Friday 21 August 2015

John Burgess - Why UNISON need an activist as General Secretary

The local branch secretary of UNISON John Burgess is standing for General Secretary of UNISON, the Union for public service workers. As I am not a member of the the Union and I have minimal contact with the membership, you may ask why I have any interest in the matter? The answer is quite simple. At the right hand side of this blog, you will see the blog archive. You will see that the blog started back in 2008. What inspired a musician/ business owber to start writing a blog, you may wonder? Well the answer is simple. I started writing a blog for the Barnet Times newspaper. Originally it was supposed to be about local music. However at the time my dearly beloved Mum was still alive. She was in very poor health, having had a lifetime of illness. She survived diptheria and scarlett fever in the 1930's which wrecked her health, stomach cancer in 1970, which wrecked her appetite and a major stroke in 2000, which robbed her of speech and mobility. By the middle of the decade, she relied on council services for meals on wheels, a panic alarm and various other services. Despite the challenges, she was a fighter and lived on her own, in a purpose modified flat a few doors up the road from me.

In 2007, Barnet Council outsourced the meals on wheels contract. The stress of what happened, I believe contributed to my mothers death in 2008 from another massive stroke. Until the outsourcing, she could set her watch by the delivery time of her meal at noon. The quality of food was good and the staff were attentive and friendly. If there was a problem, they would often help her. If someone else on the round had a problem and they were late they would let us know. Then in April 2007, the council let the contract to Sodexho and all of the noce people who delivered her dinner went. This greatly upset my mum, who was 82 at the time. She had built up a relationship with them and trusted them. As the date approached she got more stressed and more frantic. We tried to tell her that there would be no change, it was just different people, doing the same job. How wrong we were. On day one of the new contract, no dinner arrived. My mother, who had difficulty communicating and was prone to panic attacks, went into meltdown. The lunch never arrived. The next day it arrived, stone cold, at 5pm. It turned out that Sodexho had budgeted on each driver delivering 40 meals in a three hour period. That is one every three minutes. For many of the old folk on the round, opening the door would take three minutes, let alone the journeytime between deliveries. In short, the whole scheme was a calamity. I saw first hand the stress this caused. I emailed our local councillors and screamed to the rafters. The council responded by making my mum the first drop.

Whilst this fixed our problem, I was acutely aware that some other old dears, who didn't have stroppy kids had been pushed even further back. I felt awful, but given my motheres fragile state, what could I do. When I started writing the blog, I became aware that every cut, every outsourcing had victims. Not people just a bit inconvenienced, but people who suffer. You may think "Why should an old dear not wait five hours for a cold meal". Well if you went to a restaurant and your meal was fiv hours late and cold, what would you do. If you were wondering, my mother paid for the service. In fact she paid twice as she'd spent her life paying taxes, in the hope of a welfare state looking after her when she was old and infirm. My mum was lucky, she had money and she had kids who were prepared to put themselves out for her. She did however value a degree of independence. As she saw it, she paid for her meals on wheels and the service had been trashed. She was livid. As she put it to me at the time "What sort of people make old people wait, starving hungry, for hours on end, to save a few quid". Due to the ravages of her stroke, my mother couldn't cook. She could prepare a sandwich, but my wife cooked her an evening meal and my kids took it up on a tray. Sadly we were not in a position to make lunch. Following my mothers cancer surgery in 1970, she physically couldn't go too long between meals. She was careful about her nutrition and wanted proper food. The quality of the Sodexho meals was appalling, compared to the previous offerings. Every corner that could be cut to save a few pennies had been. In the end, the service settled down, when the council realised what a terrible blunder they had made and forced the contractors to up their game, but there was a six month period, when every day there was a tale of woe. Our dog became fat as my mother insisted we feed the dog any meals that were inedible "I've paid for these, so they cannot be wasted" she insisted. The dog didn't mind, but the situation was despicable.

