Report from Unite Rank & File national meeting

On Saturday 24 November 2018 supporters of Unite Rank & File from around the country met in London to discuss our work so far and make plans.

Unite rank and file iconProgress so far

Meetings in Glasgow, Manchester, London and Birmingham in May 2017 had agreed a volunteer team to get Unite Rank & File up and running. We launched on 31 October 2017 with this web site, a Facebook page and Twitter account. On a shoestring of human and financial resources the group has, in just over a year:

  • Produced a leaflet for Unite Sector Conferences November 2017 highlighting solidarity with disputes at Mears/Manchester Working Limited, Arriva North West, Fujitsu and Capita
  • Encouraged motions and amendments to Policy conference 2018, explaining a process left opaque by Unite
  • Organised solidarity with Mears / MWL outsourced housing maintenance workers, who won 20% pay rises
  • Encouraged people to stand for workplace and branch positions, explaining a process left opaque by Unite
  • Opposed the NHS pay deal (a deal which, in the RCN, led to no confidence in the leadership)
  • Argued against Unite seeking immunity for discrimination by lay officials against members and employees
  • Highlighted officer collusion in blacklisting and the failure to act on evidence
  • Produced a leaflet for Unite Policy Conference in July 2018 which: opposed popular and state racism, including the FLA and Windrush; championed migrant rights and free movement; built solidarity with Wigan NHS and TGI Fridays; backed diversification and renewable energy; opposed climate change; opposed partnership; pushed for sectors to have fewer more focussed officers; argued for activists to be able to communicate with members (against EC pretence that GDPR prevented this); backed direct action training and strike funds; backed dignity at work, opposed sexual harassment and domestic abuse; backed trans rights; supported equality processes for recruitment to Unite jobs – including stand down officers; challenged low pay for young workers; demanded action on disability and sickness policies; supported work on mental health and workload; sought opposition to cuts and privatisation from local authorities; supported a shorter working week
  • Inside the conference, Unite Rank & File supporters played a key role in debates on free movement; opposing Tommy Robinson and the (D)FLA; overturning the EC on lay member communication; pushing improvements to Unite policy on defence diversification
  • Defended free speech on Palestine and opposed use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism
  • Promoted solidarity and publicised wins with numerous disputes and campaigns including Cammel Laird, Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, Street Crane Chapel En Le Frith, for trans rights, archaeologists in Ireland, NHS pay in Northern Ireland, against Universal Credit, Prysmian Cables, TGI Fridays, anti-racist demonstrations, climate change, Google, fracking, Appledore shipyard, Glen Dimplex Northern Ireland, saving libraries, Fast Food Shutdown, Luton airport, Kent NHS, period dignity, cladding on tower blocks, York NHS, Communisis, Hillingdon Dave Guilfoyle victimisation, free speech on Palestine, East Midlands buses, Total north sea oil, Birmingham home care, blacklisting, Wigan NHS, NHS, Ryanair, East Dunbartonshire Council, Gaza, Fujitsu, Bentley Crewe, First Bus Aberdeen, Bromley libraries, Mariner north sea oil, Leeds NHS, Hinkley C, Workers’ Memorial Day, Sutton tankers, reinstate Ian Allinson, Cummins Stamford, First Bus Manchester, Sellafield, Crossrail electricians, Glasgow Life / Emirates, Hanafi / Tower Transit, Mears Manchester, Canute Haulage Suffolk, harassment in hospitality, Birmingham bins, BiFab occupation, anti Trident replacement, Arriva bus Liverpool, bus pay and safety, employment rights, Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, National Grid US lockout, union rights, abortion rights in Northern Ireland, HE pay campaign, Deeside Clugston, working time, BA Mixed Fleet, Manchester airport, Bank of England, benefit sanctions, Chivas, Barts hospital, BSL interpreters

While an impressive start, the initial focus had been on getting central organisation and online presence up and running so there had been a lack of email bulletins and leaflets, local and sectoral organisation, too few reports from pickets and protests, and most of the people who support Unite Rank & File still haven’t actually signed up. In addition, we are still too widely seen as linked to a General Secretary candidacy, despite our launch statement and subsequent actions making clear that is not what we are about.

The future of Unite Rank & File

A genuine rank and file movement can only be built through workers struggle against their employers but we can contribute towards this process by, for example, pulling together people who see the need for such a movement, encouraging solidarity, publicising victories, encouraging resistance and pushing Unite to do more, putting activists in touch with each other, sharing information and ideas, challenging the “in partnership with management” approach, campaigning to reform and reinvigorate Unite’s democratic structures to promote a bottom-up culture where members participate, challenge discrimination and are in control, and championing radical policies even when Unite fudges on them.

