The new Rule Book for Unite was agreed by the Rules Commission on February 26th. The Rules Commission consists of members of the Amicus and TGWU Executive Councils. These draft rules now have to be approved by the Joint Executive (also comprising a selection of members of the Amicus and TGWU Executive Councils – with a significant overlap with the Rules Commission). Once the draft rules have been approved they will go to a ballot of the membership for a yes/no vote. This is all part of a process that was agreed when Amicus merged with the TGWU a year ago.
What is amazing about this process is that members have no opportunity to influence the outcome, short of voting down the rule book in the ballot. As a member of the Amicus NEC (although not on either the Rules Commission or the Joint Executive), I have not been officially provided with a copy of the draft. Members of our national industrial committees and our regional councils have also had no opportunity to see the draft rules, never mind influence the content.
Does it matter that we have not been consulted? My view: Yes, of course it does. The rules of a union don’t necessarily determine how effective that union is, but they do provide a framework through which members can work to make the union effective. On that basis, I’m concerned about what’s come out of the process.
Although I haven’t been officially provided with a copy of the draft, I have been sent one unofficially – Draft Rules. My comments are made on that unofficial basis.
I have significant concerns. Some are specific to the Health Sector, and some are more general.
The draft rules threaten the existence of our Health branches. The rules make provision for only three sorts of branches: workplace branches, local branches, and national industrial branches. Our health activists had hoped that a workplace branch could be one that covered a number of employers as this would cover our existing health branches – but the draft rules exclude that. A workplace branch is defined as a ‘branch at the member’s workplace’. The alternative is that members are allocated to their nearest local branch. For my branch, East London Health, that would imply members would be scattered across a wide range of branches that each included multiple industrial sectors.
I believe we risk losing what has been important about Health branches – the mutual advice and support we can give each other across different NHS employers. The problems across the NHS are similar, because they all arise from the same national agreements, and the same Government policies – but the ways in which we resist these attacks can be different. Learning from the experience of other reps has always been valuable. The other downside is that general branches will be less relevant to reps and activists in Health. The risk is that our Health members won’t get involved in general branches, reducing lay involvement in the Union still further.
The other key challenge for the Health Sector will be our national structure. One of our strengths currently is that all of our major professional/occupational groupings are represented as of right on the national health sector committee. The issues faced by health visitors and pathologists may be different, but we have a structure where both have to be considered before we adopt a position. In the new rule book there is a provision for occupational groups within a sector, but no right for these groups to be represented on the national sector committee. The rule states that ‘each industrial sector will be led by a national industrial committee, to be elected from the appropriate regional industrial committees’. Unless the national committee were enormous, with each region being entitled to send a significant delegation, proportionality of professional groups would be almost impossible to maintain. I think we will be much weaker if a ‘winner takes all’ approach is allowed to develop.
More generally, I think the rule book represents a further erosion of democratic lay control in the union.
The Executive Council, the senior lay body, will only meet 6 times a year. Between those meetings, ‘the Executive’s powers … are delegated to the General Secretary’. So under rule, the General Secretary has all the powers of the Executive Council for 98% of the time. He is even entitled to interpret the rules without any ability to challenge. There is not even a requirement, in rule, that he report to the EC what actions he has taken in their name. At least there are minutes of EC meetings.
Another point arises from this. There is no requirement to circulate EC minutes to the membership. If current practice is anything to go by, most members are unlikely to see them. The Joint Executive has been meeting for a year and even Amicus NEC members are unable to see the minutes of meetings. Democracy requires transparency in decision making processes. Minutes are not necessarily the best way to get information, but they’re better than nothing.
‘Follow the money’ is often a good guide to who has really got power and control in an organisation. In the new Unite rule book, if you follow the money, you won’t find much of it in lay members’ hands. Regional Councils are to get only 1% of subscription income – that’s half of the current Amicus percentage. This represents an even bigger cut for the TGWU. Currently, TGWU Regions are the main financial bodies. Their Regional Committees are responsible for all regional expenditure, including officers’ pay. In the TGWU, Head Office is granted money by the Regions. So this change represents a significant increase in centralisation from a TGWU perspective.
Things could be even worse for branches. There is no set financial percentage for branches. The rules just say that ‘Branches will have direct access to a proportion of membership subscriptions. Such a proportion and access arrangements to be determined by the Executive Council’. Of course, for ‘Executive Council’ you might read ‘General Secretary’. There is no guarantee here of reasonable income for the branches – another example of increased centralisation.
The document as a whole looks rushed. There are bits unfinished. There are requirements in the rules for the new Executive Council to bring in Rule Amendments to determine how their successors will be elected. It is a tragedy for democracy that the members of Britain’s largest Union will have no say in their rules until two years after they have been implemented. And what will the Rules Conference look like? Who knows? We’re told ‘The Executive Council will determine the procedure for nomination, qualification and election of delegates’. And that includes the constituencies for their election.
Unite is the UK’s biggest trade union. The way it is run – and who takes the decisions – is very, very important indeed. Democracy and lay control aren’t luxuries in a union. A union in which activists set the agenda and determine priorities is more likely to deliver for its members than a union run in a top-down way. The rule book we’re set to get may not be a surprise – but it’s a disappointment.