Thursday, July 26, 2012

Misinformation about UNISON Rules, and a heavy handed approach, threatens internal strife

It’s lovely to get a reply from a UNISON national official. Today I was given the following (regrettably incorrect) advice about the meaning of UNISON’s Rules in relation to the current ballot on the Local Government Pension Scheme;

“As a Branch Secretary and NEC member you are required to follow the established policy of the union and are bound by our approach to collective responsibility outlined in paragraphs 3.1, 3.2 and 4.2 of the Democracy Guidelines, which read as follows:

" 3.1 Once a policy is established it is important that all constituent parts of the union work together to promote it and take collective responsibility in supporting it.

3.2 This principle was reinforced by the 1998 National Delegate Conference which decided that:

"There is an obligation on branches, regions and the NEC to promote existing policy and to accept collective responsibility once the decisions have been democratically taken. Once policy has been agreed by democratic means at an appropriate level, all members should expect that those who may not have agreed with the decision establishing policy but were in a minority should not be able to simply withdraw it. Such action would undermine the whole principle of collective strength and solidarity which the democracy of the union is established to promote. Democracy cannot thrive if agreed policies count for nothing. Outside bodies should not be able to seek to undermine the established and agreed policies of the union."

4.2 Branches, regions and other bodies of the union will often be called upon to take action in support of particular policies. It is important that when this happens the union acts effectively and consistently in accordance with transparent and robust democratic principles."

This is reinforced by the advice given in LGPS POP 22 from the Code of Good Branch Practice 4.4 which calls on branches to promote the recommendation of their Service Group:

"Once UNISON policy is determined, there is an obligation on all constituent parts of the union to work to achieve its objectives by campaigning and promoting the policy."

Furthermore, the Code of Good Branch Practice at 4.1 (last bullet point) also states:

"Once policy has been agreed democratically at any level in the union, those members who originally voted or campaigned against it are expected to abide by it. It is important that all constituent parts of the union and branch work together to promote it and support it."

What constitutes 'policy' and who can decide it is clearly outlined in the UNISON Rule Book.

Rule D 3.1.4 says that:

"Each Service group shall have autonomy, on behalf of its members, to:-
 .1 determine the Group's general policy"

Rule D 3.5.1 also makes clear the role of the Service Group Executive:
" Subject to the powers of the Group Conference, the overall control of the Group's policy, budget and the direction of the Group's operations shall be the responsibility of the Group Executive."

As you know, this year's Local Government Conference agreed Emergency Composite 5 and in doing so agreed "to ensure the fullest possible participation and representative decision making" on the LGPS proposals to inform the SGE's recommendation. In the case of the Local Government SGE, an overwhelming majority of branches recommended acceptance of the proposals and the decision of the SGE followed the views of branches and was to recommend acceptance.

It is clear from the above that the decision taken by the Local Government SGE on 19 July constitutes "policy" and that this policy should be followed by Local Government branches.

In the light of the clear position outlined above, I would ask you to ensure that further communications and meetings with/in your branch adhere to union policy.”

Fortunately, I have made a close study of the UNISON Rule Book over the years and have participated, in one way or another, in every Conference debate on this topic. I don't therefore have to rely upon this partial (in every sense) reading of guidance which does not have the force of Rule.

The official who spent such a long time composing the above misinformation failed to take heed of Rule B.2.5 which commits UNISON “to promote and safeguard the rights of members to have an adequate opportunity to participate in the initiation and development of policy making, through meetings, delegations, conferences or ballots, and to encourage the maximum democratic debate, together with the right to campaign to change policy, while at all times acting within the rules and agreed policy.”

In this case the mechanism for policy development is a ballot and therefore there can be no “agreed policy” until we have the outcome of the ballot. This position was affirmed by National Delegate Conference in 2008 which supported “the right of UNISON members, branches and other appropriate representative bodies to make and campaign within Rule for recommendations in member ballots.” (

Since the meaning of the Rule Book of a trade union is what it is (and not what a particular official may tell you it is) and since the UNISON National Delegate Conference (“The supreme government of the Union” in accordance with Rule D.1.1) has, by clear implication, offered a clear understanding of the meaning of Rule B.2.5 in these circumstances I shall continue “to encourage the maximum democratic debate” and refuse to act as a mouthpiece for a recommendation which is not (yet) a policy.

You can read the Rule Book for yourself at

The heavy-handed approach to dissenting branches which is being taken by a number of officials threatens to turn a legitimate and comradely debate about the advisability of accepting the LGPS 2014 proposals into a series of set-piece battles about trade union democracy which will take up our time to next year’s Conference and beyond. I would very much regret such an outcome which would be a distraction from our preparation for the vitally important demonstration on 20 October (

This choice needs to made at the UNISON Centre.

Incidentally, the correct interpretation of our Rules which I offer above would apply equally to branches in the Higher Education Service Group wishing to campaign for acceptance against the recommendation of their Service Group Executive to reject (and I would love to see the advice given to branches such as Bromley who have members in both the Local Government and Higher Education Service Groups...)


Mike Williams said...

Fascinating reading. In Rhondda-Cynon-Taff we're due to have our next Branch Meeting on 14 August and it will be interesting to see how Cymru/Wales attempt to bring branches into line. Why on earth our bureauocracy encourage this fatalism beggars belief.

Anonymous said...

Similar situation here in the North West with branches being whipped into line by stalinist regional officers.

Heard of one branch that was threatened with suspension and Rule I if they tried to campaign against.

This heavy-handed interference in branch democracy, across all the regions, is very very concerning and dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Once again the union tries to interpret the rules as they want and will chose to undermine any Branches that know we have been sold out again by our own union. Single Status all over again, but the differance being that many people may not get to draw a much reduced pension if they have to work until they are 68. Never mind as long as the overpaid General Secretary and officers still retain theirs. Another sell out!!

Anonymous said...

Our London branch is probably one of those which the bureaucracy are after.
it would be very silly of the full time appointed officials to try and tackle those branches who take the same position as Lambeth and my branch and others indeed. Just what we do not need when we are fighting against austerity.

We need to resist this very bad deal and fight against cuts whatever they are and wherever they come from.

our members overwhelmingly rejected this piss-poor deal!

A London region lay activist

Anonymous said...

Exactly the same misinformation and threat of Rule 1 being fed to my West Midlands branch by paid regional officials, this really is an outragous development.

Mike Calvert said...

Well all I can add is that Islington voted by 221-6 to reject the deal. Another 40 came in in the three days after the consultation closed so couldn't be counted.

Then our votes were only added after we protested and even then the sums were wrong!!!!!