Why trade union elections are expensive

The reason the PCS Union NEC cancelled suspended elections this year is because of the financial cost. The figure given is that the cost to the Union is £590,000, it is not known how much of that comprises the cost of the NEC elections. Let us say however, that it is £300,000 (half the total).

In this post I want to set out why these union elections are expensive. It is PCS policy that all lay posts shall be elected annually, this includes the entire NEC, including the Union President. That is not a statutory requirement, which requires that these posts must be subject to election only once every five years (as the Union’s General Secretary and Assistant General Secretary are). The requirement for the Union’s President to be elected at least every five years is set out in section 119  of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidated) Act 1992. This requirement applies irrespective of any requirement in the Union’s rules.

In addition, each member of the Union’s executive, meaning “the principal executive committee of the union” (and, like Highlander, there can be only one) which in PCS is the NEC must also be elected once every five years.

It is of course right that unions should hold elections and holding elections five years seems a reasonable maximum period, particularly given it now concurs with the interval between General Elections. But the 1992 Act does not just require elections but requires that these elections (namely, the election of the NEC) shall be conducted by means of a postal ballot (Section 53, TULRCA 1992) and be subject to independent scrutineers (Section 49, TULRCA 1992).

When enacted trade unions (in the Trade Union Act 1984) were able to receive a partial refund on the costs of these undoubtedly expensive elections. In 1993 that partial refund was abolished by the Conservative government.  So, since 1993 trade unions have had to bear the full cost of all statutory ballots it is required to take.

Although the requirement to hold statutory elections only requires five-yearly elections (which would require an outlay of c. £300,000 on the above figures, or by my reckoning £0.73 per member) because PCS’ constitution requires annual election that outlay increases to £1.5m over five years.

This is a very high cost for elections, and much higher than necessary. It is entirely possible, as the TUC have argued in the context of strike ballots which operate on similar restrictions, to run independent scrutineered ballots and much lower costs than that required by the 1992 Act that would also increase turnouts. So, although Jon Rogers may be right that the PCS NEC’s decision is a gift to the Tories, it remains the case that they could have made legislative changes that would have increased worker’s engagement in workplace democracy but have chosen not to.

There is certainly a question of procedural injustice here – a union, like PCS, that has an explicit policy to be far more democratic than the statutory minimum (5 elections held where only one is required by legislation) is given a significant financial obligation (in PCS’ case approximately and additional £1.2m over five years) by needing every NEC election to be conducted by postal ballot. Any political party professing to support workplace democracy needs to address that.

In short, none of the above alters the fact that PCS’ rules require annual elections and the NEC have made a decision to not abide by that requirement this year but the pleadings that the elections are a significant financial burden certainly has merit. And that requirement is required by the UK’s industrial law – the NEC could have made a decision to run an election on a non-statutory basis but that would, in all likelihood, have caused even more of a financial burden and, possibly, have spelt the end of the Union.

However, as others have pointed out these onerous requirements only apply to the principle executive body of the union, and not subsidiary bodies such as Group Executive Committees. Here, there is no legal requirement for any election to be postal. It is unclear why the NEC did not decide that group elections could not be made by workplace balloting or by much more cost effective digital voting platforms.

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3 thoughts on “Why trade union elections are expensive

  1. Pingback: PCS Elections: Round Up | Employment Writes

  2. Pingback: Coverage | PCS - Democracy Deferred

  3. Pingback: Viral Voting and Union Barons | Employment Writes

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