Friday, May 20, 2016

SOC - see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?

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.

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