Unions Need Good Governance

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Good governance in action? (Not the NEC, but the Russian Federation Council in session)

 

As trade unionists we demand, fairly, that the enterprises employing our members are run properly. We challenge bad management and expose the worst excesses – the Philip Greens and CityLinks and Sports Directs.  In short we champion good governance.

That is entirely correct, but do we do as we say others must?  What does good governance look like for trade unions?

It is an important question and not just because of the expectations we have of other employers.  Yes, other employers, because we are significant employers too.  And unions also are subject to the same commercial norms as every other business.  Yes – business, because if we spend more than we earn, we will go bust, just like any other business.

Well if only it were that simple. Because of course we are not just like any other company or even voluntary sector organisation. We have specific reporting and accounting responsibilities – the AR21 required by the Certification Officer for example.  We also have peculiar obligations under the so-called Lobbying Act.

Then there are the not-so-merry dances required by the Trade Union Act and the exposure to punitive legal action for failing to comply.

Whereas most firms in most sectors have their own regulatory jungle to cut through, the dynamics of unions give us a distinctive set of circumstances.  We are proud champions of democracy, but this sometimes leads to confusion or even conflict as to where authority lies – at head office or in branches.  Often it is at Conference – but only when conference is in session! And from an employment perspective, who should union managers talk to first about some big issue or other – their own staff side reps or the elected policy makers?

We champion diversity and inclusivity, but the numbers of employees or elected reps are rarely, if ever, in proportion with our membership in terms of age, gender, ethnicity (and so on). And attempts to press the issue, by the use of reserved seats, or the creation of bespoke networks or sections can be resisted, tokenistic or viewed as a distortion rather than a facilitator of union values.

And on top of all this, we have an electoral process for selecting leaders that seems – on the basis of turnout – to fail to engage the clear majority of union members.

We are, of course, like all membership organisations – struggling to reconcile what we do on organising and servicing. Except we can’t necessarily chose who to recruit or who, in a controversial legacy from the “closed shop”  (and how old does it make me feel to need to  hyperlink that!) era, who to expel. And we do seem to have attracted a stalker to rival the hostility of most of the mass media in the form of HMRC, who have thrust themselves upon a number of unions over the last couple of years.

This unique cocktail of circumstances and constraints actually makes good governance even more important.  Because some of the inevitable consequences of good governance are the very things unions need to survive today’s sometimes existential challenges: A strong, clear sense of purpose. An esprit de corps.  Clear lines of accountability and management. A “good to know” not “need to know” culture. Searching, identifying and sharing “best practice” being an expected virtue.

In my book, we need to go no further in the search for what “Good Governance” looks like in our world: It is summed up in these key outputs. And all of these characteristics are impervious to the servicing/organising conundrum, internal pension reform, hostile government, bad employers and “heart-sink” members. These are things that we can –should, must – do for ourselves.

I hope I will be caught in a metaphorical cloudburst of comments and contributions that show how good governance is the norm and not, as I fear, still mainly an aspiration.

And before anyone gets carried away,  let’s not forget that the union movement is the largest membership based outfit in the country and what we deliver for and with our members changes lives and society.

This piece also appears on the Unions21 website. The Unions 21 conference on 21 March will look at what unions can do  to increase capacity and extend our influence – including some essential elements of good governance. You can  find ourt more and register for a place at http://bit.ly/2kgUGbh

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