Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Back to 1927 for our political funds - and what are the implications for DOCAS?

Anyone wishing to understand what the Government’s commitment to legislate “so that there shall be a transparent opt-in process for the political fund element of trade unions subscriptions” will mean can be guided by their reference to the fact that this will “reflect the existing practice in Northern Ireland.”

That practice can be deduced from UNISON Rule J.5 which reflects the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. For those with a sense of history this is a bit like 1927, as it requires members positively to opt-in to pay the political fund, rather than, as at present, to opt-out if they don’t want to. (Thatcher and Major never did this - they just imposed political fund ballots upon us).

Clearly this will have the effect of significantly reducing our political funds, unless we mount a major campaign to get people to opt-in (this will also beg the question of why we also have to have decennial membership ballots to retain our political funds since the only contributors will also have opted in individually).

If we have to approach all our members to ask them to opt-in to the political fund we will also have to decide what we say to the 70% of members who pay their subscriptions by deduction from salary (deduction of contributions at source - DOCAS), which we know is at immediate risk wherever the Tories hold sway. Are we going to have a major campaign to opt-in to the political fund without using the opportunity to transfer payment of subscriptions to direct debit? (That would not make sense, and would be contrary to the decision already taken by the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC)).

It will also be interesting to find out what the practical impact is, in Northern Ireland, of Article 60 of the 1995 Order, which requires employers to refrain from deducting that part of the subscriptions which go to the political fund (if they deduct union subscriptions) if requested to do so by an employee. If political funds become opt-in that will mean that there will be (for UNISON) two rates of subscription for each salary band (one for members who haven’t opted in, and one for those who have). This increased complexity wouldn’t necessarily drive supportive employers away from supporting DOCAS, but it will highlight the fact that such employers will be facilitating payments to the political funds of trade unions.

Who wants to bet me one month’s subscription to the Affiliated Political Fund that we’ll soon be hearing that it is inappropriate for public sector employers to make deductions from salaries to go towards a trade union political fund? How long before the Taxpayers Alliance use the Freedom of Information Act to publicise the exact amount of political fund contributions for Labour affiliated unions which are being made by each Labour Council?

Every trade unionist should contribute to the political fund which gives their union a political voice – and we need to campaign to win that argument with our members, whilst at the same time, securing the future payment of subscriptions by moving to a means which is harder for a hostile Government to disrupt.

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