Trade Unions - dealing with change
A UNISON case study

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Page 3: UNISON´s structure

UNISON is the UK's largest trade union. Its 1.3 million members work in public and other essential services. Over two thirds of UNISON members are women. Members work in several different industries eg local government; healthcare; education; the utilities (electricity, gas, water); transport; the police service; the voluntary sector and call centres.

Their occupations vary eg nurses; health care assistants; ambulance staff and paramedics; laboratory technicians; town planners; grave diggers; plumbers; support staff; nursery nurses; classroom assistants; school meals staff; long-term care assistants; environmental health officers; senior executives and managers at all levels in many different industries and businesses.

UNISON employs its own staff based in a national office in London and also in 13 UK regional offices.

  • The General Secretary is a paid officer. Members vote the General Secretary into office. The General Secretary's role is roughly equivalent to that of a Chief Executive.
  • UNISON also has a President. This is an elected post, taken up by a 'lay' (voluntary) union member.
  • The National Executive Council (NEC) is the union's policy making body. It comprises 'lay' members who are voted onto the Council by their local membership. NEC members are accountable for their actions to the union members, who form the electorate.

UNISON's leaders are democratically accountable: they hold office only for as long as members vote for them to be there.

All members belong to one of UNISON's 1,200 branches across the UK. A branch may consist of all members who work in a hospital, a council office, or as civilian staff in a police station. It may be close-knit, eg all branch members live and work near each other, or it may have its members scattered across the UK eg workers in the voluntary sector for which a branch is formed around a particular employer such as Barnado's.

Unions rely on members working voluntarily at branch level. Each branch has a set structure eg a Branch Committee, a Branch Secretary, a Branch Treasurer, a Health & Safety Officer, a Women's Officer.

UNISON is committed to achieving proportionality and fair representation for women at all levels in the union. Proportionality means that women are represented on UNISON committees and bodies, at least in proportion to the percentage of women in the electorate for those bodies. It guarantees women a voice in the decision-making structures.

In the workplace, stewards act as a link between members and the branch. If members have a problem they want to discuss with the union, the steward is often the first person they turn to.

Stewards liaise regularly with employers to sort out difficulties before they become real problems; stewards are there to anticipate and prevent trouble rather than create it.

Stewards also represent any member who is in negotiation or in dispute with an employer eg over an equal pay claim, a job share, or a disciplinary matter. Where necessary, stewards look for support from the local branch and from UNISON's regional and national officers. Stewards help UNISON's regional and national officers to stay in touch with what is happening 'on the ground'. This is vital for good policy making - the union leadership has to make sure that it leads only where members are prepared to follow.

UNISON | Trade Unions - dealing with change