Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Conference Rule Amendment on legal assistance

It seems that my earlier optimism about the UNISON Conference database may have been premature, since the link to the rule amendment on the qualifying period for legal assistance is also not working (yet).

Other UNISON bloggers have reported on this as it was agreed, or commented since (accurately or otherwise) but it is an important decision and merits some further comment.

With effect from the end of this year’s National Delegate Conference, UNISON members need only four, rather than thirteen, weeks’ membership under their belt before having the full entitlement to legal assistance which is available to full members of the Union.

This rule amendment was put by the National Executive Council (NEC) in 2006 and was roundly defeated. Last year, Croydon branch led the charge and the proposal was only narrowly defeated. This year Glasgow Caledonian University branch won the two thirds majority which was required.

The intention of the rule amendment is to assist recruitment of new members. The core of the opposition to the amendment was the view that we ought not to be in the business of helping those “free riders” who avoid joining the Union until they need our assistance.

I think that the new approach, reflected in the successful rule amendment, is the right approach to suit the environment in which we are organising now, in the twenty first century. Union density in many public sector employers is below 50% - and we have to target employees of private contractors where density may be far lower, and employers overtly hostile.

In these circumstances we need to be able to use all the tools at our disposal as swiftly as possible to defend and promote the interests of our members. It’s no good marching in to an unorganised workplace and signing up the members if we then twiddle our thumbs for three months before taking any necessary legal action.

Now we need to turn our minds to how we subordinate our legal activities to our organising agenda – and whether the current approach of restricting tribunal representation to lawyers really delivers for us.

Legal action may be vital to protect the interests of an individual member, but to advance the collective interests of our members it ought to come a poor third to industrial and political activity. This Rule Change is not a short cut to recruitment and it will only help to build UNISON if we can make UNISON a Union our members want to build.

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