Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

How does UNISON's NEC manage its relationship with its staff?

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris UNISON-Centre) sometimes wonder which of UNISON's many Rules are most interesting and important.

UNISON Rule D.2.12 is one of the most important rules in the UNISON Rule Book. It deals with the employment of staff as follows;

“2.12.1 The National Executive Council (or the General Secretary acting on its behalf) shall have the power to engage or dismiss such staff as may be required for the conduct of the business of the Union. 

2.12.2 The National Executive Council shall determine the pay and conditions of service of staff. The General Secretary shall be responsible to the National Executive Council for all remaining staffing matters.”

The UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) therefore has the responsibility for the appointment of UNISON staff, and for their pay and conditions, which - in accordance with Rule D.2.9 - it delegates to its Staffing Committee.

Every couple of years, during my fourteen years on the NEC, when given the opportunity, I would give quite a high preference to the Staffing Committee in my options for Committees on which to serve, but (in my time) dissident left-wingers were kept well away from that Committee in particular.

However, it wasn’t just the minority of miscreants who were kept at arms length from the goings-on of the Staffing Committee. The Committee kept most of its business pretty much confidential from the rest of the NEC.

Or - as it was put in one of the NEC member’s handbooks I was sent during my time “for reasons of staff confidentiality and data protection, staffing committee minutes are not circulated to the NEC. Summary reports are prepared for the NEC on major staffing issues.” This is, of course, no good reason why the Committee’s minutes should be kept secret from the UNISON NEC - it would be a simple matter for the Staffing Committee, like a Committee of a local authority, to have a “Part One” agenda and minutes, for wider circulation, with “Part Two” (dealing with genuinely confidential matters) having a more restricted circulation.

There are Committees which the UNISON Rule Book specifies should have a degree of autonomy from the NEC as a whole (the two Political Fund Committees). The Staffing Committee is not give such autonomy by UNISON Rules - indeed the Rule Book does not require that there should be a Staffing Committee. Rule D.2.12 gives staffing responsibilities to the NEC itself, and the NEC simply chooses to allocate these to a Committee. Over the years, the Staffing Committee has given itself a status for which there is no basis and the majority of the NEC have allowed this.

In my first term on the NEC, which began in 2003, some of the newcomers (myself included) tried to argue for greater accountability of the Staffing Committee to the NEC as a whole, but all we got were occasional written updates from the Chair of the Staffing Committee.

In 2021, the incoming NEC has the opportunity, if it wishes to take it, to re-set its relationship with its own Staffing Committee and reassert the authority of the NEC as a whole in relation to staffing matters. 

There are, of course, staffing matters which need to be dealt with (on behalf of the NEC) without all the details being shared with the whole NEC (individual recruitment to senior posts would be an obvious example) - but there is no reason whatsoever that, for example, the NEC as a whole ought not to in a position to exercise its own power under Rule D.2.12.2 and to be in full possession of information about negotiations concerning the terms and conditions of staff.

The NEC members allocated to the Staffing Committee for 2021-23 will face particular challenges and will need the full support not only of their NEC colleagues, but of UNISON activists generally.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Industrial Action - #timeforrealchange in UNISON

Sometime soon the newly elected UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) will meet to allocate its members to its various Committees. Most of the NEC’s Committees exist pursuant to the right of the NEC - under Rule D.2.9
“to appoint such Committees from amongst its membership as it shall see fit, and… …to delegate to such Committees any of its functions as it considers appropriate.”

The Industrial Action Committee (IAC) also exists by virtue of Rule O.2, which says that the NEC may “appoint a sub-committee, officer or member to act on its behalf in issuing any particular instructions to take industrial action.” The IAC is that Sub-Committee.

The NEC delegates to the IAC the donkey work required to comply with its duty under Rule O.4 to “draw up a Code of Conduct applicable either generally to all industrial disputes or in relation to any particular dispute.” The IAC also deals with the requirements of Rule O.5 which states that; “Dispute benefit and other costs and expenses arising from and connected with the dispute will be paid under regulations drawn up by the National Executive Council from a fund specifically maintained for these purposes.”

