Unison:Union Democracy on Trial


Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison Pic Credit: Twitter


On Monday a three day public hearing begins  into serious allegations over the running of the election campaign that saw Dave Prentis elected general secretary of Britain’s largest public sector union, Unison last year.

The Certification Officer has ordered the hearing after every candidate who stood against him filed complaints alleging that union resources were used by officials – who should be neutral during elections – to favour Dave Prentis against them.

The hearing is according to an Acas spokesperson is  unprecedented. There are  often grievances from individual candidates who feel they have been badly treated and quote the rule book back at  the  union but in this case every single candidate who stood against Dave Prentis has complained. Nor is it one  Left faction against another – whatever political standpoint any of the candidates might have – they appear to be united in complaining that the odds were stacked against them. I have also  written a news piece for Tribune magazine.

The four complainants are Heather Wakefield, John Burgess, Jon Rogers and Roger Bannister .

The hearing has an added spice because of the leaking of a covert tape  of an union official meeting in Congress House, London which appears to show overzealous support for ” Team Dave” as his election campaign was known by officials working in the union’s time and using union resources. This has been covered in Private Eye whose reporting seems likely to be referenced in the hearing.

Officially ACAS issued this release: “The applicants allege that, during the election period, the Union breached a number of its rules and a paragraph of the General Secretary 2015 Election Procedures as well as section 49 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. This is the full hearing of the complaints following the preliminary hearing held on 6 October 2016.”

Full details of the proceedings and the issues are listed here.

As people can see it is a detailed series of complaints. It also raises questions around the scrutiny of elections by Electoral Reform Services and the original handling of the complaints and whether the scrutineers were sufficiently independent of the union.

One complaint says:”The Scrutineer/ Electoral Reform Society did not independently investigate and respond to the complaints that were made to it in relation to the General Secretary 2015 Election in accordance with the terms of reference of the election timetable and procedure. Specifically with reference to the complaints arising from the disclosure of the audio tape of the meeting held on 21 October in the UNISON Greater London Regional Office.”

It will also test the interpretations by both  the union and the complainants about exactly what was said to whom and where and whether this did effect the election.

And it contains allegations that a senior official – “Cliff Williams, Assistant General Secretary,_ encouraged paid officials across the Union to liaise with employers where the branch might be unsympathetic towards Dave Prentis, to work towards distributing literature in support of Dave Prentis.”

And there are allegations against Liz Snape ( who is the long time partner of Dave Prentis) and a union assistant general secretary, encouraged branches to nominate him.

The public hearing is at Fleetbank House,2-5 Salisbury Square LONDON EC4Y 8JX beginning at 10.0am.

Will the national body that prides itself on conciliation end up in a bitter dispute with itself?


Sir Brendan Barber, chairman of Acas, Pic Credit: Acas


Acas – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – is a body  that nobody normally can take offence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is seen as a virtuous organisation that promotes peace,harmony, and fair play in a warring world between workers and bosses over  jobs,pay and  conditions.

So it might seem unlikely that such a body could end up in a bitter dispute with its own staff. But that is exactly what is starting to happen following a decision – completely unprompted by government – to make radical changes to its services to the public.

These include cutting the number of advisory helplines from 11 to 4, closing its office in Liverpool, which employs 50 people, and according to the union, downgrade work so lower paid people provide both advice and  conciliation work.

The helpline is particularly popular with workers and employers alike. According to its annual report 96 per cent of its users would recommend its service to a friend and 94 per cent thought the people on the end of the line were  really knowledgeable about its work.

Acas appears to have decided to streamline its services as part of an efficiency measure anticipating that perhaps Whitehall – which funds 90 per cent of its work – will start cutting its budget.

According to its officials all this is to be achieved without shedding any jobs.

A spokesman said :“Acas has undertaken a thorough review on how to best meet the needs of its customers across the country whilst securing better value for money for the taxpayer.

“Our national Helpline service is being reorganised into four central locations across the country and Acas North West will have a single area office in Manchester in line with our other regions across the country.

“There are no plans to reduce the number of Acas staff due to these changes so our customers will still receive the same high quality service from Acas North West and our national helpline service.”

The unions however don’t believe this. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents along with the FDA, its staff, is talking of going to a tribunal to accuse Acas, of all things, of failing to consult its own staff.

The PCS union say the conciliation service in London is at risk and the future of Acas’s head office functions and the future role of the Certification Officer – the official that policies union disputes  and registers trade unions – is under review.

It also accuses Acas – rather like the Equality and Human Rights Commission -of making black workers take the brunt of the changes – and believes they will.lose their jobs. Acas insists that those working in Liverpool will get jobs in Manchester – and they will pay their fares to their new office.

This potential dispute is all the more interesting because the current chairman, Sir Brendan Barber, who is backing the changes, is the former general secretary of the TUC, the body that champions workers and unions.

So far the TUC is silent about its views on the change. But one of its union members, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS is not.

He says: “With the Tories ploughing on with damaging cuts and trying to undermine trade unions, Acas’s employment services are needed more than ever.”

“It should demonstrate best practice, not behave like a rogue employer by putting jobs at risk and creating uncertainty, stress and anxiety.”