Friday, March 20, 2015

Trade Unions and the law - as in UNITE so in UNISON?

Len McCluskey is right that unions must be able to fight for workers even if it means breaking bad laws - see his article in the Guardian reporting an important decision of UNITE's Executive;

The General Secretary of our sister union, UNITE, makes a compelling normative case for the moral and political right of trade unionists - and trade unions - to defy unjust laws, a debate which will become far more pressing if May does not bring us the change of Government we need.

There is an equally compelling objective case to be made by observing our own history as well as contemporary comparisons across the globe. 

Wherever - and whenever - employers exploit workers, workers will try to organise and our organisations will be trade unions. Our movement can be restrained, submerged, outlawed or neutralised through incorporation but none of these tactics on the part of our adversaries can extinguish the organisation of working people.

McCluskey ‎correctly foresees that, if legal restrictions so inhibit our ability to organise as effectively to neutralise our ability to organise and protect our people, we will reach a point at which genuine trade unions - and genuine trade unionists - will have to put the organisation of workers above compliance with unjust laws.

This is a truly frightening prospect, one which threatens the jobs and livelihoods of activists and staff, the financial security and legal standing of our trade unions and the stability of employee relations (such as there is) in organised sectors of the economy. It's not shameful if individuals feel the weight of their mortgages, debts and domestic responsibilities when considering whether they want to be latter day Tolpuddle martyrs.

However, this is a perfectly possible future - and one which might not be far away.

Could we even have this debate in UNISON?

I'm afraid not.

Conference motions raising even a hint of non-compliance with the law are routinely ruled out of order by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) on the grounds that they could bring the Union into "legal jeopardy."

This year Lambeth branch proposed some modest amendments to the Rules governing the conduct of SOC at Conference - with the intention of clarifying only that the role of SOC should be to give effect to the will of Conference within the Rules.

Even this timid proposal has been ruled out however - because it could bring the Union into (you guessed) "legal jeopardy". SOC point out that they sometimes refuse to listen to our Conference when it "refers back" their reports (because of the risk of such jeopardy) and that - unless they continue to have a free hand to disregard the will of Conference on legal advice we will find "legal jeopardy" all over the place.

So in UNISON, the SOC stands above our National Delegate Conference - and above the SOC stands respect for the law. Any law.

As an aside, this is an interesting example of how apparently democratic lay structures can come to serve the distinct interests of those for whom the institutional survival and financial stability of the trade union is more important than its effectiveness in promoting and protecting the interests of its members.

What can be done? Nothing, I fear, through the lay structures of UNISON as long as a majority continue to acquiesce in the approach of the current leadership. ‎Next year I'll suggest we propose an amendment to Rule B.4.5 to mirror the rule amendment being recommended by UNITE's Executive (see McCluskey's article above).

I think I can guess what the SOC will do with that (two words, the first meaning "of, or pertaining to the law" and the second referring to a state of danger). 

Just as it has taken UNITE's Executive to recommend the necessary change to their Rules so, in UNISON, it would take the National Executive Council (NEC) to propose this for it to stand a chance.

Whilst that is a good argument for voting for candidates on the "Reclaim the Union" slate in the forthcoming elections to UNISON's NEC‎, it also suggests that UNISON needs a General Secretary prepared to lead from the front and signal that the interests of our members take precedence over the interests of their organisation - and certainly over unjust laws.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

1 comment:

Editor said...

On the question of "legal jeopardy", I don't remember it ever coming up in that formal. But our position would have been, as long as the motion wasn't specifically against Rule, we would have allowed it. The Ec could then have advised conference of any consequences before conference took the decision.

The guiding principle of the Social in Unite has been that we serve the delegates and enable them to make informed decisions - not a position the platform was always happy about.