After years of stalling and deadlock, progress is finally being made to move towards a single new branch structure for UNITE. This week's Executive Council (EC) meeting took decisions on branch functions and finances, and on moves towards a branch structure more based on workplaces.
The EC agreed a paper which included some points on what branches will do, going beyond the role set out in rule 17:
- Keep up to date the membership records of all members in the branch, especially employer, workplace, address, home phone number, mobile number and email address.
- Generally provide advice, guidance and representation up to stage 1 disciplinary and grievance hearings. An "accredited support rep" concept needs to be developed to fulfil this task. Branches may pay expenses and a modest payment for time to members doing this. Full-time officials would normally undertake final appeals.
- Have the option of deciding at a branch meeting that all branch members pay an amount above their basic union subscriptions to create an additional "Branch Fund".
- Be active and have a commitment to branch growth through organising.
- There will be no "claw back" of branch money to the centre, including at the end of 2011.
- The funds currently held by old branches to be split proportionately amongst the new branches their members go to.
- Once a branch has been confirmed as an ongoing UNITE branch, it will (from 1 January 2012) receive 10% of its members subs, less half of any employer fee for administering check-off (deduction from salary). If confirmation is after 1 January 2012, payments will be backdated to then. Branches will receive their money monthly into their bank accounts.
- A new Unite Dispute Fund is being set up with an initial contribution of £25m. 2.5% of subs will be deducted from each branch's finances as a contribution to the fund. The Dispute Fund will be responsible for all costs necessary to fight a dispute, apart from payroll costs for UNITE employees. It will be controlled by the EC through a subcommittee.
- Branches to pay all expenses for running the branch, including meeting rooms, newsletters, postage, conferences etc. The intention is for branches to meet in union facilities where practicable. Where facilities are not available, Regional Secretaries can agree to reimburse meeting room costs from the regional fund. [IA comment: many workplace branches are likely to want to meet on the employer's premises, to maximise attendance] On request, the union can help branches arrange cost-effective printing and website services to help minimise these costs.
- Branches to pay lay member expenses other than for constitutional meetings or meetings called by a Regional Secretary or National Officer. This includes branches paying expenses for attending the open Area Activist Meetings (but not the Committees). Normally this would include combines and national shop stewards meetings, but where branches would have difficulty covering this, the Assistant General Secretary covering the sector can authorise payment.
- Funds to be held with Unity Bank (or Allied Irish Bank in the Republic or Ireland) in the branch name, and belong to the union. Branches must notify Central Office of all bank accounts.
- Payments to individuals (including branch officers) for running the branch must be minuted decisions of a branch meeting. They cannot in total exceed 2.5% of subs, excluding legitimate expenses and in relation to member servicing (see the point about "accredited support rep"s above).
- No payments to any UNITE employee or their immediate family. Any exceptions must be justified and approved by the General Secretary or their designate.
- Branches to submit quarterly "returns" of their spending, and annual audited accounts (on a calendar year basis). Payments to branches will cease if a satisfactory return/accounts have not been supplied by the end of the quarter following the end of the relevant period. Central office will supply a template for return/accounts. Audited branch annual accounts must be submitted to a branch meeting for approval, and must be made available to branch members on request.
- UNITE will provide training to branch officers.
The intention is to give branches a greater role in the union, to make them more relevant to the members and to bring resources closer to the members.
Where possible, branches will be "workplace" based. Note that the definition of a workplace can be flexible - it might be one employer in a particular area in some cases.
Where workplace branches can't be sustained, the next option would be industry branches, for example taking in all members in IT & Communications in a particular area or region.
There are a few cases where national branches are being approved for particular employers, but this clearly has major disadvantages in terms of members' ability to participate.
Where members can't be placed in workplace or sector branches, more general branches are being set up, possibly including all remaining members in a particular geographic area, or maybe grouping together a number of industrial sectors.
The new branch structure should simplify linking members and reps into the UNITE structure, for example allowing regions to allocate officers or union solicitors on a branch-by-branch basis.
Proposals from a number of regions were put before the EC, which gave the go-ahead for new branches to be created. A minority of the proposals did raise concerns, which people should take up with the relevant Regional Secretary. If you're unaware of the proposals for your own workplace, I'd encourage you to ask via your region as soon as possible. Some regions hadn't yet produced proposals, and were told to do so by 1 January 2012.
From an IT & Comms point of view, I am concerned that because not all the Regional Industrial Sector Committees (RISCs) are working well, reps in the sector may not have had much input into the proposals from the regions. This could mean the regions being unaware of the issues on the ground, such as takeovers and mergers of employers, or a lack of enough activists in particular workplaces to make a branch viable.
The changes will mean new branches being created, with many old branches being merged or split up.