When I was on the NEC I took an interest in the IAC and - although for five terms of office after my doomed bid for the General Secretaryship (from 2005-2015) I was only placed upon one Committee by my NEC colleagues, I did get to sit on the IAC from 2003-2005 (before I blotted my copybook) and from 2015-2017 (when my misdeeds were - perhaps - sufficiently in the past).

Most NEC Committees meet according to a schedule which will be drawn up and will cover the period until the end of the term of office of the current NEC, at the close of National Delegate Conference 2023 but, whilst the IAC may - and probably should - have some scheduled meetings to deal with predictable work, it may also be called to meet at short notice to deal with industrial disputes as they arise.

It therefore makes sense for the NEC to put as many members as it can on the IAC so that sufficiently well-attended meetings can be called when required - and it makes sense for as many NEC members as possible to be prepared to serve on the IAC (and therefore to express a preference for that Committee along with the others on which they would like to serve).

If the newly elected UNISON NEC want to demonstrate to our membership that there is real meaning to the slogan “#timeforrealchange” then there are a couple of things that the incoming IAC could then do, fairly quickly.

First, the Industrial Action Handbook (which was last updated in June 2019) could be redrafted, following a brief consultation - in particular - with those activists in UNISON with recent experience of leading industrial disputes. 

At present, the introduction to the Handbook states that “industrial action becomes a legitimate strategy when negotiations have broken down and where any agreed disputes procedure has been exhausted” - exemplifying an attitude of mind which leads UNISON officials to discourage activists from pursuing industrial action, because that is the message that they have received from more senior officials.

Industrial action becomes a legitimate strategy whenever a group of workers decide for themselves that it is a legitimate strategy and UNISON’s Industrial Action Handbook should be a helpful guide for workers having to negotiate the many obstacles placed in their way by a succession of hostile Governments and by the courts - not another such obstacle.

According to their latest return to the Certification Officer (for 2019) UNITE (a smaller trade union than UNISON) held 245 industrial action ballots in that year, whereas UNISON’s return for the same period indicates that we held 234. (An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly reported that number as 25 and I am indebted to a comrade from the NEU who pointed out that I had misread the document).

UNISON needs to be much more inclined to encourage - rather than discourage - members whose interests will be best served by a willingness to take industrial action. The difference between a left-led trade union and the other sort is not that a left-wing leadership can (or would want to) provoke strikes or foment discontent - however, left-wing union officials, and representatives, can decide not to obstruct union members from taking action.

Secondly therefore - and this is something which the IAC could recommend to the NEC following its first meeting as a Committee - the daily rate of strike pay could be increased (perhaps from the current rate of £25 a day to match UNITE at £50 a day). 

These changes - to the Industrial Action Handbook - and the rate of daily strike pay would matter as much for what they symbolise as for their substance, but they would provide practical assistance to members and activists on the front line of defence against the attacks coming at UNISON members from the Tory Government and the employers.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Making a date with the new UNISON NEC?

I was very pleased to hear that the newly elected UNISON National Executive Council started today as (I hope) they mean to go on, by electing a new Presidential Team.

This blog exists, however, not so much to make the “big picture” political commentary which you can find anywhere you like on the internet - regular readers (Sid and Doris Blogger) come here for the sort of tedious and uninteresting detail you just can’t get elsewhere (because no one is interested…)

So I thought I would turn my attention to the question of when the NEC might next meet, since that will be the meeting at which it will agree the composition of its Committees, and will make various other appointments, including the Trustees of the Union.

As a service to those charged with making this decision (which in my time on the NEC had generally been made in advance of the first meeting of a new NEC and had been notified to members at that meeting) - I thought I would look back at my records to see when this meeting had taken place on previous occasions when a newly elected NEC needed to constitute its Committees.

In 2007 we met on 11/12 July. (The Presidential team having been elected on 22 June).

In 2009 we met on 8/9 July. (The Presidential team were elected at that meeting, there having been a kerfuffle at the end of Conference).

In 2011 we met on 12/13 July. (The Presidential team having been elected on 24 June).

In 2013 we met on 3 July. (The Presidential team having been elected on 21 June)

In 2015 we met on 29 July (while I was on holiday). This meeting was unusually late, which may - or may not - have had something to do with the fact that Rule D.2.9 (now Rule D.2.10) had been added to the Rule Book at that year’s Conference.

