Organising in the IT industry: Fujitsu ballot on pay, jobs, pensions

Submitted by Newcastle on 24 September, 2009 - 8:13 Author: Ian Allinson, Chair, unite Fujitsu UK Combine Committee, spoke to Solidarity

UNITE and PCS are about to start a statutory ballot on jobs, pay and pensions. The anti-union laws make organising a ballot really difficult, especially when members are scattered across so many sites, but in the meantime, many more staff have joined the unions.

The company cancelled the pay rises due in April this year, then went on to announce it had made record profits – just a couple of weeks before the pay rises should have taken effect.

In May, the company announced that it intended to dismiss the 4000 staff in the main “final salary” (defined benefit) pension scheme, and re-employ them on new contracts with far worse pensions. We estimate this would be equivalent to a pay cut of about 20% for most of us.

Though the attack on pensions doesn’t directly affect most PCS members, who are in a different pension scheme, they knew that if the company closed the main scheme, others would follow. It later emerged that since 2007 the company has had a strategy (never communicated to staff) to exit all its “defined benefit” pensions schemes.

UNITE and PCS launched a joint campaign on pay and pensions, and members across the UK voted overwhelmingly for strike action in consultative ballots.

Then in September, the company put about 6000 of us at risk of redundancy, proposing to cut 1200 jobs. They timed the announcement for the day the UNITE consultative ballot closed. We think they hoped to overshadow the result and scare people into submission on pay and pensions. In reality people saw right through it.

Fujitsu is a giant multinational, based in Japan. We work for a subsidiary called Fujitsu Services, which employs about 12,500 people in the UK. The bulk of the company was ICL until 2002. We design, build, operate and support IT systems, mainly for government departments and big companies. Jobs include engineers, call centre agents, support, development, testing, design, sales and admin functions. As much of the work comes from outsourcing contracts, “TUPE” transfers of groups of staff between companies is common as contracts are won and lost, so some people have changed employers several times while doing the same job.

At the moment, UNITE members in Fujitsu are scattered in nearly 200 different branches across the country, though there are a few with significant numbers of members. Workplace organisation tends to be disconnected from the branches, which are the structures closest to the members which actually have their own funds.

UNITE has union recognition in some parts of the company, including Manchester where I work. PCS has recognition in other areas where civil service jobs have been privatised. Most of the company doesn’t yet have union recognition, though both UNITE and PCS have managed to extend their areas a bit in recent years.

There are over 900 staff in the Manchester bargaining unit, either based at the main Manchester site or home-based and living in the region. We have a team of about 30 workplace, safety, learning, equality and environmental reps, all elected at general members’ meetings. All the reps meet once a month, and the different groups meet as needed – for example the workplace reps meet weekly.

Where we don’t yet have recognition, members still elect reps and we have local contacts. It’s harder for them to operate, but we’ve now got over 40 UNITE reps and contacts on other sites. We have still got a long way to go – there are about 200 sites in the UK!

We’ve had local strikes in Manchester before (in 2003 and 2006-7) but we’ve never had a national one. In the local disputes, we could take decisions at members’ meetings, but you can’t do that in a national dispute. We decided to set up a national “combine committee”, elected directly by the members on a regional basis. This is helping us coordinate the campaign, as well as making sure that there’s proper accountability.

There are other strong union groups in the IT industry, but they are based on groups that have TUPE-transferred in from employers in other industries. As far as I know we are unique in being a union built by “natives”. Part of the reason for this is the ICL legacy.

ICL unionised in the 1970s, when it was a major computer manufacturer. Through the 1980s the company changed almost beyond recognition, abandoning manufacturing completely. Job losses took a terrible toll on union organisation. In the late 1980s the company derecognised unions nationally and at most of the major sites. Manchester was the only non-manufacturing site to retain recognition (by voting to strike). The other sites that kept recognition were manufacturing and repair sites which were sold off and later closed.

By the early 1990s Manchester was a shrinking island of union organisation – at one point we were down to two reps for a site of over 1200 people.

We have built up the union organisation by issue-based campaigning. The (largely paper) union recognition gave us some facilities to do this. Through much of the 1990s we didn’t win a lot, but people valued the fact that the union kept them informed whereas the company kept them in the dark, the fact that the union would publicly express how they felt about the issues that concerned them, and the fact that we campaigned where we could. This was enough to build up membership and involvement. Though growth has been a long and patient process, it has always relied on reacting quickly when things happen. If people see no opposition straight away when something bad happens, they start to accept defeat. We haven’t always been good at organising systematically, but we have been good at seizing opportunities when they arise.

The use of email newsletters and company works councils helped us build up our visibility and networks nationally, as well as helping us retain members we recruited in workplaces where there was little or no organisation.

In recent years, our campaign around job losses in 2002 and our successful local strikes in 2003 and 2006-7 have been key turning points in strengthening our position. The current campaign could mean a real breakthrough – a national dispute establishing effective national organisation. UNITE membership across Fujitsu has already gone up more than 30% this year and new members are joining every day.

Governments and employers have no clear strategy for getting out of the current recession, other than to make working people pay. As a result they are being extremely aggressive, but aggression isn’t the same thing as strength. The Visteon workers were fighting in the most difficult situation – when their employer was bust. But their audacious action forced Ford to intervene and won important concessions. They did more and threatened more than management had bargained for. A number of other recent victories follow a similar pattern – Linamar in Swansea, Bristol bins and the unofficial construction strikes. Aggression can turn into retreat when met with determined resistance.

The Vestas fight shows what an impact even a tiny number of people can have if they are prepared to put up a real fight and appeal for support. It is an absolute tragedy that the failure to unionise the plant in preceding years meant the fight started so late, with so few people and in such difficult circumstances. Though they haven’t kept the plant open, they have pushed the issue of green jobs up the political agenda and the trade union agenda more than years of conference resolutions could.

If you don’t fight, you are bound to lose. If you fight, you may win.

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