Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Annual elections, trade union democracy and trade union organising
I've had to pop out of the office this morning to attend a meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) ahead of tomorrow's NEC meeting which will agree NEC policy positions on items on the Preliminary Agenda for our National Delegate Conference in Glasgow in June.
The Committee had an unexpectedly lengthy discussion about the view we should take of some proposed Rule Amendments from a couple of Welsh branches who want branches to be able to choose to shift the frequency of election for branch officers and shop stewards from annually to biennially (every two years).
A number of NEC members, themselves often also office holders at branch level, were sympathetic to this proposition - and the Committee has deferred taking a view for the time being (there is, therefore, no collective view of the Committee at this point).
I believe that any reduction in democracy (which is what this would be) should invariably be opposed. The greater the frequency with which office holders are subject to election, the more accountable they are to those who elect them. There are balances to be struck with practicability in (for example) determining the frequency of national elections - but at branch level, the most important level of the Union - there can be no excuse for weakening the power of our members to hold us to account.
I am alarmed that some colleagues seem to believe that there are provisions of our Rules which would enable a branch to (for example) remove from office a poorly performing Branch Secretary during a two year term of office.
Removing a member from office is a disciplinary sanction which can only be imposed after the application of all the relevant provisions of Rule I and Schedule D.
Attempting to remove a branch officer (or shop steward) otherwise would render the Union vulnerable to litigation which it would be impossible to defend.
Only the frequency of election provides an assurance of accountability within UNISON Rules - and the movers of the Rule Amendments seek to reduce that accountability on the part of those of us who hold office at branch level and in our workplaces.
However, the case for annual elections at branch level is not purely a negative case (to guard against the prolonged tenure of someone no longer supported by the members). There is also a positive, organising, case to be made for annual elections as part of a vibrant culture of democracy which encourages an enthusiasm for building trade unionism.
Particularly in those branches which hold elections at our Annual General Meeting, contested elections give a meaning and purpose to such meetings which cannot be improved upon. Members need a sense of ownership in our trade union if they are to show the active commitment which we need to build the union. Elections give that sense - and the discomfort which incumbents may feel when faced with a challenge is entirely productive, progressive and positive.
The response to the war of attrition being fought against our movement must not be to withdraw, retreat and "batten down the hatches" - we need a more effective trade union and that means we need a more (not less) democratic trade union.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.