We’d welcome more people involved in contributing to this web site and other publications. As well as more solidarity appeals and reports (videos are great!) there was discussion about the difficulty of finding relevant information on the Unite web site, and the way information rarely reaches out beyond those on constitutional committees. We want to gradually make this site a “go-to” place for activists by reporting or signposting relevant information. If you are on a constitutional committee, you could consider after each meeting sending in a few key pieces of information or news that activists more generally might value?

There was a lot of anger over the approach Unite had taken at Labour conference. While the left and most constituency Labour Parties had wanted to debate open selection (sitting MPs not being automatically reselected as candidates), Unite had voted to prevent this, despite it being our policy. Unite had also supported a mechanism for leadership elections which still gives MPs an effective veto over candidates but increases the ability of unions to block candidates.

Unite has a tendency to fudge key issues, for example it’s support for Palestinian rights while backing the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the Labour Party, which will curtails non-racist free speech on Palestine. People felt that this example, like the ones on diversification and workers’ rights to live and work where we like, meant there was an important role for Unite Rank & File in speaking out clearly for left policies.

Unite’s industrial approach varies widely, but there were concerns about a focus on short-term “jobs at any price” rather than diversification, concession bargaining, and a willingness to trade union recognition for industrial peace. The need for diversification to good sustainable jobs was highlighted by the threats to jobs at Appledore shipyard, Cammell Laird, Rosyth and Vauxhall Ellesmere Port. Failure to take the initiative on diversification will leave hundreds of thousands of members vulnerable if action to tackle climate change happens on employers’ terms rather than based on our demands for a “just transition” to a low carbon or no carbon economy which can mean many new good jobs.

Members remain concerned about blacklisting and the lack of progress in tackling union officer collusion in it, particularly with the influx of officers from the former UCATT. In construction this is leading some members to “dual card” being members of other unions including the IWGB.

Some key barriers to democracy and accountability were discussed. Members have to get through many layers of Unite’s structure to get things decided or done – and it is often unclear what route through the structure to take. The timescales are very slow, especially if some of the meetings at different layers are inquorate or officers mislay paperwork or information which can cause three months’ delay each time. Community members are still excluded from most of the union’s structures, including having delegates to the Rules Conference which will decide whether to address this. Some workplace-based activists are afraid of losing control of the union to community activists, but it was pointed out that Unite already has facilities to ensure representation is proportionate to membership, so no section of members can dominate. For Rules Conference 2019 Unite Rank & File will encourage rule amendments to increase democracy, participation and accountability.

Concern was raised that the national Equalities Conferences due early in 2019 have been postponed a year.

Rules Conference 2019

We want to discuss ideas for rule change motions now. The timetable for branches and committees to submit motions is expected to be announced around the end of the year.

Ideas discussed were:

  • Stop full time officers dealing with employers over the heads of lay representatives outside specific circumstances set out in a protocol
  • Define routes for remits to be sent through the structure
  • Address lack of democratic rights for community and retired members
  • Enable equality committees to vote annually on whether to fill vacancies with activists who haven’t yet been elected as reps or branch officers, to provide a route for people who face barriers to getting elected to build up their knowledge and experience
  • Help officer accountability by stopping the buck being passed between regions and sectors
  • Any proposal to close a branch should be voted on by its members
  • Ban union employees (other than candidates) campaigning in internal Unite elections
  • Change General Secretary elections from First Past The Post to Single Transferable Vote to encourage more candidates and more diverse candidates and help ensure debates are on the issues affecting members not speculation about splitting the vote
  • Accountability of officers at TUC and Labour Party conferences
  • Extend equality proportionality to Labour Party Liaison Committeees

Equal Pay, the Gender Pay Gap and the Glasgow council strike

The inspiring strike by 8000 UNISON members had seen solidarity action by around 600 (mainly GMB) refuse workers. An NEU teacher had been suspended for refusing to cross a picket line but was now back at work following a campaign.

The Glasgow council strike was the biggest equal pay strike for many years and had done a lot to raise the profile of the issue. The solidarity action was important in proving this can be done – despite the anti-union legislation. The strike also helped inspire the tens of thousands of Scottish teachers who marched, and a four-day unofficial postal strike in Hamilton.

The strike came in the context of the #MeToo movement, the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland, the walkouts at Google over sexual harassment and discrimination, and the big role of sexual harassment in hospitality in stoking the fast food strikes.

Though many employers are treating the publication of the Gender Pay Gap data as a “tick in the box”, it provides valuable information about employers which can be used in campaigning and bargaining. In some cases, reps are finding out that their employers have been misleading them about pay. Gender Pay Gaps are often about job segregation, not just unequal pay for similar work or work of equal value.

There was frustration that a lot of union communication about equality is about committee composition or meetings. We want to do more to promote efforts to fight discrimination and oppression.

