19:15 GMT +311 December 2018
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    Fair Employers Don’t Derecognise Trade Unions – Cornerstone are Out of Order

    CC BY 2.0 / Roger Blackwell / Pickets at the rear entrance to the University of East Anglia during today's strike
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    Tommy Sheridan
    2100

    ‘Union Busting Is Disgusting, Recognition Now’ was the chant outside the Glasgow HQ of the charity and social care provider Cornerstone in Glasgow’s Sydney Street today. It was a wretched afternoon with rain but the despicable actions of Cornerstone in the last week demanded action from trade union members regardless of the weather.

    After 24 years continuous recognition this charity and social care provider has taken the drastic step of derecognising the trade union UNISON. Around 40 or so UNISON members, and others, gathered at short notice to demonstrate while Cornerstone hosted an Evaluation meeting with Scottish Government and Care Commission representatives in attendance.

    Cornerstone claim to be a fair employer and their Chief Executive Officer, Edel Harris, is apparently a Scottish Government ‘Fair Work Ambassador’. That title must surely be revoked immediately given the shameful actions of this charity over the last 7 days. The Scottish Government has been at the forefront of fair working practices and promotes public procurement policies which require proof of good employer relations and treatment, including payment of the Scottish Living Wage (SLW) which is higher than the UK wide minimum wage (SLW is £9 per/hour compared to the UK minimum wage of only £7.83 per/hour) and equal treatment and non-discrimination policies.  

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    Employment Law is reserved to Westminster so the ability of the Scottish Government to positively influence working practices is restricted. However given the fact billions of pounds are awarded to contractors and service providers every single year by the Scottish Government and Local Authorities it is right and proper, and overdue, that fair work conditions are attached to the awarding of any public monies to any contractor. Employers who pay only minimum wage and can’t show they are good employers in relation to treatment of workers should not receive a penny of public money. Only the best employers should be awarded public contracts.

    Cornerstone provides care and support services for adults, young people and children who live with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, autism, dementia and other support needs. The workers who provide these support services, like everyone working in the social care sector, do so with care, compassion and commitment. Providing social care demands working long hours, unsociable hours and sleepovers. It is often very challenging work but the pay and conditions of employment do not reflect the demands and retention of staff is a constant problem. 

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    The introduction of a sector wide pay structure similar to that which applies to social workers, teachers and police officers is long overdue. Quality social care requires motivated, well-trained and properly paid workers. The current situation is nowhere near that goal and has to be addressed by employers and the Scottish Government alike.

    The low pay culture within social care and the challenging working conditions compels many to join a trade union to avoid being an isolated voice seeking better remuneration for the care they provide. Of course it is always a difficult dilemma for low paid workers to join a union when their level of pay leaves little left for union dues  but the benefits of collective organisation and bargaining over the years have far outweighed the cost of union membership to millions over that period. This is the context to Cornerstones’ shocking decision to not only derecognise UNISON but also bully and harass UNISON members.

    After twenty-four years of trade union recognition Cornerstone and UNISON had been locked in pay negotiations and discussions over a new working strategy for the last 12 months. UNISON was seeking a 3% rise for staff not yet benefitting from the SLW of £9 per hour, pay for sleepovers at the 2017 SLW rate of £8.75 per hour backdated to 1st April this year and a £12 an hour rate for all carers involved in management responsibilities. Certainly not a set of unreasonable demands. 

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    Cornerstones’ response was to offer only a 1% wage increase, sleepover pay backdated only to October and an hourly rate of £10.10 an hour for those with management tasks. Unsurprisingly UNISON members within Cornerstone, estimated to be over 50% of the 2,000 strong workforce, rejected the management offer. In fact the ballot resulted in a massive 92% rejection of the offer.

    With UNISON and Cornerstone management unable to reach an agreement it was agreed to take the dispute to the conciliation service ACAS for third party intervention. That meeting was scheduled for November 29th. But on November 28th, without any prior notice, Cornerstone management issued a press release announcing their decision to derecognise UNISON with immediate effect thus ignoring the expressed will of at least 50% of their workers and reneging on the agreement to continue the pay and conditions talks with the respected conciliation body.

    Such behaviour is unacceptable from any employer but is particularly grave and disgraceful from a charity working in the social care sector. Good employers don’t unilaterally derecognise trade unions and avoid independent arbitration meetings just because their pay offer is rejected. However this charity has stooped even lower in the bad employer league. They have issued despicable letters to trade union shop stewards and other prominent members demanding meetings with them to discuss; “your union duties and information sharing”. These meetings are scheduled for tomorrow, 7th December.

    What happened to non-discrimination and equal treatment principles championed by the Scottish Government? They must be embarrassed by the actions of this charity and should intervene urgently to inform them that such blatant anti-trade union behaviour will simply not be tolerated from an organisation which receives contracts from local authorities across Scotland. This is not ‘Fair Employment’ practices this is backward, reactionary and unacceptable employment practices.

