Wednesday, May 27, 2015
The link above is to a twenty two year old story about how (then) public sector employers, British Coal and British Rail, used the withdrawal of what was then called "check-off" as a weapon in industrial relations disputes.
It's not accidental that this happened last time a majority Conservative Government was elected. The only difference, in 2015, is that we call "check-off" DOCAS (deduction of contributions at source) (at least, we do in UNISON).
We know that, under the previous Government, Tory ministers initiated the withdrawal of DOCAS in the civil service. We know that their manifesto more than hints that they will continue. We know that they don't need to legislate to pursue this policy directly in the English health service, nor to encourage this approach to local authorities under their control.
Continuing to rely upon employers to collect 70% of our subscription income in current circumstances would be wildly irresponsible - and would leave the health unions with no where to go when the Government ask us to choose between DOCAS and the defence of unsocial hours payments.
The unforeseen attack upon our political funds deserves the condemnation which will be heaped upon it (no one asks us to opt-in to paying the extra cost of our groceries accounted for by donations from retailers to the Tory Party!) However, we mustn't lose sight of the urgent need, in this hostile environment, to wean our trade union off its dependence upon our employers to collect our subscription income.
The campaign for workers to opt-in to our political fund must also be a campaign to shift payment of union subscriptions to direct debit.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.
Anyone wishing to understand what the Government’s commitment to legislate “so that there shall be a transparent opt-in process for the political fund element of trade unions subscriptions” will mean can be guided by their reference to the fact that this will “reflect the existing practice in Northern Ireland.”
That practice can be deduced from UNISON Rule J.5 which reflects the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. For those with a sense of history this is a bit like 1927, as it requires members positively to opt-in to pay the political fund, rather than, as at present, to opt-out if they don’t want to. (Thatcher and Major never did this - they just imposed political fund ballots upon us).
Clearly this will have the effect of significantly reducing our political funds, unless we mount a major campaign to get people to opt-in (this will also beg the question of why we also have to have decennial membership ballots to retain our political funds since the only contributors will also have opted in individually).
If we have to approach all our members to ask them to opt-in to the political fund we will also have to decide what we say to the 70% of members who pay their subscriptions by deduction from salary (deduction of contributions at source - DOCAS), which we know is at immediate risk wherever the Tories hold sway. Are we going to have a major campaign to opt-in to the political fund without using the opportunity to transfer payment of subscriptions to direct debit? (That would not make sense, and would be contrary to the decision already taken by the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC)).
It will also be interesting to find out what the practical impact is, in Northern Ireland, of Article 60 of the 1995 Order, which requires employers to refrain from deducting that part of the subscriptions which go to the political fund (if they deduct union subscriptions) if requested to do so by an employee. If political funds become opt-in that will mean that there will be (for UNISON) two rates of subscription for each salary band (one for members who haven’t opted in, and one for those who have). This increased complexity wouldn’t necessarily drive supportive employers away from supporting DOCAS, but it will highlight the fact that such employers will be facilitating payments to the political funds of trade unions.
Who wants to bet me one month’s subscription to the Affiliated Political Fund that we’ll soon be hearing that it is inappropriate for public sector employers to make deductions from salaries to go towards a trade union political fund? How long before the Taxpayers Alliance use the Freedom of Information Act to publicise the exact amount of political fund contributions for Labour affiliated unions which are being made by each Labour Council?
Every trade unionist should contribute to the political fund which gives their union a political voice – and we need to campaign to win that argument with our members, whilst at the same time, securing the future payment of subscriptions by moving to a means which is harder for a hostile Government to disrupt.
An elderly lady in strange headgear has just announced that her Government “will bring forward legislation to reform trade unions and to protect essential public services against strikes.”
It’s ever so kind of a Tory Government to want to “reform” our trade unions – and I’d like to do something to them in return really, as I am sure would millions of others.
Obviously the precise meaning of this single sentence in a brief speech will mean more when we see the forthcoming Trade Union Bill – but there are two points that are worth making now.
