Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
As of July this year, Employment Tribunals stopped being free to access. The Ministry of Justice claimed this was to save money for the tax-payer and clamp down on workers who chose to unnecessarily escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal.
No doubt aware of the backlash this move would generate, the government sugared the pill with a facility whereby vulnerable low-earners could receive a full or partial waiver of tribunal fees.
However, in a reminder of the government’s true colours, this week has seen new restrictions come into force which drastically weaken this essential safety net leaving the remissions scheme almost worthless and playing into the hands of unscrupulous employers who want to take advantage of workers.
Now individuals – or their partners – with savings or investments of just £3,000 will have to pay the full £1,200 fee, whether or not they are out of work or on a low wage. That’s £250 upfront and £950 due on the day of the tribunal.
Research commissioned by the TUC shows that just one in 20 workers over the age of 50 are now likely to be fully exempt from paying the full amount. And, with fewer than one in four workers over 50 likely to receive any kind of financial support, those sacked because of their age may end up paying the full amount as well. The analysis also shows that, even among households where someone is on the minimum wage, less that a quarter of workers will benefit from any support.
The change also means that disabled workers are more likely to be disadvantaged, with only one in nine exempt from paying the full £1,200.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has commented that the changes “could mean thousands of older workers having to raid their retirement savings if they want to seek justice against an employer that has mistreated them [and] make it easier for rogue bosses to get away with mistreating staff, not paying them properly and dodging the minimum wage.”
Read Thompsons’ response to the fees remission consultation at: http://www.thompsonstradeunionlaw.co.uk/information-and-resources/moj-fees-remissions-thompsons-response.htm
Click on the image to access the full Thompsons Labour and European Law Review
Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager for the Society of Radiographers
There has been a lot of criticism of the lack of substance to the policy announcements from the Labour Party during conference week. Important announcements about abolishing the bedroom tax, freezing fuel bills and the promise to repeal the 2012 Health Act should not be underestimated and the impact these will have for working people and the working in and relying on our NHS will be immense.
Nevertheless the policies announced are all details and the lack of an over-riding context for them plays into the hands of those who claim there is really little difference to choose between all three main parties. This of course is further evidenced by Nick Clegg’s apparent indifference to who he will get into bed with, as long as he can get into bed.
So you have to go back to the Andrew Marr interview before the start of the conference to find the most important announcement made by Ed Miliband, and also to find the issue that will win the next election outright for the Labour Party if articulated correctly.
During the interview Ed Miliband referred to the fact that, for the first time in Britain’s post war history the link between economic growth and improving the standard of living of the majority, working people, has now been well and truly broken. Even Thatcher was not able to do this.
Members of my own union, the Society of Radiographers, have not had a pay increase above RPI for 5 years. Even with annual increments their pay has failed to keep up with inflation. In addition more of their disposable income is now spent on pensions so their standard of living has decreased significantly. Pay cuts have also become more common place as highly skilled workers responsible for delivering high levels of patient care find their jobs re-banded downwards.
This is true of other sectors where pay freezes and even cuts have become the norm in both the public and private sectors.
For the last 3 years RPI, however measured, has been higher than average earnings. But it is not the statistics but the message behind the figures that matters. If the statistics say inflation is higher than earnings then that means quite simply that any improvement in the economy is not being translated into improving standards of living for the vast majority. In the past, although the distribution was unequal, there was still an overall improvement when the economy grew. The fact that this has come to an end will be seen by those the Tories represent as the holy grail of politics and the ultimate aim of the Thatcher revolution. To the rest of us it is nothing short of the cynical use of austerity measures for political and ideological means.
So Ed is right to highlight the problem. But to win the election he must do two things. He must ensure his policies ensure the link between economic growth and earnings growth is restored and he must ensure the Tories and their coalition partners are held to account for exploiting the austerity measures in a way that has deliberately broken the link. If he does, and the TUC and individual unions work with him, then victory at the election is not just possible but will be meaningful.
So let’s not have a debate about the links between different sectors of our movement and instead start talking about the link that really matters for working people, the link between economic growth and earnings growth and in so doing expose the deeply ideological approach of this Conservative led coalition.
Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA. He writes in a personal capacity.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed were supposed to mark an historic watershed. There could be ‘no more business as usual.’ Yet this is exactly what we have returned to.