From 2017 I was no longer a member of the NEC - but the blog of another NEC member reveals that the NEC met on 4 July in 2017. (Thanks Tony). (The Presidential Team had been elected on 23 June).

A little googling (well, “duck, duck, going”) reveals, thanks to a (now) former NEC member that the NEC met on 3 July in 2019. (The Presidential Team having been elected on 21 June).

With the exception of the post-election meeting in 2015, the first full meeting of a newly elected NEC has (on six of the last seven occasions) taken place within no more than three weeks of the meeting at which the Presidential Team has been elected.

On three out of the last four occasions (2013, 2017 and 2019) this meeting has taken place within a fortnight of the inaugural meeting of the new NEC, so any suggestion that it is unreasonable to think that this might happen is a bit daft.

It is important that there is no untoward delay between the new NEC taking office and the meeting at which Committees are constituted, as the NEC needs to have put its Committees together if it is to be able to carry out its functions under Rule D.2.1.

There is another good reason for getting the meeting in early - under the Rules of the Trades Union Congress we need to get our nominations and motions in eight weeks before the week of Congress.

According to UNITE’s website, Congress this year starts on 12 September, which means that the Policy Committee (who, these days, deal with TUC matters) need to have been constituted and have met by the second full week in July at the latest).

There are, of course, practical details to be sorted out, some of which are made more difficult by the fact that today’s inaugural meeting of the new NEC took place virtually, rather than in a stuffy Conference Centre at the end of a long week.

Newly elected members need to be issued with their mobile phones and laptops, and NEC members need to complete various bits of paperwork, including - importantly - notifying the Union of any reasonable adjustments which may be required.

However, the UK’s largest trade union has the resources to progress these matters so that there should be no reason to delay the next meeting of the NEC (particularly not if meetings continue to take place virtually for the time being).

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

What do the UNISON NEC election results mean for what UNISON does in the Labour Party?

Much commentary on trade union elections focuses on the implications for the Labour Party (which is more than a little irritating since trade unions are about a lot more than simply our relationship with our Party). However, as a Labour Party member (for more than forty years) and formerly a UNISON NEC member (for fourteen years) it does interest me to consider how the change which is coming within UNISON will impact upon our relationship with our Party.

The election of a majority of members of the UNISON NEC who were supporters of the #timeforrealchange “slate” will certainly shift UNISON policy generally leftwards - but to understand how this impact will (or will not) be felt upon UNISON’s Labour Party intervention it is important to grasp how UNISON’s unique “dual” political fund structure, designed a generation ago to insulate our Labour Party work from the influence of “Trots” from former NALGO, still functions today.

Under UNISON Rule J.2.2 2 the administration of each section of the Political Fund shall be the responsibility of the National Executive Council which shall delegate this responsibility to the exclusive control of two separate Committees which shall, in the case of the General Political Fund Section, be known as the General Political Fund Committee and consist of members of the National Executive Council who in accordance with these rules are contributors to the General Political Fund Section and, in the case of the Affiliated Political Fund Section, be known as the National Labour Link Committee and consist of 12 members of the National Executive Council elected by members of the National Executive Council who in accordance with these Rules are contributors to the Affiliated Political Fund Section and paid up individual members of the Labour Party and one representative elected from each Region (save for Northern Ireland) who in accordance with these rules are contributors to the Affiliated Political Fund Section and paid up individual members of the Labour Party.

The fact that those elected whilst advocating that now is the #timeforrealchange constitute a majority of the UNISON NEC does not necessarily mean that they will constitute a majority of those NEC members who contribute to the Affiliated Political Fund (UNISON Labour Link) and who will therefore elect the twelve members of the Labour Link Committee who are drawn from the ranks of Labour Link payers on the NEC (all of the twelve also have to be individual members of the Labour Party) - if the new NEC majority want to have any influence over how UNISON relates to the Labour Party they all need, if they do not already pay into the affiliated section of the political fund, either to transfer into UNISON Labour Link or (which would probably be better) to apply, with immediate effect, to pay into both sections of the political fund.

