Friday, March 06, 2009

Organising in the private sector?

UNISON is a public service trade union but we have thousands of private sector members and thousands more work in the private sector delivering public services outside the trade union movement. When those workers do come the way of the Union it is often as isolated individuals needing servicing and support rather than as an organised collective group. UNISON activists have seen this problem for years and have been debating what to do about it, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

At UNISON National Delegate Conference 2005 we noted that “since 1993, when UNISON was established, the delivery of public services in the United Kingdom (UK) has been subject to widespread change and restructuring.” The previous year’s Local Government Conference had recognised that the preceding few years had witnessed some key changes in how services are being delivered.

Conference 2005 therefore instructed the National Executive Council(NEC) to undertake a review of service group structures and branch organisation, in consultation with branches, regions, service groups and self-organised groups, and young members, and report back to conference in 2007 with rule amendments if appropriate. This was reported on in 2007 when National Delegate Conference took further decisions following on from the National Executive Council's report on the Review of Branch and Service Group Structures.

I have blogged before about the Rule Amendments which will be put to this year’s Conference by the NEC. There is more to be said about these proposals, which create new Service Groups and devolve bargaining responsibilities to Sectors, but perhaps the most significant thing about the proposals which we will be debating is what is missing.

Recommendation 7 of the 2007 report identified members employed by private contractors as one of the groups in respect of whom the NEC would undertake further work, including local consultation with these groups of members, in order to identify what additional structural changes may be needed at national, regional and local level.

The 2004 Local Government Conference had noted that Large scale transfers have been witnessed in Lincolnshire, Blackburn and Liverpool with private companies providing many of those authorities core administration and financial services, whilst the 2005 National Delegate Conference decision had noted the impact of privatisation on our Union organisation.

This is not a new problem – I got myself and the Union into a deal of difficulty more than ten years ago trying to organise and secure recognition for workers in a private care home. A decade later and our Union still has not developed a sensible structure to organise members in the private sector. The losers from this include the enormous workforce in the burgeoning private care sector in particular, working largely without union protection.

The report considered by the Development and Organisation Committee in January concluded that “there are a number of different solutions to the representation of Private Contractors in UNISON. In health, there is an overwhelming wish to remain in health due to the strong NHS identity; however, other groups such as Vertex have a far stronger identity in their own right and see little link back to public services and therefore will benefit from an enhanced sector identity.” Since this says precisely nothing about branch structure and organisation it says little that is relevant to the experience of organising our private sector members.

It is ironic and more than a little frustrating, if perhaps understandable, that the most intractable of our organisational dilemmas is precisely the one which the NEC is completely failing to address in the proposals coming before Conference. I think therefore that activists at branch level need to take this debate forward. Our private contractor organising work at national level quite sensibly focuses upon large contractors who bid for major local government contracts. It barely touches the workforce in the private care sector.

What is to be done?

Amongst the very least helpful contributions to the debate which hardly takes place at NEC level about how to address this organisational shortcoming are the ill-informed whinges about branches who are happy to take members subscriptions but do not wish to service private sector members. I fear that those NEC colleagues who express such opinions illustrate only their own ignorance of conditions at grass roots level in our Union.

I know from personal experience and from discussion with other Branch Secretaries that in fact what we are doing at branch level is fire fighting as we try to service private sector members whom our branches generally lack the resources to organise effectively. Yesterday I spoke to a committed organiser who is one of our most energetic and effective Branch Secretaries. He said that, in the absence of organising support from Regional level he would not be accepting into membership employees from private sector organisations in which the branch did not already organise.

There is an urgent need to find a better answer to this problem.

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