Monday, August 06, 2012

The Rights and Wrongs of branches and ballots

As I return to work from my summer holidays, I am walking back into the continuing dispute about whether it is proper for UNISON officials to seek to cajole branch activists into campaigning exclusively in support of the recommendation of "their" Service Group Executive (SGE) in the current ballot over proposals for the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) even where their branch has clearly and democratically adopted a different position.

I don't intend to let this dominate my time. I think the position is clear and that it is illegitimate, and in breach of UNISON Rules, for officials to have been instructed to conduct themselves in this way.

I think there are two particularly important points. The first is of general application and the second applies specifically to the current ballot and to the case of the Local Government Service Group.

First, Rule B.2.5 commits us "to promote and safeguard the rights of members to have an adequate opportunity to participate in the initiation and development of policy making through... (inter alia) ...ballots" and further commits us to "encourage maximum debate."

Whilst these exhortations are qualified by the observation that we must be "acting within the rules and agreed policy", I think it is self-evident that when our chosen mechanism for policy-making is a member ballot, that there cannot be said to be an "agreed policy" ahead of the declaration of the ballot result.

I think that Rule B.2.5 is sufficiently clear on this point that there is no need for any "interpretation", but even if there were, our National Delegate Conference (the "supreme government" of the Union in accordance with Rule D.1.1) considered this question in 2008 and affirmed the rights of branches to make and campaign for recommendations in ballots.

Even if it were legitimate for this matter to be considered in accordance with Rule A.2.2 (the NEC power to interpret the Rules), as has been suggested (and which I would dispute), the final sentence of Rule D.2.1 (which makes clear that the NEC is generally subordinate to Conference) would apply so as to rule out an interpretation of our Rules which seeks to prohibit branches from making, and campaigning for, recommendations.

Secondly, and in the particular case of the Local Government Service Group and the current ballot, officials cannot rely upon Rule D.3.1.4 to assert that there is "Service Group Policy" in relation to this ballot because the ballot itself is taking place outwith the agreed policy of the Service Group.

This year's Service Group Conference called for the publication of an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) into the proposals for the Local Government Pension Scheme before any ballot of members (and took no other explicit decision about the timetable for the ballot).

This Service Group Conference decision became the policy of the Service Group in accordance with Rule D.3.4.2 and, as the first clause of Rule D.3.5.1 makes clear, the Service Group Executive has no authority to overrule Conference policy.

The SGE can hardly properly have determined Service Group policy as to how members should vote in the ballot (even if Rule B.2.5 permitted this, which I do not accept) when, on a proper reading of the policy of the Service Group Conference, the ballot ought not to be taking place at present because the EIA has not been published.

I shall continue to campaign, as a branch official, in line with branch policy. Most important now though is that we encourage members to participate in the ballot. The higher the turnout the better. Whether you think this a good deal or a poor one, whether - like me - you think we should take further action for a better deal alongside other public sector workers or whether you think such action implausible and that we must swallow what is on offer - now is the time to vote.

And when the ballot result is declared, then there will be an "agreed policy" for us all to abide by. 

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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