Sunday, February 08, 2009

Review of UNISON Bargaining Structures - the good, the bad and the ugly

This blog post is long and assumes a fair degree of knowledge of UNISON structures. This reflects the interests of regular readers (Sid and Doris Blogger) and also the fact that our bargaining structures matter a great deal to the effectiveness and democracy of our trade union. Those wanting more excitement may wish to look away now

The report on Service Group and Branch Structures Implementation going to Tuesday’s Development and Organisation Committee in respect of the review of UNISON’s bargaining structures (agreed by Conference 2007) could have been worse. It could however also be a lot better.

The good.

I'll start with the good points.

The single most absurd proposal which had emerged from Mabledon Place, to take schools staff out of the Local Government Service Group, has been abandoned. Equally the proposal to enforce merger upon the unwilling Energy and Water and Environment Service Groups has been dropped, at least for now, although this is still seen as an objective “once consensus is reached.” (It would be churlish to ask what will happen if consensus is not reached…)

What’s more – and even more importantly – the Committee is being recommended to propose to the NEC a series of Rule Amendments which, of necessity, have to be moved separately, which will permit Conference to choose to accept or reject particular proposals.

(The individual Rule Amendments do not depend upon each other and it would certainly be a very odd decision if the SOC were to decide that they had to be taken together just because they all come from the same report.)

Continuing with the good news, the proposal to create a Community and Voluntary Sector(CVS) Service Group is something we should almost certainly have done ten years ago. Mind you, looking at things from the perspective of the Greater London Region it is pretty clear that we need dedicated voluntary sector branches if we are going to organise CVS members effectively in many instances – and these branches will need a special funding regime if they are to organise effectively on a multi-employer basis across large geographical areas. A CVS Service Group Executive (and CVS representatives on the NEC) will be in a position to argue for this necessary approach.

Similarly the new “Police and Justice” Service Group, bringing together Police and Probation Staff, the new “Water, Environment and Transport” Service Group and the new “Further and Higher Education” Service Group all have an underlying logic and, given the support of the members concerned, represent sensible amendments to our structures.

The bad.

On the other side of the balance sheet, I don’t think that any of the proposed recommendations really go far enough yet to address the problem, identified in the report, of the democratic accountability of sectors within the Union. The report says that; “Democratic accountability of sectors needs to be strengthened and as part of the implementation process the NEC, in consultation with service groups, will issue guidelines to ensure consistency across the groups” but the draft Conference motion attached to the report fails to deal with this vital question (indeed as things stand I am not sure I see the point of the Conference motion at all).

In the absence of some positive proposals for accountability of bargaining units to the members they represent I am not personally convinced of the desirability of proposed amendments to Rules D.3.1.4 (concerning the role of Service Groups) and D.3.7 (on the role of sectors) as they are being recommended at present.

I think we run the risk of taking accountability for bargaining away from bodies which can at least be held to account (Service Group Executives, which are largely directly elected and accountable to their Conferences) and giving the responsibility to bodies which do not at present have collective channels of accountability (Sector Committees).

I am pleased to see that the report does not propose any specific enhancement to the role of the Service Group Liaison Committee but since that Committee, as presently constituted, also lacks any collective channel of accountability to our membership, I don’t think that leaving things as they are is satisfactory either.

Since Conference instructed the NEC to “ensure democratic accountability” in cross service group working this is a problem as there is no meaningful accountability at present, and this has been reflected (in my view) in our failure adequately to protect members of the Local Government Pension Scheme and our failure to secure pay rises above the rate of inflation for most members over the past two years. This isn’t only my view, Local Government Conference said much the same about the pensions dispute a couple of years ago.

From the point of view of the NJC Sector (UNISON’s majority part of the largest single pay bargaining group in the UK economy) the existing, wildly imperfect, structures have enabled the Local Government Conference to hold the pay negotiators to account and to issue them with instructions about the future conduct of negotiations. The changes proposed at the moment would remove from the Local Government Service Group Conference the authority to take such decisions, without giving that authority to any similar body of delegates elected by, and accountable to, the members in the bargaining group. A cynical reader of the report might almost think that officers don’t welcome criticism from the Local Government Conference.

The draft Conference motion puts it quite accurately when it expresses the desire to give equal roles and responsibilities to all who bargain on behalf of our members. Without specific proposals to ensure the collective accountability of the negotiating body in each sector to the membership upon behalf of whom they negotiate this aspiration to equality for our negotiators doesn’t offer much of value to our members, if that equality is an equality of distance from accountability to the elected representatives of the members upon behalf of whom they are negotiating.

The ugly.

The process leading to the last minute submission of this report to a Committee meeting the day before the NEC meeting which will have to agree submissions to National Delegate Conference following a "consultation" process in which a document was issued to branches with no information about how to respond, to whom or by what deadline was not pretty.

I have previously expressed my dissatisfaction with the way in which members have been consulted on these proposals. My provisional status as a “grumpy old man” on this issue has probably been assisted by receiving the report to Tuesday’s meeting on Friday evening. If I tried to put a major report to my Branch Committee at that short notice the Chair would rule it out of order.

I really have no idea why we have to do things at the last minute when we are a national trade union with considerable resources which is supposed to be implementing Conference decisions more than eighteen months old.

Tuesday’s report comments, somewhat defensively to this reader, that the consultation on new configurations is “overdue rather than hasty” whereas I think the point is that it is both at once.

It is tempting to oppose everything when it is put before decisionmakers at the last minute and on the basis of deeply flawed consultation.

However I think that it makes sense to start from the interests of UNISON members and to accept or reject each specific proposal based upon this benchmark and upon the success or failure of the report in meeting the instructions given to the NEC by Conference 2007.

I’ll blog further about this important question after Tuesday’s meeting.


Anonymous said...

I'll concentrate on my own insular bit of this (parochial, I know, but it would be inappropriate to pass judgement on any other Service Group!); is it really looking as though the enforced merger of Water & Environment, Transport and Energy is dropped? As a more disparate Service Group as this - if merged - would be hard to imagine, and I hope the representations that have been made have finally been listened to!

Anonymous said...

Jon, you say

"The changes proposed at the moment would remove from the Local Government Service Group Conference the authority to take such decisions, without giving that authority to any similar body of delegates elected by, and accountable to, the members in the bargaining group."

But the position at the moment is not on. Conference decisions binding upon NJC members can be voted on by delegates who are not covered by the NJC. They should not be part of these debates and it needs fixing.