    UNISON has reminded Cornerstone that the right to belong to a trade union is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23.4, which states:

    “The right to organise with others for better working conditions is a universal human right. Everyone has the right to join and to form trade unions for the protection of his/her interests”. (UNISON Scotland Members Bulletin December 2018) 

    Today I spoke with Unison Scotland’s head of community and social care, Deborah Clarke. She was soaked to the skin standing in the rain for over an hour but her compassion and care for her members was crystal clear. She was shocked at the behaviour of Cornerstone management but determined not to be bullied by them or allow her fellow union members to be bullied:

    “Cornerstone’s attempts to breach our members’ human rights by ripping up our collective bargaining agreement is disgusting and makes a mockery of the chief executive’s status as a Scottish Government Fair Work Ambassador … we have been put in an unprecedented position by the unacceptable actions of Cornerstone management. We will have to seek statutory recognition for the first time ever within the social care sector”.

    As we approach the year 2019 we are witnessing in Scotland a charitable status employer ripping up a trade union recognition deal and issuing intimidating letters to trade union members regarding their trade union membership and “duties”. This is not the progressive, fair employer Scotland that we voted for. 

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    The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will be appalled by these Victorian style employment practices. At her recent party conference in Glasgow she stated unambiguously her intention to drive forward a fair work agenda which related to pay, working conditions and trades union involvement. It is worth quoting her words in some detail from just eight short weeks ago and compare and contrast those words with the actions of Cornerstone management:

    “We’ve made payment of the real living wage part of our procurement process, we’ve extended it to adult social care workers and we will soon do the same for early years workers. 

    “As a result of all of that, Scotland now has the highest proportion of employees paid the living wage of any UK nation.

    “But we must do more. Last month, we said business support grants from Scottish Enterprise would have living wage, zero hours contracts and gender pay criteria attached.

    “I can announce today that, working with unions, business and the public sector, we will extend that approach.

    “We will adopt a new default position. Fair Work First. By the end of this parliament, we will extend fair work criteria to as many funding streams and business support grants as we can. And, we will extend the range of Scottish Government and public sector contracts that fair work criteria apply to. 

    “Fair Work First means investment in skills and training, no exploitative zero hours contracts, action on gender pay, and genuine workforce engagement, including with trade unions. 

    And, of course, payment of the Living Wage”.

    I have to say as a socialist who advocated voting for the SNP in both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections and giving them my Constituency vote in the 2016 election I was very pleased with these words from Scotland’s First Minister. They are music to the ears for anyone interested in progressive and fair employment practices. But they are wholly inconsistent with an employer who derecognises a union and then issues letters designed to intimidate those who remain members and organisers of that union. Those are the actions of a Bully Boy employer not a Fair Work employer. 

    I have spoken with several Cornerstone workers over the last few days. I have been struck by their care and concern for the vulnerable clients they work with but also their determination to be treated properly and paid appropriately for the invaluable work they do. Sadly none of them can be quoted directly for fear of victimisation by Cornerstone. They all showed me their letters summoning them to meetings with management tomorrow. They genuinely fear they could be disciplined or sacked if they don’t stop being trade union stewards and members. That is appalling.

    UNISON has members in and recognition agreements with 600 charities but has never been derecognised and treated in such a shabby way by any of them. Elements of the deal they sought from Cornerstone have been negotiated successfully with other charities.

    The rogue element here is Cornerstone not UNISON. The reason this story needs to be told and action against Cornerstone has to be taken to force a change of mind and reversal of the derecognition decision is a dangerous precedent cannot be allowed to be set here. Employers who act the way Cornerstone has acted must be exposed and compelled to retreat or else other employers will sniff the scent of blood and seek also to derecognise unions and open a path to greater exploitation and mistreatment of workers. Trade union solidarity in support of UNISON members here is vital.

    Please contact your local MSP, MP and councillors and ask them to exert influence to force the union busting activities of Cornerstone to be reversed. SNP members in particular must demand the CEO of this company is immediately stripped of her Fair Work Ambassador title. Write also to the First Minister and implore her to honour her excellent words of support for Fair Work practices she issued in October by publicly intervening to declare that Cornerstone’s actions here are unacceptable.

    Spread the word about the actions of Cornerstone on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms using the Hashtag #cornerstoneunionbusting

    Support campaigns to resist further cuts to local authority budgets as inevitably such cuts lead to less money available to pay social care providers for the essential care work they do. But perhaps most important of all my appeal is to Cornerstone employees, and other workers in the social care sector, who may read this column. 

    Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be bullied. Stand up for your rights, the rights of your fellow social care workers and ultimately the rights of the vulnerable citizens you care for. Join the union. Don’t stand alone. There is strength in numbers. The past you inherit but the future you build.

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.

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