Friday 30 October 2009

Council in chaos after massive strike vote by Cityclean workers

Members of the GMB working at Cityclean have voted to strike with 94% in favour on a 76% turnout. It is a massive mandate - far bigger than that of any of the 54 councillors on the authority. If the strike goes ahead next month it will bring refuse collection and streetcleaning to a standstill.

Such a massive vote is true testament to the incompetence and duplicity of Brighton and Hove City Council, who now seem intent on provoking the other union at the council, Unison, into the same course of action by pretending to negotiate whilst getting ready to impose further pay cuts on more staff. Although the scale of the pay cuts facing the Cityclean workers has pushed the GMB to the fore, Unison actually has more members potentially affected.

In truth, while it is easy to blame the current Tory administration (and they certainly deserve their share with their dismal performance over the last few months), none of the parties emerge with credit from this fiasco. The issue has dragged on unresolved for 12 years. Now, well-remunerated council bosses want to impose pay cuts on the lowest-paid staff.


This afternoon, Brighton and Hove Unison issued this statement -


The GMB ballot result announced at lunchtime today (29th October 2009), of 94% of members in Brighton and Hove Cityclean in favour of strike action, is welcomed and fully supported by UNISON (Brighton andHove Branch).

The central issue of the Council seeking to impose massive salary cuts of up to £8,000 on these staff is an issue also faced by many UNISON members in the Council. Whilst our members are not concentrated in one workplace, like the Cityclean workforce, overall it is the case that we will have in total many more staff across the Council who are faced with pay cuts of varying amounts. These totals reflect the fact that UNISON has in membership some 60%of the entire Council workforce, 3,800 in all, and those affected arein a whole range of posts including, frontline care services, ICT,Planning and so-called "back-room" services. A large proportion ofthese are relatively low-paid women workers - the very people that Equal Pay legislation was meant to positively benefit.

UNISON cannot be clear what the scale of pay cuts will be, because the Council employer cannot, or will not provide accurate figures to us, despite repeated requests. In addition,the employer has frequently altered its negotiating position, cancelled meetings at short notice and in the last few days managers have told staff in a central part of the Council that they will be "dismissed" if they refuse to sign new, worse pay, contracts.

Today,at the "eleventh hour", the City Council have made a further offer in respect of which UNISON is seeking urgent clarification and further negotiation. However,the core pay cuts still remain, along with a plain threat to ignore the two Trade Unions and go straight to staff with these proposals. This is no way to negotiate or reach agreement. The Single Status Agreement into which these negotiations fall, came into place in 1997 -the Council has prevaricated and delayed for 12 years and now wants to rush new grades into place. UNISON in a letter today has indicated to the City Council at political and senior officer level, that we will not accept an imposition of new contracts. The Branch will proceed to an immediate Strike ballot in such circumstances. Our membership will also support in every possible manner our colleagues in the GMB when they take action - there will be no division between the two Branches who already work very closely at a local level.

Alex Knutsen,UNISON Branch Secretary said
"A situation which should have been resolved through negotiation overthe last 12 years, has now reached a point where confrontation appears to be inevitable. This is very regrettable but even at this time could be recovered. However, if the Council leadership continue along this very dangerous path, UNISON members will vote for strike action to defend their colleagues in their Branch. Members are not militants but committed public sector workers forced to respond to an inept, disorganised and threatening management."

For further information please contact Alex Knutsen on 01273 249076 0r 07961025930

Sunday 25 October 2009

As the dust settles on Question Time......

So, what to make of Nick Griffin's appearance on QT? Was he exposed as a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi; or a political lightweight? Was he deliberately set up by the liberal establishment for a mauling? What will the voters make of it?

Unquestionably, Griffin took some hits on Holocaust denial, KKK connections and Hitler. But the discussion never really got beyond this. Perhaps this was because the other politicians on the panel had some uncomfortable truths of their own to hide from.

The BNP's support comes from a burning sense of grievance which stems from the notion that "resources" (jobs, housing, public services) are "scarce". The sense of grievance comes from perceptions of how these "scarce resources" are divvied up. In this environment any idea, however incorrect, that certain groups receive any kind of preferential treatment can be exploited. What the Left has to do in this situation is to start by challenging the "scarce resources" myth head on - something which the three supporters of neo-liberalism on the panel were never going to do.

One of the most significant moments on the programme came when someone asked the immigration question. Griffin just looked on smiling as the other three fought over which of their parties best wore the political clothes of the BNP on this issue.

In the absence of a clear political alternative, I suspect that the BNP will conclude that they have done rather well out of the QT experience, notwithstanding Griffin's ineptitude, and notwithstanding that they will have to go through the motions of complaining about how "unfair" it all was.

It's a hard thing to say, but most recession-hit working-class people do not have at the front of their minds what happened in WW2, or what sort of people Griffin mixes with when he visits the US. What they might be interested in is the emerging pattern of BNP councillors' extremely poor performance in office - voting to close services they promised to protect, failing to hold surgeries, failing to attend meetings, not following up casework and - yes - not a little self-enrichment on expenses. What they might also be interested in is an alternative view of society in which the fourth-richest country in the world has no excuse for "scarce resources".

That's the challenge for the Left.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Bring home the troops

The announcement that the discredited election in Afghanistan is now to be re-run strips away the last vestige of justification for this doomed, pointless war. How many more people have to die shoring up a corrupt warlord regime in Afghanistan, and protecting the reputations of politicians at home?
The Stop the War Coalition, CND and the British Muslim Initiative have organised a demonstration in London this Saturday to demand that the troops be brought home. Among the people on the demo and speaking afterwards will be family members of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The demonstration assembles in Hyde Park at noon and ends in Trafalgar Square. More information here
Local transport details -
Group: Brighton and Hove Stop the War
Transport: CoachPickup point: 2 pick ups: St Peters Church @ 9am, Gardner Arts Centre, Sussex Uni @ 9.30am
Return time: 5pm
Cost: £10 waged / £5 student or unwaged
Contact: Maggie CliffordTel: 07962 940355

Monday 19 October 2009

How a murdered young woman became a "sex-change prostitute" in 24 hours

Maybe it's just me, but has anyone else wondered how much tackier The Argus' coverage of the murder of Andrea Waddell can get? The headlines used in the print version really do plumb the depths (the web coverage does seem better for some reason). It was noticeable how the tone of the coverage changed as more details about her personal life became known

Why does she deserve to be defined solely by her line of work and her sexual identity?

I did not know Andrea Waddell but it is clear that many people who did feel her loss very keenly - not least her family.

The least our local paper can do is show some respect and ditch the prurient sensationalism.

Meeting on Afghanistan this Thursday


Have there been any benefits for the Afghan people - and for women in particular? How has the military intervention affected regional and global security? Should we argue for ‘troops out now’?

A talk and discussion with Gabriel Carlyle Peace News journalist and anti-war activist
Thursday October 22nd 2009 7.30pm – 9.00pm Brighthelm, North Road BN1 1YD meeting will start promptly at 7.30pm
Everyone welcome

Friday 16 October 2009

Gated communities in the centre of Brighton? No thanks!

A very good letter in The Argus this week alerted me to the fact that there is a proposal to close the Ship Street Gardens twitten from 9pm to 8am, because of crime and anti-social behaviour.
No-one would deny that such things are a problem but is "gating" a footpath through the old town actually going to solve the problem or merely move it?
We cannot gate every street in central Brighton!
More to the point, by what right does anyone close off an area in the centre of town? Whilst I realise that it doesn't necessarily float everyone's boat, for me a walk through the passageways is part of the charm of "old Brighton". As the writer of the letter points out, if they get away with this, how long will it be before Black Lion Lane follows? Then the whole "cut" through that part of the Lanes is blocked up for half the day.
It is quite a surprise to further discover that it is the local Green councillors who are motivating this.
Don't let them get away with this theft of city space!
Send objections before October 18 by email to or write to the Director of Environment, Public Safety/Environment Improvements, Bartholomew House, Batholomew Square, Brighton BN1 1JP (ref: Simon Bannister).

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Brighton Tories jump the shark

The pressures of running the Council seem to be getting to the Brighton and Hove Tories.

In an extraordinary outburst, Cllr Ayas Fallon Khan has denounced the Greens' Ben Duncan as a "communist". More absurdly Cllr Linda Hyde thinks recycling targets are "communism"!

For Cllr Fallon Khan, hitherto regarded as a comparatively intelligent politician, it's a serious credibility blow.

Looks like the Tories have decided their only hope of stopping a Green win in Pavilion is to indulge in some unsophisticated red-baiting. So expect another 6 months of this nonsense.

Monday 12 October 2009

Pay cuts at the Council - hypocrisy at work

A couple of weeks ago, Brighton and Hove City Council honoured employee Osei Frimpong as its Public Servant of the Year at a lavish ceremony. Osei is a streetcleaner and the work he and his colleagues do in keeping the streets clean and healthy is vital. The same council which displayed its faux gratitude to Osei is about to cut the pay of those same staff, in some cases by £8000 a year. Hundreds of other staff are also facing pay cuts.

The council unions, GMB and Unison have had enough. After months of unproductive talking, they are going to start the process for an industrial action ballot. The final straw in the talks was a cack-handed attempt by the employer to split the two unions. It didn't work.

This is just the latest example of the quite staggering ineptitude of the Council over this issue over a number of years. The workforce is left wondering if they'll ever manage to sort it out.

Don't heard it here first!

Good to see The Guardian picking up on a theme developed by me - having a go at our old friends The Taxpayers Alliance.

Among the things they have discovered is that one of the TPA's directors lives abroad and has not paid tax in this country for years. The article established that, far from being a pressure group funded by ordinary taxpayers (as they would have us believe), they are in fact funded by some extremely wealthy backers and effectively act as a Tory front.

Let's hope journalists now stop quoting them as the authentic voice of the taxpayer and recognise them as the right-wing rentaquotes they are.

By the way, if you want an antidote to the TPA's propaganda, try this.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The truth about the post

Against the background of the postal workers' strike ballot, and in anticipation of the approbrium that the press will shower upon them, I thought this worth reproducing from the letters page of the current London Review of Books. This is what you won't read in the Daily Mail........

Old people still write letters the old-fashioned way: by hand, with a biro, folding up the letter into an envelope, writing the address on the front before adding the stamp. Mostly they don’t have email, and while they often have a mobile phone – bought by the family ‘just in case’ – they usually have no idea how to send a text. So Peter Mandelson wasn’t referring to them when he went on TV in May to press for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, saying that figures were down due to competition from emails and texts.

I spluttered into my tea when I heard him say that. ‘Figures are down.’ We hear that sentence almost every day at work when management are trying to implement some new initiative which involves postal workers like me working longer hours for no extra pay, carrying more weight, having more duties.

It’s the joke at the delivery office. ‘Figures are down,’ we say, and laugh as we pile the fifth or sixth bag of mail onto the scales and write down the weight in the log-book. It’s our daily exercise in fiction-writing. We’re only supposed to carry a maximum of 16 kilos per bag, on a reducing scale: 16 kilos the first bag, 13 kilos the last. If we did that we’d be taking out ten bags a day and wouldn’t be finished till three in the afternoon.‘Figures are down,’ we chortle mirthlessly, as we load the third batch of door-to-door catalogues onto our frames, adding yet more weight to our bags, and more minutes of unpaid overtime to our clock. We get paid 1.67 pence per item of unaddressed mail, an amount that hasn’t changed in ten years. It is paid separately from our wages, and we can’t claim overtime if we run past our normal hours because of these items. We also can’t refuse to deliver them. This junk mail is one of the Royal Mail’s most profitable sidelines and my personal contribution to global warming: straight through the letterbox and into the bin.‘Figures are down,’ we say again, but more wearily now, as we pile yet more packages into our panniers, before setting off on our rounds.

People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.

According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?

So who’s right? Are the figures down or aren’t they? The Royal Mail couldn’t lie, could it? Well no, maybe not. But it can manipulate the figures. And it can avoid telling the whole truth.

One thing you probably don’t know, for instance, is that the Royal Mail is already part-privatised. It goes under the euphemism of ‘deregulation’. Deregulation is the result of an EU directive that was meant to be implemented over an extended period to give mail companies time to adjust, but which this government embraced with almost obscene relish, deregulating the UK mail service long before any of its rivals in Europe. It means that any private mail company – or, indeed, any of the state-owned, subsidised European mail companies – is able to bid for Royal Mail contracts.

Take a look at your letters next time you pick them up from the doormat. Look at the right-hand corner, the place where the Queen’s head used to be. You’ll see a variety of different franks, representing a number of different mail companies. There’s TNT, UK Mail, Citypost and a number of others. What these companies do is to bid for the profitable bulk mail and city-to-city trade of large corporations, undercutting the Royal Mail, and then have the Royal Mail deliver it for them. TNT has the very lucrative BT contract, for instance. TNT picks up all BT’s mail from its main offices, sorts it into individual walks according to information supplied by the Royal Mail, scoots it to the mail centres in bulk, where it is then sorted again and handed over to us to deliver. Royal Mail does the work. TNT takes the profit.

None of these companies has a universal delivery obligation, unlike the Royal Mail. In fact they have no delivery obligation at all. They aren’t rival mail companies in a free market, as the propaganda would have you believe. None of them delivers any mail. All they do is ride on the back of the system created and developed by the Royal Mail, and extract profit from it. The process is called ‘downstream access’. Downstream access means that private mail companies have access to any point in the Royal Mail delivery network which will yield a profit, after which they will leave the poor old postman to carry the mail to your door.

So if ‘figures are down’ that doesn’t mean that volume is down. Volume, at least over that last few miles from the office to your door, is decidedly up. But even assuming that Mandelson was telling the truth, that volume really is down by 10 per cent, the fact is that staff levels are down even more, by 30 per cent. That still means each postman is doing a whole lot more work.There are more part-time staff now. No one is taken on on a full-time basis any more. There are two grades of part-time workers: those working six-hour shifts and those working four hours. The six-hour staff prepare their own frame – their workstation, divided into roads and then numbers, with a slot for each address – but they don’t do any ‘internal sorting’ (this is the initial sorting done when the mail comes into the office). The four-hour part-timers come in and – in theory at least – pick up their pre-packed bags and go straight out. They are hardly in the office at all. This means that the full-timers have to pick up the slack. They are supposed to prepare the frames, sort out the redirections, bundle up the mail and put it into the sacks for the part-timers to take out, as well as doing all the internal sorting, and preparing their own frames: all in the three hours or so before they go out on their rounds.

When I first started working at the Royal Mail every postman prepared his own round. These days maybe a third of the staff are part-time. It’s the full-timers who are on the old-fashioned, water-tight contracts, with full pension entitlement, the ones whose pension fund is such a nightmare for the Royal Mail’s finances. As well as being invariably part-time, new staff are on flexible contracts without pension rights.

The pension fund deficit was £5.9 billion last year and is predicted to rise to £8 or £9 billion next year. The deficit is the main reason various people in positions of authority within the government and the Royal Mail were suggesting the partial sell-off earlier in the year. These people included Adam Crozier, the chief executive, and Jane Newell, the chair of the pension fund trustees, as well as the business secretary, Peter Mandelson. But a partial sale of the Royal Mail wouldn’t get rid of the pension deficit. No private investor would take it on. Which means that, whether the Royal Mail remains in public hands or is partly or fully privatised in the future, the pension deficit will always remain the tax-payer’s obligation.

Meanwhile there is increasing tension in Royal Mail offices up and down the country. There was a strike in 2007, and a national agreement on ‘pay and modernisation’, but this year has seen management constantly implementing new practices, putting more and more pressure on the steadily dwindling ranks of full-timers. The latest innovation being forced on an unwilling workforce is the collapsing of frames.

Let me explain what this means. Each frame represents a round or a walk. Letters are sorted on the frame, and then bundled up to take out onto the walk. But mail delivery is a seasonal business. Traffic varies throughout the year. Around Christmas it is at its highest. In the summer months, when the kids are out of school, the volume drops. This is known as ‘the summer lull’. So a national agreement was reached between the union and the management to reduce the number of man-hours in each office during the summer months. And the way this was done was to collapse one of the frames. One frame in the office would no longer have a specific postman assigned to it, but would be taken out by all the postmen in the office on a rotating basis. This meant an average of ten or 15 minutes extra work every day for every postman in the office. This agreement was meant to apply to only one frame and for the summer period only.

