How Prudential staff built to a strike against offshoring

Prudential workers are about to take industrial action for the first time since 1990. The dispute centres on the company’s proposals to move 90 roles to Mumbai. How did workers overcome low membership, low confidence and management tactics to take a visible part in union activities and be ready to strike?

Unite sticker "I support Unite members in annuities Reading. Save their jobs!"Back in May the company announced plans to move 90 customer service roles dealing with servicing and bereavement to Mumbai. At the time membership in the area was 39% and confidence was low.

The area has seen targets imposed upon it, measures constantly changed and people being managed out under “poor performance”. Although Unite often successfully represented individuals, management refused to listen to the union about the impact this was having on employees. They carried on regardless and collectively members felt they had no power to challenge the situation, feeling demoralised.

Whilst Unite were able to negotiate reasonable pay pots (3% pots but distributed unevenly) staff were told that money was tight because of the 2008 financial crisis so they were lucky to have jobs etc etc. This made members fearful of challenging or taking action. At the same time Prudential profits rose year on year, as did executive pay.

Then in May the company told these workers that in order to save £2m they would all lose their jobs as the work was going to Mumbai.

Management Nonsense

Let’s put the £2m in context. Last year Prudential Group made £4,007m in profits. The UK business made £1,195m in profits. The top 6 executives took home £31m between them.

The company also said that they could drive efficiencies by moving work to Mumbai – implying that Reading staff were inefficient and not capable of improving. They told staff that customers would not suffer any detriment as a result of the move. This was all clearly nonsense and the members were enraged.

At a members’ meeting the day following the announcement Unite reps told the members if they wanted to fight the proposals the union would give them 100% support. Reps explained we needed to increase our membership during the consultation period (May – end of July).

Some members were sceptical and fearful of taking action and challenging the company. However, after years of being beaten down by the management actions in the area members concluded they had nothing to lose. The members spoke to non-members and by the end of the consultation period member activity had increased our density (the proportion of workers in the union) in the area to 60%.

At the end of the consultation process not much had changed. The company accepted that not all the work could go and 18 roles were taken out of scope. This left over 70 roles “at risk” with the company rejecting a Unite counter-proposal to keep the jobs in Reading and to introduce a no compulsory agreement. Members then decided they wanted to have a ballot for action.

Anger at management was increasing as members’ voices were being ignored and with the increased membership confidence was building. The ballot was held over the first two weeks of August and on a turnout of 75%, 100% voted in favour of action short of strike and 97.2% in favour of action including strike.

The company were shocked, but rather than deal with the issues, they went about trying to undermine the ballot, using incorrect numbers to say only a minority had voted for action. The members knew otherwise and saw right through the lies. Anger was building all the time.

The members decided what action to take: a work to rule and non co-operation with the company to move their jobs.

Again, the Company ignored the voices of the members and told them they would carry on regardless and use un-licensed staff to do the training and auditing of the work being migrated.

Members getting active

The work to rule started on Wednesday 31st August and all members took part. The union organised leafleting outside the building and the members joined in handing out leaflets and stickers to members of the public explaining their action.

On Friday 2nd September the union organised leafleting outside the railway station in Reading and even more of the members turned up to participate. They felt empowered to join in and be active in the fight. This wasn’t reps doing stuff for them – this was members actively involved in union activity to fight for their jobs. Confidence soared, new members were recruited, and density is now just over 66% as the fight continues.

Ignoring all this, the Company just kept saying the work would go and that they would do what they can to find other roles for those who want to stay, but could offer no guarantees.

After the first week of action the work to rule was having an impact with the project falling behind as the company struggled to continue without the people who knew the work. With no movement from the company, members decided to escalate the industrial action and have voted, unanimously, to hold 24-hour strikes on 16th and 23rd September.

We have held members meetings every week since the announcement and as membership has increased so has attendance. The impressive and key ingredient is the participation of the lay members in the dispute. From recruiting new members to standing outside the office handing out leaflets, standing in front of managers wearing stickers saying that they want to save their jobs to then voting for two days’ of strike action – the workplace has been transformed. As non-members saw their friends and colleagues taking part they thought “I want to be part of this”,  joined the union and took an active part in the dispute.

