Saturday, May 21, 2016
UNISON Branches have until Wednesday to ask questions of the Annual Report to be presented to our Conference next month by our National Executive Council (NEC).
Thus far fewer than a dozen questions have been asked of a Report which (in line with practice over recent years) reads less like a trade union document and more like corporate puff.
In order to ask questions branches have to go online (on the Online Conference System - OCS) and give certain information, including the page and paragraph number relating to the question they wish to ask.
Only those branches which ask questions by Wednesday's deadline AND then ask supplementary questions online are permitted to raise any questions at Conference.
Since our NEC is (supposedly) accountable to our Conference it is regrettable (to put it gently) that the various mechanisms designed to discourage effective questioning of the NEC are as effective as they are.
But sometimes you have to accept that it's fair enough.
It's fair enough if the paid officials who really run the union can design an obstacle course in the way of accountability as long as they can also engineer decisions of the NEC (or Conference) which legitimate that obstacle course.
It is not acceptable (nor "fair enough") that sections of the annual report have been published without paragraph numbers.
That means that there is no way that branches can ask questions about these sections of the report.
And what topics are covered by these (un numbered) paragraphs?
Branch Funding and Financial Governance.
These are the areas of the NEC Annual Report concerning which an additional (and apparently insurmountable) obstacle has been placed in the way of UNISON members and branches seeking to hold our NEC to account.
If this is deliberate then it is both intolerable and incompetent.
If this is unintentional then it is both incompetent and intolerable.
These are the people who want to set the objectives of our union against which they want to hold our branches to account.
They can't even publish a report with properly numbered paragraphs.
Was this what decent people tolerated the suggestion that they should work with "sympathetic employers" against "hostile branches" for?
If you are a UNISON member it is up to you whether you tolerate this abuse of your trade union by some of its employees.
Friday, May 20, 2016
The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) for UNISON National Delegate Conference is an important body within our trade union. Its role is vital to the lay democracy of our trade union.
For many years our SOC was chaired by an experienced activist who will forever feature as a footnote in the history of the unfortunate witch hunt of four UNISON activists who were disciplined for criticising the SOC in 2007.
During those years, the decisions of the SOC continued an incremental progression which had its origins in the origins of UNISON itself, whereby increasingly restrictive interpretations of UNISON Rules were developed and built upon.
At Conference 1995 we had debated the election of the Deputy General Secretary, and in 1996 and 1997 we had debated the election of Regional Secretaries. Any attempts in this century to hold such debates have been ruled out of order.
This development was doubtless assisted by the outcome of an arguably ill-judged challenge to the application of the Rules around our political funds which led the Certification Officer to conclude, in 2000, that decisions of the SOC were outside his jurisdiction. (This meant, since SOC decisions cannot even really be overturned by Conference, that officials realised that control of the SOC meant unaccountable control of the Union).
It is regrettable that it should be a retrograde step that our Union should realise that some part of our structure is exempt from oversight by an organ of a hostile state, but that is what we have seen – and subsequently the SOC has generally pushed in the direction of greater restriction (remembering that SOC members are elected by Regional Councils which are often subject to considerable officer influence).
Last year there was a new Chair of SOC, and experienced Conference-watchers quietly celebrated the hope of a breath of fresh air, hoping that the SOC might come to see its role as facilitating the rights of delegates rather than pleasing the machine.
The unduly restrictive approach to the interpretation of UNISON rules which has been the hallmark of our SOC in the twenty first century is a glaring and ongoing breach of Rule B.2.2 since it leads to an officer-led rather than a member-led trade union.
Last year we welcomed a new dawn, but the sun has set on our hopes all too quickly. An election in the Welsh Region (with votes counted by paid officials) led to the premature defenestration of the Chair of the SOC (a move supported, as I understand it, in correspondence by numerous senior paid officials, none of whom have the authority to interpret UNISON Rules).
I hear that a Rule I investigation may neutralise another SOC member who might have been expected to exercise independent thought and believe that those members of our SOC who know that their duty is to the lay membership and not the employed officials may be feeling increasingly embattled. Please stay strong and know that you have many friends!
It may be that the decisions of the SOC in respect of Conference amendments on branch funding (of which readers of this blog will hear more, much more – and more than you want to hear – soon) reflect the outcome of what has been done to shift the composition of our SOC in a direction more amenable to the wishes of the denizens of the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road.
