Friday, May 20, 2016

Why UNISON branch funding matters


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.

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