Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Branching out?

Monday's meeting of the UNISON NEC Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee considered revised guidelines for the restructuring of UNISON branches, which suggest that in future we may have a more diverse and flexible branch structure.

Whereas ten years or more ago questions were frequently raised about branches like Bromley, which happily organised members in more than one Service Group, the new guidelines turn our historic practice on its head to positively welcome cross service-group branches (which have become an inevitability since the creation of the Community Service Group).

Indeed, in a good example of how, once you start using a fluffy word that can mean anything you'll never break the habit, one of the models for the future is of a "Community" branch, in which all members working in public service provision in a town or city, whether in local government, health, education or the voluntary sector, might be members of the same branch, with separate Committees for its members in each service group.

There are already examples of branches which are, as a matter of practical necessity, a world away from the model of a "lead employer branch" which was the basis on which branches from our "former partner unions" (COHSE, NALGO and NUPE) were merged fourteen years ago.

That model was then already anachronistic to some extent given the extent of privatisation under the Tories. Almost all UNISON branches are multi-employer branches and have been since they were created.

Hundreds of our branches already now organise members across more than one Service Group and it makes sense that this option is not ruled out in branch restructurings. However the best feature of the revised guidance is that it stresses that there a range of models and does not try to impose a "one size fits all" branch structure.

Whether this echoes Khruschev's attempts at decentralisation in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s I wouldn't like to say - but I do have reservations about how the guidelines deal with the (hopefully exceptional) circumstances in which there is no clear consensus about how to restructure a branch (or branches).

I would sooner have seen a more prescriptive approach to member decisionmaking in those circumstances (a mandatory ballot). In practice I hope that common sense and democracy would prevail should disagreements arise.

Our first priority must be to resist the gathering wave of ConDem attacks upon our members, but lay activists thinking about the future of our union need also to pay attention to sometimes obscure discussions such as this.

Trade union democracy is not a luxury and a little knowledge about the challenges facing Khruschev is always handy in our movement.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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