So that was how I came to the conclusion that outsourcing of public services was a bad idea. When I started my blog on the local paper, I started writing about the mess Barnet Council were making of social care. I started to mention how their polices were hurting the most vulnerable people. The people we love and care about. Typically blogs on the local paper were read by 15-20 people. All of a sudden, my blog was appearing in the top ten read list. This did not go unnoticed. The Tory Council started putting pressure on the paper to get rid of me. In October 2008, they buckled. Councillor Brian Coleman and Robert Rams, who lead the campaign celebrated that they'd ended my blogging career, boasting to their friends. In response, I set up the Barnet Eye.

Much to my amazement, hundreds of local people were shocked and disgusted by what happened. The Barnet Eye immediately started getting a couple of hundred hits a day. I paid a trip to a council meeting and there I met the local UNISON convenor John Burgess. John immediately stated that he was disgusted at what happened and offered any support he could give. I told John I was OK and I was pleased to be able to write a blog without interference. I immediately recognised that John was a man of immense strength and integrity. Both Tory and Labour councillors treated him respectfully and he was always well briefed. Around that time, the Tory council started pushing the one Barnet Program (then called Future Shape). In August 2008, my mum had died and at her funeral, I vowed to do everything in my power to spare any other elderly person the stress she'd suffered at the hands of uncaring bean counters. I vowed to hold the council to account. The One Barnet program was a mass outsourcing scheme and I immediately saw the dangers(the clip below is John talking about a half day strike in 2011. It is just one example of Johns clear headed, pragmatic and sensible approach, whilst being an extremely effective organiser).

I contacted John Burgess, explained my view and we agreed to work together in every way we could to spare any other vulnerable people the stress my mum endured. John also has an elderly mum who has suffered from council cuts, albiet not in Barnet, so we had a common cause. As a result of my blogging activities, other blogs started up in Barnet. These became known as the Fantastic Five (myself, Vicky Morris, Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable and Mr Mustard). As each blog started, we'd make sure they knew who we were and how they could get in touch. We worked together, co-ordinating joint blogs. We'd also work with John, who in turn was able to put us in touch with experts such as Professor Dexter Whitfield, a world leading academic who is a respected expert in the field of outsourcing (watch this clip from 2011 of John talking about a

The next move of Barnet Council was to outsource parking and abolish Pay and Display parking meters. This hit local traders. With assistance from John, meetings were set up with local traders leaders such as Helen Michael in North Finchley. Helen had always been a Tory until Barnet Council torpedoed her business. It was ironic that the only person who had any sympathy was the local Union Leaders. The Council then launched an illegal hike in Pay and Display charges. John facilitated bringing them on board in our now growing community campaign. Next the Tories attacked the Librarys. I was outraged and in 2010 kicked off the Save Barnets Libraries Campaign. John facilitated leaflets and street stalls. As the level of the assault on the people of Barnet became clear, I was chatting to Charles Honderick, a young American director of trade films and commercials. Charles said it would be good to make a documentary film about this for Youtube. I concurred, having dabbled in film. I mentioned it to John Burgess, who threw his weight behind the project. John even got award winning director Ken Loach to make a guest appearance. We shot the film on a shoestring, interviewing people from all the campaigns. When John saw the film, he declared we needed a proper premiere and hired the Phoenix Cinema. Over 500 people from the community turned up and it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. People left the cinema saying they had never realised what was going on. The film helped launch the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, a highly influential pressure group. Many members joined after seeing the film. The film was shown at the Houses of Parliament, sponsored by MP John McDonald and at UNISON conferences in Bournemouth and Edinburgh. It was a great success and a classic example of how local people and Trades Unions can come together for the common good (here is the film).
There were many successes in the many campaigns which BAPS supported. The most notable was the 2012 GLA election. The local Tory encumbant, Brian Coleman was also a Barnet Councillor and had been responsible for parking in the Borough. He had a majority of over 20,000. On the GLA he was a key henchman of Boris and had lead a long campaign against the FBU. A huge campaign supported by all the campaign groups, resulted in Coleman being ejected and Labours Andrew Dismore replacing him. In the 2014 council elections, many of Colemans key henchmen in Barnet, such as library closer Robert Rams were ejected. Sadly the Tories were not ejected by the electorate, having their majority on council cut to one. In areas where BAPS were active, huge Tory majorities were reversed, but the Blairite local Labour group refused to work with BAPS or engage with bloggers, to harness their efforts. At a meeting set up by John Burgess to engage the bloggers with the campaign to oust the Tories in 2014, Blairite Labour leader Alison Moore suggested that the best way bloggers could help the campaign was to knovk on doors on election day. John had suggested that Labour supply bloggers with information on rallies and key campaign themes. As this blog gets 20-30,000 hits per month, it is clear that this would be a sensible strategy, but to Johns amazement, the Blairites refused to engage, beyond asking for help leafletting and door knocking.