At best the newly elected leftwing majority on the NEC can provide up to twelve of the twenty three voting members of the UNISON National Labour Link Committee - the other eleven are currently up for election - the nomination period for which, having opened this week, closes on 14 July. Even with a clear socialist majority on the National Labour Link Committee however, it will be some time before any difference is seen in UNISON’s contribution to the Labour Party National Executive or Annual Conference.

Labour Party NEC

UNISON has (at present) two representatives on the Labour Party National Executive but - unlike (for example) our representatives on the TUC General Council - these are not direct representatives of our trade union, they are “elected” at Party Conference (each autumn) as part of the thirteen members of “Division One” of the Party NEC in accordance with Clause III.A.i.a of Chapter Four of the Labour Party Rules.   

By the time the newly elected NEC will have been able to elect its members of the National Labour Link Committee we will be well past the deadline for nomination of trade union representatives on the Labour Party NEC to be elected at Party Conference 2021 to serve for 2021-22. Therefore the earliest that there could be an impact upon UNISON’s presence on the Labour Party NEC from the UNISON NEC election results declared in June 2021 would be at Labour Party Conference in the autumn of 2022.

Labour Party Conference

If the ability of a socialist majority on the UNISON NEC to influence the Union’s representation on the Labour Party NEC will be delayed, any consequent change to UNISON’s representation at Labour Party Conference may be mitigated even more by the structures bequeathed to us in the 1990s.

Some considerable number of years ago the APF Operational Rules decreed that the composition of UNISON’s delegation to Labour Party Conference would be as follows;

“The UNISON APF delegation to the annual Labour Party Conference shall consist of 49 members who are all individual members of the Labour Party. The delegation shall meet the requirements of UNISON APF and the Labour Party to proportionality and fair representation as described in Chapter 1. The delegation is made up of:

a) two representatives from each of the twelve [now eleven] APF regions. All regions must elect at least one woman each year and four regions, on a rotating basis, must elect a second woman;

b) the Chair and five members of the NAPC [now National Labour Link Committee], at least three of whom should be women;

c) four members of the NEC who pay the affiliated political levy, at least two [now, I think three] of whom should be women and not excluding members of the NAPC;

d) two APF members each from the black, disabled and lesbian and gay [now LGBT+] self organised groups, at least one from each being a woman;

e) two APF sponsored MPs, at least one being a woman.

f) seven paid officials as determined by the senior officer responsible for the APF, at least four of whom should be women.”

I confess that, never having been let anywhere near the Labour Link Committee (as it has been known now for many years) during my time on the NEC I did not keep completely up to date with any subsequent variations in the composition of the Conference delegation.

However, I think that the basic structure of the Labour Party Conference delegation has not changed fundamentally - meaning that those NEC members who pay into the Affiliated section of the Political Fund provide (directly) one twelfth of the delegation and the National Labour Link Committee provide another eighth.

As to the UNISON delegation to Labour Party Conference 2021, the newly elected UNISON NEC will find it has limited scope to contribute to the composition of the delegation - and for future years, any attempt to change the composition of the delegation would require changes to the APF Operational Rules to be proposed by the National Labour Link Committee to the National Labour Link Forum in 2022, which would then need to secure a two thirds majority at the Forum (the large majority of delegates to which are elected from Regional Labour Link Committees).

With the best will in the world, a left-wing UNISON NEC, will need at least two years even to attempt to shift UNISON Labour Link leftwards if that is done only from above. Of course - if the NEC can influence the National Labour Link Committee to campaign to change hearts and minds so that there is also a drive for change from below then things could be very different.

Mind you, whether in its old guise of the Affiliated Political Fund or its more recent title of UNISON Labour Link, UNISON’s Labour Party wing has never been particularly good at having sensible or comprehensive Rules - I remember years ago realising that (for example) there was no requirement for a branch Labour Link meeting to have a quorum.

When therefore, some considerable time ago, no one else attended a Branch Labour Link meeting which I had called at short notice, I therefore recognised myself as a quorate meeting, which I elected myself to Chair. Inviting myself to speak, I proposed a motion (which - as Chair - I decided did not require a seconder in the circumstances). Putting the motion to the vote, I found that it was passed unanimously and so it was submitted to the Regional Labour Link Forum.