Last year’s Unite Policy Conference had seen Motion 65 on International Women’s Day remitted to the EC on the basis of assurances that the EC would act on it. The motion resolved:

  • To call a 2.5 hour strike on the 8th of March 2019 symbolising the two and a half times more social reproductive labour women undertake than men highlighted in the International Labour Organisation report.
  • The demands of the strike will be extended access to free childcare, the reversal of all austerity cuts to women’s services and the creation of a National Care Service which is free at the point of delivery, has equal standing to the NHS and is funded from progressive taxation at the national level to avoid the entrenchment of regional inequalities.
  • To call a national demonstration working alongside women’s charities and campaigns.
  • For the EC to contact the TUC and other unions encouraging wider participation in the strike.
  • For National Officers, Equalities Officers and all union structures and committees to promote and encourage active participation in the strike and demonstration.

In recent years there has been a small revival in strike activity on International Women’s Day. Inspired by Polish women’s strike against plans to criminalise abortion and miscarriage on 3 October 2016 and an international wave of protests, the International Women’s Strike now involves more than fifty countries. In most countries there is insufficient organisation to strike paid employment, though more than five million struck in Spain last year.

We agreed to push Unite for action over Motion 65. Even if we can’t deliver strikes in most workplaces, there will be plenty with live issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that could be balloted and provide a focal point to force attention and action on these key issues – just as the Glasgow strikers did.

Disputes and campaigns

Keep an eye on our Facebook page in particular for updates about disputes and campaigns.

Organisation

We decided we will ask supporters to make a regular financial contribution of at least £2 (£1 unwaged) per month, more if you can afford it. This will both provide more stable finances for our activities and provide clarity for  democratic processes. We elected a treasurer who will oversee setting up a suitable bank account. Unite Rank & File’s committee (see below) will appoint two auditors who are not committee members.

We elected an editor and four assistant editors who will oversee our web site, social media, email newsletters and leaflets on a day to day basis.

We elected two co-chairs (one female) and want up to two coordinators (at least one female) for each region, sector, equality strand, young members, community members and retired members. These will encourage people to sign up to Unite Rank & File in their bit of the union; feed in ideas, appeals for support, reports etc; circulate Unite Rank & File materials; and get people together where appropriate.

We elected people into some of these coordinator positions, plus an overall solidarity coordinator.

Unite Rank & File’s committee will comprise the various officers and coordinators, and it was charged with co-opting additional coordinators where needed.

Get involved

Please sign up to Unite Rank & File if you haven’t already, like our Facebook page (and choose the “see first” option under “Following”), follow us on Twitter, and send in appeals for support, reports and your ideas.

This week’s Unite Policy Conference

Image of UPC2018 leaflet

This weekend delegates from across the UK, Ireland and Gibraltar will gather in Brighton for Unite’s 5th Policy Conference. The final agenda suggests there should be some lively and important debates.

Unite Rank and File has produced a leaflet highlighting some of the key issues. If you’re at conference, please help distribute it.

Image of UPC2018 leafletAnd if you haven’t yet signed up for Unite Rank & File, please do.

Should Unite seek immunity for discrimination by lay union officials against members and employees?

The fight against discrimination and for equality is a core part of what any decent union activist does. So it might come as a surprise to many who haven’t been following the case that Unite went to the Court of Appeal (and may go to the Supreme Court) making an argument that would reduce members’ protection from discrimination.

Scales of justice

The case centres on Sally Nailard, who was a Regional Officer employed by the union. She was subject to what her Regional Secretary acknowledged was

“a sickening and orchestrated campaign of harassment … [including] bullying and even sexual harassment”

by two branch officers. The courts supported Sally Nailard’s view that the union

“failed to deal with it firmly or decisively”.

In an organisation with over a million members, thousands of lay activists and hundreds of employees there will, from time to time, be cases where people behave wrongly. While the union can and should take steps to minimise this, for example through education and clear policy statements, this cannot prevent cases arising entirely when our union exists within a society riddled with power inequalities, prejudice and discrimination. What everyone should be entitled to expect is that our union responds supportively and effectively when such incidents occur.

When someone has been treated as badly as Unite and the courts accept that Sally Nailard was, you would expect the union to do what it can to make amends to the individual and try to learn lessons to reduce the risk of recurrence. An absolutely compelling reason would be needed to drag the survivor of bullying and harassment through a gruelling series of appeals. Yet that is what has happened.

You can read the Court of Appeal judgement here, and some legal commentary on it here.

In the appeal, Unite wasn’t contesting that Sally Nailard had been treated very badly by two branch officers, or that they had responded inadequately to her complaint. The appeal unsuccessfully sought to use a legal technicality to deny liability under the Equality Act 2010.

