Monday, September 21, 2015

What do we want from a General Secretary? (And what should we pay?)



The current election for General Secretary of UNISON should encourage constructive and critical scrutiny of the Union’s achievements, and of the work of the incumbent General Secretary, in particular over his most recent term.

One issue which UNISON members may want to consider – and to question candidates for election about – concerns whether we want our General Secretary carrying out other roles at the same time as being our General Secretary. Another (not unrelated) question relates to the appropriateness of the level of remuneration for our General Secretary.

Discussing these important questions necessitates speaking about an individual and, in UNISON, to say that such discussion is discouraged would be the least that could be said. There is a culture of deference to a long serving General Secretary in the officer machine, and a culture which confuses critical questioning with disloyalty to the Union on the lay Executive.

Taken together with the restrictive interpretation of the Union’s Rules adopted in the past by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) for our sovereign National Delegate Conference (NDC), this culture has ensured that two important questions are hardly asked in UNISON;
Do we want a General Secretary who takes on other jobs?
Do we want to pay our General Secretary £100,000 a year?

Having long abandoned a quest for popularity in UNISON, I would like to address these two questions on the basis of the information which is readily available and in the public domain.

As a Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), Dave Prentis is eligible to claim an allowance of £4,000 but he does not claim expenses to which he might be entitled. 

The register of interests of UKCES Commissioners reveals Dave’s other roles as follows;
1. Current employment – General Secretary of UNISON (Family member UNISON Assistant General Secretary).
2. Appointments – Member of the Court of the Bank of England, President of Unity Trust Bank;
3. Membership of professional bodies – Labour Party Joint Policy Committee, TUC Executive Committee, President of Public Services International (Family member on the TUC Executive Committee).

Having a senior union official serve on labour movement bodies seems like a good use of time, and Dave’s role as President of the Board of the trade union bank Unity Trust Bank (involving 13 meetings in 2014) doesn’t lead to any other remuneration (although obviously it takes Dave away from his duties as our General Secretary).

More controversially within UNISON, however, from 1 June 2012 Dave Prentis has also been a Non-Executive Director of the Bank of England, “earning” a tidy £15,000 a year for attending some meetings (including meetings of the Remuneration Committee which determined that the Governor of the Bank of England should earn £480,000 a year – not all public servants suffer under the pay freeze…) 

The author understands that the General Secretary passes such earnings back to the Union,
As well he might.

As General Secretary, Dave Prentis earns (according to our return to the Certification Officer) a gross salary of £97,211 with taxable subsistence and car benefits of £7,462 (the Union also pays £12,762 in employers’ national insurance costs). 

Whilst this hardly puts Dave and his family in the plutocracy it is a level of earnings which matches those of (for example) Chief Executives and Senior Directors in local government rather more than it corresponds to the earnings of UNISON members. With pre-tax earnings in excess of £104,000 our General Secretary earns more than 98% of the population (according to official statistics).

The combined impact (upon anyone) of more than comfortable earnings coupled with a working life rubbing shoulders with the “great and the good” is to separate our leader from us, the workers. As Richard Hyman puts it; “full-time officials typically acquire interests, perspectives and resources which tend to channel union policies towards accommodation with employers or governments and containment of membership activism”.

The rank and file challenger to be UNISON’s General Secretary, John Burgess, has made clear that, if elected, he would continue to draw just the equivalent of his social worker’s salary (which is the model for all those of us who are elected officials at branch level seconded full time to trade union duties).

This isn’t about “hair shirt socialism” – it is about offering members the choice of a General Secretary who will remain “one of us”, earning what he would earn in the job which makes him a trade union member in the first place. It is an entirely legitimate point of view to believe that our General Secretary should be drawn from the rank and file, should devote themselves full time to their trade union role and should enjoy material conditions aligned to those of UNISON members.

That is my view, and I don’t think our General Secretary should be a Governor of the Bank of England, nor do I think we should pay our General Secretary a six figure sum.

This is not about a personal attack upon the incumbent General Secretary. 

It is about a political choice which confronts the trade union. 

There are plenty of lay activists (including, for example, the 32 NEC members who delivered the NEC nomination to Dave Prentis) who believe that we should have a “professional” General Secretary whose career has been in officialdom rather than the rank and file (and who consider that UNISON itself is honoured somehow if our senior official is invited to be part of the Court of Governors of the Bank of England).

The question which those who take that view need to ask themselves is whether their preferred approach has been delivering for our members, in particular over the past five years, and that is a question to which I will turn in further posts on this blog.

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