Unfortunately the newly elected UNISON NEC will not find it quite so easy to achieve results through structures which were carefully designed, some thirty years ago, to ensure that socialists would not be able to influence UNISON’s Labour Party intervention.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

#timeforrealchange at the TUC?

One things with which the new UNISON NEC (with a large majority of members elected on the #timeforrealchange slate) will have to deal at its July member is the making of nominations to the TUC General Council and the selection of NEC members to attend as part of UNISON’s delegation to the TUC in September.

As things stand (or rather, stood as at September last year) UNISON has seven members on the General Council of the TUC - four officials (Roger McKenzie, Gloria Mills, Dave Prentis and Liz Snape) and three lay members (Josie Bird, Davena Rankin and Chris Tansley). However, since Gloria Mills holds the seat elected at Congress to represent Black Women workers, only the other six are directly appointed by UNISON - and (pursuant to a decision taken some years ago when the TUC changed its Rules to accommodate the creation of UNITE) we don’t take up our full allocation of seven members (as a trade union with more than 200,000 members our directly appointed members of the General Council “shall [according to TUC Rules] be determined by [our] full numerical membership on the basis of one per 200,000 members or part thereof”). We don’t, but we could.  

On the assumption that the UNISON NEC will feel that UNISON’s General Secretary ought to sit on the General Council of the TUC (and its Executive) the question will arise of whether to continue to observe the convention that three paid officials sit on the General Council - the Presidential Team may want (ahead of the July NEC meeting) to take legal advice about whether this has become part of the contract of employment of those Assistant General Secretaries who do currently serve (and may also feel that there is some benefit to UNISON in having some continuity of our membership). On this basis, the July NEC would have (at least) four seats on the General Council to allocate (at least three of which should be women if the overall delegation were to - as it must - meet the requirements of proportionality (as defined in UNISON Rule Q).

The July NEC also needs to determine which NEC members will attend the TUC Congress in September. Under TUC Rules; “Affiliated organisations shall be entitled to be represented at the annual Congress by one delegate for every 5,000 members or fraction thereof” which means that UNISON could - in theory - send far more delegates than it generally does (we could send more than 240). The other constituencies within UNISON who have allocated representation on the TUC delegation (Regional Councils, Service Groups, Self-Organised Groups etc.) will by then already have chosen their delegates. The NEC can decide how many of its own members to send.

Until 2010 all NEC members were able to attend TUC if they wished (given that attending Congress is up there with watching paint dry for many people only about half did, but everyone could have done) - in 2010 TUC Congress agreed, having met annually since the 1860s, to only meet biennially and to have a smaller gathering in the alternate years. The subsequent “smaller gathering” in the basement of Congress House in 2011 was such a fiasco that the decision was politely discarded thereafter, but not before UNISON (and other large trade unions) had taken the opportunity to reduce the size (and expense) of their delegations to future TUCs.

From 2012 onwards the NEC’s contribution to the TUC delegation has consisted of a large number of members of the Policy Committee and a couple of members of each of the other “Strategic” Committees (the Development and Organisation, International and Services to Members Committees at that time). This structure generally allowed for the NEC membership of the TUC delegation to reflect the views of the majority of the NEC (although I myself was permitted to attend in 2012 as a reward for having spoken in support of the NEC at that year’s National Delegate Conference). The powers of the NEC under UNISON Rules, taking into account TUC Rules, will give the July 2021 meeting of the NEC carte blanche as to who should attend the TUC on behalf of the NEC, although in practice the choice to be made will probably be between continuing with recent practice (and therefore inviting nominations from each Committee) or reverting to pre-2010 practice and allowing any NEC member to attend.

None of this may matter very much for as long as the TUC remains irrelevant to the interests of most working people - but if we are ever going to rescue our trade union centre from that irrelevance it may come to matter quite a bit.

Monday, June 14, 2021

What have #timeforrealchange ever done for us? A Seventh Internationalist writes...

