Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Loneliness of the long distance Branch Secretary...

I know I shouldn’t be blogging as I said I should be doing something else, but I have had one of those days which lay union activists will be all to familiar with and I need to say something about it.

I seem to have spent all day doing ultimately pointless things to remedy other people’s errors and all I have achieved in the end is to stop things getting any worse for a few individuals.

Why is it that employers so often find it impossible to abide by the procedures we agree with them? Why can’t one part of a large public service organisation let another part know what it is doing to an employee?

These are questions which my UNISON branch will be taking up with our main employers.

Another problem which I think we need to face up to concerns the UNISON Representation Guide. This is a well-intentioned document but it embodies an earlier NEC decision to prevent lay activists (and paid officials) from representing our members at employment tribunals in the name of the Union.

We now have to fill in a CASE Form to request legal representation and these are filtered through Regional officials before reaching our lawyers who then decide if a case has sufficient merit to be supported, in which case the member gets a solicitor and a barrister (just like the employer).

One problem with this approach is that we don’t take marginal cases and will never, this way, set new precedents of value to workers in general. However, I do appreciate that the Union needed to limit the premia on our professional indemnity insurance (since members don’t pay their subs in order to enrich the insurance industry or pay out in compensation) and that this approach has delivered on that objective.

However – and this is a second problem – delays in processing CASE Forms can mean that members have to be advised to submit their own tribunal applications pending a decision from the lawyers and in the mean time branch officials have to advise the member on correspondence in connection with a case which UNISON has not yet agreed to take.

This and other problems with the current approach make me think that we need to consider a motion to our autumn Regional Council to kick off a debate about this question. Just as we accredit new representatives in order that they shall qualify as reps for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act 1999 why can’t we accredit lay and full time officers, through appropriate training, to take tribunal cases once more?

We cannot go back to the approach of lodging tribunals first and asking questions afterwards, as the chances of having costs awarded against claimants are unfortunately much higher than they were in the 1990s. However at present it seems to me that it is just too difficult to use the tool of a tribunal application to advance the interests of our members.

Right, I’ve got that off my chest. Thankyou for your time and I’ll stop blogging now!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is precisely the discussion we have just had this morning with our R.O - we have been, in a number of cases, forced to pass on members cases to an independent legal advisor following Thompson's "merit assessment," and their decision that there is no reasonable chance of succeeding. In all cases, whether they were considered marginal or not, these cases have been successful either at tribunal or have been settled early because employers have known they are about to receive a kicking. Perhaps, we should all take a leaf out of the Kirklees book and submit large "class," actions on behalf of groups of workers before Thompsons get their hands on them - the lodge and shame approach may work wonders!