Given that Barnets fantastic five bloggers have regularly been interviewed by TV, Radio and National Press, this was on the face of it inexplicable. The same Blairite Labour group on the Council never supported the campaign to stop the One Barnet outsourcing. Even more inexplicable was their support of a statement, when the Your Choice Barnet outsourcing of adult services failed and needed a £££million bailout, they signed up to a clause saying an in house option was not to be considered.

The whole One Barnet outsourcing was shown to have been implemented illegally in a High Court case Maria Nash, a heavily disabled lady launched a judicial review of the process. Maria successfully argued that the process had not properly consulted. The judge in the case agreed with the arguments put forward by Maria. John gave Maria much moral support through a difficult time.  Bloggers and experts such as Dexter Whitfield had helped Maria put her case together and John gave much advice on who to speak to and useful background information, giving up his free time at evenings and weekends. Sadly the judge also found that the challenge was out of time on a technicality. Given that the Council had been shown to have acted illegally, one would have thought that the Blairite Labour group would have gone at the Tory regime hammer and tong, but they simply acquiesed.

In the course of my dealings with John Burgess, it has become clear to me that John is the most politically astute figure I've met in Barnet. If John passes an opinion, it invariably turns out to be correct. The One Barnet program is delivering nothing like the savings promised. Even cemetries have fallen into awful disrepair as a result of the contractors seeking to squeeze every penny of profit out of the contract. There are dozens of other examples of where John has been proven right. I can't think of any where he's been proven wrong ( a short film I made last year to illustrate the neglect of Hendon cemetary under the Capita regime).
But this is only half of the story of why I believe John should be elected General Secretary of UNISON. The other half of the story is that if UNISON do not elect a campaigner, who understands the fight at the coalface and has shown themselves capable of reaching out beyond the traditional support base of the unions, it will be destroyed by the Tory government. The Tories have made no secret of their intention to neuter the Unions. I have spoken to several leading Barnet Tories. They believe Unions do have a role in the UK. They believe that Unions should be staff associations, which market pensions and insurance to members and give them counselling when their dog dies. They believe they have no role in negotaiting terms and conditions and no role in protecting members rights. Of all the UK Unions, I believe UNISON is the most important on a human basis. This is because it is the largest Union involved in the care of the elderly and vulnerable. What these uber right Tories do not realise is that any of us can suffer illness, disability and many will become infirm in old age. It is all very well to hammer the t&C's of staff, force pay cuts on caring staff and employ dodgy contractors to run care homes and provide support. The trouble is that if you pay the  minimum wage and impose harsh T&C's on staff, then they leave. The vulnerable need continuity of care. This is called basic human compassion. It is easy for Councils to squeeze cash savings from care budgets, by cutting staff renumeration packages, but ultimately the most vulnerable, people like my mum, are the people who suffer. The only organisation that offer those such as my mum any protection are UNISON. The fight to protect staff and their T&C's is not just about ensuring staff are well paid. It is about ensuring that carers have a career and are not forced out. It is about ensuring that they can do what they are paid to do, which is care for vulnerable people. Even George Osborne has woken up to the fact that a non living wage is bad for the economy. Sadly being a Tory zealot, he hasn't passed legislation to protect the T&C's of the council staff. Osborne could implement a living wage in councils, simply by freeing up the cash, but he chooses not to.

