unions

#IWMD 16 – 28 April Remember the Dead:Fight for the Living

It’s 6.00 am and the radio alarm wakes you up to start another day, you shower, think about the day ahead.

Think about what was discussed at work the day before, think about what you have to do before you get to work. Perhaps you have to drop-off the kids at school, get a birthday card, make an appointment to get that boiler fixed.

Time is getting on,  breakfast, if there is time, say your good byes and then you are on your way to work.

Planning out what needs to be done, where you have to be and hoping that this is the day you get around to that task that’s been on your list for what seems like forever.

Then, the phone rings and there is the start of one of the most difficult conversations that someone has ever had ‘Could I speak to….., I’m sorry to tell you….’

I don’t know if that is how the day began, or how someone received the news that their loved one, partner, husband, wife, father, mother, friend or relation had gone to work and wouldn’t be coming back.

But I can imagine that such conversations took place.

Figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in the year up to 2015, 142 people died in the course of their work.

Behind these numbers we can see that most fatalities took place for those working in construction where 35 people died, in agriculture 33 people died, in manufacturing 16 people died and there was one death in mining and quarrying.

Although, in most sectors the figures have stayed the same or are improving the figure for services, which includes deaths associated with railways is increasing with 51 deaths which is 21% higher than the rate for the past five years.

The figures produced by the HSE also include those for members of the public who died in relations to accidents connected to work and show that there are 123 people who died including 21 (17%) occurring on railways. Suicides are included in this figure but the way that suicides are reported has changed.

The increase in deaths for those working in services underlines concerns recently expressed by the TUC.

Over a ten-year period 2009/10 to 2019/20 the HSE will see its budget almost halved.

Such a cut in funding casts real doubt that the HSE will be able to achieve what it sets out in a new strategy called “Helping Great Britain work well”.

Once again workers will come to rely on Union Health & Safety reps to ensure that their places of work are safe environment to work in.

That is why this Thursday,  on International Workers Memorial Day around the world many of us will gather to remember those who have died in the workplace and to pay tribute to the work done by Union Health & Safety Reps.

I will as I have for the last few years be attending the memorial event at Bonnyrigg, Midlothian.

But, this year I will be attending an additional event on Sunday 1st May at the Miners’ Memorial in Danderhall where a plaque will be unveiled to remember those that died at the Woolmet Colliery.

47 people died at Woolmet including on 12 April 1918, Christina Clark who was 16 year old.

At both those events I will take a few minutes to reflect upon those who left for work, thinking about the day ahead, but never to return.

The details of the events I have mentioned above are:-

Bonnyrigg

Thursday , 28 April, 12.30, Michael McGahey memorial, George V Park , Bonnyrigg, EH19 2AD. Commemorative address will be given by Ryan Boyle, Vice-Chair of the STUC Youth Committee

Danderhall

Sunday, 1 May, 1.00 pm, Miners’ Memorial, Danderhall. More information can be found here.

International Workers Memorial Day Events

A number of events are taking place around the UK and can be details can be found here.

 

 

 

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Less than 0.5%

In a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament on employment (30 Sept) Alex Rowley MSP, Scottish Labour Deputy Leader, set out Scottish Labour’s ambition that everyone who can work must be given the skills and support to work, to earn a wage and to have decent terms and conditions.

Modern Apprenticeships are a key part of tackling unemployment in Scotland, however one of the main issues that any incoming Labour administration at Holyrood will need to tackle is the lack of disabled people who are part of this scheme.

Apprenticeships had been in decline for years when in the late 1990’s Modern Apprenticeships were first introduced, from a starting point of around 8,000 in 1998 by March 2013, there were more than 35,000 people going through the scheme. The aim of the Scottish Government is that 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships will start each year between 2011 and March 2016.

The union movement has been important in how Modern Apprenticeship schemes have been developed in workplaces across a number of different sectors. Unions have played a positive role in ensuring decent terms and conditions and in some cases have offered a mentoring role through Union Learning Reps.

Though the scheme was intended to target 16-24 year olds around 23% of Modern Apprentices are over 25, so the scheme can provide a valuable route for those looking to return to the workplace.

So, overall the Modern Apprenticeship scheme has been viewed as a positive initiative welcomed both by employers and unions.

However, more needs to be done to ensure that disabled people are involved.

The figures for people declaring a disability and participating in the scheme are less than 0.5% of all placements this compares to a figure of around 8% in the age group (16-24) that Modern Apprenticeships are targeted at.

In stark numerical terms, figures published in 2013 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland, showed that only 74 disabled had taken up the 26,000 placements available.

By any measure a pretty shocking statistic.

If this issue is to be tackled meaningfully then Labour will need to form a coalition with groups representing the disabled, the STUC and employers.

Such a coalition can build upon a lot of the good work that is already being done in this area and implement practical steps to address this issue.