Britain’s model of corporate governance – based on the principle of shareholder primacy – is not fit for purpose. Shareholders have proved themselves unwilling or unable to undertake their role as custodians of our large companies. With shares being held for increasingly short periods of time, the system has incentivised a focus on short-term profits over long-term investment. They have failed to curb excessive executive pay or to identify and address unsustainable business practices. And shareholder primacy means that other stakeholders – including employees – are not given a say.
We need to reform our corporate governance in order to give employees a voice at the top table – on both the board and the remuneration committee.
More than anyone, it is employees who have the greatest interest in the sustainable success of the company. Employees understand the business, its services, products and customers – and, with the right training and support, they can really contribute to decision-making. Workers on the board will add a dose of realism to discussions at the top table; bringing an understanding of how things really are at the shop floor. And by breaking the cosy clique on remuneration committees, we could also reverse the process whereby the share of profits going to wages has fallen whilst executive pay has soared.
There is a wealth of evidence of the benefits of participation at work. On an individual level, it is correlated with engagement and wellbeing. On an organisational level it is associated with productivity and innovation. It should therefore be a serious concern that Britain has the second lowest levels of employee participation in the EU, beaten into last place only by Lithuania. By adopting more participative ways of working – including employee representation at the top – we could improve both the workplace experience and productivity.
So what are the arguments against employee participation in corporate governance? Some might say it is unworkable or radically left-wing. Yet in most other EU states – including Austria, France, Germany the Netherlands and Sweden to name a few – worker representation on the board is required by law. It works well and is largely uncontroversial.
Others argue our adversarial industrial relations and opposition from employers would make it impossible in the UK. But this is to assume that such attitudes are fixed and unchanging. In fact, as the High Pay Centre has shown, employee representation on boards was bitterly opposed by employers in Germany. It was only after implementation that they came to accept and indeed value the measure.
Some insist employees simply aren’t up to the job. In their response to the Government’s consultation on executive remuneration, the CBI claimed employees would ‘add little’ to the process of decision making as they have an insufficient ‘understanding of the business’ compared to non-exec directors. These arguments risk sounding patronising and dismissive. And if workers in Europe are capable of sitting on the board, why should British employees not be?
Employee representation on boards and remuneration committees would be a massive opportunity for the labour movement. It would give employees a say at the top table for the first time. In organised workplaces, it would give unions another channel through which they could influence employers. In those without unions, it could offer the opportunity for them to organise and gain membership.
But it also poses a significant challenge to trade unions. In her exceptional Attlee Memorial Lecture in April, Frances O’Grady highlighted the union movement’s ‘strategic failure’ to embrace co-determination and industrial democracy in the post-war era, focusing instead on fighting incrementally to improve terms and conditions. O’Grady claims that to do so would have meant taking on a role that ‘is not just more ambitions but more demanding, than the one we usually have now. It means accepting responsibility, moving out of our comfort zone of short-termism, to taking the long view and championing the greater good.’
For a movement used to adversarialism, board level representation may require a change of mind-set; from sitting across the table from the boss to sitting around a table together. Unions, as they do in Europe, would still retain the independence to fight for their members both individually and collectively. But they would also be responsible for working collaboratively to set the direction of the organisation. Such a system would only work if there is good-will, trust and commitment to develop a workable consensus on all sides. Of course, such a cultural shift would be required of many employers too, but as the German experience shows, it is possible.
Having employees sitting on boards and remuneration committees would strengthen workplace democracy, encourage long-termism and ensure fairness. It would be good for workers, good for business and good for the country. And after all, what could better define a One Nation Economy than having workers take their rightful place at the top table.
Joe Dromey (@Joe_Dromey) is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA. He writes in a personal capacity.
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The weekly Thompsons Solicitors Blog
You might think the outcry after a report revealed that more than a million people are on zero hours contracts would make government ministers think twice before bragging about other ruses to take advantage of desperation for work. But not this government – or, at least, not Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform.
As ever, nasty stuff has a euphemistic name – ‘slivers of time’ – the idea being to create a marketplace where workers bid against each other to see who can offer the lowest price to do very short, sub part-time, periods of work.
Some local authorities, including Tory-led Hammersmith and Fulham, have been using it for several years, and Tesco opened up slivers of time to its workforce in 2010.
The champion of this scheme, Lord Freud, is a man with no background in social policy and who is best known for leading the somewhat botched floatation of Eurotunnel.