Members are absolutely clear on what a victory would look like and have made it clear they won’t accept a fudge or the promise of jam tomorrow. They want their jobs saved and they are prepared to stand up and fight for this to happen.

We will share updates on the dispute via the WorkplaceOrganising Facebook page but please check out the PruSection – Unite Facebook page for regular updates and tweet messages of support to @Prusection or email unite@prudential.co.uk.

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Organising workers scattered across small shops

Large workplaces are much more likely to be unionised than smaller ones. So how do activists in Greggs bakeries and shops stay in touch with workers scattered across over 1500 workplaces?

Gregg's shop storefront

Photo: Unisouth

Greggs includes both bakeries and shops. The bakeries are the base of the BFAWU Greggs branches, with many branch officials working in the bakery, as drivers or as engineers. Branches also cover up to 400 shops each, often spread across a large area. The bakeries also deliver to franchise shops such as MOTO and Euro garages, but these are not in the same branches.

Branches typically only have 6-8 stewards. The facilities agreement allows just five days a year to travel round visiting shops and recruiting, but days unused by one steward can be used by another. In city centres with lots of shops it doesn’t take long to visit quite a few, but it can take a couple of hours to get to some more remote stores. Greggs have agreed to extra days where necessary to ensure all shops are visited at least once per year.

Face to face communication is the best way to recruit new members but we have had to find other approaches to work around the difficulty of covering so many shops as well as working in your own.

When activists meet up, we talk to employees in nearby shops before and after meetings, adding extra face time to the five days we are allowed.

We organise ourselves based on the employer’s structures. Each shop is in an area manager group. Each steward covers 2-3 area manager groups of shops. This helps us avoid duplicating work or missing out shops. We make sure there are posters in every shop letting all the staff know who their local shop steward is.

The employer holds weekly conference calls between shops. Shop stewards speak on these and let people know about union activities.

We use the branch secretary and full time officers to pick up any slack around recruiting in shops that are hard to reach or have been missed. They help revisit shops so they are visited more than once each year.

Every week the shop stewards ring shops to pass on union information and to see if there are any issues. Usually we give each shop a specific time they can ring back to discuss any issues, so everyone gets time rather than it being used up by a few. It makes a big difference having the buy-in from shop managers, most of whom are union members themselves. They keep the channels of communication open. Members in the shops have stewards’ numbers, so if management withdrew facilities or cooperation we could still function, but we wouldn’t have such regular contact. We don’t yet use social media to communicate between stewards and members.

Communication is vital. When you have limited facility time and a 150 mile round trip to see some members, regular telephone contact is the best way to keep them informed and to keep the union to keep up to date with their issues. Members who are actively listened to are more likely to stay members and speak positively about the union – even if it is usually by phone rather than face to face.

Members in Greggs are the biggest part of our union.

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2 sisters workers strike against cuts to pay for phony National Living Wage

Since George Osborne introduced his phony “National Living Wage” there has been a spate of employers cutting other benefits to fund it. BFAWU members at 2 sisters food group are striking to stop this.

2 sisters is one of the largest food companies in the UK. It owns brands such as Fox’s Biscuits, Goodfella’s Pizzas, Holland’s pies and Harry Ramsden’s as well as supplying ready meals to customers including Marks & Spencer.

To compensate for the huge rise in pay to £7.20 an hour (the new phony National Living Wage) for their lowest-paid workers 2 sisters is attacking other terms and conditions. BFAWU members at two factories are striking to stop this:

  • R F Brooks, Rogerstone, Newport (struck on 1-2 June)
  • Pennine, Sheffield (due to strike for the second time 5-6 June)

They want to introduce new contracts with slashed shift allowances, overtime payments and premiums for working weekends and bank holidays. They want to cut lieu time and paid breaks. They want to mirror George Osborne’s double standard of the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage by paying workers under 25 years old 50p an hour less for doing exactly the same job.

They have tried to bully employees into signing the new contracts by threatening to sack those who don’t. The threats are being focussed on migrant workers who may feel more vulnerable.

Workers are set to lose thousands of pounds a year. One couple at the Pennine factory in Sheffield will lose around £5000 each. This is the difference between keeping their house and losing it.