Three initiatives that such a coalition may wish to consider are:-

  • Ensure that disabled people are a part of any working groups that make policy on disability issues;
  • Increase investment in the Access to Work Scheme – figures produced by Inclusion Scotland show that this could be self-financing;
  • Target equality and diversity training towards recruitment and selection, using Union Learning Reps to support this.

Around this time last year welfare minister Lord Freud said that someone who has mental health problems or is disabled might not be worth paying the minimum wage, comments he rightly later apologised for.

A year from now I hope that in Scotland we will be making real progress towards disabled people making up at least 8% of Modern Apprenticeships and more workplaces can benefit from the positive contribution that disabled people can make.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to The 80’s

There has been a lot of talk recently that politics is moving back to the 1980’s, most of this has been in relation to the Labour Leadership elections.

However, for me, the party that really looks like driving things back to an era of 1980’s style industrial strife are the Tories.

In their Trade Union Bill we see an attack on Trade Unions that seeks to marginalise and limit their ability to represent and protect their members.

The Bill seeks to introduce turnout thresholds on ballots and to allow employers to draft in temporary workers to cover for striking workers.

Whilst these proposals grab most of the headlines the bill also includes measures that will have an impact on how unions collect their subscriptions, the information unions will need to give to employers about plans to strike and restrictions on peaceful picketing.

All of these proposals risk creating an atmosphere and climate in industrial relations last seen during the miners strike and when union membership was banned at GCHQ.

Things have moved on from the mid-80’s.

Since then we’ve seen unions take forward workplace learning through the introduction of union learning reps. I’ve seen at first hand how they’ve assisted workers in gaining new skills, helped to break down the barriers between different grades through arranging courses for learning languages and built up the confidence of individuals so that they go on to take on new roles.

Unions also play a key role when it comes to Health & Safety and in many workplaces take the lead in promoting a positive safety culture which leads to the reduction of trips, slips and near misses and workers having to take time off a win, win situation for both employees and the employer.

The majority of my time spent as a union rep hasn’t been about going out on strike, its been about helping people with different issues and negotiating policies with management.

When strike action is taken, it is usually because there is very little alternative.

Take for instance members of my own union the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

PCS members at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) are currently involved in a dispute that is essentially about fairness and trying to get a level playing field for everyone working there.

The background to the dispute is that NMS management arbitrarily imposed a change to a weekend shift rate,  which means that if you were employed after January 2011, you won’t receive a weekend shift rate that can amount to between £2000 and £3000 a year.

In effect there is a two-tier workforce, these are low paid workers and therefore this shift rate makes a massive difference to those working there.

Disputes like this where the union involved are fighting for fair terms and conditions for all will be more difficult to organise should this bill be passed.

The Tory party have never been friends of the trade union movement but when even David Davis MP, a former Tory leadership candidate describes elements of this bill as being like something out of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, then it should be really time for them to think again.

If you would like to sign a petition against this bill you can do it here.

 

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What Are We Gonna Do Now?

So, as it turned out the polls were right about Scotland and the two seats which I was campaigning in, East Lothian and Midlothian couldn’t escape the national trend and both returned SNP MPs.

The SNP are to be congratulated on the result that they’ve achieved.

The  swing to the  SNP across Scotland is unparalleled and their campaign seems to have been played just right.

In the Labour party we’ve had our time to commiserate with our candidates, both  Kenny Young and Fiona O’Donnell  fought what I thought were excellent campaigns. The party in Midlothian and East Lothian was energised as never before and we spoke to thousands of voters.

But ultimately, the harsh reality is that we lost the election in Scotland and wider than that across the UK.

There have been endless comments, discussions as to why the Labour Party in Scotland is where it is today. In this post I’m not offering a definitive answer to that question, it’s just really to record my own experience, some of the discussions I’ve had and some observations on the issues that seem to be emerging:-