First, if the entirety of the proposed legislative “reform” of trade unions were to be the restriction on strike action it would have made no sense to refer to both this “reform” and – separately – to the restriction on strike action in public services.
Secondly, the Queen’s speech is just a list of major legislative proposals (indeed the elderly lady in the funny hat herself said “other measures will be laid before you.”) Measures which a Conservative majority Government can take without the need for new primary legislation don’t need to be listed in the Queen’s speech.
It would be wise therefore for the trade unions to prepare to face all of the challenges set down for us in the Conservative manifesto, including;
- · A 50% turnout threshold in ballots for official strike action;
- · A higher threshold of support from 40% of all those entitled to vote in ballots for official strike action in health, education, fire and transport;
- · Repeal of regulations which prevent the use of agency staff to break strikes;
- · A time limit on the validity of strike ballot results;
- · Legislation to “ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscription;”
- · A commitment to “tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid ‘facility time’ for union representatives.”
I hope that those in the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road who have been counselling caution and “wait and see what is in the Queen’s speech”, having waited will now see what needs to be done. We also have a lot of thinking to do.
Update at 1.13pm
There are some details of the proposed Trade Union Bill available online (see pp38-39). This does suggest that the primary legislative focus will be on restricting strike action, with a side order of interfering with our political funds. We would, however, be unwise to ignore the fact that attacks on the deduction of trade union subscriptions from salary and upon trade union facility time have not required (and do not require) legislation.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Trade unionists are often complaining about the number of jobs which have been eliminated as a result of the savage spending cuts of the previous Government, now set to be accelerated.
So we should probably celebrate the creation of some useful new opportunities for gainful employment - for "independent assurers" who are now required to audit our compliance with our statutory duty to maintain an accurate membership register.
UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) is proposing a rule amendment to write into our Rule Book the requirement to appoint such an assurer - because we are required to do so by Part Three of the Lobbying Act.
Under the Membership Audit Certificate (Qualified Independent Person) (Specified Conditions) Order 2015 the independent assurer must be a solicitor, an auditor or a scrutineer (authorised to act as an external scrutineer of trade union ballots).
The subscription income collected from low paid workers can therefore now be spent paying a solicitor, an auditor or scrutineer to carry out a wholly unnecessary audit of our membership records.
We'll have to be careful if we want to use decent firms which recognise trade unions, since section 24ZB(4)(b) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (inserted by the Lobbying Act) prohibits from acting as an assurer anyone who employs "an officer" of the trade union or any of its branches.
Since an "officer" of the union could include a shop steward, unions who might seek to unionise solicitors clerks, or the employees of auditors will have to tread carefully.
Since trade unions have a vested interest in having accurate membership records in any case, and since the previous Government never really bothered to justify the imposition of the new auditing requirements, it's clear that the essential purpose of Part Three of the Lobbying Act is to put trip wires in the way of unions seeking to take industrial action - and to encourage vexatious litigation from the right-wing fringe.
This will impel diligence on the part of assurers, and therefore - over time - the administrative burden of the regular membership audit will tend to increase.
Whether or not our foes will need to tie us in knots with this requirement now that they have a Government free to legislate openly against trade unions, we will nevertheless be paying for our Membership Audit Certificates for years to come.
Anyone would think, given the vigour with which the legislature seeks to regulate and control us, that the trade unions posed a threat to the rule of, by and for the 1%...
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.
Friday, May 22, 2015
UNISON members employed in the Probation Service will be taking strike action on Thursday 11 June in a dispute over pay following near-unanimous rejection of a “zero per cent” pay offer and a decisive “yes” vote in a national strike ballot. This will be the first national UNISON strike action since the General Election – and all UNISON members and activists should do all we can to support our members in probation.
That is the most important point which I want to make in this blog post – that we must show solidarity with UNISON members in probation taking action, and take inspiration from their action to every UNISON member.
