Maude’s missing the point on facility time
Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude yesterday made an impromptu statement to Parliament. He claimed to have delivered for the tax payer by reducing civil service union facility time. While this may play well to the right wing of the Conservative back-benchers, the reality is his constant attacks on trade unions can only cause further harm to industrial relations across government departments. Rather than “save” costs, these reductions in union capacity to represent their members at work could well result in greater industrial relations costs at work.
The best employers recognise that working with trade unions is the most effective way of managing sustainable change in the workplace, improving productivity and enabling workers to resolve problems quickly and efficiently at source, as well as improving access to learning and improving equality at work.
Joint research with the CBI published by the TUC in 2011 shows that by working positively with trade unions employers can save between £72m and £143m a year on recruitment. This is because staff are less likely to leave their jobs and by reducing accidents at work unions are saving employers £371m a year, and by improving productivity they benefit the economy by up to £10.2bn annually.
Maude also claimed that removing check-off arrangements, a facility to pay union subs through the payroll, is about ‘modernising’ the relationship between unions and employers. As Labour’s Lucy Powell cited in her response to his remarks, many companies across the private sector, including Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, GKN, Siemens, Tesco and many others, all provide check-off facilities without any apparent anxieties that this is archaic.
It is clear that the ability of employers to unilaterally withdraw check-off facilities can have a dramatic impact on trade unions. If Maude was genuine in his claim that his determination to end check-off in the civil service then the very least he could do would be to allow the unions concerned much more time than the cursory three months to encourage and enable hundreds of thousands of members to switch to Direct Debit arrangements.
The reality is, of course, that this is a rather tacky pre-election stunt to play to anti-union factions of the Tory Party and an attempt to draw Labour out, resulting only in a measured response that confirms Labour in government would not engage in such union bashing.
These attacks don’t just harm unions. For many workers, especially low paid workers, paying union dues at source is their preferred option. Union membership for the vast majority of the UK’s more than six million trade union members is an important feature of their working life. Union members, naturally, want their union and their employer to have a constructive relationship.
In addition, most workers take their capacity to hold a bank account for granted, but for many, on really low pay, short hours or in precarious work, (all labour market characteristics that have grown during the coalition term of office) access to banking isn’t a given. For those workers Direct Debit arrangements just might not be an option, so ending check-off could clearly result in disenfranchising whole swathes of workers from a much needed voice and representation at work.
Far from a benefit to the taxpayer or an improvement to industrial relations, Maude’s actions are a potentially costly, deliberate attempt to undermine trade unions, to disenfranchise workers from trade union membership and to clear the way for further cuts in the civil service.