NUJ Annual Delegate Meeting 1999

Eyebrows bizarrely raised...

YOU WOULD think that any trade union that ends up losing an unfair dismissal case against one of its own staff would indulge in a little soul searching. If the sacking was fair, how come it was bungled? And if it was unfair, how come it happened?

Not so the NUJ, which has recently lost a tribunal case. The annual conference was presented with a number of motions which sought to improve the decision making culture of the union.

Edinburgh Freelance Branch proposed ending the current system where NUJ officials (staff at assistant organiser level and above) are members of the NUJ. They wear two hats, partly answerable to the membership as paid staff and partly political players in their own right. As such, they are able to influence decision making, potentially in their own interests, when they so wish.

The impropriety of this was illustrated by the debate: three of the speakers opposing the motion were staff, who spoke about their right to belong to the union of their choice. Those of us on the other side thought the point was whether or not the interest of the union's members was furthered by this arrangement -- given that the trade union interests of staff could almost certainly be better served by another union.

The confusion about whose interests are paramount was vividly illustrated in the debate on a Dublin Press and PR Branch motion, suggesting national executive committee (NEC) members should not serve more than four annual terms without a break. Catherine Heaney argued this moderate reform was important in breaking the caucus culture she had experienced on the NEC, broadening democracy and making it easier for new blood to challenge entrenched beliefs and practices.

The fact that anyone spoke against this motion was stunning in itself. Yet many did, and one said the motion was wrong because it would involve "redundancies". That slip of the tongue speaks volumes, as NEC members are of course unpaid lay members.

Both these preeminently sensible motions -- bringing to the NUJ practices that would not raise an eyebrow in almost any other organisation -- were voted down. Some clues as to why can perhaps be deduced from the response to London Freelance Branch's motion on openness.

This proposed that any individuals belonging to parties, caucuses, networks or other groupings that meet to discuss NUJ business should declare their membership if standing for election to any NUJ position, and that the aims and membership of such groups should be made available to other NUJ members on request.

Those opposing did so with accusations of a McCarthyist witch-hunt, although the motion was certainly not proposing to exclude anyone for their political beliefs.

But opponents failed to explain why members of the union should not be entitled to know the basis on which those elected on their behalf were making decisions.

This motion too was voted down by the same roughly two-thirds/one third majority in favour of the status quo. Was that because many of those in the majority at ADM belong to such groupings and would have to declare their primary allegiances if the motion was passed? Maybe that explains why they were opposed to other reforms that would strengthen the voice of ordinary members.

May/Jun 1999
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