Members need Unite structures which help seize the opportunities

Ian Allinson, the grassroots socialist candidate for Unite General Secretary, explains how Unite’s structures reflect the past and managerial convenience, not members’ current needs and organising opportunities, and pledges to involve members, officers and staff in a major review if he is elected.

Unite’s current structures are not fit for purpose. A large proportion of power and resources lie within regions, but this structure doesn’t fit the reality of members’ employment and how we need the union to support us. The structure reflects the history of Unite’s constituent unions, the compromises made during mergers, and managerial convenience. The Rules Conference process is effective for tweaking the structure, but a review is required to bring forward coherent proposals for more fundamental changes.

The industrial landscape

If you haven’t looked at it already, I would urge all activists to look at the Work Voice Pay section on the union web site, and this video where Sharon Graham explains Unite’s broad industrial strategy.

Central to the development of the broad industrial strategy is a database of all workplaces where Unite has ten or more members. Inevitably, the data is far from perfect – it’s worth checking your own workplace, employer and sector and telling your officer of any corrections that need to be made. Nonetheless, the database will be invaluable to activists in planning their campaigns and negotiations.

The database also allows us a better understanding of the industrial landscape:

  • It covers nearly 60,000 workplaces with ten or more Unite members
  • The workplaces are associated with about 6600 employers (though some are either duplicates or associated companies)
  • Only 4% of workplaces with ten or more members are in employers without a second workplace meeting that threshold
  • 79% of workplaces are in the 54% of employers with workplaces in more than one Unite region
  • 79% of workplaces are in employers where some sites have union recognition and others don’t

Column chart showing number of workplaces. First column is workplaces in single-site employers, second is workplaces in employers with multiple sites in a single region, third column is workplaces in employers with sites in multiple regions. Each column is subdivided by recognition status. The multi-region column is by far the largest, and the vast majority of the workplaces are in employers with some workplaces recognised and others not.Even if we take the data with a pinch of salt (which we should), the overall picture is clear. We’re pretty good at securing union recognition at all sites of multi-workplace employers within a single region. But the vast majority of workplaces are in employers that span multiple Unite regions and we are poor at securing recognition across them all.

What does this mean for members?

If we only have recognition at some sites of an employer, our power is much more limited, so members’ ability to defend their jobs and advance their pay and conditions is limited too.

It’s not hard to understand why Unite is so much worse at organising employers which span multiple regions. If several sites are within one region, you would hope that the Regional Officer(s) dealing with them would work together closely, even in those cases where one officer isn’t allocated to cover them all.

But for multi-region employers, it is notionally down to the National Officer for the sector to coordinate the work of all the Regional Officers dealing with the employer. Even where they are on the ball, this is not easy. They have to coordinate Regional Officers who report not to them, but to Regional Secretaries. Other than for the very largest employers, the workplaces in question are likely to be a small percentage of each Regional Officer’s allocation, so won’t get much focus. Our fundamentally regional structure gets in the way of organising – precisely for the types of employers that account for the vast majority of workplaces where we have ten or more members. It’s not realistic to imagine that our National Officers could do the job anyway. There are over 3500 employers with sites with ten or more members in more than one region. Our sector structures have no resources of their own. The current structure simply cannot deliver the focus on coordinating between workplaces in multi-region employers that is required to extend union recognition and build power.

The problem is widespread in every sector – even in Health. In every sector a majority of workplaces with ten or more members are with employers who only recognise Unite at some of their workplaces.

Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne, as General Secretary and a Regional Secretary, are products of, and managers of, Unite’s outdated structure. They have presided over the failure to tackle some of the most pressing workplace organising issues facing members. In contrast, like thousands of other workplace activists, I’ve been having to grapple with these issues every day.

The problem of spreading organisation across multiple sites and regions is one I’m personally very familiar with. I work for Fujitsu, a multinational company with dozens of sites across the UK (not to mention a large proportion of the workforce based at home and/or out on the road). We’ve started from recognition at my site in Manchester and have built out organisation across the country, but don’t yet have recognition for most members. The vast majority of the coordination has had to be done by activists within the company. Given the number of employers Unite needs to tackle, this will continue to be the case. There is no army of full time officers that is going to come over the hill and put everything right. What we can do is change how Unite works so that the union encourages and supports organising across multi-workplace employers much more proactively.

The best methods for coordinating between sites will vary. My experience in Fujitsu won’t be typical – it’s much bigger than most employers and the workforce generally has better access to IT facilities. The latter point is worth exploring: there aren’t many workplaces these days where nobody at all has access to IT facilities, either in work or at home, particularly with the spread of smart phones; those IT facilities are developing fast; and younger workers, who Unite needs to do more to reach, are often (but not always) more comfortable with electronic communication.

