UNISON Is Member Led: What Does This Mean?

The Membership

When an employee joins Unison they are placed into a Unison Branch based on two primary criteria, these being their employer and the workplace location. For peripatetic employees the workplace may be their home address but the same principle for branch allocation applies. Once allocated to a branch all members are entitled to stand for positions on the Branch Committee. These positions are subject to an annual ballot of branch members, either at an AGM or postal/electronic, where any member of the branch can put their name forward for nomination and subsequent inclusion as a candidate. These electoral procedures are written into the rules of the union and are designed to implement a structure of inclusive democracy, where the joint concepts of inclusive democracy and being member led are synonymous.  

Branch Committee elections are just one example where the membership are asked to cast a vote in order to determine an outcome. There are also a number of regular national and regional elections, all of which are governed by rule and all of which are open to the election of members by members. There is no better example of this than the relatively recent election of our current Unison general secretary, Christine McAnea. Although Christine holds what could arguably be considered the most responsible role in Unison she is also a member.

Another instance where you might be asked to cast a vote would be a pay ballot. For example, the trade union(s) negotiate a pay deal with the employer. If Unison’s negotiating team arrive at a point where we feel we have got the best deal possible, it will be recommended to all relevant members across all relevant Unison branches for approval. Now it would be fair to say this is a very linear example of what can often be a many faceted process but the essential thing is, Unison will not formerly agree the deal with the employer without it finally being accepted by a simple majority of the relevant membership.

The Branch Committee

The branch committee is made of branch members who have stood for and been elected to the officer positions as described previously. The three officers responsible for the general running of the branch are Chair, Secretary and Treasurer as per rule but every role on the committee is essential to the functioning of the branch. This concept of function is best related by taking a look at the established roles, all of which collectively contribute to the singular objective of fairness, equality and justice in the workplace and wider society. Any member who is elected to one of the branch committee positions will have access to Unison’s comprehensive education network, which is designed to promote development for all member activists. The branch committee is also responsible for progressing the agreed objectives of the branch through the wider Unison organisation via the various Regional/National group meetings and conferences (see below).

Workplace Stewards/Health and Safety Officers

Branch committee officers will also often be accredited stewards representing members with workplace issues however, a Steward does not have to be a branch committee officer. Any member can put themselves forward for the role of Steward or Health and Safety rep in their particular workplace where they can become an integral part of the branch dynamic. It is currently a Unison requirement that all new stewards/H&S reps attend a mandatory training course to ensure consistency throughout the representative structure however, an added bonus of attending any Unison course is the chance to meet people from other employment sectors of the union. Any reasonable costs associated with members attending these courses will be borne by the branch.  

Unison Regional/National/Conferences

The final cog in the member led wheel would be Unison conferences. These are events where chosen branch committee members congregate in order to transact the business of the union. Most of these conferences will be specific to the membership of a particular sector or service group but one conference where all Unison branches come together is National Delegates conference (NDC). This is the only conference where national policy can be set, this includes any changes or amendments to the Unison rulebook. All branches have the opportunity to submit motions to the conference to this end where, after being moved and seconded from the rostrum, they are then debated by the delegates. After this a vote is taken and the motion will fall or be carried depending on that vote. The clarifying point I would like to finish on, is only members are allowed to vote at NDC; suffice to say only members can set national policy and only members can change the rulebook.

This concludes my understanding of what is meant by ‘member led’, from a trade union perspective.

Barry O’Hanlon

Unison Area Organiser.  

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