Sunday, July 13, 2014

UNISON's obscured pachyderm

At this year’s National Delegate Conference the elephant in the room was the, then unknown but widely anticipated, result of the local government strike ballot. That large elephant quite obscured another pachyderm quietly lurking in the corner, the forthcoming UNISON General Secretary election.

Perusal of the UNISON Rule Book reveals that Rule E.3.2 provides that; “The General Secretary shall be elected and shall hold office for the maximum period of time prescribed by law.”  We are therefore subject to the requirement of Section 46 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to elect our General Secretary every five years. However Section 58 of the 1992 Act exempts from the requirement to face re-election an incumbent General Secretary approaching retirement (in certain specified circumstances).

Diligent readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) may recollect my report of the unprecedented special meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council in January 2010, which had been called to receive a report which made specific reference to Section 58. That report concluded that, at that time, the General Secretary had “a rule book entitlement to remain in office until his retirement date in line with the legislation.” Whether matters were really that clear rapidly became a moot point, since the General Secretary specifically sought a further election in order to “renew his mandate” (which he duly did).

However, careful readers of the report to that special meeting noted that it also said that “the General Secretary may have the right to stay in post until 29 May 2013, but the Presidential Team consider that the NEC would need to endorse that right.” Whilst that wasn’t a suggestion that the NEC should have had, in those circumstances, recourse to its power to interpret the Rule Book (as had been suggested by one irritating individual), it did tend to imply that there might have been legal as well as political objections to reliance on Section 58 in 2010.

Since I have retained an inquisitive nature, and have abandoned my ill-fated quest for popularity within our Union, I have, as I did five years ago, asked, over recent months, about the timetable for the next General Secretary election (which is quite obviously approaching but about which nothing has been said at any meeting to which all NEC members are invited). All I have been told is that the Presidential Team will deal with this matter when the time is right.

If there was room for doubt about the applicability of Section 58 last time, there is even more room now. The “retirement age” to which the act refers is defined as “the earlier of—
(a) the age fixed by, or in accordance with, the rules of the union for him to retire from the position in question, or
(b) the age which is for the time being pensionable age (within the meaning given by the rules in paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 to the Pensions Act 1995).”

Since our incumbent General Secretary attained that age last year Section 58(2)(c) would seem to rule out the application of the retirement age exemption in a future election.

Indeed the whole concept of “retirement age” seems pretty much defunct. I doubt that any trade union could safely rely on Section 58 to avoid holding a General Secretary election any more, even if to do so were not (as it would be) politically suicidal (particularly for a major union at a time when our opponents are attacking us in every way they can think of).

UNISON is committed not to discriminate on grounds of age and so an incumbent past state pension age is perfectly entitled to be a candidate if they want to.

However, there must be an election for a UNISON General Secretary whose term of office will commence on 1 January 2016. The time taken from an NEC decision on an election timetable until results are announced is of the order of five months, therefore a General Secretary election run after the 2015 General Election would give very little time for a new General Secretary (were one elected) to have a handover with the incumbent (although there might well be a political case to be made for electing a General Secretary once we know what sort of Government they will be dealing with).

There will not now be a meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council until October, which would be the last scheduled meeting that could agree a timetable for a General Secretary election to conclude before the General Election. This question cannot therefore be avoided any longer.

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