Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Future of the IT & Comms industry in UNITE - consultation

In my report from the Executive Council meeting last week, I highlighted the proposals from the administration for reorganisation of several UNITE industrial sectors, including IT & Communications.

There have already been some discussions amongst activists in the sector by phone, email and at Regional Industrial Sector Committee (RISC) meetings.  In the light of those, some of us have pulled together an initial draft for a response to the consultation.  Discussions are ongoing but it will be important to have a response that has broad support in the sector by the time our National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) meets on Tuesday 9th July.  Following responses from the sectors, the Executive Council will take the decision at its September meeting.

In the meantime, I'd welcome comments and discussion on the draft response below.  There are various versions around, so I will try to keep the version here up to date as the discussion continues.

The Consultation

The June 2013 UNITE Executive Council meeting approved a document on sector reorganisation to go out to the affected sectors for consultation.

In relation to the IT & Comms sector, the proposal was:

“That the Electrical Engineering & Electronics, the IT & Communications and the Servicing and General Industries national industrial sectors be combined in one new sector: General Engineering, Manufacturing and Servicing (GEMS). It is proposed that a small section of the IT & Communications membership working in broadcasting be transferred to the Graphical, Paper & Media sector instead”

The main purpose of sectors is to deal with industrial business.  They are also one of the dimensions of the UNITE constitutional structure with its various committees and conferences.  Each sector has a Regional Industrial Sector Committee (RISC) in each region, a National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC), a national sector conference, delegates to Regional Committees, policy and rules conferences, and at least one seat on the Executive Council.

The industry and the opportunity

The IT & Communications industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in the UK.  Public and private sector organisations increasingly rely on IT & Comms companies to provide and support vital infrastructure and services without which they could not operate.  These companies now hold a position in the economy almost as pivotal as energy supply.  Without them, the country would stop.

It is strategically important for UNITE to place itself at the centre of unionising the IT & Communications industry if the union is to grow and retain power in strategic parts of the economy.

Commoditisation of products, services and skills is accelerating downward pressure on pay, terms and conditions in the industry.  Workers in IT & Comms urgently need union organisation.

There is very little IT & Comms manufacturing left in the UK.  The vast majority of employment is in software and services, with the majority of our membership in the IT Services subsector.

A few years ago, the IT industry had the fastest membership growth in the union.  A lack of focus and strategy has seen this growth tail off.  We have the opportunity to reverse this with a reorganisation of the sector.

The problems

The IT & Comms industry is at an early stage of unionisation.  In developing effective structures, there is always a balance between being representative and being inclusive.  A stable, established and well unionised industry will prioritise ensuring the “right” people are on the various committees.  When the Organising Department is putting together a combine for a sectoral campaign, it tries to include as many activists as possible to help build up the union.  The priority for UNITE in IT & Comms is building up the activist base to build the union and we need structures that enable this, recognising that the numbers of reps are not great in all regions and many reps, particularly those still working towards securing union recognition, have difficulties securing release from work.

In most regions, responsibility for the IT & Comms membership is spread across a number of Regional Officers, each of whom has IT & Comms as only a small part of their allocation.  This makes it more difficult for any officer to focus on the sector or to build links between IT & Comms activists.  It also makes it more difficult for RISCs to get reports from the workplaces they cover.

A large proportion of the membership in the IT & Comms sector is employed by a small number of companies with membership in each spread across multiple regions.  The nature of the industry means that employers rarely organise on a geographical basis, with many industrial issues affecting members in multiple UNITE regions.  This doesn’t fit easily with UNITE Regional Officer allocation, and can lead to officers in different regions duplicating work or presenting a disconnected face to the employer.  Nor is it realistic to expect National Officers to pick up every multi-region issue.

Organisations across the public and private sector outsource work to IT & Communication companies, but UNITE membership records are not always updated promptly to show the new employer and members are not always reallocated to the IT & Comms sector.  This acts as a barrier to organising in the sector and means that membership figures understate reality.  The December 2012 EC meeting agreed motion 9 to address this, but the NISC has not yet received any progress update.

The December 2012 Executive Council approved motion 11 to allow more flexibility with the days and times of meetings, and to allow video or voice conferences to be used as a last resort.  As far as we are aware, little effort has yet been made to see how much this can help make the sector work properly.

An alternative proposal

Whatever sector IT & Communications members are placed in, there are 4 priorities:

  1. Ensuring that activists from IT & Communications can meet regularly at national level to deal with industrial and organising business
  2. Ensuring efficient officer allocation so that reps have effective support without duplicating work
  3. Ensuring that IT & Comms activists are not excluded from sectoral structures
  4. Ensuring that UNITE maintains a profile as the lead union in the IT & Communications industry by including IT & Comms in the new sector name

In line with rule 7.10.1, there should be a national Advisory Committee for the IT & Comms industry, open to reps in the industry, and which should meet four times a year.  This would have no constitutional status, other than being able to submit motions to the NISC, but will allow the industrial and organising business of the industry to be dealt with properly, in a way which it could not in the RISCs and NISCs of a wider sector.  This would retain some of the benefit of the one part of the existing ITC structure that functions reasonably well, the NISC, which brings together key reps from companies in the industry.

Central to reviving efforts to unionise the IT & Communications industry has to be a more rational approach to officer allocation.  Unless there are specific reasons why it is impractical:

  • Each region should have one or two officers whose allocation includes most of the region’s IT & Comms membership.
  • For each company with significant UNITE membership in IT & Comms in more than one region, one Regional Officer will be made the “lead” for that company for multi-region issues, allowing them to build up knowledge and relationships with the reps, the company and other officers dealing with the company.

Participation within a larger sector should give ITC activists access to a functioning RISC.  ITC should form a constituency within the various sector structures to ensure issues specific to ITC are not lost in the wider sector.

The IT & Communications sector should be merged into the Graphical, Paper & Media sector to form the Graphical, Paper, Media, IT & Communications (GPMITC) sector.  While nothing is ideal, GPM is a better fit than SGI because it already contains significant membership in publishing which is increasingly electronic and/or online.  It is important that the sector name contains ITC to maintain our profile when other unions are also trying to organise in the sector, including CWU, Connect and PCS.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ian, as every a well written piece to which I absolutely agree.