Or it may not.
I don’t expect that an SOC doing its job properly would always arrive at decisions with which I would agree.
What our Rule Book envisages is a fiercely independent SOC taking decisions without fear or favour (which is why we really must one day amend our Rules to remove from the SOC the NEC members who are a voice for the machine).
It is a shame that the officials we pay to administer our trade union for us, and who presume sometimes therefore to run the organisation which employs them, have a different view of what the SOC should be.
And it is a far greater shame when they get their way.
Next month more than 1500 delegates, representing 1.2 Million UNISON members, will gather in Brighton for UNISON's twenty third annual Conference.
Delegates will meet against the backdrop of the first year of majority Tory Government this century, which has witnessed an unprecedented assault upon trade union rights and an acceleration of the plan by this Government of the wealthy to uproot the welfare state established seventy years ago.
Our public service trade union confronts declining membership just as our membership confront declining living standards (about which we seem incapable of effective action). We face the tremendous organisational challenge of an ever more fragmented workforce, and we face it in the context of a lower level of consciousness and engagement from our members.
In the face of these vast external challenges there will be many (not least on the third floor of a moderately impressive erection on the Euston Road) who will say that now is not the time for internal debates and disagreements.
Would that this were so.
It is not.
Perhaps the most important decisions that will (or will not) be taken in Brighton next month will relate to the arrangements for the funding of UNISON branches.
This seemingly technical topic is of vital importance to the future of our trade union - and has been a contested issue throughout UNISON's twenty three years of existence.
Regular readers of the blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) can skip the next few paragraphs of UNISON history, but this is important.
Your blogger was a member of 'former partner union' NALGO and attended the Special Conference at the Alexandra Palace at which the terms of the merger which created UNISON were broadly endorsed.
One issue which was raised by sceptics at the time was the issue of branch autonomy. Although - as advocates of merger pointed out - this phrase no more appeared in the rules of NALGO than it does now in UNISON's Rules, it was (and is) a concept dear to the hearts of many activists.
Our trade union branches are not only the locus of engagement with the trade union for most members and the first port of call for those in need of aid or seeking to take collective action, they are also a bastion of lay control of an important part of our trade union.
At Regional and national levels the (periodically) elected lay officials who are notionally in charge of the full-time officer machine are more often than not under the sway of that machine. This is not always a consequence of the grotesque disrespect for lay activists famously exhibited in the Greater London Regional Office. Many times lay officials genuinely accept the advice of paid officials who genuinely believe themselves to be acting in the best interests of the Union.
However, with the best will in the world, union officialdom looks at 'the Union' rather than the workers who comprise the membership as the ultimate object of their endeavours - to the point that they do not perceive any difference of interest between themselves (as trade union employees) and the union's membership (the inability to apply the insight that being determines consciousness to oneself is most remarkable in those who believe themselves to be Marxist, but it is not unremarkable in any educated person).
The 'higher-level' structures of the Union (beyond our branches) are generally pursuing the interests of the Union as if these were the interests of the membership. The Union operates as a bureaucratic entity with a decorative veneer of lay control.
To watch how this works one only has to observe the process whereby the Union's 'objectives' are set annually not by Conference debate but through a 'union-wide' process of consultation in which the full-time paid Secretaries of various Committees correspond with each other about a form of words developed by officers at the Centre. Lay members can seek to influence this process (and a small number of Committee Chairs can even come to believe that they play a central role) but this is not our process, it is a process whereby the officer machine reaffirms the objectives to which it gives greater status than any decision of our Conference.
The National Executive Council (NEC) exercises its role as a vast and impressive rubber stamp, blighted only by a troublesome minority of critics.
Having been a member of the NEC now for thirteen years I conclude that the only way to strengthen lay control in our trade union at the present time is to defend and strengthen branch autonomy.
This means that the arrangements for funding our branches must guarantee a basic level of funding, linked to membership and subscription income, which does not depend upon approval of any paid official, nor upon consistency with the 'objectives' of the Union as determined by the officials.
Without this guarantee our trade union branches would have only the status of branches of a bank, awaiting instruction from Head Office.
Such branches would lack both the incentive and the capacity to defend our members' interests. We have to stop this and Conference is our opportunity.