UNITE’s Community Membership Initiative

UNITE’s Community Membership Initiative or the Ancient Game of Legionaries and Auxillaries

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This is quite an encouraging initiative. However, a closer look at this creature – at its underbelly so to speak – has revealed something quite iniquitous. We have “community members” being recruited as the “poor relations” or “second class citizens” of the union, without the full rights afforded to workplace-based members. Apparently, such forms of discrimination also apply to retired and unemployed members of UNITE.

The Rule Book of Unite (Effective from Rules Conference 2011 and updated by the Executive Council to December 2012) has all manner of convoluted rules and bureaucratic imposition which explicitly or implicitly specify the limits of “community membership” and effectively exclude such members from a full, complete and democratic participation in the full life of the union. Of course, we must participate, even if under these extremely discriminatory conditions.

Let’s look at some of these superbly egalitarian clauses in the UNITE union rule book. Rule 3.3 refers to community membership in which such members do not have

“an entitlement to vote in any ballot or election held by the Union other than an election to the office of General Secretary under rules 15 and 16 or any ballot or election in which all members must by statute be accorded an unconditional entitlement to vote” [page 4, Membership, UNITE rule book]

“By statute” I understand legal statute (state provision under anti-trade union legislation) and not any union statute. But even if this means union statute, it still precludes community members from voting in virtually all ballots and elections. This means that community members have only one solitary, occasional vote for the General Secretary every 5 years and, basically, that’s it. It implies, according to the reading of the rules (see Rule 17 Branches, page 36), that community members cannot effectively constitute themselves as an active branch and elect branch officers because of the above (Rule 3.3) and also, according to rule 17 Branches (page 36), because branches – it is explicitly stated – must be workplace based. Needless to say, because they are excluded from voting and actively participating in the full social and political life of the union, the bureaucracy put in place obstacles to any attempts at change coming from the direction of the community membership.

It’s a bit like being given a membership card of the Women’s Institute and then being told that the rules state that you are not allowed to bake cakes.

Rule 6.2 refers to eligibility to hold office in the union.

“In order to be eligible to be a candidate for election to, or hold office on, the Executive Council and/or any committee, council, or other body of the Union provided for by these rules, the member in question must be an accountable representative of workers, with the exception of Area Activists Committees and Regional Political Committees as specified elsewhere in these rules” [page 9, Lay Office]

There appears to be an ambiguity or doubt about whether or not affiliated community member groups will be allowed to delegate such people to these committees (AACs and RPCs) by simple majority vote. If they do so, are they not contravening Rule 3.3, assuming that a vote to elect a delegate for these committees falls into the category of “any ballot or election held by the Union”? Will such representatives on the AACs and RPCs merely be appointed from on high by regional or national officials? In the different regions, UNITE has already directly appointed trusted people (so-called co-ordinators) to organise these community sections. It’s a very discrete affair.

Also Rule 6.2.1

“Only members who are elected to represent workers will be eligible to participate in any body of the union, including any conferences, but with the exception of branch and workplace meetings (which all members can attend) and Area Activists Committees and Regional Political Committees as specified elsewhere in these Rules” (page 72, Appendix 1)

Community members are therefore, according to this rule, excluded from all the bodies of the Union other than their community member groups (which are not branches, according to rule 17, and therefore where they cannot elect officers) or the two committees specified. (Notice the rule states “can attend” and nothing about electing officers) And even here, community members cannot pass beyond the Regional Political Committees to the National Political Committee because they are not “accountable representatives of workers” as defined by Rule 6. Additionally, according to rule 3.3, community members will not be allowed to vote in any election or ballot on the AACs or RPCs.  Moreover, it appears that what is reinforced by rule 17 Branches is the constitutional incapacity of community members to effectively constitute themselves as a branch with election of officers since community members are not workplace-based. The fact that they are not “accountable representatives of workers” effectively excludes community members from holding office in the union and in the decision-making “bodies of the union”. The union bureaucracy has hobbled from the start any real, full, active and democratic participation of community members in the full life of the union. This bureaucratic manoeuvre via the rule book effectively states that they want campaigning foot soldiers but they want ones with few rights, like the auxillaries (foederati) in the Roman army.

Underneath all the blurb, PR and humbug put out by the union’s marketeers, what the UNITE bureaucracy has really initiated is a form of internal apartheid in which community members (and retired and unemployed members) are barely afforded any rights at all. Not the full democratic rights of workplace-based members. The result is an internalised system of apartheid, enshrined in the union rule book. With the affiliated community groups as the “Bantustans” of the union. Community, retired and unemployed members being second class members in an apartheid arrangement relegated to “Bantustani” status.

The community members are being asked (and even told!) to campaign on the basis of the union’s policies and agenda (which remains committed to the political fund and affiliation to the Labour Party, a party which has openly sided with the interests of capital and maintained the anti-union laws on the statute books) and yet they are not given full democratic rights as members of the union. They are afforded a bare minimal concession. Thrown the crumbs from the bureaucracy’s table.

In the late empire, the Roman army consisted of two basic subunits – the legionaries and the auxillaries (foederati) – in which the former had more rights and privileges. The latter were usually recruited from the most downtrodden conquered sections of the populus or even from outside the boundaries of empire. They were expected to fight, kill and die like the standard legionary. Often, they were thrown into battle first and sacrificed as fodder before the legionaries got to work. Community members are like the foederati of this union, with its outmoded structures and cumbersome bureaucratic form of organisation. With a bureaucracy which is intensely aware of its own caste interests.

If UNITE really wants to initiate a transformation in unionism, to truly “revolutionise trade unionism” (instead of simply playing the tedious old game of legionaries and auxillaries) they should recruit people from outside the workplace on the basis of full and equal democratic rights for all members of the union and not only for those in employment. This divisive practice of a differentiation of rights only establishes a discriminatory system of internal apartheid within the union itself. And the way it has been structured means that the only hope, for the time being, for moving the trade union onto a new kind of union will have to come from its workplace-based membership.

To be a community member in UNITE effectively means being like an auxillary in the Roman army of late empire. All the obligations but with only a tiny, insignificant fraction of the rights of the citizen legionary. This division into legionaries and foederati has been engineered to suit the caste interests of the UNITE bureaucracy.

Shaun May


April 2013





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