Friday, July 10, 2009

UNISON Service Group Review

As the task of drafting my NEC report continues, here is a draft of what I will report on the important discussion of the new Service Group structures which had been agreed at Conference. This report had already been endorsed by the Service Group Liaison Committee on 1 July. Since the Service Group Liaison Committee is a more or less ad hoc gathering of representatives of Service Group Executives with representatives of some Sector Committees and a smattering of senior members of the NEC, I don't know who was in attendance on 1 July (as there were at that time no NEC Committee Chairs as they had not been elected). The minutes of that meeting will be received at the October NEC and I will report further then as appropriate.

My views of the Service Group Liaison Committee (a body which is not collectively accountable anywhere in our Union's structures) are similar to those of our Local Government Conference.

In describing the Conference decision not to give even a simple majority to the proposed devolution of accountability for bargaining to Sector Committees (in the absence of adequate arrangements for democratic accountability of those Committees) the report said that “Concerns at a perceived erosion of democratic accountability supplanted the member centred considerations at the heart of the NEC proposals.” (As I couldn't resist pointing out, Conference had – back in the 1990s – amended Rule B.2.2 to change the definition of UNISON from a “member centred” Union to a “member led” Union, and the decision of Conference was a fine example of our being “member led.”)

Some contributions to the debate suggested to me that there is a degree of confusion on our NEC about what was and was not agreed at Conference – in particular references to members in some sectors not wishing to remain within large local government branches were either at a complete tangent to the Conference decisions (which, we had been assured, had no implications for branch structures) or were an indication of the agenda which had led some to support the proposals in the first place.

The report itself however focused upon the Conference decisions and the main area for discussion were the practicalities of implementation. A deadline of 30 September to achieve the allocation of members to Service Groups was felt by many (myself included) to be overoptimistic. One NEC member who described themselves as being a member of the new “Community” Service Group was certainly jumping the gun. Conference has agreed new Service Group structures but it is the responsibility of the NEC (under Rule D.3.1.2 in the brand new 2009 Rule Book) to allocate members to Service Groups.

A working party of the Development and Organisation Committee is to be established to deal with the issues arising from this report. The creation of the Water, Environment and Transport Service Group should be fairly straightforward since it is the merger of two existing Service Groups. Similarly the new Police and Justice Service Group simply entails adding members employed in Probation to an existing Service Group.

However the creation of the Community Service Group will be more complex since it is not immediately obvious which of our members belong within it and Conference did not decide this. Member of dedicated Voluntary Sector branches are probably fairly clearly within this Service Group as are members in other branches who are identifiably part of the previous Community and Voluntary Sector.

However, with the spread of the contract culture, members are frequently transferring from “voluntary” organisations into private employers and back again (just as they are transferring in and out of the public sector). The Rule Book identifies four factors to be taken into account by the NEC when allocating members to Service Groups and the D&O Working Party will need to look at this in time to report to a Committee meeting in early September if the October NEC is to be able to take the necessary decisions.

The report also proposed that there should be further consideration of the question of democratic accountability of Sectors which may lead to either revised Rule Amendments or to the making of Regulations (under Rule D.2.9.2) or both. It may well be that if Regulations could be drafted which provided reassurance about the accountability of Sector Committees (and in particular allowed for annual Sector Conferences to determine Sector policy where that was the will of the Sector) then these would provide the reassurance that delegates were looking for in Brighton. However the devil will be in the detail.

If I am appointed to the Working Party by the Chair and Vice Chair of the Development and Organisation Committee I will be able to report further on this.

Among the other permissive (as opposed to prescriptive) recommendations of the report, which were agreed with general assent, was the suggestion that consideration be given to a cross-Service group Sector for Private Sector members and that the Energy and WET Service Groups re-establish arrangements for joint working on issues of mutual concern.

A fair amount of work will also be needed to establish “occupational groups” in line with the new Rule Q definition. This will be an important element of making members feel that UNISON is their Union in the sense that they can identify it with their own job. This sense of collective identity is an obvious strength of “industrial” Unions, such as the RMT, NUT and FBU who broadly organise in one “industry” but is much harder to inculcate in large general Unions such as UNISON, UNITE and the GMB.

In all, the work programme around the review of structures will be a major part of the work of the NEC in the coming year and beyond, and is important to developing our Union for the future.

There are many potential pitfalls and dangers, particularly in relation to branch organisation, but the real devolution of accountability for bargaining and the alignment of the Union with our members' occupational identities can strengthen UNISON.

In knocking back proposals which failed to ensure appropriate accountability within a member-led Union, Conference has helped the NEC to make the future structure of our Union stronger and more appropriate, and I hope that NEC colleagues will move forward constructively in the spirit of the report agreed on 9 July.

I also hope that there will be further discussion at Regional level, since limiting consultation to Service Group Chairs at National level will clearly not be adequate.

If any London UNISON branches would like a copy of the Report agreed by the NEC please let me know.


Anonymous said...

Re-establishing joint working arrangements between Energy and WET is another of those urban myths that UNISON seeks to keep resurrecting.....
Limited joint working, yes, but the issues of common concern in these groups are of common concern to all UNISON members.....

Anonymous said...

Really? Like the fact some TNC's provide electricty, gas and water services? What's mythical about that? I doubt that there's another union in the UK or abroad which organises workers in utilities in seperate service groups, industrial or trade groupings. And 2009 conference policy makes clear that this is not a settled question.