He is responsible for spearheading government attacks on the Welfare State and is notorious for commenting that Scottish welfare claimants should get a job if they wanted an extra bedroom.
At a fringe session on welfare at the Conservative Party Conference, Freud described slivers of time as ‘a marketplace for short hours’ where an employer would say ‘right, we want three hours on Wednesday afternoon – what am I bid?’ That group would then say ‘I’ll do it for £10 an hour, £15 an hour… whatever’.
In other words, slivers is a Dutch auction for job seekers’ time, set up to encourage it to be sold as a commodity in a race-to-the-bottom. And, if people are forced to work at rates below the national minimum wage, such contracts could potentially be unlawful.
In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron announced that 16 to 25 year olds ‘Neets’ (Not in Education Employment or Training) who refuse to take up offers of education, work or training will have their benefits stopped.
But rather than conjuring up ideas for finding random hours of work to fill on shoddy terms, the government should concentrate on how best to place people into real jobs on a fair rate of pay.
Slivers of time may well have positive applications in limited circumstances if done on the worker’s own terms. But its integration into a benefits regime that operates on compulsion takes us back to the Victorian days and the fundamentally exploitative nature of workers having to tout for anything they were lucky enough to get.
Read the Labour & European Law Review on zero-hours contracts
We march and we protest on the hoof – but do we change anything?
It is a mainstay of trade union activity and it is an activity we willingly engage in where a government, or some other institution, refuses to listen, engage, negotiate or modify their stance on a direction or policy that we do not agree with.
The question is not so much whether a march has any value, moreover do we really think that a mass protest will change anything or have value?
The march in Manchester on the 29th was without doubt a success. It was about the future for the NHS but this did not stop many more pressure and protest groups coming on board to express their opinions on a very wide range of issues. I was struck by how many ‘fringe’ elements joined us and at one point did wonder if their presence would water down the key message. But to think this is to miss the point. The small but vociferous pressure groups have just as much right to protest as the rest of us. The fact that we have the numbers and the organisation helps them to make their mark on the political spectrum and the fact they are present illustrates that discontent with the government is far deeper than just a bunch of ‘Tradies’ venting their spleen about the NHS.
But leaving the composition of the march aside, why do we march and why do we think that it is necessary to do so? Are we merely participating in a group hug or are we serious that by taking to the streets we will begin to see change but realistically, we accept that we are preaching to the converted. At one point in the March I noticed a person on the sidewalk holding a placard that listed all the things that were wrong with this government. The placard was aimed at the marches. But why show this to us? We know what is wrong, we know why we are traipsing through Manchester- turn around and show the sign to the people passing by and bemused by our presence. It is they who need to be educated and asked to think.
There is a certain element of togetherness about marching and this is more than just a group hug. It is an expression that we are passionate about our beliefs and we are willing to give up our time to publically express our opinions. Marching often comes at a time when frustration is high and campaign fatigue has begun to set in so that our participation with other like minded people reinvigorates our resolve and gives us a necessary boost to not give in or become complacent.
The mass display of banners and other paraphernalia of protest and the diversity of engagement are uplifting and few would argue that it is not. But the central question is ‘does a March change anything?’
The answer to this is ‘maybe’ but not ‘yes’. A mass protest is never the game changer that many of us hope that it will be. It is one of many means in our arsenal that we use to promote our cause and our beliefs. Even the press cannot ignore us despite the sad fact that they prefer a March that is controversial to one that is peaceful and the politicians will praise us, condemn us or try to ignore us depending on where they stand in the political arena.
If you are marching for a cause or a belief, you are there because you have opinions and can say that you were willing to be a part of a process for change, you are one of many and not merely a bystander.
Ed Miliband’s superb performance at the Labour Conference in Brighton, has changed a few things. ’Labour’s New Energy’ (‘Guardian’), ’Decisive shift to the Left’ (The Times’),were the typical commentators’ take on it. More significantly, all the trade union leaders, especially Len McLuskey, (the darling of delegates at this conference), were ‘over the moon’ with the Labour leader’s list of concrete pledges and the general tenor of his virtuoso hour long performance without a note.
