Stronger Unions make work and society fairer. Period!
This was my contribution to the Unions21 Fair Work Commission first report
This short contribution has one aim; to clearly and unequivocally make the case for the ability of strong and effective trade unions to make work, and indeed society in general, fairer.
This is a case that needs to be made because worryingly amongst certain parts of the ‘progressive’ policy making community there is something of a cultural cringe about trade unions that prevents their full potential being talked about, let alone given serious consideration.
The case can be made by considering two key areas; firstly the way unions via collective bargaining increase fairness at work as measured by better pay and conditions, access to training and improved workplace democracy and secondly, the benefits accruing to both union members and employers as a result of the work of workplace union representatives.
A recent article in the Industrial Relations Journal by Willie Brown and Chris Wright sets out the benefits of collective bargaining to both unions and employers. For unions, it provides recognition and an opportunity to secure for their members a fairer deal in respect of pay and other terms and conditions.
For employers collective bargaining, particularly across sectors, removes employment conditions and in particular pay, from competition. It also creates a more stable employer/employee relationship and provides opportunities for both parties to develop further mutually beneficial joint approaches in respect of training and higher standards of productivity.
These benefits also extend beyond the workplace. Research for the TUC carried out by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research found that the union role in collective bargaining is a vital tool for reducing inequality in society as a whole.
At first, the increase in inequality that occurred in the two decades after 1979 and the decline in union density and collective bargaining over the same period could be seen as merely coincidental. But it is after comparisons are made with other countries that a link between collective bargaining coverage and income equality can be made. In the mid 2000s, of the 23 OECD countries with lower levels of income in equality than the UK, 19 had higher levels of collective bargaining coverage.
This ‘sword of justice’ effect associated with union recognition is evidenced by the more favourable pay and conditions enjoyed by employees in unionised workplaces.
The same NIESR research found that on average union members were better paid and had better sickness and pension benefits, more holiday and more flexible working hours than non-members. Union members were also less vulnerable to the impact of unfair dismissal and pay discrimination and had better access to learning, skills and training opportunities.
Of course the people who deliver the benefits of trade union membership in its most practical form are workplace union representatives. It is what they do that has the biggest impact on how members rate the relevance and the effectiveness of the union of which they are a member.
They represent what might be considered the trade union movement’s unique selling point; employees representing and supporting each other individually, collectively and most crucially, independent of the employer. The work that these elected volunteers carry out benefits employers as well as employees.
In 2007, the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (now BIS) conducted a review of the facilities and facility time available to workplace representatives. As well as the cost of facility time, the review calculated the value of the benefits that accrued from the work that reps carried out.
Based on the savings resulting from lower dismissal rates, reduced recruitment costs as a result of less people leaving voluntarily, less employment tribunal cases and better workplace health and safety, the review calculated that in the range of £372m pa to £977m pa in savings made. Due in no small part to the presence and work of union representatives. These were figures based on 2004 prices and inflation, updated in 2010 they come out at between £267m pa to £701m pa
The government would understandably laud any other group of volunteers whose work made such a positive impact, but of course union representatives and particularly those in the public sector have been subjected to a sustained, ideologically motivated attack by the political right.
A clear line can be drawn from the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA) and their dodgy dossiers claiming to reveal the cost of facility time to the ‘taxpayer’, to the establishment of the deceptively named Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC) – essentially a front group for anti-union Tory back bench MPs – and the recent Cabinet Office consultation on Facility Time in the Civil Service.
This consultation, which disgracefully accepted submissions from both the TPA and TURC, effectively cut the amount of paid time off for reps in the civil service by half, via the introduction of a guide figure on the proportion of the pay bill that could be used to cover facility time.
The problem with this attack on reps in the civil service, which has not surprisingly been taken as a starting gun for similar attacks in the rest of the public sector, is that as well as delegitimising and stigmatising the role of workplace union representatives, it will deprive employers of a valuable workplace resource and of course result in workplaces that are less fair.
Using this evidence of the huge contribution that unions make towards creating a better and fairer society there is no excuse for policy makers both within and outside the trade union movement not to speak with more confidence about how this role can be extended.
Employees are certainly supportive of it. When asked by Unions21 if they would support the Government encouraging the setting of wage levels in sectors between employer and employee representatives, over half of respondents said that would and and a significant proportion thought that this would result in fairer pay.
There is a increasing intellectual weight behind the idea of unions having a wider role in the regulation of labour standards. This was a key feature of the Unions 21 publication ‘Extending Collective Bargaining: Extending Union Influence’ published last year and was been given added substance recently in an excellent article in the Industrial Relations Journal written by William Brown, Professor of Industrial Relations at Cambridge University and ex-TUC staff member Chris Wright (now a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University, Sydney).
In addition to extending the reach of unions we must also continue to defend and promote the role of union representatives. This can be most effectively achieved by opening a new debate on industrial democracy.
Notably, and significantly, absent from the attacks on paid time off for unions reps has been the voice of employers. This is most likely because employers see on day to day basis the valuable contribution that union reps make to ensuring a efficient and stable HR/industrial relations environment.
A few years ago this employer support was demonstrated in a pamphlet ‘Reps in Action’ published jointly by the TUC, CBI and BiS. If we can persuade the CBI to spend less time trying to redraw the basic rules and principles of democracy in respect of strike and recognition ballots and instead focus once again on supporting a resource that increases workplace efficiency, productivity, fairness and general well being, then we might just succeed in fending off the attacks from the TPA and others on the right wing fringe.
A key TUC campaign this year will be based on increasing industrial democracy. This obviously starts with union membership and recognition, continues with workplace union representatives and extends naturally to an employee voice on company boards.
This idea is attracting growing support from employees. When asked in a Unions21 poll if they supported having a workforce representative on company boards, over 70 percent of employees said they did. Over half of the respondents went on to say that the proportion of seats on company boards reserved for workforce reps should be between 10 and 20 per cent.
The approaches to extending union influence that I have here covered should not however be seen as a replacement for the difficult but essential task of workplace organising; It’s only through day to day contact with and involvement in the activities of the union that workers can achieve the full potential of trade union membership. But they can make a significant contribution to the debate on how we make work better and society less unequal.
The TUC, under our new General Secretary will over he next year and beyond bring renewed purpose and energy to this task. We know that our affiliates are up for the fight too. After all, ensuring the fair and equitable treatment of workers and creating a society based on equality and social justice is what trade unions were invented to do.