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Hackney debate: How to take the dispute forward
We have received a letter from John Page, branch secretary of Hackney Unison, taking up points made by Bill Mullins concerning the role of the negotiating committee of Hackney UNISON in the current dispute. We reprint John's letter, and below it we carry Bill Mullin's reply.
Can I take this opportunity to thank all Socialist Party members who have worked with the trade unions in Hackney to build our fight against the council's disgraceful cuts package. I am also grateful for the supportive coverage in your newspaper.
I must however correct a glaring inaccuracy in Bill Mullins' strike report. Bill claims that "already the negotiators have accepted that they will negotiate on the implementation of lower terms and conditions".
As a member of that negotiating committee I am angered at the inaccuracy of Bill's report. The negotiating committee meet weekly with management, and there are further meetings of sub groups. These include a working group on life-and-limb cover for strike days, (convened at our insistence) and a group attempting to force the council to lift redundancy notices that have been unlawfully served on our members.
Written reports of these meetings are distributed to our members who have overwhelmingly approved the approach taken by our negotiating team.
Our position is simple, we will meet with management at any time to discuss any proposals they have, however unpalatable. Bill seems to have confused meeting with management with accepting from management.
Management do not want to meet with us, but have been forced to. It would be wholly counter-productive for us to let management off the hook by refusing to meet and explore their proposals.
We will use any opportunity at our disposal, including the threat of legal action. It is precisely because our members believe that we have been prepared to use every possible avenue, that they have had the confidence to vote for and then take strike action.
There will be further strike action in Hackney, and we have already built an impressive alliance between council workers and residents.
Despite our role in negotiations, we have consistently told our members that this dispute will be won or lost through industrial action. Bill appears to have brought a pre-concieved formula to his interpretation of this dispute.
His misguided comments can only undermine confidence, by creating the suspicion that there is something that our members are not being told.
Unison Branch Secretary, Hackney.
Bill Mullins replies:
The Socialist welcomes John Page's letter. Where we make mistakes we have no problem in correcting them.
John is wrong however when he says that "I have a preconceived formula regarding this dispute" or that I have assumed that the dispute "is going to lose and wants a ready-made political critique in advance". Nothing could be further from the truth.
John accepts our members have played a key role both as UNISON branch officers and as Hackney tenants in building this dispute. Indeed, our own members' livelihoods are on the line. We have only one interest and that is ensuring the dispute's success.
My concern regarding the negotiators' position was based on a letter written to chief executive Max Caller by Jim Flood, Secretary of the negotiating team, that the unions were willing "to reaffirm our commitment to negotiation on the local implementation of single status."
The national and provisional agreements (including the single status agreement) are a minimum set of terms and conditions. Hackney workers enjoy conditions over and above these. If the council agreed to apply the national agreement this would mean widespread cuts in their pay and conditions.
Max Caller has made it clear that this is what he wants. I think it is incumbent in a letter from trade unions to the management, that inevitably becomes a public document, to make it clear that the unions are not prepared to go down this road.
Jim Flood's letter, unfortunately, gives the impression that the union side is prepared to make concessions to the employers.
John says that there was no such intention and that they are relying on a "protection" clause in the agreement which protects local terms and conditions, which are better than the national agreement.
But the letter did not say this. John says this was for tactical reasons to attempt to at least bring management into negotiations. If that were the case then he might have a point, but it is clear that some on the trade union negotiating body are prepared to make concessions.
If that was not the case why is there opposition to the idea of democratic control over negotiations. Why did John himself not support the resolution to the UNISON branch committee proposed by Brian Debus, the chairman, calling for democratic accountability?
In The Socialist 12 January 2001: