Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review of UNISON structures

I have written to all UNISON branches in Greater London ahead of my report from the meeting of the NEC Development and Organisation Committee on 22 January because there is one particular matter upon which I need urgent advice from London branches.

This concerns the document on “Bargaining Structures in UNISON: Proposals for the Future.”

This report of the work which has been done on the Service Group structures is, in my opinion, seriously deficient. The NEC Development and Organisation Committee will meet on 10 February to consider the responses to consultation on this document and branches who wish to express any views need to communicate these in good time, although the document circulated to branches neglects to mention to whom branches should respond or by what deadline.

Any Greater London branches who let me have their comments can be assured that I will pass them on. However I also hope that branches will receive some further information about how to respond as a result of a request made at the Committee meeting on 22 January.

What the report does not tell you

The report does not tell you that the earlier comments from both the Health and Local Government Service Groups indicated – in effect – opposition to the proposals now being put forward (certainly opposition to their hasty introduction). Nor does the report point out that the proposals have been supported neither by the National Executive Council nor by the Development and Organisation Committee.

The report does not in fact explain very much about what is proposed to happen. The role of sectors will, we are told, be enhanced at the expense of the role of Service Groups, which is problematic since Service Groups are headed by directly elected Committees whereas sectors are generally run by indirectly elected Committees.I fear that indirectly elected Committees are far more vulnerable to manipulation.

Here are some comments which might be worth making;

  1. In the Introduction it is stated that; “The initial consultation exercise with SGEs and relevant sectors – (e.g. FE, CVS) identified a significant level of support for either moderate or high level change. ” However, the Local Government Service Group, representing the majority of UNISON members opposed both these options and the Health Service Group supported neither. The report therefore materially misrepresents the response to consultation.

  2. Again in the Introduction it is stated, of the document, that “These proposals set out in greater detail our recommendations on new structures in order that a wider consultation and debate can take place across the union in the period leading up to National Delegate Conference 2009. ” However this document was issued to branches shortly before the Xmas holiday and includes no information upon how to respond to consultation. The NEC Development and Organisation Committee has been called to a meeting on 10 February at which it will have to agree Rule Amendments if these are to be put to National Delegate Conference 2009. This timetable is hardly consistent with a genuine intention to promote debate within the Union.

  3. The recommendations of the report have not been endorsed by any lay body of the Union. Although the report was put to the NEC Development and Organisation Committee for approval, the Committee did not approve the report but simply noted it and agreed that it should be the subject of further consultation. The report gives the impression throughout that it is presenting proposals which have some official sanction. This is materially misleading.

  4. The report provides that, in respect of the election of sector committees, “the current provision for indirect elections would be replaced by an NEC scheme of options for elections. ” No details of such a scheme are provided. This could threaten democratic lay control of the bodies overseeing negotiations with the employers.

  5. The report says of the Service Group Liaison Committee that “the role of this committee needs to be strengthened and developed .” However this is a Committee which is not directly accountable to lay members in any way, and which was criticised by the Local Government Service Group Conference in 2007 for its failures in respect of the dispute over the Local Government Pension Scheme. The promotion of the role of the Service Group Liaison Committee is the promotion of a structure which has failed to defend UNISON members and which fails the most basic tests of democratic accountability.

  6. The report states that “The consultation period will allow for full debate on the configuration of sectors to ensure the proposed configuration will allow sectors to develop as proposed. ” As there has been no serious attempt to allow for a consultation period – branches not having been advised or encouraged to respond to these proposals, this simply has not happened.

  7. The report states that; “All bargaining groups will be on an equal footing regardless of size so that their relative influence will be proportionate. ” This is nonsensical. If influence is to be proportionate then larger groups must have greater influence and if all groups (whether representing 1,000 or 100,000) are on an equal footing then their relative influence cannot be proportionate. There are arguments in favour of each approach, but the fact is that this report suggests that both conflicting approaches can be accommodated at once when this is clearly impossible. This is a very poor piece of work.

  8. The report asks “Are these proposals set in stone?” The answer is that they cannot be as they have never been endorsed by any democratic elected body of lay members. There is no doubt that we need to review and revise our structures. However we would be doing our members a disservice if we were to endorse these ill thought-out proposals, which have the sanction of no elected body within our Union and offer no demonstrable benefits to any of our members.

I hope that Branches in Greater London will now take the time to comment on this document, whether you agree with me or its authors (or neither!) and that you will insist that the important question of the future structure of our Union should be decided by our members in our branches and workplaces.

I am not conservative about UNISON's structures. I would countenance the abolition of almost any part of our structures (excluding branches, Conference and self-organised groups) if it could be shown that this would make our Union more effective. However, I am not in favour of our allowing the admittedly ramshackle nature of our existing structures to become an excuse for empowering the National Executive Council to change these structures on the basis of such a deeply flawed report.

Navel-gazing about our national structures is much less helpful than using the new branch assessment process to focus on making our existing structures work for our members.


Anonymous said...

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Jon Rogers said...

Indeed Sean!

As another Branch Secretary pointed out to me, these proposals could see branches sending delegations to three Service Group Conferences (with none of those delegates really accountable back to the branch in a proper way).

I think we need to be prepared to cherry pick the proposals which will be made. A CVS Service Group is a good idea - particularly if it comes with a presumption in favour of properly resourced dedicated branches where other branches do not already organise in a particular employer (and perhaps - subject to the views of the members affected - even if they do).

Moving schools out of local government is an insane idea driven by the longstanding wish of officials at HQ to align our lay structures with the dysfunctional strutures they agreed for themselves years ago.

Merging the existing small service groups is not popular with the members concerned and is not necessary to make our union more effective.

We will be told that the proposals are a package but that is simply not true and we should not accept it.