If UNISON carry on electing bureaucrats, people who do not understand the coalface, the Tories will destroy it. Whilst I have ultimate respect for John and the many trade union convenors I met at the conferences we took the film to in Bournemouth and Edinburgh, I was struck by the lack of support John Burgess had from the Bureaucrats who run the Union. It was clear to me that if UNISON had given Johns campaign 100% support with full legal and logistical backup in the One Barnet fight, thi could have been stopped before it started. This would have served as a warning to other Uber right councils planning to go down the same path. Union such as UNISON have huge resources, but the bureaucrats who run it are not prepared to commit these to fighting outsourcing. Whether they are simply happy to manage the gradual decline in influence of the Trades Union movement, or whether they simply like trousering large salaries for doing nothing I don't know. UNISON needs a kick up its arse. It needs to get back to doing what it should be doing. It should be fighting for the members. It should be leading campaigns to halt outsourcing. It should be involved with community campaigns to protect the vulnerable. I made a film on a shoestring, with a US film director. It received national acclaim. It beggars belief that UNISON have not taken this concept further. We took the film to their conference and they saw what could be achieved. The current regime have sat on their hands and seen council after council hammer their UNISON employees. I know for a fact that if John Burgess was general secretary, UNISON would be a different beast. George Osborne and his cronies would find that they would be held to account when thier fellow travellers attacked social care.

What beggars belief is that everyone gets it when they see their loved ones being mistreated by Council bureacracies. Everyone has mums, dads, grannies, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends who are vulnerable and need care. Any of us could find ourselves struck down. Three weeks before my mum had a stroke in 2000, she'd been living it up on a cruise in the med, not a care in the world. She was transformed to a housebound old lady who couldn't communicate in the bat of an eyelid. It can happen to you, me or anyone. We all need someone like John Burgess to stand up and fight for the staff who care for those members of society when we cant fight ourselves.

For John personally, there have been costs. Recently his car was vandalised and he received homophobic abuse for his support of LGBT issues. Whilst some men would buckle under a direct threat. John simply got on with it. I was disgusted that Andrew Dismore AM and Councillor Alison Moore, the Labour Group leader did not sign the letter of support to press. Sadly it seems that the local Blairites hate John even more than the Tories do. I am convinced that the reason the Blairites dislike John is because they know he is an excellent organiser and they do not want their lacklustre apporach to support for Labour issues exposed. It is noticable that Jeremy Corbyn has stepped in to support Barnet UNISON and John Burgess, where the local party can't be bothered.

Since this blog was started, I have been involved in many successful campaigns. John Burgess has been central to the success of all of these. Every single one of these has resulted in good things for Barnet. Libraries have been saved, Pay and Display meters have been reintroduced, dodgy politicians have been kicked out, CPZ permit increases have been thrown out by the High Court. The fights we lost such as One Barnet and Your Choice Barnet, we've been 100% vindicated and proven right. I UNISON had a general secretary who understood the issues, understood how to campaign and understood the importance of not acquiescing in the face of pressure, we'd have won those as well. Sadly John Burgess was not supported in the way he should have been by the bureacrats running his union. What could have been game changing opportunities for UNISON to define the playing field in local government, became lost opportunities and might have beens. The situation for UNISON is dangerous. If they don't change the way they think and the way they support their branches, it will become terminal, as Cameron and Osborne are playing for keeps. It is clear to me that a country with a neutered Trades Union movement will ultimately be one where everyone suffers. This is because we have an ageing population and we will all become old. Sadly if our generation destroys the concept of care for the vulnerable, we will reap the whirlwind when we find ourselves needing it. That is why we need a John Burgess type figure to ensure that those who provide care get the support from their Union they need.

If you are a UNISON member, please pass this blog on to your colleagues. Please get your branch to support John Burgess bid to become General Secretary. My guess is that if you know John, you already will be supporting him, but for him to succeed, his campaign needs to get national support. As someone who is completely independent, if you don't know John and haven't met him, then speak to someone who has. Invite him to address your branch.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

John Burgess is a man of utmost integrity, extremely hard working, conscientious, and would make a brilliant Gen Sec of Unison. But their gain would be our loss. And yes: the local Labour party leadership desperately needs to rebuild strong, honest open and mutually trusting relationships with Unison. Unity is strength, and these qualities are a fundamental base of the Labour movement. Perhaps in the new Corbyn era of politics, we can actually begin to work to gether, and organise a more cohesive form of opposition to the appalling Tory agenda of privatisation, and privation.