What kind of laws do we want? A report of an IER Conference

13 February 2015 By Roger Jeary, IER Blogger The Institute’s conference on 11th February saw a fine array of trade union and political leaders alongside legal experts and academics debate the kind of employment law scene that they would want to see post the upcoming election.

Commentary icon13 Feb 2015|Comment

13 February 2015

By Roger Jeary, IER Blogger

The Institute’s conference on 11th February saw a fine array of trade union and political leaders alongside legal experts and academics debate the kind of employment law scene that they would want to see post the upcoming election.

With John Hendy and Keith Ewing directing the discussion it was soon apparent that three issues topped the poll of the most important issues to be addressed. Collective bargaining, industrial action and employment tribunals. Whilst many other topics were mentioned the debate continually returned to these subjects.

The morning question time and subsequent discussion amongst legal experts focussed on the restoration of collective bargaining backed by the right to strike.

John Hendy reminded delegates that international law shared the view that the right to strike and collective bargaining were essential to ensure workers have the basis to secure fair and decent conditions at their workplaces. Hendy read extracts from a recent Canadian Supreme Court case, in which the judges specified that the right to strike is a fundamental element of freedom of association, and guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights. He marvelled at a situation where judges are now more in tune with collective rights than many politicians.

The political angle was covered by Natalie Bennett from the Green Party and Jon Cruddas from Labour. Natalie made clear that she believed workers’ rights were at the core of a much needed break from the neo-political debate that has dominated UK politics for the last three decades and that collectivism should be at the heart of the debate.

Jon Cruddas told the Conference that the issue of workers’ rights and trade unions was the subject of a fertile conversation around Labour and he thought there was a different philosophy developing around issues such as living wage, zero hours contracts and tribunal fees. He indicated that Labour were more keen to see a reformed approach to the tribunal system rather than tinkering at the edges by abolishing fees.

There was some support for this approach. John Hendy found it difficult to defend an indefensible system saying “The whole shooting match needs to be looked at.” Whilst Professor Aileen McColgan told the conference that as far as discrimination cases were concerned the tribunal system just doesn’t work.

Industrial action was a subject which drew a lot of comment particularly from the trade union leaders. Steve Turner of Unite called for the right to strike and a removal of the shackles currently in place on balloting. Christine Blower from NUT reminded us of the problems derived from the ban on political strikes for her members. In effect this meant that they could not strike against OFSTED. Matt Wrack from FBU said that despite meeting the thresholds for balloting proposed by the Tories, his members were still subject to victimisation and the intended exclusion of the right to strike for emergency services.

Frances O’Grady from the TUC focussed on the need for strong trade union organisation pointing out that individual rights rarely deliver the outcomes needed. She referred to the last 30 years of growing inequality between wealth and wages and the impact of restrictive laws on strikes. She believed that electronic balloting would promote democratic participation, could be used within the workplace and remotely and was a strong argument to use against the new Tory proposals on balloting laws. Fundamental to strong trade unions was the right for workers to have a voice at work.

In analysing the current state of unions Mark Serwotka from PCS, admitted that unions were weaker now than ever before and that there was a dilution of trade union’s ability to do their job. Whilst accepting that changes to the law were necessary it was also about how unions can be more effective. He wanted greater protection for trade union representatives and a statutory right to check off as well as a right to time off. He also linked the changes in social security payments to the workplace environment, a theme developed by Professor Simon Deakin, Cambridge University, who called for an end to workfare and the strict conditionality that accompanies social security law. Simon raised many of the points included in his IER publication Reregulating Zero Hours Contracts

But it was the issue of collective bargaining and within that sector bargaining that speakers felt laid the basis for future changes in employment law and practice. John Hendy, in his opening remarks, argued that collective bargaining was the only way to ensure justice in the workplace and the only way workers could secure fair wages and decent terms and conditions. He went on to assert that freedom of association provides workers with the power to match the power of the employer.

Steve Turner returned to this theme when he argued that sector bargaining was the means to counter the inequalities in pay in the workplace. John Hendy related the call for sector bargaining to the emergence of this element of trade unionism at the beginning of the last century when the Trade Boards Act 1909 first introduced National Wage Councils and the Fair Wages Resolution, first introduced in 1891 and amended later in 1909 and 1946. He asserted that collective sector agreements would help to resolve one of the causes of resentment towards immigrants by stipulating the rate for the job and removing the exploitation of workers through low wages.

The afternoon session examined the trade union agenda for labour law and we heard from three trade union leaders. One area of discussion which arose was the issue of trade union recognition and the current legal obstacles. Keith Ewing asked whether the recognition legislation introduced by Labour in 2000 had helped the cause for collective bargaining. Billy Hayes from CWU, agreed it had not and the statistics showed that other than in the first year, the decline in collective coverage that had started in 1979 had continued to 2011 and was likely to drop further by the end of this year.

The conference was an excellent opportunity to showcase the need for workers and trade union rights to form part of the pre-election conversation. There is much to be done to convince the electorate and the politicians of the importance that these issues will have in voting outcomes. The publications from CLASS on Election 2015: What’s at stake? Provide an excellent guide to these issues and others.

Finally, as the conference drew to an end, Keith Ewing presented the 10 key priorities identified by IER and reported on the front page of a four page special pull-out in the Morning Star that day. He concluded by reminding us of the irony that after the second world war it was the UK that had established the sector bargaining structures now in Germany and successfully extended to the rest of Europe, whilst at home over the past three decades, successive governments have chosen to dismantle them.

A longer version of this blog from Roger can be read here

Roger Jeary

Roger Jeary Roger Jeary retired from Unite in January 2012 after 33 year’s service as a negotiating officer and Director of Research. Roger worked in Northern Ireland, Manchester and London as an official of the union starting with ASTMS and then MSF and AMICUS before the final merger to Unite. In 2004 he was appointed Director of Research of Amicus and subsequently took on that role for Unite in 2007. Roger is a member of the Institute’s Publications Sub Committee. Currently Roger is a Trustee Director of FairPensions, an independent member of the ACAS Panel of Arbitrators, sits on the Advisory Panel of the IPA and is a member of the Manufacturing Policy Panel of the Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET).