Will the national body that prides itself on conciliation end up in a bitter dispute with itself?

sir-brendan-barber1

Sir Brendan Barber, chairman of Acas, Pic Credit: Acas

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

Acas – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – is a body  that nobody normally can take offence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is seen as a virtuous organisation that promotes peace,harmony, and fair play in a warring world between workers and bosses over  jobs,pay and  conditions.

So it might seem unlikely that such a body could end up in a bitter dispute with its own staff. But that is exactly what is starting to happen following a decision – completely unprompted by government – to make radical changes to its services to the public.

These include cutting the number of advisory helplines from 11 to 4, closing its office in Liverpool, which employs 50 people, and according to the union, downgrade work so lower paid people provide both advice and  conciliation work.

The helpline is particularly popular with workers and employers alike. According to its annual report 96 per cent of its users would recommend its service to a friend and 94 per cent thought the people on the end of the line were  really knowledgeable about its work.

Acas appears to have decided to streamline its services as part of an efficiency measure anticipating that perhaps Whitehall – which funds 90 per cent of its work – will start cutting its budget.

According to its officials all this is to be achieved without shedding any jobs.

A spokesman said :“Acas has undertaken a thorough review on how to best meet the needs of its customers across the country whilst securing better value for money for the taxpayer.

“Our national Helpline service is being reorganised into four central locations across the country and Acas North West will have a single area office in Manchester in line with our other regions across the country.

“There are no plans to reduce the number of Acas staff due to these changes so our customers will still receive the same high quality service from Acas North West and our national helpline service.”

The unions however don’t believe this. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents along with the FDA, its staff, is talking of going to a tribunal to accuse Acas, of all things, of failing to consult its own staff.

The PCS union say the conciliation service in London is at risk and the future of Acas’s head office functions and the future role of the Certification Officer – the official that policies union disputes  and registers trade unions – is under review.

It also accuses Acas – rather like the Equality and Human Rights Commission -of making black workers take the brunt of the changes – and believes they will.lose their jobs. Acas insists that those working in Liverpool will get jobs in Manchester – and they will pay their fares to their new office.

This potential dispute is all the more interesting because the current chairman, Sir Brendan Barber, who is backing the changes, is the former general secretary of the TUC, the body that champions workers and unions.

So far the TUC is silent about its views on the change. But one of its union members, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS is not.

He says: “With the Tories ploughing on with damaging cuts and trying to undermine trade unions, Acas’s employment services are needed more than ever.”

“It should demonstrate best practice, not behave like a rogue employer by putting jobs at risk and creating uncertainty, stress and anxiety.”

 

Fracking by Chevron: Sorry we blew up your village, have a free pizza on us

The raging fires in Bobtown, Pennsylvania- three days after the explosion. Pic courtesy; dvorak.org

The raging fires in Bobtown, Pennsylvania- three days after the explosion. Pic courtesy; dvorak.org

]

A warning to Britain  about the dangers of slip shod fracking  operations is revealed today in an extra ordinary story published on the TUC’s Touchstone blog.

It discloses how  a near disaster hit one hundred residents of a tiny Pennsylvania town where a fracking well exploded lnto a spectacular and deadly tower of flame, killing one person and burning for five days, 

A missing worker (believed to be a contractor) from the Chevron Appalachia site has not been found and is presumed dead. Only a few charred human bones were recovered.The well pad has three natural gas wells. Nineteen workers were on the well pad during the explosion, a spokesman said.

Wild Well Control, an organization trained specifically to deal with natural gas explosions, was called to the site. Investigators finally gained access  to inspect the well pad for the missing employee eight days after the blast when they were able to pull a charred crane off the well pad that was nearest to the still-leaking wells. The wells should finally be capped after a  fires suppressant system was installed.

Chevron’s response to the disaster which terrified people living in Bobtown was believe or not to offer a free pizza voucher and  a bottle of soda. Yes this is true, I am not joking.

The letter enclosing the free voucher says:”

“Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”

I don’t what crass overpaid public relations firm advised them to do this but it is  the equivalent of saying to the local yokels let them eat cake. Given the gravity of the situation it is demeaning and insulting. I wonder if the dead man’s family will get a life supply of pizzas and sodas.

 More worrying Chevron – which also facing protests about fracking in Romania  where it is riding roughshod over protestors  – is an active player in the UK.

To be fair it has a good record in the North Sea oil industry with interests in 10 oil and gas fields – and an excellent safety record according to its own website. But if it starts cashing in on the fracking boom – given the Coalition’s view that workplace safety is mainly just red tape – I for one would not like them in the vicinity. Still  it might be boon for pizza delivery drivers – it gives a whole new meaning to the warning to beware of pizza vans.

 

The Evil Empire that wants to destroy and tax the free internet

Darth Vader or Vladimir Putin? Pic courtesy: http://www.downwithfilm.com

Bloggers beware. A group of the world’s  repressive regimes have teamed up with greedy telecommunications companies to form one unholy alliance. Their aim is to restrict who can access the internet and to milk and tax the billions of people who already use it.

No, this is not science fiction, it is fact ,despite my illustration. And the first steps are going to made at a UN  conference in Dubai next month.

The plotters are at a meeting of an extraordinary obscure and secretive UN body called the International Telecommunications Union. Its remit until now has been to police such quaint inventions like telegrams and international landline telephones. It now wants to extend its remit to the internet.

It is being hijacked by a number of the world’s most repressive regimes as a  body to control who can access the internet and how much they can be charged.