They even drew comfort from Ed’s very brief mention of their other main concern, his plans for ‘changing our politics’ viz., ‘party reform’ of the union political levy. Yet there was no hint that he is abandoning this attempt to change what he clearly sees as an outmoded form of the link. His contrast of ‘hearing the individual voices of people from call centre workers to construction workers’, with the hearing the collective voices of union leaders, could not have been more pointed. Yet there was still no detail about how he proposes to do it. Most union and many party activists remain extremely sceptical about how his ‘mass membership’ of political-levy payers could be realised.
Yet his new status as a substantial Labour Leader in the more conventional social democratic tradition, means that many will suspend judgement until we see more flesh on the bones of Lord Ray Collin’s surprisingly slim interim report to this conference. In it he stated that ‘Ed does not want this individual relationship with trade union membership to damage the collective relationship and the institutional links between the party and the union organisations. Ed wants to mend - not end – the link.’ But, as unions say, ‘the devil is in the detail’.
The Collin’s statement also said, ‘we do not believe there is any need to change the laws around the right of trade unions to hold political funds’. The Labour Opposition may not intend to go there, but the government party leaders, especially Clegg, seem intent on it. My fear would be that they would do that ‘dirty work’ whilst in government. At the Unions 21 conference fringe on ‘Thatcherism’, the Tory ‘envoy’ to the union movement, [now] Lord Balfe, said just that.
I suspect, therefore, that the genie is now well and truly ‘out of the bottle’ and will never go back to where it was. It seems that the Labour leadership chose their ‘Falkirk moment’ to challenge what they saw as undue mega-union political power, in their Party policy and structures. Their concerns seem also to have arisen in the context of their discussions with the Liberal Democrats, and the unions fear some unprincipled deal for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition.
There will therefore be some real heart searching from now until the proposed special Spring conference and the Collins’ report will be the subject of close attention.
The History & Policy Trade Union Forum has been looking at the whole relationship of the unions with all the parties historically in a series of seminars involving senior union figures (such as Billy Hayes of the CWU). Each one has been written up on our website (http://www.bit.ly/tuforum). In November, we will be pulling the threads together and drawing some conclusions as to the future policy options for unions and the parties, and this will be of interest as a historical context of this whole debate.
Helen Goodman MP’s speech to our joint Musicians’ Union, BECTU and Equity fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference: Britiain Entertaining the World
It’s very nice to be here and thank you for inviting me. I feel slightly terrified actually, I don’t normally feel terrified in meetings, but having heard John, Jean and Gerry and they’re all so eloquent, and all so clear, and they’ve all made such passionate cases, that I hope my response can live up to it.
As far as the National Union of Musicians is concerned, I just want to say I’m really grateful to you because you gave me the first nomination I ever had for a Parliamentary seat. Actually, I wasn’t selected but we won’t go into that…
You’re all absolutely right about the vitality of the creative sector and the economic contribution. And I want to divide what I say into two parts. I want to say something about the economic aspect and then I want to say a little bit also about the intrinsic aspect. Because I think missing the intrinsic aspect is the thing that politicians most frequently do that really winds up people in the sector. I don’t know whether you saw there was a great essay by David Edgar in the Guardian a few months ago that was about this.
It really came home to me, so we’re very good at the numbers but maybe we’re not so good at the messages.
Support and training
Now, I won’t repeat the financial contribution, but I will tell you that we’ve done quite a lot of work on having an economic strategy for the arts. It has 6 elements:
Obviously, in what all of you have described the people are essential to the success of the creative sector. This is true in your sector in a way which is quite different from, let’s say the car industry where technology’s very important, or banking, where let’s say money is very important. In this sector the individual, and what the individual brings to it, is the most important thing.
So the first thing that we need to look at it is whether we are equipping young people properly. And one of the things that we have been campaigning for is to prevent Michael Gove from narrowing the school curriculum and from only measuring Maths and English grammar and those things, and further trying to push to one side drama and painting.
We’re also, as you know, very keen to make sure that young people get the proper support which they need in further and higher education, because brilliant as I’m sure [the Musicians' Union’s] members are, they did need professional training and we do need to make sure that we’ve got a continued stream of people coming through.
The next thing that you’ve spoken about is money. Now there are issues around public money and the cuts, but there’s also the issue, and I guess this might affect the BECTU and the Musicians slightly more, but it’s the issue of access to finance for private firms and for private companies.
And it’s quite clear that we do need to get the City and the banks to concentrate on this. Because it’s a specialist field with particular kinds of risk and this needs to be understood so that people can set up successful companies which can grow and develop over time. So that’s the second part of what we want to do.