‘More for less’ is the 2 sisters food group’s slogan. Ranjit Singh Boparan and and his wife Baljinder Boparan who own the company are estimated to be worth £1.35 billion. He was the first billionaire in Birmingham. They are definitely gaining more on the back of their low paid workers earning less.

Please give your support to the strikers:

Pennine Foods, Sheffield:

  • Next strike set for Sunday 5 – Monday 6 June
  • Join the rally at 12:00 on Sunday 5 June
  • Messages of support to john.higgins@bfawu.org or haroon.rashid@bfawu.org
  • Donations made payable to BFAWU can be sent to “Pennine Strike Fund, BFAWU, Stanborough House, Great North Road, Welwyn Garden City, Herts, AL8 7TA.
  • Join the Pennine support group on Facebook

R F Brooks, Newport:

  • Messages of support to Dai Mort (ccbdfs11@yahoo.com) or john.james@bfawu.org
  • Donations payable to BFAWU can be sent to BFAWU Region 2, 19a West Bute Street, (rear) The Courtyard, The Docks, Cardiff, CF10 5EP
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Support Guards on Southern Railway

RMT members have been striking against plans by GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) to compromise passenger safety and customer service with more driver-only trains. ASLEF members have also voted to strike.

RMT: Stay safe! Keep the guard on the train!

For more information on the dispute, see their Facebook page.

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Job evaluation and equality

Job Evaluation (JE) is becoming more prevalent throughout industry. Employers typically introduce JE for 2 reasons. The main reason tends to be to try and get a grip on rising salaries. The other reason is to help employers cover themselves from legal challenge where there are large salary differentials, often between men and women.

Junior doctors' picket with placard highlighting discrimination

Photo: https://goo.gl/NlI055 BMA striking against discriminatory contract

Employers normally hire consultants to help them conduct the job evaluation. The Hay methodology is one of the most common approaches in Britain. Where a trade union is recognised, they will often be invited to participate in the JE exercise. Activists will need to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of becoming involved in any JE initiative. If groups of members are likely to suffer from pay cuts or pay freeze, there’s a real danger that the union will get blamed for any adverse impact. Likewise where significant groups of members are low paid and there are real possibilities that members salaries will rise then the union can be seen to negotiate positive outcomes for these members. Either way, there will always be winners and losers and any union engagement with JE must be done critically and without any up front commitment that the union endorses the outcome. We should always remember that when employers introduce these schemes they do so to protect their own interests and they have little interest in a fair outcome.

We work in a large engineering company with many UK sites and a gender breakdown of roughly 80 – 20 male v female. A decade and a half of performance related pay (PRP) had created massive salary differentials. We were aware of people doing the same job with £1000’s salary differentials. We have minority union membership and had challenged the company to introduce a transparent grading scheme to begin addressing these salary anomalies. The company are very conscious of their image and agreed that no discrimination on salaries could be justified.

The union agreed to get involved in a consultation process to help design the new grading scheme that would follow the JE exercise. We made sure our reps got training from the union which provided us with some really useful insights into how these schemes work and some of the pitfalls to watch out for. However, during the consultation we found that many of our concerns were ignored, which was a reflection of our low union density. The company were more interested in getting our endorsement than taking on board our ideas and concerns. The scheme we ended up with had a small number of wide salary bands with a 60% gap and significant overlap between grades. So someone at the top of a grade would be earning much more than many of the staff on the grade above.

However, the overriding view amongst union reps was that most members would benefit on the majority of sites as they tended organise in the lower paid areas. The national union leadership shared these views and didn’t want scupper a deal that would benefit the majority of existing members. This approach was self-defeating as it risked preventing us from expanding into the areas where we had fewer members – amongst the highly skilled growing majority of the workforce.

Reps conducted a UK wide salary census to allow us to see what the salary spread was. Unsurprisingly, we found that higher pay tended to be concentrated in the plant in the South East and that a large gender gap was apparent across all sites. We used this information to challenge the company and obtain detailed salary information in the consultation. This was really useful in that it confirmed our fears about the legacy or PRP in opening up huge salary gaps between those doing ‘equal’ or ‘like’ work and about the spread of pay across the sites. However, it also created a divide where some groups were encouraged to see those in higher paid areas as being “over paid”, suiting the company agenda.