Now this has changed. There is increasing pressure to collapse more and more frames – that is, to get the same number of postmen to do larger amounts of work – and not just in the summer months but over the whole year. Management are becoming noticeably more belligerent. For some weeks now the managers have been bullying and cajoling everyone in our office, saying that a second frame would have to be collapsed – ‘figures are down’ – and that the workforce would have to decide which frame that would be. Everyone refused. Collapsing a frame would mean that one person would have to move frames, while another person on a ‘flexible’ contract would lose his job altogether. No one wanted to be responsible for making that kind of decision. No one wanted to shaft their workmates. And then last week it was announced, on the heaviest day of the week, and without notice, that a second frame was going to be collapsed anyway, regardless of our opinion. When the shop steward put in a written objection it was ignored.

Such was the resentment and the chaos in the office that a lot of mail didn’t get delivered that day, and what was delivered was late. If a postman fails to deliver a letter, it is called ‘deliberate withholding of mail’ and is a sackable offence. When management are responsible, it is considered merely expedient. There’s a feeling that we are being provoked, and that this isn’t coming from the managers in our office – who aren’t all that bright, and who don’t have all that much power – but from somewhere higher up. Everyone is gearing up for a strike.

The truth is that the figures aren’t down at all. We have proof of this. The Royal Mail have been fiddling the figures. This is how it is being done.

Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called ‘internal sorting’ and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Like many businesses, the Royal Mail has a pet name for its customers. The name is ‘Granny Smith’. It’s a deeply affectionate term. Granny Smith is everyone, but particularly every old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline. When an old lady gives me a Christmas card with a fiver slipped in with it and writes, ‘Thank you for thinking of me every day,’ she means it. I might be the only person in the world who thinks about her every day, even if it’s only for long enough to read her name on an envelope and then put it through her letterbox. There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the Royal Mail management – who rarely, if ever, come across the public – it is the first. To the delivery officer – to me, and people like me, the postmen who bring the mail to your door – it is more than likely the second.

We had a meeting a while back at which all the proposed changes to the business were laid out. Changes in our hours and working practices. Changes to our priorities. Changes that have led to the current chaos. We were told that the emphasis these days should be on the corporate customer. It was what the corporations wanted that mattered. We were effectively being told that quality of service to the average customer was less important than satisfying the requirements of the big businesses.

Someone piped up in the middle of it. ‘What about Granny Smith?’ he said. He’s an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things.‘Granny Smith is not important,’ was the reply. ‘Granny Smith doesn’t matter any more.’So now you know.

Roy Mayall, a pseudonym (obviously), has worked as a postman for the last five years.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Sharon Shoesmith : sinner or sinned against?

Just posting this makes me feel a bit like the one hapless bloke at a public lynching who says "hang on a minute". But anyway, here goes.

I don't know if Sharon Shoesmith has a case to answer in the tragic and terrible case of Baby Peter - but that's the issue -no-one really does. The simple reason being that the woman has never had a hearing.

Unaccustomed as I am to actually defending senior managers in local government, I do retain the old-fashioned belief that even they have the right to present a defence for their actions.

What I do know is that once the tabloids got tired of their little witch hunt, children's social services remained dangerously overstretched and understaffed, and politicians of all major parties have no solutions.

I remain very suspicous of the motives of Ed Balls - a man whose top priority is his own PR, and I have a feeling that the remaing days of Shoesmith's hearing could be very uncomfortable for him.

Friday 2 October 2009

A tale of two worlds

One industrial dispute actually ongoing in Brighton and Hove and another which is brewing have a common cause - attempts to cut the pay of already low-paid staff doing difficult jobs. I am talking about the disputes at Brighton Housing Trust and at Cityclean at the council.

But there is another common thread.

In both cases the people doing the cutting have no such worries. Brighton and Hove Unison has published information on the rich rewards to be had at the top of the social landlord tree.

At the last BHT Board Meeting one of those in attendance was a certain Mark Perry from Downland Housing Association – reportedly, he was none too sympathetic to the dispute.

Mark Perry enjoyed a pay rise in 2008/9 of 47%. Not 4.7% but 47%. He takes home a mere £ 136,500 a year – just about enough to live on, I suppose.

Other interesting amounts are Keith Exford, Affinity Sutton, £22,000 bonus; Neil McCall, William Sutton, 25% pay rise and Nick Dudman, Broomleigh H.A., 24% pay rise.

In Cityclean, the people telling the refuse collectors and streetcleaners that they must sacrifice thousands in pursuit of a "fair and equitable pay structure" are themselves taking 6-figure salaries.

Is it any wonder that people are angry?