The next thing that we’re very hot on is a proper intellectual property regime, which I think you’re all concerned about and we’ve had the conversations with the Googles of this world and we are keen to look at a way to implement the Digital Economy Act, which was passed just before the last Labour government fell.
We’re keen to have am intellectual property regime which works. Now, I’m not going to stand here and say that I’m totally confident that the clauses in the Digital Economy Act as they stand would work, because they’re a bit OTT really. Cutting somebody’s broadband off because their child once illegally downloads some pop music does seem to be a bit sledgehammer and nut.
So, we’re very keen to have a workable solution, and if we look at what’s happened, we’re also keen that the industry itself looks at ways of monetising its product. I think music industry unfortunately has been less successful on this issue than the publishing industry looks as if it’s going to be, but it’s important that we learn from the bad experience that the music industry had on that.
Local authorities and the regions
Now, I’m not going to make a commitment about local authority financing today. That would be an extraordinarily foolish thing to do when I haven’t discussed it with my colleagues in my Communities and Local Government team and Treasury team, but I will take your idea away.
We could also use the Creative Councillors’ Network to take a regional approach. Because there’s another thing we’re keen on: that all culture isn’t within the M25. I mean, I represent a seat in County Durham and it’s just completely impossible.
I did a survey in the summer of my constituents and my party members to ask them what things they would like to do in this area and what things they couldn’t do and what the barriers were. And one of the things that was very interesting was that everybody, virtually everybody, who answered had bought a book. And virtually everybody who answered had been to the cinema, but people would really like to go to the theatre more but they can’t afford the tickets. It’s no good if we add on to the cost of this ticket, a train ticket half way across the country.
Plainly, we have to be doing things in peoples’ communities. And we have to be doing things which, as you were saying, relate to their life experience and their social issues and their particular heritage. I’m a 1000% opposed to the commercialisation and constant Americanisation of our culture.
And we went to see the French Ambassador because the French are actually much more energetic in protecting the French film industry, than we have been traditionally. I went to talk to him to see if we could actually say to them ‘well if we win we’ll buddy up with you’ [to exclude cultural products from the proposed US-EU trade deal]. I think they make a good point because plainly Shakespeare is not like hamburgers and we all know it.
Exporting the arts
Then, there’s the whole issue of pursuing an international strategy to promote Britain overseas but also to get inward investment. The man who invented Downton Abbey who Tories have put into the House of Lords [‘Julian Fellowes!’, yelled the audience], he did actually go on a trade mission but this is a new thing and I think we really want to see the arts and culture taking their place alongside the other industries when we do have overseas trade missions because, it is a very successful industry. One of our big, big, big international strategic competitive advantages is the English language. We are incredibly lucky.
We want to have that as a special strand, the international mileage. We’re absolutely clear that we want to do something about that.
Equality and representation
Also, we’re very concerned about equality of access and opportunity. Harriet [Harman]’s been saying a lot about having middle aged women on telly. As a middle aged women, you know, I think she’s absolutely right.
But there is also a party issue about who is getting access, who is it who can afford for their children to do a three month internship and find somewhere for them to live and all of that? We all know that this is not the way to open up the arts.
And that moves me into the second issue, which is about the intrinsic nature and what we want, because we must have a vibrant sector that is saying something to people about the world in which they live and which is challenging them and which is experimenting and which is doing these things. And the fact of the matter is that if everybody comes from a very comfortable life experience, they are much less likely to be challenging and to be critical, and that we will be a great loss to our national culture, and that’s true in the performing arts, but it’s actually also true in literature, it’s also true in novels. If all that’s ever happened to you is that you’ve been to a very good school, you’ve been very successful and then you’ve been to a university and got a top degree, you haven’t got the same material, have you, for doing things?
The future of change
So, I think this issue about equality of access and opportunity is important… What [New Labour Culture Secretary] Chris Smith managed to do was make free museums such a central part of British cultural life that the Tories have not been able to attack it, and that was a great achievement. That is really significant. So sometimes we really can make progress and root things down, bolt them down so hard, that it is much more difficult for anyone to try and uproot them.
Now it seems to me, that access is good, open access is good, but I think maybe we should be moving. The next thing we should be thinking about is participation because I imagine that the participation bit will be a stronger experience and will be a more transforming experience for people and that the more people and the more possibilities we have to enable people to participate in lots of different ways – the better it will be and the more satisfying their lives will be.
So, that’s really like us to do. Now, I don’t think that’s a very easy thing to do, but that is where I would like us to go after the 2015 election.
Here’s the speech that Cat Hobbs, founder of We Own It, gave at their Unions21 hosted event at Labour Party Conference
“Thank you so much for coming today, it’s great to see you all. I thought I’d start our discussion today by reading you the story of someone who got in touch to support us recently. He wanted to be kept anonymous so let’s call him Dave.
This is what Dave said to us:
“This is probably the single most relevant issue in today’s politics. As far as I am aware the Green party are the only ones who are promoting renationalisation. Which is scary as if the facts were publicised it would surely be a vote winner for any party, demonstrating nicely that policy in all the major parties is driven by party donors and lobbyists not by informed public opinion and definitely not common sense.
If it’s any use to you my personal example of privatisation not working is this:
When I arrive in my lab each morning it generally hasn’t been cleaned properly, some times not at all. I call the Sodexo help desk and report it and then quickly clean anything that is really nasty myself before the first patient arrives. As far as I know Sodexo suffer no penalty for not fulfilling this part of their lucrative hospital cleaning contract and therefore has no interest in improving the service they provide. They continue to make a profit. Meanwhile the taxpayer pays for me, on pay band 7, to mop floors. A very expensive way to do it, especially if you have already paid a cleaner to. Hospital management don’t take any interest as they have already shown a saving on their cleaning services. What a load of BS.”
It’s not just Dave. People all over the country are frustrated about their services being sold off or handed over to companies who don’t care, and don’t deliver.
They are frustrated about high water bills, energy bills and rail fares.
They are frustrated with G4S and Serco being allowed to bid to run probation services while they’re being investigated for defrauding the taxpayer.
They are frustrated that even though many councils are bringing public services back in-house because it works better, others, like Barnet, are locking themselves into 10 year contracts with private companies like Capita. They are doing this against the will of local people, supported by the government’s ‘open public services’ agenda (a bit of lingo that could come straight out of 1984).
Labour has got to do better than this. Not a bit better, by default, because it’s quite easy to be better than this government without even trying. It needs to be a lot better.
We are giving Labour a ready-made solution: start by committing to a Public Service Users Bill, to promote high quality services and give all of us a voice when it comes to how they are run.
Labour is already against Royal Mail privatisation. It should be in favour of giving us a say over whether it happens by requiring public consultation before any public services are privatised or outsourced. Nearly 80% of people would support this.
Many Labour MPs are fighting for East Coast to stay public. It would be logical to require local and national government to look at public ownership best practice whenever they contract out, and put forward an in-house bid when they do. 80% of the public support this idea.
Shadow Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has committed to applying Freedom of Information legislation to private companies running public services. That’s great but they should also be required to share performance and financial data, and we should have a right to recall them when they do a bad job. Again, 80% of people would support a right to recall, including, surprisingly, 90% of Conservative voters.
Labour wants to increase the role of cooperatives and real mutuals in our economy. It should be prioritising organisations with a social purpose above private companies in the bidding process for our public services.
The Bill we are calling for is feasible and practical. Today we’re asking Labour to commit to it. Do it for Dave. Not Dave Cameron, the other Dave, at the hospital. Actually, do it for Dave Cameron too – to prove that Labour is different, and better.”
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The UnionHome Thompsons Solicitors Blog
I am not easily surprised by the double standards of this government, but even I was taken aback by its brazen hypocrisy a few days ago when it invoked ‘protection of personal privacy’ to oppose a European Union cap on bankers bonuses.
The government gets all protective about bankers having to disclose details to the EU of their vast rewards but when it comes to the privacy of more than seven million union members whose names, addresses and personal correspondence it wants powers to access they are not just less fussy, they don’t care.
Part 3 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill gives the government’s Certification Officer – and potentially hundreds of his staff and contractors – scope to require unions to hand over membership records and private correspondence.
The government is over-riding the right to privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights for millions of union members – while at the same time invoking the very same right to defend a handful of bankers.
If we needed any more evidence of this being a government for the few and not the many, this could hardly make it clearer.