  • Post Election Discussions –  The discussion that sticks in my mind the most following the election was with a friend who isn’t a member of any political party.  They take a general interest in politics and vote regularly, usually, but not always for the SNP. So, I wasn’t surprised that the first time I saw them after the election that they confirmed  they had voted SNP, what did surprise me, and I think also surprised them was that aside from me, they didn’t know anyone else who had voted Labour. This is someone in  quite a well paid job and who’s circle of friends includes a number of what would be termed as being in professional occupations. This underlined for me the extent to which the SNP campaign had resonated amongst voters regardless of class or employment status.
  • Brand Politics – As much as we may not like it politics is to some extent about marketing, a great ad campaign will have a memorable slogan, logo, and capture the public imagination. Ring any bells with what we’ve just seen? One measure of the SNPs success can be seen in the way in which some local businesses now think nothing of putting up an SNP poster during the election campaign, or displaying a sticker with the stronger for Scotland slogan. Clearly any concerns that to display your political leanings will lose you business, doesn’t seem to feature as much of a risk.
  • Just because I vote SNP doesn’t mean I want independence’ – I think that it has probably taken a few of us in the Labour party a while to understand this. Back to one of my post-election discussions,  maybe we have spent too long arguing about the constitution, obviously  we have to respond to what our political opponents are saying, but here’s a thought, maybe the SNP are quite happy for us to talk about the constitution, rather than to focus on their record in government? The other issue linked to this is that the SNP are seen by many as being competent at what they do. I think we need to understand this, saying that people have somehow been duped or conned into voting for the SNP is going to divert us from where we should be. We need to win the trust of voters again, show that we are credible as a party through our policies and the way we speak to voters.
  • Create an independent Labour Party – Lots of reasons are being put forward to do this. Personally, this leaves me in something of a quandary. One of the reasons I joined the Labour Party was that it was the party that would fight for social justice throughout the UK and that the expression of that solidarity was that we were a UK-wide party. If we created an independent party are we giving up on that and admitting that boat has sailed?
  • Trade Unions – There’s been quite a bit of talk about the influence unions have on the Labour Party,  in my view our links with the trade union movement are on the whole a positive thing. The latest Office of National Statistics data certainly highlights some of the challenges facing union’s today, but it also demonstrates their successes and diversity. The issues that unions highlight are also issues that we can campaign on and help inform the policies that we want to develop to challenge inequality.

The Scottish Parliament elections are less than a year away, so we don’t have much time for reflection.

Between now and then we need to convince voters with a clear strong message that we are a credible alternative to the SNP.

We also need to set out clearly what we stand for and articulate that in an effective way.

For me that message has to be about challenging inequality and working to make a positive difference to people in their day-to-day lives  – whether that’s through educational opportunities, doing what we can to create better conditions for employment or improving services.

But, we need to set that out in a positive and attractive way with policies that underpin those aspirations.

That’s the campaign I hope to fight in Midlothian North and Musselburgh in these coming months.

Do The Right Thing

The Beatles sang about it, the Rolling Stones left the country and the Who apart from Keith Moon, seemed to hang about and get on with paying them.

What am I talking about?

Tax.

I’m an avid listener of music and reader of rock biographies, many of these about bands from the 60’s and 70’s and in a week when I’ve been reading about the Who, tax avoidance and tax evasion has been hitting the headlines, which all goes to show that taxation has been a long running political issue.

I think it was a couple of years ago at an STUC conference in Edinburgh, about how to create a fairer Scotland that thanks to Stephen Boyd, STUC Assistant Secretary, I learned that UK tax rates in the 70’s reached 83% under Labour and then the top rate was reduced to 60% under the first Thatcher government.

The issue of taxation has come to the fore again as we have learned about HSBC and the extent they may have been involved in facilitating tax avoidance schemes.

With less than 100 days to go to the general election, tax has again become a major political issue. Both the Conservative party’s view on tax avoidance and David Cameron’s judgement on the appointment of Lord Green as a minister have been called into question.

This week we discovered that HMRC had secured 1 conviction and £135 million in unpaid tax, on the face of it this appears to be less than impressive when compared to the performance of the French tax authorities who have reclaimed £200 million from 3,000 named accounts and the Spanish £180 million from 2,900.

I am no expert on how the tax authorities are resourced or staffed in France or Spain, but as a union activist in the public sector I have seen the cuts that the current coalition government have brought about in the UK Civil Service.

Last year my own union, PCS, commissioned a report by Richard Murphy director of Tax Research UK called The Tax Gap Report. Click here to learn more.

This report highlights that in just over a decade staff in HMRC will have been cut from 92,000 in 2005 to an expected 52,000 in 2016, a cut of nearly 43%.

Cuts on such a scale must surely have an impact on the effectiveness of HMRC to be able to discharge its duties.

And whilst we can urge the companies and individuals engaged in such schemes that there is a moral imperative to do the right thing, all the evidence would suggest that this will not be enough.

It was good to see the Labour Party take the initiative on this issue during the past week, making clear that Labour welcomed proposals from charities and campaigning organisations for an “anti-tax dodging bill”, which would make it harder for big companies to use tax havens and clamping down on tax breaks for big companies.

But, fundamental to this debate is making sure that HMRC has the staff and resources to carry out the work that it needs to and we should not lose sight of that.

The dividing lines and differences are becoming clearer in this election as we see Labour looking to bring tax avoiders to account, while the Conservatives talk about withdrawing benefits, if you are deemed to be obese.

It wasn’t any of the bands that I mentioned at the start of this blog that sang ‘the weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger’ but the Jam in Funeral Pyre, their apocalyptic vision of the future.

Increasingly it would appear that the General Election of 2015 is going to be defined as a choice between standing up against vested interest and the Establishment or about whether we make the UK a fairer society.