Some lessons from my own experience of building organisation across multiple sites where only some are recognised:

  • Maintain your membership list so you can use email (BCC!) and text messages to send out notices to all members, including those on sites without recognition or without reps – keep them in the loop. This is really important for retaining members at unrecognised workplaces while you are building up your organisation. But don’t rely on these methods alone – you still need meetings, leaflets, 1-1 conversations etc.
  • Build up a list of volunteers to distribute union leaflets at as many locations as possible
  • Have an online presence, so people Googling the company because they are applying for a job, or are TUPEing into the company, or are looking for information because they have an issue, can find the union even if they are in an unorganised workplace
  • Use email or some other medium between reps and activists to involve people remotely and so that less trained / experienced reps can get support
  • Phone conferences between reps across the country
  • We set up a Combine Committee covering the whole UK, to allow democratic decisions with legitimacy and representing the whole membership. Traditional combine committees tend to be based on delegates from each workplace or bargaining unit, but that isn’t practicable if some sites are at a very early stage of organisation. Instead we divided the membership into wider geographical constituencies (so everyone was included) and invited all members to stand and to vote.
  • Hold training courses for activists within the employer (or with similar employers). Members are much more likely to attend if a course seems directly relevant to them, and its much easier to work remotely with people you’ve actually met.
  • We’ve encouraged members to stand for the company’s national Information & Consultation of Employees body (works council). By law, these have to cover the whole UK workforce, so activists from unrecognised sites can stand too. The very act of standing for election as a union member raises the profile of the union and its activists, which is important if parts of the company are unorganised. As well as their direct benefits, works councils allow precious opportunities for networking between activists between organised and unorganised workplaces. They provide some ability to communicate with employees on key issues too. Using a works council to extend organisation isn’t without its risks – activists (particularly those with no recognition and therefore no other facilities) can get “sucked in” and neglect building collective organisation at workplace level. Works council reps can get too focussed on the relationships with senior management and neglect their constituents. It’s important to maintain independent union organisation at all times.
  • For just over a year we’ve been running conference calls for members (and occasionally open to potential members) on particular topics. We’re able to share a presentation and talk it through. Apart from presenters everyone is on mute to start with, but people can type in questions via a chat box or say if they want to speak and be unmuted. These have been really useful for educating members about issues and campaigns, as well as generating volunteers for campaigning activities, but are not suitable for serious debates or decision-making. They are very popular, particularly with members not at the better organised locations. The last couple of calls we’ve run have hit the 250 participant limit of the system we use, so we’ve now started combining the calls with physical meetings at the bigger locations, so people are in a room together taking part in the call. This should have the added benefit of getting members together at locations where there aren’t yet activists who are confident to run their own members’ meetings.

Thousands of other activists must have been grappling with the same issues, yet as an organisation there has been no focus on tackling the huge gap (and organising opportunity) of unrecognised workplaces in employers where we already have recognition elsewhere. Where we already have recognition in part of an employer, we have access to information and contacts which are invaluable in organising other workplaces. If we were better at organising on an employer and/or sector basis, this could rejuvenate our industrial sector structures (RISCs and NISCs), many of which are underpopulated and lacking in direction or focus.

Our outdated structures would be best suited to an era before telecommunications and to an economy primarily composed of small local employers. The mismatch between those structures and 21st century industrial reality encourages a situation where key decisions are taken away from those democratic structures and reinforces a top-down culture that doesn’t maximise participation – the key to members’ power.

As a union we’re terrible at publicising our successes and sharing ideas and experiences. I’d like to hear about other people’s experiences of buiding organisation across multi-site companies. What worked? What obstacles did you face? How could Unite support the process better?

If I’m elected as General Secretary, I will involve activists, officers and staff in a major review of our structures and how we can make them meet our actual needs rather than reflecting the needs of a previous era. For example:

  • What facilities can Unite provide to support the establishment and operation of more Combine Committees?
  • How can national responsibility for multi-region employers be included in officer allocations? This should reduce duplication of work, and be more rewarding than a more piecemeal approach, but we need to avoid wasting even more of officers’ time on travel.
  • How can sector committees be empowered to set priorities? Does this require a shift of power and resources away from regions?
  • Should sector committees have their own resources?
  • Can Unite enable levies to support Combine Committees – even where not all members in that employer are in workplace branches?
  • What should be done at regional level?
  • How should the different types of branches fit in?