This harmless-sounding legislation on trade union ‘administration’ is being rushed through Parliament after a cursory consultation over the summer, riding roughshod over trade union concerns.
For years now, unions have had to submit annual membership returns to the government’s Certification Officer (CO). It’s been open and transparent, giving union members the right to check the records and complain to the CO if something is wrong – and no one has since 2004.
Under this Bill, the government wants to intrude much further by:
- Requiring unions with more than 10,000 members to appoint an Assurer from among ‘qualified independent persons’ as named or defined by the Government
- Requiring unions to submit an annual ‘Membership Audit Certificate’ (prepared, in the case of those with more than 10,000 members, by an Assurer)
- Giving the Assurer the right to access membership records and require union officers to provide information.
- Giving the CO and CO staff and CO inspectors and Assurers powers to require production of documents and to make copies of them, including individual membership records and private correspondence from ‘anyone who appears…to be in possession of them’ if there is ‘good reason to do so’.
If the bill goes through, literally hundreds of state personnel and contractors will have the power to access the personal information of more than seven million union members.
The TUC has said: “It is not the business of the State to know who is or who is not a trade union member, and where they live”.
But the government is invoking article 8(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to over-ride data protection laws.
That article says the right to privacy can be limited only by ‘the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’
By implication, the government is saying trade unions are a threat to all these things – and therefore it is okay to do what they propose.
The Bill has come from business secretary Vince Cable’s department, yet again displaying a shocking lack of liberalism from a Liberal Democrat minister – and a complete disregard for internationally recognised privacy and trade union rights.
I hope everyone who values the right to privacy and freedom of association will lobby their MPs to defeat this legislation. For more information: Click here
Should union membership be extended to every un-represented worker?
Rafael Gomez is professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto. Alex Bryson is senior research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics
Two of Canada’s largest unions – the CAW and CEP – have recently merged creating the largest trade union in Canada. Named Unifor, the union comprises over 300,000 workers. Regardless of the merits of such a mega-merger, one idea that has been centre-stage in the new deal is the idea of extending Unifor’s membership privileges to workers who lack workplace representation. The proposal has garnered considerable media attention because of its supposed novelty and applicability to today’s younger, more mobile and precarious workforce. “It’s a thought we have worked on for many years” said CEP president Dave Coles “but we have not been able to get our head[s] around how to do it” This last comment is somewhat surprising given that academics have been writing about this idea for some time and that peering back even further, to the foundations of the labour movement both in North America and in Europe, one finds plenty of examples ‘unaffiliated membership’ (i.e., accepting workers who are favourable to unionisation but who are otherwise not members of any trade union at work).
The idea of extending membership to all workers, even if they fail to have a certified union at their workplace, was actually floated a decade ago by two academics; Richard Freeman (an economist) and Joel Rogers (a sociologist) in a piece published in The Nation titled “A Proposal to American Labor”. In it the authors spell out just how such a proposal could work and be financed for little or no cost given the ease in which the internet – which at that time did not even include social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn — had allowed groups to communicate and share vital information.
Opening up to new members who are in favour of unions (or even neutral about representation) would open up doors to employees who work for an employer in which collective bargaining is not on offer. Freeman and Rogers cleverly termed this idea “open source unionism” (OSU) and argued quite persuasively how this could give labour an immense boost in its leverage and reach as well as gaining strategic information on employer behaviour. For workers without majority status at the workplace, the OSU model would mean access to some of the bread-and-butter services that unions traditionally offer (e.g., advice and support on their legal rights, career guidance, access to training and so on).
Elsewhere we have argued how unionism is and always has been an ‘experiential service’ in the sense that the true benefits of being part of union and having access to the benefits of some form of collective representation are revealed with experience at work and over time. The fact that a worker with access to union services is more likely to have a pension plan, a grievance procedure, more vacation time and family friendly polices is not something obvious. It has to be learned and experienced. The idea of extending some of these privileges to the unrepresented worker can only enhance the view workers have of a ‘union’ job.
The roots of this idea go back to the birth of the labour movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, directly affiliating with a union was not only possible but actively encouraged. It is only in the last half-century that labour has become closed in its membership, extending privileges only to those workers where a majority support unionisation and the union is recognized by the employer as the exclusive representative of workers for the purposes of collective bargaining. In the first half of the 21st century that model has come to its nadir, and it’s about time more trade union officials ‘got their heads around that.’