Trade union representatives and facility time in the Civil Service

Submitted by sglenister on Wed, 01/08/2012 - 09:00

01 August 2012

By Roger Jeary

In the last few days the Guardian and the Observer has published three reports that have a clear link to trade union organisation and the need for trade union representation.

For these to appear at the same time as the UK government publishes yet another consultation with the so obvious aim of undermining trade union organisation is of course entirely coincidental. This time the coalition is aiming its anti-trade union guns at public servants in the civil service and the supposed waste of public money taken up by workplace representatives. The so-called waste of money amounts to the princely sum of 0.26% of the civil service pay bill or £34m. Even if the outcome was to produce a 50% cut in cost we are talking about saving just £17m. The price in employee relations breakdown could far exceed that.

To return to the three articles, the first appeared last Friday (27th July) and reported on a long running dispute in America at Caterpillar, a company renowned for its union-busting credentials. It was not so much the report of the dispute that caught my eye but the analysis of attitudes to workers’ rights and trade unionism in the states.

Michael Paarlberg wrote in the Guardian:

“The political climate in the US today is such that it's open season on unions. The ongoing evisceration of public workers' collective bargaining rights, solidified with governor Scott Walker’s triumph in Wisconsin's June recall election, set the trend, one that spilled over to other states and is now spilling over to private sector workers as well. That the justification for revoking those rights – state budget shortfalls – didn’t hold up to evidence that many of the largest shortfalls were in non-union states, made no difference.

As with Caterpillar, it was never about labour costs, but opportunity. Public opinion has shifted. The rights to organise, and bargain collectively, have transformed from bedrock civil rights to vestigial luxuries; good salaries and pensions from objects of inspiration to resentment. All of this from the decades-old message drummed into us by politicians and businesses alike, that we are all on our own. Human agency consists of two choices: take it or leave it. To want more say in what you do for a living, for how much and under which conditions, and to want the same for others, is crazy.”

I couldn’t help but think I could be reading a similar analysis about rights in the UK. And to follow this up, The Observer on Sunday (29th July) had two pieces about workers’ rights and conditions. Nick Cohen's commentary on blacklisting in the construction industry compared the plight of workers destroyed by the activities of corporate conglomerates and compared that with the celebrities upset by the hacking activities of the Murdoch press and others. The latter demanded a public enquiry and got it, whilst the Tory press ignored the plight of wholesale discrimination against construction workers over many years through the blacklisting cartel.

Finally Barbara Ellen reported on the health effects of night-shift working, its debilitating impact on people and the fact that this was likely to hit lower social economic classes hardest, as they are more likely to populate the night shift.

What has all this to do with the government’s latest consultation on trade union representation in the civil service? It is the impact that trade union representatives can have on highlighting poor working conditions and abuses of power which this government is seeking to undermine under the pretext that public money is being “wasted” with too many union representatives spending too much time looking after the interests of their members. The absence of strong and effective trade union representation in the workplace opens the door for poor employment relations practices and leaves workers demoralised and less inclined to give their best. I recently observed, from outside, such a situation unfold in a public sector body, where lack of trade union time and unprofessional HR management resulted in a demoralised workforce and the unnecessary loss of experienced workers with no economic or work benefit to the employer.

The Civil Service consultation is the thin end of a wedge which will lessen the ability of already overstretched lay trade union officials to provide the service which they would want to. I have no doubt that the civil service trade unions will more than adequately demonstrate the folly and unfairness of the government’s intent, but I am equally certain that the consultation is simply a means of going through the motions with the outcome previously determined. A consultation conducted during the summer months whilst parliament is in recess is one that is clearly designed to minimise attention and publicity. Trade unions should not allow this to happen and all should ensure that their voice is heard in response to this latest attempt to undermine trade union organisation.

Let‘s remember that the contribution that trade union representatives make to the economy and business generally in both private and public sector has been recognised by employers, employees and government as a good thing. Whilst there are a variety of methods of engaging workers the role of trade unions over the last century has created a workplace environment, although not perfect for many, which offers workers a voice and recognition that they are a major stakeholder in any business or organisation. Nothing should be allowed to diminish or eradicate this voice.

Find out more about Blacklisting in the UK construction industry in Ruined Lives, an employment law books by IER President Professor Keith Ewing.

The Institute also hosts regular employment law seminars, and by becoming a subscriber you could receive free access to all of our labour law publications, journals and books, as well as reduced entry to our events.

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