Against the Trade Union Reform Bill: Defending Public Services & Public Service Unions

This blog explores the reasons for the Bill’s attack on public sector unions, the impact of this attack and ways in which it could be resisted.

Commentary icon19 Jan 2016|Comment

19 January 2016

By Whyeda Gill-Mclure, Senior Lecturer, Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations, Management Research Centre, Wolverhampton Business School

This blog explores the reasons for the Bill’s attack on public sector unions, the impact of this attack and ways in which it could be resisted. The Bill’s second reading took place last week and the Lords has proposed a series of amendments.

Attacking the public sector:

The public sector is anathema to neoliberal tenets: it is ‘parasitic’ on private wealth, according to one famous argument; public services are labour intensive (labour costs account for around 70% of overall costs), highly unionised and hence under constant pressure from the austerity-driven policies post-2010. Public services have been under attack for over three decades. Despite this, trade union density in the public sector still stands at over 56.5% (compared with under 14.1% in the private sector) at 2011 and while this represents a reduction of one-third since 1980 (Brownlie 2001; Millward et. al 2000), it reveals the underlying strength and resilience of public sector unionism. The same pattern can be seen not just in the UK but across Europe and internationally. Thus, as a recent study of Canadian public services under austerity (Ross and Savage 2013) points out, public service unionism now provides the crucial focus for the future of the labour movement.

So, it comes as no surprise that the sector is a major target for attack from the Bill’s provisions to restrict facility time for public sector union reps. This provision, alongside the attack on check-off arrangements, poses a threat to the ability of union representatives to adequately protect their members in the context of austerity and outsourcing, both of which have increased shop steward workloads (dealing with redundancies, constant restructuring, increasingly unitarist styles of management, representing members working for private contractors), while decreasing their bargaining power at the workplace. These provisions will deepen these trends, reducing further shop stewards’ ability to protect services and members’ interests. They will, as a consequence, reduce union ability to prevent industrial conflict from escalating into all-out confrontation through strikes. Thus, paradoxically, a Bill aimed at reducing phantom industrial conflict will most likely end up increasing its occurrence. The costs therefore of these provisions will be high: check-off, on the other hand, is not costly; and facility time is conducive to peaceful settlement of local industrial relations issues, as reported for the NHS.

The provisions on the political fund will also have a destructive impact on public sector unions and on public services. In local government, there is a tradition in left-wing Labour authorities of what has been dubbed ‘municipal socialism’. This involves local unions working with local politicians to meet local needs in an effort to resist central government attacks on services to local communities and the staff who deliver them. Apart from the well-known case of Poplar, involving George Lansbury in the 1920s, to improve local services and staff pay and conditions, the 1980s saw a revival of municipal socialism to resist outsourcing. Recent examples have been reported for councils in the North of England (Gill-McLure 2007; Wainright and Little 2009).

However, these kinds of local democratic industrial relations (IR) solutions are increasingly difficult to sustain. This is because decades of marketisation and austerity have reduced the room for local autonomy to negotiate around the long-term degradation of services, intensification of staff workloads and consequent demoralisation of staff (see Gill-McLure 2014 below which presents a longitudinal case study to document the details of this process). This makes it all the more urgent to maintain strong links with the Labour Party, especially with Jeremy Corbyn and others in the Labour party prepared to resist and repeal the Bill should it be passed.

The SNP and the Welsh government are against the Bill. COSLA, the local government employers’ association for Scotland has said it will resist the Bill and honour existing IR arrangements (the Lords has proposed these devolved local authorities be exempt from the Bill’s provisions); it remains to be seen if the English local government employers’ body, and the English local authorities it represents, will follow this pragmatic and principled lead. This kind of employer pragmatism in public sector labour relations is understandable: UK local government still employs 2.64m staff (1/8th of the labour force) whose pay and conditions are negotiated nationally. National bargaining remains important to unions and to employers who both rejected regional pay in line with the recommendations of the Local Government Pay Commission (2003) Report. This being the case, the Bill’s provisions will, if they become law, put further pressure on the local government national bargaining arrangements.

How can the Bill be resisted?

The focus on protecting the right to strike needs perhaps to be broadened and deepened. For starters, there has never been a positive right to strike in the UK but rather a set of immunities from criminal and civil prosecution for breach of contract and restraint of trade. These evolved over a century and more of worker struggles. Similarly, the public sector and the welfare state were not benign gifts but a pragmatic response to both union and worker struggle from the 1880s as well as a recognition, by leading political economists (including Mill and Keynes), of the need for state intervention to curb the destructive tendencies of laissez-faire and a mythical ‘free market’. These considerations suggest the need for a broader narrative that builds on and highlights the major historical facts of economic life to the public at large : this narrative should aim to explode the myths of the neoliberal right by showing, amongst other things, that unemployment is not the result of unions pushing for decent wages but the result of imperfections in the market. Or again, local government corruption, nepotism and the sweated labour, performed under the contracting-out regime of the nineteenth century (documented by Charles Booth in Life and Labour of the People 1896), were ousted through the decades-long struggle of municipal workers and their unions to establish direct labour and standardised pay and conditions. This was modernisation the union way. This progressive modernisation has been under attack since the 1980s from the new regressive modernisation, which attempts to turn the clock back to Victorian times (this kind of historical analysis can be found in Sue Konzelman’s blog If only we could return to the 1930s…).

This kind of broader narrative, building on historical fact, then needs to be used as a basis for attacking the top-down, centralised, penny-pinching regime of regressive modernisation which threatens to destroy public services and the pay and conditions of those who serve the public (for the most part low-paid women – 70%). This historically informed narrative needs to highlight that the regressive and authoritarian approach has been pushed through without proper democratic debate. Similarly, the Bill’s provisions further erode the post-Donovan pluralist philosophy, which saw unions as essential to industrial peace at the workplace. Again, the story behind the historical rationale and emergence of pluralism needs to be highlighted in order to resist the myths that underlie the Bill. How many people understand what voluntarism is in labour relations; or why most public sector workers do not have a distinctive legal status as in other European countries; or indeed what the implications of all this is are for safeguarding rights at work or local democracy?

A broader, historically-based narrative would highlight the crucial role of organised labour for a vibrant democracy and open up a public debate around the questions that need to be asked concerning future action to safeguard democracy at work and in society.

See Gill-Mclure, W. (2014) ‘The politics of managerial reform in UK local government: a study of control, conflict and resistance 1880s to present’, Labor History 55 (3), 365-388.

This blog develops themes addressed by the author and other speakers at a public talk organised by Unite the Union against The Bill, November 2015, Bromsgrove.

Whyeda Gill-Mclure

Whyeda Gill-Mclure Dr. Whyeda Gill-McLure worked as a trainee lawyer in the legal section of the European Commission after completing the Cambridge LLB. She is Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations and HRM at the University of Wolverhampton Business School and has published on the impact of modernisation on public services. She is currently writing a monograph for Routledge: ‘Employers under Austerity: A history of local government industrial relations 1991-Present’(forthcoming 2017 and guest-editing a special issue of Labor History to mark the centenary of the Whitley Reports 1917 (forthcoming 2017) She is on the editorial board of Capital&Class and is co-founder of the West Midlands Conference of Socialist Economists