Sunday, May 17, 2015
The first step in facing up to the Tories - preserve our trade union
I would suggest that a good test of whether or not to listen to proposal for how the trade union movement should respond to the unforeseen catastrophe of the General Election result is how similar those proposals are to the views held by the proposer before they knew the election result.
Those who, impervious to all evidence, cling to the conclusion that we must build a new workers’ party have as much to offer as the senior trade union official who said that, after the election it is “business as usual” for the trade unions.
It is certainly not that.
Any trade union activist who has started to rethink everything they thought they knew a week and a half ago hasn’t been thinking since they heard the result.
Thankfully – and thanks to some senior officials who can see that this is not “business as usual” – Wednesday’s meeting of the Development and Organisation Committee (D&O) of the UNISON National Executive Council did make a small but important start in rethinking. This related to the question of how we collect union subscriptions.
The Conservative manifesto has a few things to say about trade unionism – manifesto including a commitment to legislation to “ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscription.”
As the author of the report to D&O wryly observed, this commitment is itself hardly transparent – but if we want a clue as to what it means we have only to look at what the Tories were doing to the civil service trade unions under the Coalition Government.
The Government have unilaterally abandoned a decades-old practice of deducting union subscriptions from salaries, forcing PCS (and the other unions) to campaign to get their members to pay subscriptions by Direct Debit.
Similar measures could be taken in other areas of the public sector under direct control from Westminster (such as the NHS in England) - and whilst it would take legislation to force compliance from local authorities, it is likely that some at least of the increased number of Tory Councils would join such an attack voluntarily.
Deduction of contributions at source (DOCAS) has many advantages for trade unions and our members. It is the easiest and most reliable means to pay subscriptions. It facilitates keeping up to date the recording of where our members work, and makes it easier to comply with the statutory requirements to provide information to employers when we ballot for action. In unions like UNISON, which have the progressive approach of charging higher subscriptions to those who earn more, it makes it easier to ensure that members pay the correct rate of subscriptions, protecting their entitlements to representation and other benefits.
UNISON has spent years working on aligning the information in our membership records with the information generated by DOCAS – and has made progress which would have been unimaginable some years ago.
Although the exponential growth of online recruitment has trebled the proportion of UNISON members already paying their subscriptions by Direct Debit, 70% of UNISON members – almost one million people – still pay their subscriptions via DOCAS. DOCAS is central to UNISON’s organisation and our financial survival.
In the course of a morning last week UNISON’s D&O Committee turned our practice on its head, deciding that henceforth all new members will be recruited to pay by Direct Debit and that we will immediately start a campaign to move all members to pay by this route.
This bold and necessary decision challenges us to give meaning to our rhetorical commitment to an “organising approach” since it is clear that it will take hundreds of thousands of individual conversations to retain our existing membership and – as the Committee rightly decided – to seek to recruit so that we end the process of conversion to Direct Debit with more members than we started.
The Committee is recommending to the full NEC that the NEC submits an Emergency Motion to our National Delegate Conference in June building upon and taking forward a “whole union” campaign to give effect to this decision. It is evident that the change to Direct Debit will create more new work in branches to maintain the accuracy of our membership records.
We are at the point at which we turn UNISON outwards, towards our members and activists, to become the organising union we need – or drift on under “top-down” leadership which, nationally and Regionally, is so risk averse as to be almost comatose.
PCS are reportedly recruiting members and activists on the back of the enforced activism of the transition to Direct Debit. We need to learn from their experience (which also means that leaders on both sides need to put the movement before injured feelings).
UNISON’s Direct Debit campaign must be simply the first step in rejuvenating UNISON – and all our trade unions – to meet unprecedented challenges.