GMB: democracy vs Regional Secretaries

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 11:12 Author: Ann Field
GMB on NHS demo

The GMB union is institutionally sexist. There is gender-based job discrimination. Branches are male-dominated, with deliberately engineered limits on female participation. And bullying, misogyny, cronyism, and sexual harassment are endemic in the union.

That is the conclusion of Karon Monaghan QC’s report on her investigation into the GMB, commissioned by its Central Executive Council (CEC) in late April, and published on 2 September.

Monaghan’s remit was to investigate the GMB’s record on responding to complaints of sexual harassment, assess the effectiveness (or otherwise) of GMB policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment, assess the impact of the broader GMB culture on dealing with sexual harassment, and make appropriate recommendations.

The report also concludes that real power in the GMB is wielded by the (unelected) Regional Secretaries, all of whom are male (and always have been). They use that power to manipulate and bully lay members, from branch level up to and including the CEC:

“There are, and have been, regional secretaries who maintain power largely through bullying, threats and victimisation and by creating a climate of fear. This means that officers and lay members in the regions do what the regional secretaries instruct them to do.”

Regional Secretaries are also a majority on the union’s Senior Management Team, which is the body which really runs the GMB. The power which Regional Secretaries exert over lay bodies at national and regional levels allows them to decide on their own successors, which guarantees a perpetuation of the same culture of bullying and intimidation.

When a GMB member is elected by lay members as a shop steward or workplace representative, they have to be confirmed by the Regional Secretary before taking office. This allows Regional Secretaries to control branches. They decide who will have access to facility time, and if or when to withdraw their credentials

In contrast to the power wielded by Regional Secretaries, the report exposes the ineffectiveness of the lay structures of the GMB. Nominally the supreme decision-making body of the GMB between conferences, the CEC subordinates itself to the Regional Secretaries:

“On occasion the Regional Secretaries bully CEC members to vote in particular ways. It was put to me that ‘nothing happens [at the CEC] without the Regional Secretary whispering in the ear of their delegate.’ Evidence I received indicated that the CEC has at times acted as no more than a ‘rubber-stamping’ body.”

Regional Councils meet only once every six months, although the smaller Regional Committees which they elect meet more frequently. But, in practice, Regional Councils and Committees “have very little real authority, if any. It is the Regional Secretaries who hold the real power, along with the General Secretary.”

The union’s National Equality Forum is weak and lacks power. Some Regional Equality Forums promote best practice, but others “are not effective and do little by way of promoting equality.”

As for branches, the most basic unit of lay-member democracy, 40% of them are moribund.

“The lay structure formally dominates under the Rules,” concludes this part of the report, “but despite all the powers outlined above, the real power in the GMB rests with the Regional Secretaries and the General Secretary.”

“The practices and culture of the GMB are so entrenched that a complete transformation is required” says the report. The report concludes with 27 detailed recommendations to help achieve that transformation. But some of them point in different and contradictory directions.

“External monitoring, auditing and, if needed, support” should be provided by the TUC, described as “the obvious organisation to take up that role.” But that would be to entrust the reform of one trade union bureaucracy to another, and do nothing to promote lay-member power.

At the same time the report rightly recommends that the CEC and other lay bodies “claim and exercise the authority the Rules give them over the General Secretary, Regional Secretaries and the regional bodies.”

The change required in the GMB, says the report, “will be traumatic.” Lay members need to organise to bring make that prediction a reality. In the language of the GMB’s booze-ridden male-dominated culture identified by the report, it’s a case of: “Time, gentlemen, please!”

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