Monday 11 August 2008

UNITE branches, industrial structures and retired members

I had an interesting morning at the UNITE (Amicus Section) North West Regional Council meeting. The chair of the TGWU section's North West Regional Committee also attended. The main discussion was about how the new rulebook could be put into effect in the region, as the wording leaves much ambiguous and many questions unanswered.

One of the biggest changes for former Amicus members relates to branches. Rule 17.1 says:

Wherever possible, Branches shall be based on the workplace, although
provision shall also be made for local Branches and National Industrial
Branches as appropriate and as approved by the Executive Council.
This will mean a big change for many of us, as most Amicus branches were "general" or "geographical" branches including members from a broad spread of workplaces and industries within a geographical area. Of course, this change won't happen overnight.

This is likely to have an impact on other structures, such as the industrial sectors. Rule 7.7 says:
Each Industrial Sector shall, where practicable, be divided into Regional Industrial
Sectors, in conformity with the territorial Regions of the Union. There shall be a
Regional Industrial Sector Committee in each Region where a Regional Industrial
Sector is established elected in such proportion, as may be determined by the
Executive Council, to reflect Branch and workplace organisation.
It's that last phrase that will make things "interesting". The Amicus approach has been that regional sector conferences are made up of workplace reps (shop stewards). The TGWU structure was based on workplace branches, so sector delegates were elected from the branches. As the new structures are populated in late 2008 and early 2009, it will be important to ensure that members from both former sections are properly represented.

One of the more contentious issues (for former Amicus members) in the new rulebook has been the role of retired members. In Amicus, there was a large retired membership, and many retired members played a key part in running geographical branches. The new rulebook includes Rule 10 "Members In Retirement" which describes a "Retired Members Association" (RMA), which is based on the current TGWU structure. Many retired members from the Amicus section saw this as sidelining them as "Associate Members". The rulebook is silent on the question of whether they were only in RMA branches, or whether they could also continue to play a part in the mainstream branches.

It's important to get the balance right. The central role of the union is organising workers in the workplace and it is vital that our structures ensure that members in the workplace dominate the union. However, there are a number of good reasons for ensuring retired members are properly included. Firstly, effective trade unionism cannot be confined to the boundaries of the workplace - it must take up social and political issues too. It can be important to organise working class people outside the workplace too, whether they are retired, unemployed etc. Secondly, it would be an incredible waste of a valuable resource not to use the commitment, skills, experience (and time!) of many of our retired members. Trade unions primarily run on volunteer labour. Many of our retired members want to make a contribution to the union but are rarely given adequate opportunities to do so.

I was pleased to hear from both the chair of the TGWU region and from the UNITE Regional Secretary that the was the RMA has operated in the TGWU has been as an addition to the branch structure, not instead of it. We were told that retired members in the TGWU remain in their branches (even workplace branches) as well as being in the RMA. We need to make sure this approach is carried forward in UNITE.

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