Thursday, December 22, 2016

The future role of UNISON employees in elections for General Secretary?

Continuing the theme of sharing with you, poor reader, the meanderings of my muddled mind arising from three days in the recent hearing before the Assistant Certification Officer (without touching upon the matters in the case itself) I have been asking myself about the proper relationship between a trade union and its employees.

This is a topic which has been the subject of debate in our movement for more than a century. I have frequently blogged on the topic of the trade union bureaucracy – although these days I fear this sort of discussion can end up in a Rule I investigation (!)

Clearly large trade unions need to employ staff to carry out various functions that it would be impractical for members to carry out for ourselves. It is to be hoped that many of those we employ will be committed to the principles of trade unionism and UNISON has inherited a tradition that employees of the union may remain, or become, members of the union which employs them.

In UNISON our Rule Book says that staff can be members of our trade union, at Rule C.2.9, but that they shall not be members “of any branch or of any Group or of any Region” (Rule C.2.9.2.2).

That is a rule which, to the casual observer, might be said to be honoured in the breach – since there is a “National Staff Branch” of UNISON which, even if it exists only for the convenience of administration of membership, does nevertheless exist in breach of UNISON Rules.

Rule C.2.9 precludes members who are employees from voting for membership of any lay body (such as the National Executive Council) whereas it explicitly provides (at Rule C.2.9.3) for a right to vote in a political fund ballot. Interestingly the rule is silent on whether members in accordance with Rule C.2.9 have the right to vote in elections for General Secretary, although the convention appears to be that they are given that right.

UNISON members reflecting upon what (little) we have achieved since 1993 need to be prepared to rethink our trade union from first principles and therefore, in the first place, we need to debate whether or not it is appropriate that staff employed by a democratic lay-led workers' organisation should themselves be members of that organisation.

On the assumption that the status quo expressed by Rule C.2.9 survives critical examination of its merits, we then need to think about whether or not the election of a General Secretary is, like the election of our National Executive Council, something from which those members who are UNISON employees should be excluded in future – or whether it is, like a political fund ballot, a part of our trade union democracy in which our employees should be included.

I incline towards the former point of view, but I certainly think that it is unacceptable that our Rule Book is silent on the question of whether or not staff, who are UNISON members, should have a vote in the election of their own boss.

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