by Workers Party TU Group
This week, Britain’s largest trade union Unite held its Rules conference in Brighton on 9-10 July. The 2 day conference heard a number of proposed amendments to the Unions rule book relating to Retired members, Workplace representatives, Welsh autonomy, as well as the Unions political coordination and affiliation to the Labour Party.
The majority of amendments were voted in accordance with the recommendation of the Executive Council (EC), the leading committee of the union made up of lay reps from every region and industrial sector across Great Britain and Ireland.
The conference delegation did disregard the EC guidance on a significant vote in support of benefits for retired members. An amendment from the Retired Members Coordinating Committee in the North East, Yorkshire and Humber put forward that all retired members of the Union (as at 1st September 2009) should be entitled to paid funeral benefits. The EC argued that this amendment would cost the union upwards of £10 million pounds but impassioned arguments from the regions members highlighted the inequity of entitlements among long time members who have merged into Unite previously with Amicus or other unions.
There was also some heated debate on the proposed amendments to Rule 6, the rule which sets out who among the membership is eligible to sit on the most senior committees and decision making bodies within the union. The changes proposed that only those who are elected to positions of accountability to workers should be eligible. To most this would seem obvious. If you want to be in a decision making position within an industrial trade union, you should represent more people than yourself. To be elected as a workplace representative in Unite, you need only have two other members elect you, quite a low bar in a Union with a million members.
Some delegates, particularly those from the London and Eastern regions argued that this would exclude from the highest bodies those who seek positions based on representation within the Unions ‘equalities strands’ ie. those who are not in organised workplaces but are on various equalities committees representing their certain strand such as the BAME, Women’s or LGBT communities.
In this instance the room voted to keep the heart of the Union within the workplace, ensuring that any member who wants to influence industrial strategy within the union must represent members in their workplace. Similarly, it was ruled by democratic vote that Retired members, while vital in support of political and industrial campaigns, would also not be eligible.
The surprising part of this debate was the individual and emotional nature of so many contributions in opposition. Arguing that the rule change was wrong because it would exclude them personally from senior positions, not because it was the wrong strategic move for the Union! There are many members within Unite who appear to have little interest in organising their workplace, in collectivism, in fighting for better pay and conditions within their sector, but who want to have a say in the industrial strategy and direction of the union.
My response to a member who suggested to me they would oppose the changes to rule 6 as it would preclude them from being elected to the EC was simple. If you want to be elected to the EC and you need to be an accountable representative, recruit members in your workplace! Organise them! And be accountable to them! Perhaps then you can worry about your career in the Union.