December 17, 2004

Out of UNISON

I had a very strange experience yesterday. I sat in a conference room in the ACAS offices in Borough High Street and argued a case in front of an independent assessor. It was not a numerically equal contest. Each party was lined up on one side of the room, with tables and microphones and nameplates. On the one side of the room were two UNISON full-time officials, three lay officials, a solicitor and a barrister from the same chambers as Tony Blair's wife. On the other side of the room - me. And only me.

Thinking about it now, it reminds me of the scene in The Name of The Rose where all the monks and all the Papal representatives gather together to talk through a controversy which, we assume from all the song and dance about it, from the suggestion that the whole state of the Church depends on its settlement, must be something obviously important and controversial - and is then announced to be the question of whether or not Christ owned the clothes which he wore. The critical question on which I was divided from UNISON, their brief and his bag-carrier was this: whether or not, at an AGM of a union Branch on the first of March 2004, the person who went as delegate to the National Conference later in the year was properly elected.

It would test the patience of a Trappist monk to take anybody through the details of the case, the 'bundle' of which came to nearly 150 pages' worth of documents, mostly consisting of all the emails and letters that had gone back and forth between myself and various UNISON officials over the months and years leading up to hearing. It's not important anyway. The case is done, and heard, and it's most unlikely that I shall win it.

In the first place, I doubt whether I can (or did) prove to an independent observer's satisfaction that my version of events - at a meeting more than nine months previous of which there were no records or minutes in existence - was correct, whereas the version given by my opponents was false. In the second place, it turned out - a deus ex machina if ever I saw one - that my employer may very well have neglected, when I joined the union in April 2002 and ever since, to deduct any subscriptions from my salary. UNISON therefore argue that according to their constitution that disqualifies me from membership in the first place, thereby meaning that I am not permitted to bring the case against them anyway.

Curiously it took them until the very last moment to tell me this (they sent a letter making the claim on the very last day for submissions to the tribunal) and, indeed, until fifteen minutes before the hearing to supply any documentation supporting their claim. I don't much like that way of doing things. There's a good reason for this. It's that it's because they go about their business in this fashion that an extremely minor dispute involving one branch of the union should end up in an expensive tribunal and apparently require an expensive barrister to argue UNISON's side of the case. Flattering, I suppose, that they should think all this was necessary in order to see me off, but in truth they didn't need to do any of this. All they had to do was properly answer any of those letters and emails that I sent about the matter in the first place.

I first emailed the Branch Secretary about it in July 2003 (when she had managed to go to the previous year's conference without any mention of her election being made at that year's AGM). I was surprised, more than anything. Having been a union representative myself for many years, and one who was aware of the requirements and importance of trade union democracy, I didn't much like the idea of people taking up posts without receiving the say-so of the members. There was no corruption in it, no malign intention, and the post itself was uncontested anyway. But it is not the way things should be done.

Fearing a repetition, I tried again this year, emailing twice in January. I didn't get a straight answer, let alone a satisfactory one. In March, I wrote twice to a regional official. In May, I wrote twice more to another regional official. In June, I wrote to the Regional Secretary. The replies - when I was favoured with replies - were not just unhelpful, they were entirely hostile. The higher I went, the less helpful and more hostile the response. It was the instinctive response of the bureaucrat everywhere and all through recorded history: Don't deal with it. Don't discuss it. Get rid of them. Don't let anybody know such claims are being made.

Had anybody, at any point in the process, done what they should have done, and spoken to me, for long enough to establish that I was a bona fide complainant with bona fide concerns, then we would not have found ourselves in Borough High Street all day Thursday. The sole impact of any investigation would have been to improve the operation of the branch and ensure that in future, proper democratic procedures were adhered to. The actual impact of the lack of the investigation will, presumably, be that democratic procedures remain unadhered to for the foreseeable future.

I can't say that I care less. I won't be there to see it. Because the other impact of this fiasco is that after fifteen years' worth of trades union activism, an experienced trades unionist found it necessary to resign from his trade union. It's what I believe in, when everything is stripped down to essentials, the rock on which everything else is built: the collective organisation of the labour force. But I don't care. I have withdrawn in disgust. If what you get for being concerned about union democracy is to be successively ignored, insulted and hounded by that same union, if they think the appropriate response is to hire expensive barristers against you and to try and stop your complaint even being heard, then, you know, let them have their way. I do not need it. I've given up anyway. Let them have their way. Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

Like I say, I can't prove it. You can't prove anything about meetings of which there are no minutes (they didn't do that, either). But I have a question. Or I would have, if there were anybody further of whom I could ask it.

Among the bundle was a copy of the form on which our delegate announced herself as the duly elected delegate of the branch, a process that was allegedly not completed (and could not properly have been completed) until the aforementioned Annual General Meeting. The form was received at UNISON headquarters on the twelfth of February 2004. Which is strange, because the AGM wasn't held until the first of March. And it strikes me that something is very iffy about a process which is not supposed to be completed until the first of March, but whose result is announced, eighteen days earlier, on February the twelfth.

But there can't be anything really odd about it. Or nothing odd about it, perhaps, by the standards prevailing in UNISON. Because I can see no other reason why a simple query about a simple matter should otherwise have ended in a conference room used by the Certification Officer at the offices of ACAS in Borough High Street, with two UNISON full-time officials, three UNISON lay officials, a solicitor and a barrister, all lined up together just to deal with me.

3 Comments:

At December 18, 2004 1:39 am, Blogger AngusF said...

I'm intrigued to know more.

You say that the branch secretary announced her appointment to union headquarters some weeks in advance of the date when the appointment should have been made, at an AGM. You then suggest that this point didn't come out at the ACAS hearing. Is that right? If it is, what *was* discussed (other than your eligibility to make a complaint)?

When you blogged about George Galloway recently, I wondered if you mightn't have written a letter Mr. Galloway, saying what you had said in your blog item. Now I am I wondering: why don't you escalate the UNISON matter further and to the top? The actions of the UNISON officials seem, from what you say, quite shoddy and wasteful of members' funds. Surely you are doubtful that the union's and its members' best interests have been served. The salient points seem to be:
1. Announcement of a result before a decision had been made;
2. Lack of minutes for an AGM;
3. Efforts made to quash your complaint at the hearing, including the cost to the union of top-heavy representation and the late submission of evidence (which if made available earlier may well have resulted in less cost to the union).

By the way, what is the job of the lay officials?

Of course, in pursuing the matter, you could do with some allies.

 
At December 20, 2004 2:42 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Based on my experiences with the Wandsworth Unison Branch a few years ago, I'm not at all surprised by your story.

Chocolate teapots come to mind...

 
At January 02, 2005 11:48 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Generally, union policy is to hire a brief in all cases of this type- ie, where there is a charge to the highest possible authority within the union. Or so my mole at Congress House says.

But of course it shouldn't be: UNISON should be able to resolve the dispute in-house. Not to do so means a gratuitous waste of the members' subs. And- despite your undoubted powers of advocacy, EJ- it's hardly equitable to have you defend a minority of one against the secret seven!

Good film, that. By the way, have a look at Sunday's Telegraph. They've finally realised- about 10 years after the rest of Anglicanism- that Rowan Williams doesn't believe in God...

DG from the T&G

 

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