UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday 3 February 2022

Build real lay control and local organisation, not power-play at the top

With the division, and what looks like organising stagnation, in UNISON’s lay national executive (NEC) following the election of a majority running under the Time for Real Change (TFRC) ticket, it is a good time to look at what exactly lay control is, its history and how that works in partnership with the full-time structures.

It certainly wasn’t intended to centre on paying for various legal opinions to try to justify TFRC attempts to meddle with National Conference rule decisions. There may be legal loopholes but there’s also the spirit of what the supreme lay Conference intended – and Conference is the place to address that.

That of course will affect our current troubles at the top. Our lay UNISON President has just been sacked from his job and that will no doubt play out in the rules controversy and a tribunal one assumes. But difficult that is for all concerned (with members affected across the issue it seems) it doesn’t so far alter the political situation on the NEC.

No matter what the politics are, lay control surely shouldn’t be about a union of 80% women, a union that pioneered self-organisation to recognise and promote our diversity, using a TFRC ticket to replace an expected low paid woman president and most national committee chairs with white males. It’s worth remembering that some so-called ‘left’ groups historically opposed self-organisation of structurally disadvantaged groups.


It shouldn’t be about NEC meetings dominated by internal wranglings as opposed to organisational challenges on Covid, pay, pensions or whatever else really matters to members.

And off course staff should be accountable, but it shouldn’t be about a power-play with them or the newly elected general secretary. It also shouldn’t be about replicating bigstyle the very problems of previous factions that TFRC says it is challenging.

There will of course always be factions, formal or otherwise - and at times beholden to outside organisations - in any structure, but the secret is to look outwards, debate, and where possible take people with you.

Lay control is the banner TFRC is campaigning under and rightly so. But lay control is more than just winning a majority on the NEC and bashing votes through. That’s just a win for a particular faction. It doesn’t make for unity of purpose. They happen to be lay members but it’s not necessarily what we intended by lay control.

To fully address lay control, we need to look at what it actually is, how it came about in UNISON and how we protect and promote it.

Touchstones of the new union:
For many, the principles of lay member control, involvement and organisation were the touchstones in the creation of UNISON.

In the years up to inauguration in 1993, the three merging unions thrashed out what the new union would look like. Respecting our various traditions wasn’t always easy, but we agreed on structures that would enhance and embed that lay control, involvement and organisation.

Lay control:
We embedded the lay control in our National Delegate Conference, the union’s supreme policy-making body made up of reps from hundreds of local branches. Made up of activists who have daily contact with members (and take the flak on a daily basis) and deliver for the union on the front-line. They are the activists who deal with negotiations, grievances, disciplinaries, with local and often critical campaigns, and who are expected to deliver locally on national campaigns.

Like it or not, their Conference decisions – often made through lengthy debate - are supreme and need to be respected, perhaps not fiddled with by varying legal opinions.

We recognised the importance of lay and full-time partnership. We created rules that balance the roles and responsibilities of an elected lay national executive and an elected full-time general secretary. Both of these roles can only be effective if mutually respected.

Lay involvement:
We embedded involvement with structures lay committees for issues like bargaining, education, communications and health and safety at branch, nation/regional and UK level. But here we fell down.

Many regional committees gradually vanished due to lack of participation. The ‘hands-on’ culture dissipated as we drifted into involvement stopping at the door of the committee room. Involvement became seen as sitting through meetings – all too often more as spectators than participants.

Pressures fell onto fewer lay activists who actually committed to involvement. In effect, lay involvement descended into some lay committees making decisions (or not) and handing that over to ‘someone’ to enact. It is easy then to hide from the decisions and blame the leaders or full-timers.

The membership profile hasn’t helped with so many public services now outsourced. Branches can be dealing with many employers (hundreds in some cases) where activists cannot get the facilities to involve themselves in wider union activities. The issue is recognised each year at Conference but solutions are harder to come by.

Some areas have tried opening up systems to include wider and open activists’ events to encourage informal involvement especially of low paid women. National and local education initiatives have tried to facilitate involvement of under-represented groups. But structural barriers to involvement remain a challenge.

Lay organisation:
Now here we had a big challenge and one we took years to recognise, let alone address. It would be naïve to deny that some elements in the full-time structures were highly suspicious of this and didn’t help. But the lay structures didn’t help either. Too often branches modelled themselves on a servicing basis. We were becoming advocates not organisers. We were doing things for members but not with members.

We became technocrats on local procedures rather than agitators. At the worst end, we became paternalistic and actively resisted member involvement. Frankly, with many notable exceptions, there were too many branch officers in lifetime sinecures whose main organising objective was re-election.

We were becoming an insurance company. We even ran a national campaign that underlined that with the slogan “Essential cover wherever you work”.

The advent of austerity and the 2010 Tory/Lib Dem election victory spurred a range of lay initiatives - some of them grass roots and cross-region - to build a more organising culture. The issues identified have emerged in the mainstream of the union and there is now a far more organisational input into learning and things like branch assessments.

Change is there, and being developed by initiatives like the general secretary’s drive for a UNISON college and targeted branch resources, but a huge challenge remains.

Organising lessons:

Recent pay ballots are a stark reminder that lofty voices from the top, delegates backing decisions that don’t realistically reflect where their membership is due to fear of appearing ‘soft’, glossy campaigns and, more recently, a smattering of lecturing and revolutionary fervour all amount to nothing but embarrassment if we can’t deliver on the ground.

Of course, the Tory 50% threshold is disgraceful and an intended mountain to climb, along with the deliberately obstructive postal requirement in an age when people no longer routinely visit a pillar box. But we have some evidence that it can be done.

The imaginative Scotland local government pay ballot, based on local area ballots, tried to address the issue. While still not resulting in action – albeit with a slightly improved offer - it did throw up an interesting picture of where local organisation was delivering with the threshold met and a vote for action, and where there were (sometimes understandable) lessons to be learned. Lessons that should also be learned in the Higher Education dispute.

Those lessons would be well taken on by the NEC. Instead of usurping our well-thought-out democracy and diversity for – let’s be honest - factional rather than purely ‘lay control’ ends. Our lay leadership (for that’s what TFRC now is no matter how uncomfortable it may make them) should perhaps seek common ground across a broad progressive left to reach out in the real world to listen to branches.

For that, they need to stop blaming someone else for all ills and take responsibility for the power they have won. They need to make it safe for branches to reflect membership views as they see them, learn the messages that would most resonate with workers on the ground, respect the problems branches may face in mobilising members and, where needed, support, address and rebuild local organising cultures.