go, I want to say something about mental health.

This situation is hard. Contemplating poverty in your old age is anxiety-inducing. Being told ‘suck it up, it’s not our problem’ by your employer is a bit of a knock. And when we consider it in the broader context of what’s going on in the sector, or in society in general, it can be very frightening.

It’s also hard because many of us have friends and family who… have opinions that we find difficult to understand. They might find our decision to strike rather baffling. Nasty things might be said. Trust might be damaged. Some of us are finding that our social relationships are suffering at a time when we need them the most.

And it’s hard to deal with a sudden increase in financial pressure. Like the kind you get when you have 14 days’ pay docked.

If you wanted to design a situation to test people’s mental health, then we’d be in a fairly good model of it. So if you’re struggling then I would like to say that you’re not alone. And if you’re struggling then I would like to say that that’s important, and it deserves to be taken seriously. And I don’t have anything like a solution, just a plea: please do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe and well for today. Everything else will just have to wait until tomorrow.