To try and stop the race to the bottom, we were able to show that none of the consultants’ ‘benchmarking’ companies were comparable. We used this information to destroy the scheme’s credibility with the workforce. We then got comparable salaries from recruitment agencies to determine the rate employers were recruiting staff in the same roles and argued this was the ‘market rate’. We got information from the government Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) web site on skill shortages and the cost of living for our region and campaigned around these issues with newsletters and regular meetings. We created an atmosphere that convinced both staff and managers that the scheme was unfair. We found out that our own company had begun to recruit new staff at the maximum salaries and that a growing army of contractors was being hired to cope with people leaving and their inability to recruit and retain staff. This situation and our campaign put the company on the defensive and stopped them following the advice of the consultant to cut the salaries of those earning above the salary maximums. Instead, these salaries were frozen. The company refused to promote these staff as we suggested which confirmed our view that the exercise was less about fairness and more about controlling pay.

The Tories are finally going to force major companies to publish pay details on the gender gap. Legislation on the right to information for collective bargaining already gives reps access to information about pay distributions but the legislation will give activists an opportunity to use the data to campaign against discriminatory pay systems.

After the first year, we decided to use the salary data we got from the company to explore the huge gender based salary differentials to tackle low pay and discredit the wide salary bands. As none of the other sites were prepared to oppose the scheme, it was hard to secure a national strategy to do so. We held site-wide members’ meetings to work out a strategy. Members who were mostly male agreed that unfairness in the scheme could begin to be tackled by exposing examples of gender based discrimination.

We began looking around for advice and support. The union were nervous about challenging a scheme that ‘benefited’ most members. We found the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) website had some really useful information such as guides on Job Evaluation and and Job Grading. It had guidance which showed that the scheme the company had implemented was a ‘High Risk’ scheme and was likely to be unfair and discriminatory.

We held meetings of female members so they were comfortable to share their experiences and to find out what they were saying about the discriminatory treatment. Some of the women’s experiences were really shocking. One woman described how she had been told that she wasn’t getting a wage rise one year because the manager had decided to give it to her husband. He justified this by suggesting that the household would still get a cost of living increase with the husband’s wage rise. This had happened over ten years ago and the woman’s salary and pension had been affected for years. She was earning thousands less than men working on the grade below her. Another spoke about how she had been promoted after years of doing the team leader’s job but had only received a nominal increase with the promotion. Her salary was up to £20,000 below her peers. Others spoke about missing out on promotion because they had young families or had even indicated that they might one day want to have children. As we began to deal with these cases the company completely caved in with immediate salary increases and in one case backdated pay of over £20,000 to compensate for lost earnings and pension. We are now in discussions with the company about a strategy for dealing with these low paid women. The company have also finally agreed to a negotiate a transparent mechanism for promoting staff who have had their salaries frozen for a couple of years to remove them as potential comparators for low paid women. This development won’t stop us pursuing equal pay issues as the salary bands are so wide. It will lead to the promotion of staff earning above the maximum salaries which is what we argued for at the outset.

With low union density we have been able to use advice from the EHRC, salary information on the ‘market rate’ and salary data from the employer to campaign against low pay and to promote those above the salary maximums rather than cut salaries as has often been the case when JE systems are implemented.

As staff see that our strategy is forcing the company to make concessions, membership is growing again after a period of stagnation.

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Set up a bank account well before you go on strike

Strikes eat money – for everything from hardship payments to members to printing of leaflets and fares to meetings and events. Luckily, strikes raise money too – as long as you ask for it. To raise money effectively, you need a bank account. Setting one up takes time, so do it well before you need it. This article explains why and how.

If you’ve not been on strike before it can be hard to see how you can raise money. The media presents strikers as greedy and selfish. Strikers themselves can be focussed on the details of their dispute with their own employer and struggle to imagine why anyone else would care.

In some cases a strike might connect with defence of some important public service. My own workplace is in the private sector, but we’ve still been overwhelmed with solidarity and support whenever we’ve taken action. The reasons are simple. Firstly, employers are all up to similar mischief, so the issues you face are likely to be ones others face or fear they will face. If you win, their own employers may be less aggressive, and other workers will feel more confident to fight. Secondly, not many people are striking at the moment, so anyone who does can expect a lot of attention within the labour movement. If other workers are not confident to fight back themselves, they may still wish they could, and want you to win.

