Branching out – UNISON’s branches look to the future

What is the branch resources review and why is it a good thing?

Tree branch graphic

UNISON’s branches are vital in supporting our members. Together with our regions and the national union, branches work tirelessly to improve the working conditions for members, wherever they are, whatever their role. 

But what branches do is expanding. Not only do they recruit members and represent them, but after 10 years of austerity there has been a reduction of employers in national bargaining arrangements and a significant fragmentation of the workforce. UNISON needs every branch active and thriving.

In 2019, the national delegate conference decided that an examination of all branch resources be conducted to help branches organise members now and in the future. The branch resources review was set up to do that. Here is what has happened so far and what’s coming up.

What is the branch resources review?

After debates at successive conferences on branch workloads and resources, the review group was set up to look at the issue and make sure branches were supported fairly and sustainably.

The review looked at a range of measures that would support branches – in particular, saving them time. It also looked at how regional support could be increased and yes … how funding could be increased too. 

Who makes up the branch resources review group?

The review has been member-led, with 24 members from across the union, including president Josie Bird, who chaired the group.

There were 12 from the national executive council (NEC) and 12 from regions. These 24 members were put into four smaller groups to look at resources in UNISON branches, regions and at a national level, as well as looking at branch funding.

What’s happened so far?

In spring 2020, all branches were asked to complete a survey; 357 responded. Branch activists said they wanted to recruit and retain members, develop activists and support members with representation. But to do this, they needed more time, more regional support and more funding – in that order. 

The survey was followed up with in-depth interviews with a cross section of branches. This confirmed that what was required was a more modern, more flexible and more supportive union.

Once the proposals had been put together, the review group took to the road – albeit virtually. They consulted with over 1,700 activists in the regions, service groups and all NEC committees. 

The group is confident that the proposals detailed below are a much fairer way of supporting branches across the whole union and that will ultimately be much better for all of our members. 

What are the proposals?

There are 14 proposals in total.

1. A new branch funding formula – see below for more on this.

2. A new branch support and organising fund – to bring together the best of both the regional pool and fighting fund, and be four times the value of the former. See below for more.

3. Subsidised access to CaseWeb system – to provide one place for all casework, saving branches considerable time and meeting environmental and GDPR commitments.

4. A new branch service portal – to bring together guides, links and other resources needed to run a branch. The proposal is to create a central digital environment where branch officers can access all information that may be required.

5. Development of a new facility time strategy – and campaign to highlight the value of facility time, learn from branches that have won increases, address issues of viability of existing agreements and, where possible, seek to win increases and improvements through collective bargaining. 

6. A new national procurement offer to branches – using economies of scale to save branches time if buying goods and services; to achieve ethical standards, adhere to the living wage, prevent modern slavery in supply chains and conform to environmental standards. 

7. Online meetings – upholding and enhancing the union’s democracy has been central to all of the review group’s discussions. This proposal is that some meetings in the annual cycle could now take place online, with savings returned to branches. The union’s response to COVID-19 has shown us that we can operate using technology.

8. Improved conference services – to introduce a central booking system for travel and accommodation at UNISON conferences, among other measures.

9. A prioritised, union-wide RMS upgrade – this has already started due to the urgent need for an integrated system for branches, regions and UNISONdirect to use, rather than the web access RMS (WARMS) system that branches currently use. The upgrade also presents an opportunity for improved communications with members.

10. Enhanced bargaining support – to improve access and awareness of the existing bargaining support service of factsheets, guides and private company research to reach more activists.

11. New online branch expenses module (inside OLBA) – designed to simplify the requirements placed on branch treasurers.

12. An update of the code of good branch practice.

13. Effective promotion of organising school events – a national organising school, led by the NEC and regions, to grow the number of skilled and experienced officers and stewards.

14. Affiliations – to provide information so that more informed decisions can be made at branch level.

simple graphic image of tree branches withl leaves

What is the branch funding formula?

The branch funding formula is the way the NEC allocates funds to branches. Branches receive regular payments to ensure that the branch runs properly and that the management and other expenses of the branch are met. The formula is agreed at NDC.

Why is there going to be a new formula?

The current formula was agreed in 2001.  Since then, the fragmentation of the workforce, together with the ever-changing political landscape, means that it is no longer meeting the needs of every branch. 

For example, in the last decade, there has been a steady rise in branches under financial pressure, with little in reserve in their general funds.

What’s the point of a new formula?

The main aim is to make the distribution of funds between branches fairer, addressing the big differences between some branches with lots of funds and those with far less.

But it will also modernise the resourcing of branches, increase funding and make it affordable and sustainable for the future.

What are the key changes to the funding formula?

Currently, 23.5% of UNISON’s annual member subscription income is allocated to branches, with 23% allocated directly to branches and 0.5% available to branches via application to the regional pool. 

The new formula will increase this allocation to a permanent total of 25.5% with 23.5% allocated as direct funding and 2% available to branches via an application to the new branch support and organising fund.

Overall, this represents an increase of 2% additional funding to branches. For example, if these proposals had been implemented in 2019 an additional £3.5 million would have been available to branches.

What is the new branch support and organising fund?

The branch support and organising fund (BSOF) is a dedicated fund to further support branches with organising, representation and equipment.

It brings together elements of the regional pool and fighting fund under regional lay control, and will be flexible and transparent about local bids for projects and resources. 

It will be allocated 2% of national income every year (approximately £3.3m) that will then be split between regions. Currently 0.5% of national income is allocated to the regional pool and this will be replaced by the BSOF at 2%.

What happens next?

If these proposals are passed at the special delegate conference in June, a lay led implementation group will be appointed.

Some of the proposals are already in the planning stage – for instance, the RMS upgrade and the OLBA expenses module.

Some work could start immediately after the special delegate conference – for instance, the new facility time strategy and some proposals, such as the new branch funding formula and the branch support and organising fund, which will come into effect from 1 January 2022.

Proposals will be reviewed every three to five years to make sure they’re still meeting the objective – supporting branches.

Where can I find out more?

There’s a considerable amount more detail to the branch resources review – and we can’t include everything in this brief outline – but don’t worry, it can all be found online, at www.unison.org.uk/brr.