The Evil Empire of countries behind this move include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria  and sadly after the Arab spring, Egypt. Hardly paragons of  human rights these countries are canvassing over 80 other developing countries, including African and Asian dictatorships, to back a  new UN Treaty legitimising the right of governments` to limit who can access the internet. Using Orwellian language they want only “rational” people to have access and the power to refuse them an IP  address or block any e-mails or communications sent to them.

But there is a further twist. A group of  unnamed European telecommunications companies want to profit from this by introducing charges for using the net, including sending e-mails and talking on Skype being well aware that the decline in post and international calls  means the end of an income stream. And the repressive regimes are also interested in introducing a tax on free country users. Called the ” Sender Pays” model it will mean if your blog  or e-mail was read by anybody in Russia, Iran  you will would be sent a tax bill or charge.

This ” Tweet Tax” will inhibit communication and price out citizens from using the net.

To check this out see the conference site at http://www.itu.int/ and  go for the section on the World conference on International Communications. Click on documents and you will see the submissions but be blocked for accessing them. These include submissions from Israel, Tunisia, Cuba and Cameroon to name a few. You can read on the public views  and opinions section  the Centre for Democracy and Technology submission which will give you a clue. But don’t try direct  at http://www.itu.int/en/wcit-12 or you will be blocked!

It is not pretty reading.

Worse although I gather it is opposed by the United States – no country can have a veto over this treaty. And countries like the UK which is looking at a new draft communications bill to collect details of people on the internet – are actually creating a system which will allow repressive regimes to tax you by allowing the Revenue and Customs to pass your details to them.The UK does not appear to have submitted anything to protest about this. New Zealand has – as this report shows – see http://m.nbr.co.nz/opinion/nz-will-vote-against-un-taking-control-internet …

Hardly anyone seems to have spotted this and we are  less than a fortnight away from the conference. But a campaign and petition has been launched by the TUC with the backing of the International Trade Union Confederation and they held a press conference about it last week – which received virtually no coverage. If you want to back it – the links are  www.tuc.org.uk/stopthenetgrab.

Details of the petition by the ITUC  are at: http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-net-grab.

See my article in Tribune.

I am amazed that no-one  has taken this up.  You would think  the Huffington Post or  Political Home, or bloggers like  Guido Fawkes,  might be alarmed about this. I for one can’t see  Lord Ashcroft or Paul Staines willingly paying over taxes to Russia or Iran collected by our Revenue and Customs because someone overseas has reads their blog or received an e-mail.

And I see nothing public from think tanks like Compass, Policy Exchange, and the Taxpayers Alliance, objecting to this.

As has been said many times the defence of liberty needs eternal vigilance. This attack on internet freedom transcends the Left and the Right and is as big a threat to free speech as any nasty dictator.

TUC: Why the unions must raise their game

brendan barber -more than fiery rhetoric needed. Pic courtesy Daily Telegraph

 Expect the standard sound and fury at the TUC Congress next week.  Union leaders’ rhetoric will be at fever pitch as they denounce the planned biggest cuts since 1945. Threats of another “spring of discontent” and co-ordinated strike action across the public sector will abound. But will it amount to little more than fierce words and a damp squib when it comes to the point?

 True the TUC has started well, releasing well researched reports on the cuts already announced, and promising a lobby of Parliament next month and a march against the cuts next March. Individual unions are certain to draw up strike plans to protect jobs and there is embryonic co-ordination between unions representing civil servants, fire fighters, journalists and rail workers. But there is a real issue that the effect of any strike action will be to alienate the public and play into the hands of the coalition.

So hasn’t the time come for union leaders to raise their game and think outside the box.

There are two good reasons to do this. One is that they will be daft to think that the coalition will sit idly by while they organise. The recent release to the Guardian of all the secret Cabinet committee papers (both ministerial and officials)on the 1984-85 miner’s strike show s an extraordinary resolve by Margaret Thatcher, William Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, Norman Tebbit and Peter Walker to co-ordinate action against the miners, using the law, the courts, the police , media and pit  and power station management. Often they could pre-empt and weaken the NUM’s action.

It’s not beyond the wit of the present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to follow his predecessor Lord Armstrong and set up a small Cabinet committee to co-ordinate action against protestors and unions should the opposition become really serious.

 This is why the unions need to be savvy. 2010 is very different to 1984. We now have mobile phones, the internet, social networking sites and an alternative festival network. The scope for instant protest abounds and with the coalition planning a small state, the resources David Cameron and Nick Clegg have at their disposal to monitor and control protests can only diminish as they cut back.

 Why can’t Bob Crow, the RMT leader and Gerry Doughty, the TSSA leader, organise a more popular free travel day as well as one day strike? If the unions asked all the members to deactivate the barriers at every tube and Overground station, will Transport for London want to prosecute thousands of its staff? The public would love them and Transport for London would lose as much revenue. Could Mark Serwotka, the PCS leader, decide to programme the VAT and Income Tax computers to refuse to send any demands out?

The mobile phone is also a brilliant for organising instant protests at any venue you might want. With Googlemaps pinpointing locations how about a “flash mob” protest when Nick Clegg  publicly announces his next constitutency surgery? Or put some fun into protest by organising a “Rock against the Cuts” festival  preferably applying to hold it in the grounds of the country estate of  one of the  millionaire Tory Cabinet ministers.

So how about it, Brendan Barber? You need a bit of imagination as well as fiery rhetoric. With luck and public support you really could turn the Big Society into the Big Protest.