How to go about raising money would be another article. This one focusses on why and how to set up a bank account.

Quite a few strikes in recent years have relied on online crowdfunding to raise money. This is a great way to get individual donations from far and wide. But it isn’t so good for getting donations or collections from other union branches or workplaces. They typically want an account to either bring cash to your picket line or send the money to an account so that it’s clear where the money has gone when their own accounts are audited. Crowdfunding sites also tend to take quite a slice of the money themselves.

In some cases you’ll be able to use an existing bank account e.g. a union branch. In other cases that won’t be possible or advisable. A key issue is control. Many strikers have asked for donations to be sent to their union’s region, but then it has been very difficult and slow (or even impossible!) for strikers themselves to access the money. In other cases having your strike fund mixed up with other funds can cause problems, or your branch treasurer might be unwilling to cope with the additional workload of administering the strike fund. This article assumes you need to set up a new account.

Setting up a bank account these days takes time, thanks to all the checks designed to prevent money laundering. The account you want isn’t a personal one, it’s a “clubs and societies” account. These accounts can have the name of an organisation rather than a person, and you can have multiple signatories on the account.

First work out which bank you want to use. You’ll usually want one that has a convenient branch for the main people who will be running it. A lot of groups used to use the Coop because of their labour movement roots and ethical reputation, but many are choosing other banks since the Coop closed the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s account.

Get the necessary forms from the bank you’ve chosen and read them carefully. Typically they will require a copy of your group’s “constitution” along with minutes of a meeting where it was decided to set up the account. Often they will have a specific motion they require you to pass. You need to check your bank’s specific requirements.

You may already have a suitable “organisation” you can use to own the bank account. We didn’t, so we set up a “club” for the purpose. Here’s an example constitution if you need to set up a club:

Name of Club – Constitution and Rules

1)    Aims
The Name of Club (hereinafter referred to as “the group”) aims to:
a)    Encourage trade union recruitment, organisation, solidarity and campaigning
b)    Support and encourage participation in relevant progressive campaigns
c)    Encourage cooperation between unions organising workers in the name of industry
d)    Oppose discrimination and promote equality with an emphasis on workers in the name of industry and name of area.

2)    Organisation
a)     Any person supporting the Aims of the group and accepting these Rules shall be eligible to apply to become a member of the group.
b)     Applications for membership shall be determined by the officers’ committee.
c)     There shall be an Annual membership meeting which will elect officers, cheque signatories and the auditor, and approve the accounts for the previous year.
d)     Additional meetings will take place if:
i.    Agreed by a membership meeting, or
ii.    Called by the officers’ committee, or
iii.    The secretary receives a request, signed by at least one-quarter of the members, which sets out the business to be discussed by the meeting.  Such a meeting will be called within 14 days of receipt by the Secretary of the request.
e)    The activities of the group shall be decided by membership meetings or by the officers’ committee.
f)    All expenditure shall require two signatures, neither of which may be the payee.
g)    Decisions will be taken by a simple majority vote, and may be at a meeting or otherwise.

3)    Officers
a)     The membership meeting shall elect annually, at its first meeting in the calendar year, a Chair, a Secretary, a Treasurer, an Auditor and other such officers as it deems necessary.  Any vacancies in Officer positions may be filled by election by and from the membership as they arise.
b)     The Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and other such officers as the members may decide at the time of their election shall form the officers’ committee.
c)     The duties of the Chair shall be to chair meetings; to secure agreement of the members to the agenda for discussion at each meeting; to secure a full and frank discussion of all matters of contention and an expeditious conduct of uncontentious business.
d)     The duties of the Secretary shall be to take minutes of the decisions of all meetings; to conduct any correspondence arising from the decisions of the membership meetings; to maintain the list of members; to report all correspondence and communications received; to seek to ensure that all those entitled to attend receive notice of meetings; to seek to ensure that all those entitled to vote on any decision have the opportunity to do so.
e)     The duties of the Treasurer shall be to receive and bank all monies due to the group; to pay all liabilities incurred by the group; to reimburse the officers and members any expenses they properly incur in carrying out the approved duties assigned to them; to report on the group’s financial position; to prepare an annual income and expenditure account and balance sheet, which shall be presented to the first membership meeting in each calendar year. The Treasurer shall submit the annual income and expenditure account and balance sheet, together with all relevant paperwork (e.g. the cash book, bank statements and all receipts and copies of invoices), to the Auditor at least one month before the membership meeting at which the annual financial report will be presented.
f)     The duties of the Auditor shall be to conduct annually an audit of the financial records maintained by the Treasurer and to certify whether the income and expenditure account and balance sheet prepared by the Treasurer are a true and correct record of the financial transactions and a true and correct statement of the financial position of the group. The Auditor must not be an officer or a signatory to the bank account.
g)     The duties of any other officers elected by the membership meeting shall be as decided by the membership meeting.
h)     The officers’ committee may agree to allow an officer to delegate part of their duties where appropriate.

