How the Union Works
This outline of the unions organisation has been produced so that members can gain a better understanding of the unions machinery.
The local union branch is the cornerstone of the union’s organisation. All representatives - local, company council, H&S, District Organisers and EC - are obliged to report to the branches.
Most members contact with the union will be with their local representative (or ‘LDC’). These people are predominantly depotbased and deal with current local issues for the group of members they work alongside.
Most of the union’s policies stem from proposals made at a branch meeting. This can mean items which never go further than the depot – on rosters, for example, or specific safety points – to ones that end up making national policy on pensions or affiliations.
A member wanting a change in the union will go along to a branch meeting and argue the case. If it is successful in getting a majority at the branch, the branch officers or local reps will take it up and argue the point, usually with management. Or it may be a proposal to affiliate to a local transport campaign, in which case the branch officers will make the arrangements. This is where the branch officers get their information and instructions. It is how the members control their union, oversee their branch finances (a proportion of all members’ subscriptions goes to the branch) and where each December all branch positions are put up for election.
ASLEF is a democratic trade union for train drivers, represented by train drivers.
All positions are elected, from local level representative to the general secretary.
Every branch has the right to put four proposals (or motions) to the union’s parliament, the Annual Assembly of Delegates about policies or strategies and make unlimited changes to the union rulebook.
One of the most important reps in the branch is the Health and Safety representative. Their role is self-explanatory but they have considerable influence with management on our working lives, largely because they are backed up by relatively specific laws. They are central to the union, constantly liaising with other representatives where their roles and responsibilities overlap.
Each company has a Company Council elected by union members as the next tier above local level reps to deal with companyspecific issues. This means that the items passed at a branch meeting concerning a company are negotiated by ASLEF members employed by that company. They also take up issues which have not been resolved by the local reps.
If a specific item is raised at the branch about an issue across the company, the branch secretary will tell the company council of the decision. The company council may consult other branches and reps that the decision could affect, and will raise the matter with the company.
The Company Councils are responsible directly to the people who put them in these positions, and for whom they work. They are where the union meets management to discuss, debate and hopefully agree on all conditions of service including pay.
Before they sign off agreements which fundamentally affect terms and conditions, however, they report the outcome of negotiations to the Executive Committee which acts as the voice of the entire, rather than sectional membership. This is to ensure that nothing is agreed outside national policy or which undersells any company member.
ORGANISATION AT DISTRICT LEVEL
These are primarily an information dissemination forum where EC members and District Organisers brief branch secretaries on policy and company issues and receive feedback on various area depot or company concerns.
Every branch elects a representative to attend District Council meetings. ASLEF is divided into eight Districts, each of which has a full-time union employee as its Organiser.
The central aim of District Council meetings is to examine the policies and progress being made within the branches. For example a branch representative might report that it has secured a particular benefit which the others have not achieved, or perhaps even considered. After consultation with those concerned, it will probably be sought in other areas. It is also an opportunity for a particular branch to seek assistance from neighbours if it has particular difficulties (such as recruitment), to arrange meetings or initiatives of concern to the wider area and affiliate to other district based organizations (including the Labour Party).
Education opportunities are also agreed and advanced at the Councils.
The District Councils also receive reports from ASLEF’s four Representative Committees (which used to be called Consultative Committees) These are the;
• Black and Ethnic Minority Representative Committee (BEMRC)
• Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trans Representatives Committee (LGBTRC)
• Womens’ Representatives Committee (WRC)
• Retired Members Section
The point of these committees was to provide a forum for members to raise issues which they may feel inhibited from raising in their branch. A member might want the union to take a stance on homophobic bullying, for example, but choose not to reveal his or her sexuality. The union wanted to prevent members of minority groups from feeling isolated and to give them a place to discuss and advance their particular concerns.
The issue of inadequate toilet facilities for women that can prevent their employment was first raised in the Women’s committee and has since progressed through the AAD to the national TUC where changes to the law are being discussed. This was possible because each of the Representative Committees has the right to submit motions for discussion to the Annual Assembly of Delegates. Their discussions are also reported to the Executive Committee.
Each of these committees has eight representatives, with one elected on an annual basis from each of the union’s Districts.
NATIONAL LEVEL ORGANISATION
In the 51 weeks of the year when the Annual Assembly of Delegates is not in session, its powers and duties are delegated to ASLEF’s Executive Committee. This is made up of one person elected directly every four years from each of the eight districts. Having all the authority of the AAD, it can begin legal proceedings, call industrial action and call elections and must implement the union’s rules and carry out the union’s democratically- agreed decisions.
It is responsible for creating and implementing policy, for all pay and agreements, traction and training, political contacts, affiliations and strategy – the whole range of the union’s activities.
It also oversees union activities such as our Proud to Educate initiative, which provides life-long learning opportunities for our members through the branch based union learning representatives.
ASLEF’s concern for fairness is demonstrated by its Appeals Committee. While it meets infrequently, it enables any member, branch or officer to appeal against, and possibly put aside, a decision of the Executive Committee.
Annual Assembly of Delegates (AAD) is ASLEF’s parliament, the bed-rock of its democratic nature. Every branch has the right to propose policy changes and the opportunity to send a delegate to the event where the union’s priorities are established and its work for the year is given direction.
The democratic nature of ASLEF is spelled out by certain procedures which can appear bizarre to the newcomer. In contrast to just about every other company shareholders’ meeting or general trade union, the executive committee has only an observing role at the AAD as they have no vote and only the President or Vice-President can speak on their behalf. In most organisations the ‘leaders’ are there to set the agenda, make the speeches and argue for what they want.
In ASLEF it is different. The members, through their branch representatives, are the ones who control the entire event. It is an example of democracy in action.
The union’s employees – including all the head office staff, the regional officers, the Assistant General Secretary and the General Secretary – are there not to make policy, but to carry it out. They receive their instructions from the members via the EC or AAD.
Of course our general secretary and other officers have influence, but they have no right to act without the authority of the EC or the AAD.
That is how it should be in a democratic union such as our own.