Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Not in front of the members?

I recently read a report concerning a local authority, facing appalling reductions in funding, which was contemplating attacks on the conditions of service of its staff.

The Council made clear to it's trade unions that it was willing to negotiate, but only if they pledged to respect the confidentiality of those negotiations (by not reporting back to their members during the course of the negotiations and consulting them only when talks had reached a conclusion).

The union in this case, under the supervision of Regional officials, agreed to these terms. I think this was a foolish error, not so much because it was wrong in principle (though it was) but because it will weaken the union for no possible benefit.

In principle, those of us asked to negotiate (or more often these days, to participate in consultation "with a view to reaching agreement") owe a duty of transparency and accountability to the members on behalf of whom we negotiate. We need to consult and engage with members in order to set our bargaining agenda, which should be subject to scrutiny and democratic decision through our union structures. We need to continue that engagement throughout negotiations/consultation so that the priorities which we express are those of our members. We need to be honest and transparent with our members so that we, in turn, have a sense of our collective combativity to inform our stance in discussions with the employer. It may not be possible in every case to live by all of these ideals, but we should certainly try.

For those who prefer pragmatism to principle as a guide to action (and I see no reason not to like both) it must be clear that "secret talks" with the employer fly in the face of an organising approach to building the strength of a union to defend its members. The best point at which to mobilise and recruit is the point at which the union sets out its demands, whether for a pay claim or for the defence of pension rights, sick pay or any other condition of service. We know from historical experience that we recruit most strongly at those points when we are campaigning hard around demands which resonate with our members and potential members.

In the case of an attack on conditions of service at the level of an individual authority, this point of maximum advantage comes at the very beginning - and experience dictates that the more that we can do from that point to build union density and organisation, as well as the combativity of the workforce, the better (or less worse) the eventual outcome for conditions of service.

If, however, we were to respond to such an attack by trooping silently into secret talks, we could not give members the honest and accurate updates from discussions with the employer which would be a prerequisite for an organising campaign to defend conditions of service. This would in turn weaken our position as negotiators in our splendid isolation.

The end result of such secret talks would be a "final offer" which would leave the union in a double bind. Either the employers' final position could not be recommended, in which case we would have to mobilise members we had demobilised behind leaders who had just proven themselves failures in negotiations, or we would go out to our members recommending concessions as "the best that could have been achieved by negotiation" without having taken our members honestly and transparently through the process leading up to that conclusion. Neither case is a recipe for improving recruitment, organisation or member participation.

The real tragedy isn't so much that "secret talks" will invariably lead to less satisfactory outcomes, both for conditions of service and union organisation, than participatory and transparent discussions - it's that they are so easy to avoid.

Any employer contemplating changes which they know may lead to mass terminations to achieve contract change knows that they will have to comply with section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Taken together with relevant case law, the employer knows that they will have to consult, in the open "with a view to reaching agreement" with the unions - and that they will also have to consult individuals. A recognised trade union refusing to sign up to "confidential" talks would still have to be consulted with "with a view to reaching agreement" in any case.

None of this means that there is no place for "off the record" talks when the occasion demands, nor for the advance receipt of embargoed information, nor even for occasional formal discussions under "Chatham House Rules" - however these are exceptions to general rules about the democratic conduct of trade union business, requiring robust justification on a case by case basis.

Whoever signs up to "confidential" negotiations over attacks on conditions of service thereby signs away the effectiveness and independence of the union. That this may be the preferred approach for a branch under the direction of Regional officials is disquieting, to put it mildly.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange


nick venedi said...

Hi Jon,

Are you are referring to one of the two branches that are under supervision here in London? Is that right?
I agree that no union has the right to be negotiating without the members knowing and if they did then individual members would have a claim for negligence at the end of the process against the union so why do it? But how secret is secret? Do members know that discussions are taking place but the finer detail remains 'confidential'? is this what you/they mean?

marshajane said...

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