4)    Dissolution
The group shall be dissolved by a resolution of a special membership meeting called for this purpose.  Not less than fourteen days’ notice shall be given by the Secretary to all members of a membership meeting at which a motion to dissolve the group shall be considered.  The notice of the meeting shall contain the terms of the motion to dissolve the group.

5)    Changes to rules
These rules may be amended by a resolution of a special membership meeting called for this purpose.  Not less than fourteen days’ notice shall be given by the Secretary to all members of a membership meeting at which a motion(s) to amend the rules shall be considered. The notice of the meeting shall contain the terms of the motion(s) to amend the rules of the group.

Once you’ve got a group of people together who are willing to be club members and to take on the various roles, call a meeting of your club, agree the constitution, do your elections, and pass the motion required by the bank. You need to elect at least three signatories if you are going to require payments to be signed by two people, neither of which may be the payee.

Your officers will then need to fill in the form for the bank and take along various forms of ID to get the account set up. Some clubs and societies accounts do allow online banking.

If you want the strike fund to be controlled by a body (e.g. a stewards’ committee) other the club you’ve set up to run the bank account, to increase democratic accountability, that’s possible. Firstly, get your new club to pass a motion agreeing that any funds contributed will be spent as directed by the stewards’ committee. Then get the stewards committee to pass a motion agreeing to use the account for its strike fund. The stewards can then advertise the account as the place to send donations.

Some workplaces have set up their strike funds as charities. There are advantages to this in terms of tax etc., but for most strike funds you don’t expect to have much money in there for long so these are limited. The disadvantages are that the purposes for which you can use the money are more limited, and you have the extra bureaucracy of complying with Charity Commission rules.

Activists in some workplaces build up their funds over time, but this isn’t essential. Just having the account ready to use when you need it rather than trying to navigate the bank bureaucracy in the middle of a dispute is a huge help. Spending money to support other strikers is in many ways better than “money in the bank” as it means you’re likely to get solidarity when you need it most. Just a few hundred pounds in there at the start of a strike can help while your fundraising gets going.

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Organising contractors and building solidarity with the core workforce

As more and more companies are looking to outsource their workforces, it is vitally important that union reps look to organise outside as well as inside their workplaces.

Having always worked as a contractor we’ve generally received hostility from more organised core workers. Most companies currently seem to want their workforce divided into “core” and “periphery”, to keep workers divided and on a race to the bottom. The best starting point for organising would be for core workers to reach out to indirectly employed staff and use the advantages of their position to build solidarity between direct staff and contractors – but that doesn’t always happen.

Hard hat, worker

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

When the core workers in my industry found themselves in dispute with the main company, I saw this as an opportunity to reach out to them. We rang the shop stewards and said we would provide whatever support we could, when the main employer contacted us to essentially act as scab labour we refused and notified workers at other contractors to do the same.

This gave us a position where the core workers realised they were stronger building links with us as contractors rather than thinking they could just sit in a privileged position. We used this opportunity to build links across all the connected companies, and started to meet on Friday evenings to find common ground and start to build on these foundations.

We’ve found health and safety to be a good organising tool, especially for the contracting workers who are worried about how their employer will react to the union. The strategy is to get the contracting managers to buy in to the support the union can provide around health and safety, then when the workers get recognition we can start to make demands.

We have already had some great success in negotiations but also some setbacks. It is clear to everyone the only alternative to organising, would be to accept everything that has been fought for and won, will be taken away without a fight.

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