In many years of trade union activity I have come across comrades (and quite often friends) from a very wide range of different groups of what are often referred to as “Trots”. It is an observation so commonplace as never really to be funny that these groups are very fissiparous - and this has led, over the years, to various different organisations (in different parts of the world) claiming the mantle of the “Fourth International” (although there is one legitimate holder of the franchise).

Some enterprising comrades, rather than continue to squabble about who is, or is not “really” the Fourth International, went on to set up the Fifth International. I have often thought that, if I were to abandon my wishy-washy “left reformism” I would probably want to get ahead of the game by declaring myself an adherent of the “Seventh International”. We Seventh Internationalists would be very pure and rigorous in our politics.

At the moment, for example, Seventh Internationalists, not wishing to get carried away by the electoral success of the #timeforrealchange candidates in the UNISON NEC elections, would be demonstrating our clear leftist credentials by demanding to know “just what have they achieved so far, eh?”

The answer would be - of course - “nothing” and that would be for the reason that those whose election to the UNISON NEC was announced last Friday have not yet taken office are not therefore in a position to do anything just yet.

Under Rule D.2.7.1; “The period of office of every [NEC member] shall be from the close of National Delegate Conference immediately following the declaration of the result of the election to the close of the National Delegate Conference two years later.”

This year UNISON is having a (virtual) Special Delegate Conference instead of the normal National Delegate Conference and therefore the term of office of the 2019-2021 NEC will end, and the term of office of the 2021-23 NEC will commence at the close of the Special Delegate Conference.

The first thing which the incoming NEC needs to do is to elect its President and two Vice-Presidents (together comprising “the Presidential Team”). This is normally done at a meeting of the new NEC on the final day of National Delegate Conference and so should - this year - take place before the end of this week.

After this meeting - and before the first regular meeting - NEC members are invited to express preferences as to the Committee(s) on which they will serve. Newly elected member are normally briefed about this process by officers during Conference week (although they would be well advised to pay more attention to more experienced fellow NEC members).

The Presidential Team are then (formally) responsible for making recommendations to the first full regular meeting of the new NEC (which usually takes place early in July) as to the composition of the NEC’s Committees, based upon the preferences expressed by members and (officially) taking into account proportionality, fair representation and the balance of membership between the different categories of seats on the NEC. 

I wouldn’t like to say that this is work which (in my time on the NEC) was often done - at least initially - by officers and then approved by the Presidential Team. So I won’t say that. Unofficially the composition of Committees (at least in the past) also reflected the views of the Presidential Team about NEC members - what else could explain why a male Regional NEC member from Greater London (myself) spent ten years on only one Committee whilst a male Regional NEC member from the East Midlands served on so many Committees he had to spend almost his whole time in London?

Notionally the NEC itself approves the composition of all of its Committees, but in practice (at least in the past) the recommendations put before the July NEC (biennially after each set of elections) were nodded through (occasionally with a slight amendment if someone of sufficient standing was sufficiently put out as to make an effective fuss - never myself having had such standing I never paid much attention…)

The exception to this is the NEC members of the Labour Link Committee (who are elected at a special meeting of all NEC members who pay into the Affiliated section of the Political Fund) and the Campaign Committee (if that is what it is now called - I think of it as the General Political Fund Committee) whose members are elected at a special meeting of NEC members who pay into the General section of the Political Fund. The NEC adjourns its July meeting (biennially after the NEC elections) to allow these meetings to take place.

Once the Committee memberships are agreed, the NEC adjourns (again) so that each Committee can meet for just long enough to elect their Chair and Vice-Chair. This is important because all of the business of the NEC is carried out through its various Committees and (between meetings of the Committee) the Chair (or, in their absence, the Vice-Chair) can act on behalf of the Committee. The exceptions to this are those Committees which include NEC members but do not consist exclusively of NEC members (the Labour Link Committee, National Women’s Committee etc.) which have their own separate arrangements for electing their Chair and Vice-Chair.

The July NEC also elects/appoints the NEC members who will form part of UNISON’s delegation to the forthcoming annual meeting of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in September and makes nominations to the General Council of the TUC for the coming year. There are some interesting observations to make about this process, but they are for a subsequent blog post.

The meeting of NEC members who pay into the Affiliated Political Fund also chooses a (very) small number of NEC members who pay into that section of the fund (regardless of whether they are members of the Labour Link Committee) to join the delegation to Labour Party Conference in October.

