Thursday, December 22, 2016
Do we need a General Secretary?
Now that the hearing of evidence in front of the Assistant Certification Officer is over and the complainants and the Union are waiting for Wednesday 22 February when we shall reconvene to make our closing arguments in relation to the complaints concerning last year’s election for General Secretary it is time to begin thinking further about the future of our trade union.
I don’t intend to go into the evidence which was heard this week, or the arguments which will be put next year. The time for that will be once the Assistant Certification Officer has issued her decision.
However, there are questions which UNISON members need in any case to be thinking about, not least as elections to our National Executive Council come round and the deadline for submissions to next year’s National Delegate Conference looms.
One question which popped into my mind this week was whether we really need to have a General Secretary at all. Our Rule Book (Rule E.3) says that we must – but the law only says that if you have a general secretary they have to be elected by the membership (unless they hold office for less than thirteen months).
Branch-level elected positions in the trade union can be job-shared in accordance with Rule G.4.1.5 but our Rules say we must have one – and only one – General Secretary. This certainly entrenches hierarchy at the top of our organisation and I cannot see why it should be essential for a trade union governed by an elected lay Executive to have such a hierarchy of paid staff.
In principle there is no reason why we could not have a senior official responsible for (say) publicity, responsible to a lay communications committee, a senior official responsible for organising, responsible to a lay organising committee and so on. Unity and coordination could be provided by the elected lay National Executive Council (NEC), rather than by a secretariat of paid employees.
Certainly it is the existence of this secretariat which raises the question of how to design, improve and strengthen democratic checks and balances (which are at present seriously inadequate). In the early years of UNISON the Presidential Team (a phrase which does not in fact appear in the Rule Book) was developed by lay members of the National Executive in order to provide lay oversight and scrutiny of senior officials, but in my time on the NEC I have rarely noticed it performing this function.
Realistically I suppose it is this latter question (how to improve democratic safeguards and lay scrutiny) we need to think about, but in doing so, it is at least worth bearing in mind that we don’t necessarily have to have a General Secretary, and that if we are going to keep the role in future we should be certain that the position adds value and effectiveness to our organising.