Sunday, 17 March 2013

Unite's Branch Restructuring

Branch restructuring wasn't merely about breaking up large, too often unwieldy, composite branches, which were, sometimes, run by Secretaries who did little work, but pocketed sizable sums of money. This was an obvious problem, caused by a number of factors, including poor administration within the regions, but more importantly a loss of industrial focus and political direction from the centre.

Thus we had scores of thousands of members who were in the wrong industrial branch; in branches that held no relevance to the work in which they were engaged; and languishing in holding branches due to the reasons given above.

Of course, in a union that organises the range of sectors as does Unite; and given factors such as rural workers, spread, often thinly, over large geographical areas, we can, and do, appreciate that not all workers will conveniently fit into the ideal workplace branch.

However, Unite is right to look to the workplace branch as the ideal, while operating other types of branch to better suit the structure of the sector involved. For instance in the voluntary sector demanding all workers form into workplace branches would not be feasible given that our members are dotted around, many, in small numbers across hundreds of organisations. Typically in the voluntary sector you'll find shops and organisations ranging from less than a handful to twenty or thirty; with larger concerns, like Shelter that employ 1,000 across Britain.

While the voluntary sector is not the best example of how the branch structure operates at workplace level, it does none-the-less demonstrate that Unite has not set out to impose a one-size-fits-all policy to the restructuring of branches.

As a member of a Unite Regional Committee and F&GP, I was involved in the restructuring process; and, indeed as a Branch Secretary I had an input. Every Branch Secretary had a chance to attend an open meeting from which they could deliver information to their members; where more complex set-ups were in place some secretaries met face-to-face with the Regional Chair and a senior RIO.

In fact that the process created three main types of Branch:

1.    The workplace branch which serves Unite members in a particular workplace or workplaces;

2.    The sector branch which serves Unite members in a particular sector. These branches can be quite specialist, such as my branch which organises workers who are employed as advisors within the VS; or, the housing branch which deals with organisations such as Shelter. Therefore these kinds of branches have a sectoral and geographical role.

3.    The last is the composite branch which takes in people from different sectors within a given geographical area.

There are other types such as National Branches, but these are the exeption to the rule.

Sadly, as the restructuring began to roll out, there were individuals who felt that their right to remain in a branch which may have been their home for decades should supersede that of the industrial and political logic of placing them into properly structured groups.

More often we found secretaries of composite branches complaining when they discovered that a group of 100 members were being taken out to form a workplace branch. In one instance seven branches were formed from one 'holding' branch by the end of the process - with the holding branch remained a quite large composite branch.

Of course democracy bonds us as trade unionists. Without democracy we would fall. Yet, there are also other bonds within our organisation without which we would be equally vulnerable and weak. Where would we be without unity; without the strength of the workplace membership. The branch isn't merely an administrative construct, it should be basis of industrial power, the source by which political influence is gained  and the very bedrock of union democracy.

Anyone who regards Unite's branch restructuring as a diminution of the democratic rights of the member doesn't actually understand that allowing the individual to pick and choose his or her branch on the basis they are a member and therefore entitled to this right doesn't actually understand the democratic process, and misses by miles the whole point of unions.   

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