Although the NEC (under Rule D.2.1) “shall have full power and authority to act on behalf of the Union in every respect and for every purpose falling within the objects of the Union.” Subject to the proviso that “it shall not do anything that is inconsistent with [UNISON] Rules or the policy of the Union as laid down by the National Delegate Conference,” from a practical point of view this power depends very much upon the existence of all the NEC Committees, with their Chairs and Vice-Chair, if the paid officials of the Union are, effectively to be held to account. 

Therefore it will be at least a month from now before the newly elected members of UNISON’s NEC are in a position to even begin to effect any change and, in reality, it will probably be at the TUC in September that such change may become clearly apparent.

Of course none of these practical realities would matter to my hypothetical comrades of the Seventh International, who would already be working on an article for our next bulletin (due out in the early autumn after the entire membership of our tendency had enjoyed a summer break at a small cottage in Prestatyn) denouncing the #timeforrealchange majority on the UNISON NEC for not having initiated an insurrection before the end of August.

I hope that all of the new members of the UNISON NEC are prepared for the aggravation which they will be facing…

(Good luck comrades!)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Virtually no disagreement - is that a good thing?

For many years I would attend UNISON Conferences and blog about them here. Today, as a retired member, I obviously did not attend the Special (Virtual) Local Government Committee meeting which took the place of National Local Government Conference.

However, as a diligent delegate was attending from the back garden (whom I pestered from time to time with virtual leaflets and the offer for sale of virtual newspapers) I took an interest in the Conference and noted some comment online about how UNISON Conferences have become a bit tedious. Every single motion on today’s agenda was supported by the Service Group Executive and, as I understand it, every single speaker (all of whom had had to register to speak in advance) was speaking in favour of every proposal.

You may say that perhaps this is a consequence of the Conference taking place online - but having chaired (and attended) numerous Labour Party meetings online now over the past year, I think I can safely say that a virtual meeting need not be a stranger to controversy.

It is certainly true that the prioritisation process which is used for UNISON National Delegate and Service Group Conferences helps to ensure that motions likely to command overwhelming support tend to find their way to the top of the agenda. It is also true that Standing Orders Committees in UNISON have become more effective in ruling out of order potentially controversial motions over the years.

This has helped to lead us to the strange place where the moving of a series of uncontroversial motions with which people get up to speak simply to agree with each other and share their experiences is described as a “debate” - but there is another factor in the decaffeinating of UNISON Conferences, and that is that branch activists seem to be giving up.

On the Final Agenda for today’s Conference, prior to compositing, the Service Group Executive had 11 motions and 1 amendment, Regional Local Government Committees had another 11 motions, National Self-Organised Groups had 7 motions and 2 amendments and Sector Committees had 7 motions (8 if you count the Private Sector Forum).

There were only five motions and six amendments moved by branches and these came from just half a dozen branches (Manchester had two motions, along with Barnet, Renfrewshire and Surrey County who had one each, whilst Camden and Tower Hamlets each had three amendments).

As it has been reported to me, the electronic voting system at today’s Conference underlined the almost North Korean majorities being achieved for the motions. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with many - even most - motions commanding overwhelming support if there is a consensus within the Union about what needs to be done.

However, when there is so much dissatisfaction among the rank and file membership with declining living standards and the prospect of yet further savage spending cuts, it seems a little unhealthy - not to say surreal - if this dissatisfaction does not find voice in at least some genuine debate (ie. around motions with which some people disagree as they consider different options for action). 

If there are branch activists who were delegates at today’s Conference, or who are receiving reports from that Conference, and who are dissatisfied with a Conference lacking in genuine debate then the solution is in your own hands comrades. Put proposals up through your branches, lobby for their prioritisation and force a debate or - if you read motions which seem to you to be too anodyne or vague - take a leaf out of Camden and Tower Hamlets books and propose amendments to them.

UNISON members have elected a new and more radical National Executive Council, but if the trade union is to be reinvigorated this cannot simply be done from above, it must be done from below as well as from above - and branch activists have it in their hands to make future UNISON Conferences more worthwhile.