Tuesday, April 29, 2008

UNISON NEC report to UNISON branches

Here is a copy of a report circulated to UNISON branches in the Greater London Region over the weekend. I was overjoyed (no seriously I was) to receive a new copy of the UNISON Branch Directory (containing up to date contact information for UNISON branches) on Saturday and will check if there are any branches who may have missed out when I get a chance – in the mean time here is the report;

(apologies to regular readers for the extent to which this repeats earlier posts on this blog!)

Personal report of NEC member to Greater London Region UNISON Branches April 2008

First of all, please let me offer my apologies for the delay in circulating my report from the April meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC), which took place before the Easter holidays. In this message I am sending you a report from the April meeting of the NEC as well as the earlier meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee.

Please feel free to circulate this report to your Branch Committee or to any UNISON members. If you would prefer not to receive personal NEC reports please let me know.

Report of Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee 8 April 08

The D&O Committee met primarily to discuss business for National Delegate Conference. We discussed the small number of Rule Amendments which have made it on to the agenda following the extreme diligence of our Standing Orders Committee. If anyone wants to know the policies adopted on any particular Rule Amendment please get in touch.

Of particular interest may be Rule Amendment 4, which the NEC is supporting, and which seeks to apply to Service Group Executives the principle that those who are elected to a Committee in one capacity ought not to be eligible to seek election to the same Committee in another capacity at the same time. This principle – if consistently applied – would help to maximise opportunities for participation in our Union for new activists.

There was some confusion about Rule Amendment 5 – from the National Disabled Members Committee – which, if passed by Conference, would create a position of Branch Disabled Members’ Officer ideally to be filled by a disabled member, as the officers seemed to think that the Amendment stated that the role would have to be filled by a disabled member or not be filled at all. This is not in fact what the Rule Amendment says and, after some debate at the Committee the eventual position is that the NEC is, happily in my view, supporting this Rule Amendment.

The NEC will also be supporting Rule Amendment 6 submitted by two branches in our own Region, which is the third consecutive attempt to persuade Conference to reduce the qualifying period of membership for access to legal assistance from thirteen weeks to four weeks. With union density below 50% in many of our lead employers there is a desperate need to recruit new members and reducing the qualifying period will help with this, strengthening the Union to the benefit of all our members. If any branches would like a speaker from the NEC to explain our policy of support for this very important Rule Amendment please contact any of your NEC members.

I am personally disappointed not only that the NEC will simply be opposing Rule Amendment 8, which seeks to regulate the discretion of the Chair of Conference in relation to the calling of card votes, but also that there appears to be no imaginative thought being given at present to how to avoid the problems which have arisen in recent years over contested calls for card votes.

The Committee also recommended policy to the NEC on those policy motions within its remit and suggested some amendments to motions on the Preliminary Agenda to go forward in the name of the NEC.

The other major item for discussion which arose at the Committee meeting related to a report which was not on the agenda for the Committee and, as it turned out, should not have been on any other agendas either. The Committee received a brief and not particularly informative report of the work currently underway following the decision of last year’s Conference in relation to the review of branch and service group structures.

This review is not being carried out by the NEC or by its relevant Committee but by a “Board” established by the D&O Committee last September. The lay members of the Board are Norma Stephenson, Jane Carolan, Tony Greive, Gerry Gallagher, Mike Hayes, Mike Kirby, Chris Tansley, Jean Geldart and Clare Williams, and the Board itself has established three project groups.

The first project group on branch structures includes the following lay members – Sue Highton, Gerry Gallagher and Clare Williams. It is working on a framework for joint branch/region assessments of the performance of branches, about which the D&O Committee received a further progress report, and also on a revised and simplified process for the creation, closure and merger of branches.

The second project group on branch finance and resources includes Mike Hayes (Chair of the NEC Finance and Resource Management (FRM) Committee) and is looking at a new format for annual financial returns, a revised audit process and guidelines to branches on honoraria payments and on the Regional pool.

The third group, identified as “potentially the most sensitive” is the project group on Service Group structures. The lay members involved in this group are Mike Kirby, Jean Geldart, Jane Carolan and Tony Grieve. The report received by the D&O Committee informed us that “fundamental questions remain around Service Group structures” but that the Board had agreed on 19 February that it was not enough to be asking questions at this stage and that “a variety of options are under consideration” and that “the Service Group Liaison Committee, Senior Management Group and Regional Convenors will be canvassed for their views.”

It appears that the report’s author was hiding the light of our Union under something of a bushel, since members of the Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE) meeting later that same week, had received a full report setting out three options for the future.

When it became clear that this report had been circulated SGE members were told to destroy it, so I can only speculate that the three options were;
A minimal change option;
A moderate change option reconfiguring Service Group structures by merging small Service groups and moving schools members out of Local Government into an “Education” Service Group and probation service members into a Service Group alongside Police Staff;
A maximum change option doing away with Service Group structures altogether and relying on “sectors” to do the bread and butter “terms and conditions” work of the Union.

With luck the unfortunate accident which led to the circulation of the full report to the Local Government SGE will mean that there is now an inclusive and transparent process of debate about the future structure of our Union which seeks to build a consensus through openness and respect for our activists. I will certainly expect to see an updated version of the full report at the next NEC meeting as will any other NEC members who are serious about the role and responsibility of our elected lay NEC.

National Executive Council Meeting 9 April 2008

The main item of business for this meeting was UNISON National Delegate Conference. The NEC therefore agreed its policy on most of the motions (and rule amendments) on the Preliminary Agenda, and agreed on the submission of Amendments. If any London UNISON branch (or member) wants details on the NEC policies on any particular Conference motion please get in touch – I will just touch on one or two items here.

The NEC has agreed to submit an amendment to Motion 11 on the Two Tier Workforce from Somerset County (which I think we should be aiming to debate at Conference) – I objected to various parts of the NEC amendment which appeared to me to water down the motion but the NEC agreed to press ahead. Should the motion be prioritised it will be up to Conference to decide whether to ask the NEC to do some work or to call upon the Government to do it instead…

I also objected (equally fruitlessly I fear) to the detail of an NEC amendment to Motion 16 on Campaigning on Pay from the Islington branch which seeks to delete reference to a national demonstration in favour of support for action called by the TUC and also deletes reference to inviting speakers from other unions (on the grounds – I was told – that we need to be meeting with our own members first of all).

For those who want to know why we should counterpose organising meetings of our own members and inviting speakers from other trade unions you’ll have to ask someone else, as I received no coherent explanation for the policy position then adopted by the NEC.I also took issue unsuccessfully with the decision of the Policy Committee to oppose Motion 37 from York City on Housing – which I fear that the NEC will indeed oppose at Conference because the motion opposes Local Housing Companies which, our Policy Committee felt “should not be ruled out at this early stage” – I was disappointed with this decision which I think reflects a lack of confidence in our position of support for public ownership and public sector housing provision.

In line with the precedent set last year, the NEC are proposing an amendment which radically redirects Motion 63 from the Bromley branch, the entertainingly (if somewhat misleadingly) titled “New Labour: What Do We Get for Our Money?” The amendment (put before us by the less entertainingly titled “Objective Three Scrutiny Group”) brings in reference to the Hayden Phillips Review of Party funding which is missing from the motion, but also suggests that all that might be wrong with the operation of our political funds are their “operations and functional processes” – whereas I think our problem is the political timidity which led to our nominating Gordon Brown for Labour Party Leader.

York City branch are also the movers of Motion 81 on Migrant workers which has attracted an NEC amendment which is largely sensible but which, to my regret, deletes reaffirmation of UNISON Conference policy in favour of an amnesty for illegal migrants. I would accept that it is better to use the preferred phrase “regularisation” rather than the word “amnesty” which we agreed at our Conference if someone could show me that this was getting us anywhere in terms of influencing the Government...

Debate on the NEC’s position on Motion 115 on the Branch Directory was somewhat curtailed by the announcement that a new Branch Directory will be with branches shortly. This has now come true (which just shows that wishes can come true...)

NEC Annual Report – Branch Funding and Equal Pay

There was some discussion about the NEC Annual Report (not least a query over the working title “Taking the Lead”) however the most important area of discussion concerned what the report has to say (and what we are doing) in relation to meeting the costs of the equal pay challenge, and the implications this may have for branch funding.

As you will be aware from previous reports, the Union faces very significant costs from mass litigation over equal pay following the implementation of job evaluation based pay structures intended to deliver equal pay for work of equal value in our largest service groups.Most of this cost arises where, for example, employers will not offer any, or enough, compensation for past loss to those members who are gaining from the implementation of new pay structures and who can in some cases, depending upon the gender profile of the relevant parts of the workforce, bring equal pay claims to seek back pay for up to six years.

Some of the cost also arises from cases being brought against UNISON (as against other trade unions) by “no win no fee” solicitors (who are also touting for business bringing some equal pay cases against employers in return for a good share of the compensation due to often low paid workers for past injustice). UNISON is solvent, with reasonable levels of financial reserves and is not running up large deficits (which is good news – but probably also encourages litigation against the Union). However, a need for adequate funding for litigation relating to equal pay has been identified repeatedly in recent years.

The NEC controls the Union’s finances but has to do so within the Union’s Rules. One such is Rule H.4.1 which states that National Delegate Conference (consisting as it does of delegates from branches) is the body to decide how branches are funded from our subscription income. A formula was agreed in 2001 which gives all branches a basic 20% of the income from their members’ subscriptions plus various additions, with a guarantee that, overall, no less than 23.5% of national subscription income will go to branch funding (including contributions to the Regional Pool funds to which branches can apply for additional funding for specific projects).

There has been a strong feeling within the Union that “all parts of the Union” should contribute to “meeting the financial costs of the equal pay challenge.” Therefore the Finance and Resource Management Committee of the NEC, at its meeting on 31 January, agreed the text of a motion to be submitted to National Delegate Conference from the NEC explaining the need for these resources and seeking the approval of Conference to “top slice” all budgets, including branch funding to take about 2.5% of subscription income for this purpose (a proposal which is being described as a “freeze” because it is based upon leaving cash payments to branches in 2008 at the 2007 level).

Unfortunately – because of the ease with which the no win no fee solicitors can access details of discussion and decisions from within official trade union meetings and Conferences (with a view to using them in litigation against the trade union) the Standing Orders Committees for all UNISON Conferences have been given legal advice not to permit on the agenda any discussion of equal pay, for fear that this will place the union in legal jeopardy. I have commented here before that I think that this overly cautious approach will create more and more problems for us as the years go by.

Advance notice of the likelihood of such an approach led the Finance Committee members, at the February meeting of the NEC, to agree not to proceed with the motion which they had been intending to recommend. Instead it was agreed to explain the proposal in the NEC Annual Report, about which delegates to Conference can ask questions (providing that they submit an initial written question before a published deadline and a further written supplementary question before a further deadline) but which is not generally subject to debate.

Meetings have been arranged around the Regions for Branch Treasurers in particular to be briefed on the proposals in relation to what is generally now described as the freeze on branch funding and this has become somewhat controversial. There is a meeting in the Greater London Region on Thursday 22 May at 2pm in Central London and branches should register their attendance with Helen Reynolds at Regional Office by 6 May. I strongly urge all branches to attend.

As you may have seen, the Worcester County branch have issued a couple of email circulars objecting to the proposal on several grounds.

As an aside – one of the arguments put forward by Worcester branch does not convince me (as I have explained to them in correspondence). I don’t think that the cost of building a new Headquarters building for the Union is an issue to raise in this context. It is certainly a valid and legitimate issue about which branches may wish to hold the NEC to account at Conference, but in the context of the current branch funding proposals it is a bit of a red herring (I will happily explain the reasons why I voted to support the proposal when the decision was taken in 2004 to any London UNISON branch – I covered this in a report to branches at the time).

Much more to the point, in my opinion, is the fact that our Rule Book simply does not allow the NEC to alter the basis of branch funding without an explicit Conference decision.
I raised concerns on this point in the discussion of the Annual Report at the NEC meeting, having given notice that I would. I argued that there was no other Rule of the Union which would allow the NEC to disregard Rule H.4.1 (having heard it suggested that Rule D.2.9.15 might do so) – on this point I was told that this had not been suggested.I went on to say that trying to use the Annual Report as a device for Conference to take a decision as would satisfy the requirements of Rule H.4.1 in relation to branch funding was not satisfactory since the Annual Report is not submitted in accordance with Rule P.17.2 (which covers NEC reports requiring decisions) but with Rule P.17.1 (which doesn’t).

Both the President and the General Secretary, in their different ways, said that this was “not a fait accompli” until Conference (those were the words of our President – Dave just said that if Conference refers back that section of the NEC Annual Report then “we won’t do it” – i.e. the changes in relation to branch funding will not be made).

Although this acceptance of Conference sovereignty is welcome it isn’t, in my opinion, good enough. The problem is not what would happen if Conference moved reference back of the report, since I believe what was said about that.

The problem would arise if Conference did not refer back the report, since it would still be highly arguable that no proper Conference decision had been taken to vary the 2001 formula on branch funding or its implementation and application.

It was suggested to me privately that the office has legal advice to the effect that the requirements of Rule H.4.1 are satisfied if an attempt to refer back a section of the Annual Report is unsuccessful, but I don’t think that this is an adequate approach to the governance of the Union. I am not the only one who is not persuaded.

I have spoken with the Glasgow City branch, who submitted a motion to Conference (which has been ruled out of order) – the Glasgow motion, endorsed by the UNISON Scottish Council, asks Conference to agree the proposals which the NEC Finance Committee want to implement.

Since there is a need to resource litigation on equal pay, and since it is reasonable to ask branches for a proportionate contribution to this, I think that the best outcome now would be if the Standing Orders Committee can change their mind about the Glasgow motion. Branch delegates could then decide whether or not they were persuaded of the NEC’s approach in accordance with our Rules.

If the Glasgow motion is not admitted to the agenda then the only option, not just for those who may disagree with the detail of the NEC approach, but also for those unwilling to set this precedent and allow the branch funding formula to be varied in this way, will be to move reference back of the relevant part of the Annual Report.

We may well know a little more about the decisions likely to be before Conference by 22 May, which provides another reason for branches to ensure that we are represented at the Greater London Region briefing.

Pay offers and pay disputes

As noted in the official report of the NEC meeting, the NEC also received reports on the state of play in relation to pay offers in our Service Groups. Branches will be familiar with the position in respect of your own service group.

In local government we are consulting members with a recommendation to reject an offer worth about 2.5% on the pay bill and offering most members 2.45%. In health we are consulting members without a recommendation on a three year offer which starts with 2.75%.

UNISON’s April bargaining report includes valuable information to share with members being consulted on pay offers;

“Average earnings growth is now forecast to be in the region of 3.8% in the first quarter of the year, but staying within sight of the 4% mark through the remainder of the year.”

“Inflation is forecast to run at 3.8% during the first quarter of 2008. It will fall throughout the remainder of the year, from 3.4% in the second quarter to 2.6% by the fourth quarter. The average for 2008 as a whole is forecast to run at 3.3%.”

Pay offers to our members at less than the rate of price inflation amount to a pay cut in real terms and – following the success of the strike action on 24 April by members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and University and College Union (UCU) – there is every prospect of unified public sector strike action over pay which can force the Government to back down on public sector pay restraint.

As Dave Prentis reminded the April NEC meeting, UNISON is supporting a TUC lobby of Parliament over public sector pay on 9 June. We could (and in my view should) be aiming to use that lobby as a stepping stone towards united public sector strike action.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not exactly a "brief report" - but very useful. Thanks for the update!