Saturday, March 28, 2015
Should a Conference overrule a ballot?
Among the questions I've been asked since the decision of Tuesday's Special UNISON Local Government Service Group Conference to submit a pay claim for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for this year, one worthy of particular consideration concerns the propriety of a Conference taking a decision which appears to over rule a decision taken in a ballot of the membership.
As I'll explain, I believe that there is both a formal and substantive justification for this course of action, and I think that those of us who support the correct decisions of the Special Conference need to familiarise ourselves with both arguments, since not all of those who opposed those decisions will respect them, and the arguments will continue.
The formal argument is straightforward. Our Rule Book says that our Service Group Conference determines our Service Group policies. Consultative ballots of the membership (or any section thereof) don't feature or have any status in our Rules - which were themselves approved by the ballots of the members of the "former partner unions" which agreed to create UNISON, and has since been amended only when agreed by the elected branch delegates (representing our members) at successive annual Conferences.
If there are members of our trade union (with or without votes in branches) who think that member ballots should trump Conference decisions, they have had twenty two years so far in which to propose Rule Amendments to give effect to their wishes. I've not seen them try. They're welcome to do so.
There was an attempt - in 2009 - to make "sectors" autonomous within Service Groups (so that the National Joint Council - NJC - Committee would not have been directly accountable to the Service Group Conference). This attempt failed - and the decision of the Special Conference to agree amendment A1 showed that Tuesday's delegates had a clearer understanding of UNISON Rules than our national leadership and officials (who wrongly behave as if the NJC Committee had autonomy).
The substantive argument in favour of Conference decisions taking precedence is more important however.
A ballot is a blunt decision-making instrument which can only offer a binary choice and deliver an answer of "yes" or "no".
A ballot question can be framed to influence answers and determine outcomes (a criticism of last autumn's ballot made very clearly by Tuesday's Special Conference).
There are points in time when a simple question needs to be asked and answered ("will you go on strike?") - but our trade unions are founded more upon representative than direct democracy for good reason. We need to trust those we ask to act upon our behalf to come back to us for a decision only when necessary - and with honesty and integrity.
One cannot duck out of the negotiating room every five minutes to take a vote of the members in a dispute about what their negotiators should say next.
It is the responsibility of leadership to exercise judgement and to negotiate to a point at which it becomes necessary to offer the membership an honest binary choice.
Our Local Government Service Group Conference had - over many years - agreed procedures within which such judgement should have been exercised in the case of a pay dispute, and those decisions were ignored when the NJC Committee authorised consultation on proposals which were not a formal offer.
The Committee - or, to be clear, the majority of the Committee were also (as our Special Conference has now agreed) wrong in the way in which they posed the question which our members were asked. It was fundamentally dishonest to have counterposed acceptance of an offer, which left many members worse off than had they accepted the employers' original offer without striking, to the alternative of "all out strike action."
In circumstances in which a sector Committee has posed a misleading question to its members in a consultative ballot, the Service Group Conference has not only the right, but the duty to over rule the outcome of such sham consultation.
Delegates at Tuesday's Special Conference did their duty in a disciplined and effective way, and UNISON has been changed for the better as a result.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.