We all understand that an employer has liability for discrimination carried out by its employees. The law has jargon for when someone who is not an employee can act on behalf of another person or organisation, with the power to change their legal relationship with third parties, without being an employee. The “agent” acts on behalf of the “principal”. The law treats lay reps and branch officers as “agents” acting on behalf of the union (the “principal”). Lay reps can enter into agreements with employers that have legal standing.

This view of lay reps as agents of the union is not new law, being well established in Heatons Transport (St Helens) Ltd v Transport and General Workers’ Union [1973]. But it certainly isn’t how union activists see the relationship – we see ourselves as acting on behalf of, and accountable to, members, not on behalf of the union as a top-down legal entity.

Section 109 of the Equality Act 2010 makes clear that principals are liable for discrimination by their agents in broadly the same way that employers are liable for discrimination by their employees.

The waters in the case were slightly muddied by Unite highlighting an anomaly in the Equality Act which does not provide “principals” with the same defence as “employers” that they “took all reasonable steps to prevent” the discriminatory Act. However, this is far less significant than it appears. A “learned friend” explains that the courts don’t in practice allow this defence for employers either, because if it was given its literal meaning the effect would be that no large employer with an HR function and policies would ever be found liable for discrimination – an outcome so unjust that even our courts wouldn’t accept it.

But even if this inconsistency in the legislation had been material, it still wouldn’t justify the appeal, which was primarily on the obscure point of whether the liability of the union for discrimination carried out by lay officials should protect employees, other activists, and members; or be restricted to only protect third parties such as employers!

This blog from Devereaux Chambers explains their view of the judgement:

“The Court of Appeal undoubtedly came to the correct conclusion on this issue: the logical extension of Unite’s argument is that a union would not be liable if its lay officials discriminated against its members they may be representing. However, a union would certainly be liable for such conduct under s.57 EqA if the lay officials had been its employees. Parliament cannot have intended such a different result, particularly as most trade union members deal primarily with lay officials, rather than employed officials.”

It can’t be right that Unite continues to seek a blanket immunity for lay officials who discriminate against Unite members, activists and employees, denying them protection available to employer representatives or reps from other unions.

It is well known that there have been significant issues in relation to treatment of female Unite officers, and that the report into this showed that a large proportion of their experiences of sexism was from lay members rather than union employees.

Unite should not drag Sally Nailard, who the union accepts was treated appallingly, through yet another appeal in an attempt to deny Unite members, activists and employees legal protection from discrimination by lay officials. Unite should apologise, try to agree a resolution with Sally Nailard and step up equality education for all activists. Not only would this help us reduce the incidence of sexual harassment within the union, it would help our activists support the huge number of women members who suffer sexual harassment in their workplaces.

Act now to avoid exclusion from Unite structures for three years

Most of Unite’s structures run on a three-year cycle. Elections for workplace reps and branch officers should now be complete. But unless you act now you could be excluded from the rest of the union’s structures for the next three years.

No Entry sign on a door
Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown

Between 14 May and 1 June 2018 conferences will be taking place in every region to elect Regional Industrial Sector Committees (RISCs), Regional Equality Committees (REqCs), Area Activists Committees (AACs) and Regional Labour Party Liaison Committees (RLPLCs). This is a crucial step – these committees then elect people onto nearly all the other structures including National Industrial Sector Committees (NISCs), National Equality Committees (NEqCs), Regional Committees (RCs) and the National Labour Party Liaison Committee (NLPLC). They are also part of the route for election to industrial sector, policy and rules conferences, TUC conference and Labour Party conferences.

So if you don’t get on one of these committees (the RISC is particularly important for working members) you are likely to be excluded from most of Unite’s structures for three years, which can be a significant barrier to finding out what’s going on and having your say.

If you haven’t had an invitation to the conferences you are entitled to attend, you should urgently contact your Unite Regional Office. Note that to attend most of the conferences you must be an “accountable representative of workers” under Rule 6. If you want to stand for any of the committees, you should submit a nomination in advance from a branch of workplace – the relevant form should be provided with your invitation. If you don’t manage to do this, there’s still a significant chance you could stand for election at the conference itself, if (as is all too common) insufficient nominations have been received by the deadline.

It is important that you elect people who are actually going to turn up most of the time. The March 2018 Executive Council (EC) meeting clarified that the quorum for RISCs and AACs is 50% + 1 of those elected, so vacant seats don’t count against you as much as people elected who don’t show up. Vacancies can be filled during the three-year term but you often have to push for this. The EC also decided that if membership of a RISC or AAC should fall below five people, it will be linked with another Committee so that it can continue to function.

It’s normal for the relevant Committee to meet immediately after the Conference that elected it, and to elect its chair and delegates to other parts of the union structure.

More information about Unite Rules and a list of the Conferences and the Constitutional Timetable is available via the links.