Don’t shrink our democracy

HOW CAN the union afford the new organisers it needs? Current proposals would cut back on involvement in the union nationally by working journalists, says Ros Bayley, kicking off a debate which will continue...

The bottle said 'Drink me' - Tenniel

Image: Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914)

THE BOTTLE said "Drink me." When Alice drank, she shrank and her world became huge.

We are in danger of seeing something similar with the general secretary's review of the union. The power of lay members - the lifeblood of the union - could be cut away, leaving paid officials to run the union without effective scrutiny.

General Secretary Jeremy Dear promised a review at the last annual conference (ADM) with the aim of releasing money to pay for more organisers. This is something we should all sign up to. And we should be glad that he is brave enough to set out his programme in this way.

The document is now out for consultation with the whole membership - it should be available on The main changes it proposes are contained in a list of motions to ADM 2003.

The general secretary's approach has been to try to save money by making small cuts to all the member-led activities - ADM, national executive (NEC) and the industrial councils. Some of these are sensible - reducing the number of NEC members by 10 to 26 will save money and make the meetings more productive. Electing the NEC every two years is probably not an issue.

But already the NEC meets too infrequently. The last NEC meeting had such a full agenda that it had no time to have any discussion of the general secretary's review. We didn't even go through the motions, we just tabled them.

Worse, a motion was passed to give responsibility for appointments to the Emergency Committee, whose job is to make swift decisions when required by the extremely tight legal timetable for industrial disputes. With five meetings a year, the NEC has admitted it cannot fulfil its basic legal responsibilities.

Jeremy's review is proposing to limit the number of members of industrial councils to nine, as well as limiting meetings to four a year (with more at the discretion of the NEC) and holding elections every two years. The councils themselves need to work out whether they can be effective with these numbers and to make their case at ADM.

But there is a second agenda. Back in the summer, the NEC set up a working party to look at the technical issue of how industrial councils are treated in the union's rule book. Without consulting anyone, this working party came back with a proposal to abolish the councils and turn them into "expert groups"; that would have no budget, would report to the NEC and would be elected not by their sector but at annual conference. Jeremy was one of the five members of that working party. This alarming proposal has not been discussed by the NEC but could surface through amendments to ADM motions.

The Freelance Industrial Council (FIC) is very productive. It publishes the Freelance Fees Guide, the Freelance Directory and model agreements for freelances. It organises negotiations and campaigns. It works for freelances and is accountable to them.

Abolishing FIC would be a disaster for freelances and the NUJ.

The working group argues that three of the other four industrial councils - mostly representing staff - aren't doing their job properly. If true, this is perhaps because derecognition took away their central function of approving agreements. But we have been winning back recognition.

We now have a new generation of chapel activists. Industrial councils are the place where they can exchange knowledge and experience, where they can start to operate on a national scale and help raise the game for everyone.

A body of experienced activists will reduce the workload for paid organisers by helping with negotiations. Focus groups are no substitute. We need more organisers - almost certainly more than the plan provides. But we need to save money without damaging the union's democracy.

The answer lies with ADM. Jeremy says that ADM puts a huge burden on the staff who organise it. That motions are passed but only the barest minimum is done to implement them. That most of the matters dealt with at ADM could be more swiftly achieved by going straight to the NEC or councils.

His conclusion? That ADM must remain an annual event but with fewer delegates and more central control of the agenda.

Some branches apparently propose to hold ADM every other year. This would give Jeremy half his savings at a stroke and free up time throughout the union for implementing the previous year's resolutions. It would make sense of the proposal to have two yearly terms for NEC and industrial councils. Meanwhile industrial councils could be properly supported in what is the real business of the union - lay organising in the workplace.

Ignore the label. Read Jeremy's report. And let's stop our union disappearing down a rabbit hole.

Last modified: 13 November 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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