We must, however, also reflect upon the lessons which we can learn – throughout UNISON – from our recent national pay disputes. The pay freeze across our public services has slashed something like a fifth off the real earnings of UNISON members across most of the sectors in which we organise. Now that we face an even more hostile Government, holding the purse strings even where they do not directly employ us, we need to develop a more effective approach towards reversing the decline in our living standards that that which failed under the Coalition Government.
Although our General Secretary smashed an ice sculpture in the shape of a pound sign at our Conference in 2012 we have found the pay freeze itself less fragile.
Commenting at the time on his 2012 Conference speech, Dave Prentis said; “I called on the TUC to organise a national demonstration on October 20 and I told delegates that we have got to work together to make it bigger than last March – it must be massive. Building a movement, an unstoppable momentum an alliance of unions, community groups and the public taking on this Government’s austerity agenda. I want it to be the biggest campaign this union’s ever seen. The demo will be just the beginning as we campaign and battle through the autumn and winter into next year.”
In fact it took two years before we saw national industrial action over pay in health and local government, and when this action did come, it was not coordinated (either in the timing of the action which was taken or in the demands for which UNISON was fighting – in the health service we were striking for the implementation of a 1% pay rise, which was what we were striking against in local government!)
Of course the October 2012 demonstration called for by Dave Prentis, whilst massive, was smaller than the demonstration which had taken place eighteen months previously –as the tide of opposition which rose against the Coalition Government in its first year and a half receded thereafter.
The high point of trade union opposition to the previous Government had been reached on 30 November 2011, when coordinated strike action in defence of public service pensions, saw the largest mass strike action since the 1926 General Strike.
When, the following month, UNISON, led by Dave Prentis, initiated what became the settlement of those disputes on terms which no honest and intelligent person considers to have been a victory that set the tone for national industrial relations for the remainder of the Coalition’s term of office.
The subsequent national pay disputes in the intervening period have been poor simulacrums of the pensions strike, repeating that tragedy as farce. We have mobilised members around demands, in support of which – when the employers have rejected them – we have called a token strike action before rapidly retreating and letting members vote on unsatisfactory settlements in ballots in which we have resolutely refused to offer any leadership.
The living standards of our members continue to decline, but the boost to activism during the period up to and including strike action has helped to moderate the decline in UNISON membership, sustaining the financial viability of our organisation.
This half-hearted opposition from UNISON, and most trade unions, to the attacks on our members from (what we can now see was) a half-hearted Tory Government wasn’t good enough then – and it certainly won’t be good enough now that we face a whole-hearted Tory Government committed not only to austerity but to direct attacks upon trade union rights.
In three weeks delegates will gather at our National Delegate Conference. We need to use that occasion as an opportunity to rethink how we organise and how we fight if UNISON as a whole is going to live up to the example being set on 11 June by our members in Probation.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Much effort is being expended within UNISON to spread complacency about the threat to the survival of the Union posed by the Government’s manifesto commitment to “legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions.” Considerable hope is invested in the possibility that no new primary legislation to this effect will be flagged up in the Queen’s Speech next Wednesday.
This desperate imitation of an ostrich completely ignores, of course, the fact that our members in the civil service (for example in that part of probation which has not been privatised) are – along with all the other civil service trade unions facing the withdrawal of deduction of contributions at source (DOCAS) without there having been any legislation at all. There is little doubt that the Government has the same authority in the English health service that it had in the civil service departments to drive through similar changes without legislation should it wish to do so.
Obviously though, the Government would eventually need to legislate if it wanted to force organisations which it does not directly control to abandon DOCAS. Perhaps the silliest thing I have heard said this week on this topic was a report from UNISON’s Greater London Region Recruitment and Organisation Committee where – apparently – it was suggested that it would be difficult for the Government to legislate away DOCAS. This suggestion betrays a breathtaking ignorance of the recent history of employment legislation in the United Kingdom.
Section 15 of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 (as originally enacted) amended section 68 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to require employers deducting union subscriptions to have the signature of each employee at least once every three years (until the New Labour Government repealed this in 1998).
One option, if the Government wished to discourage DOCAS would be to re-impose this restriction, or to require more frequent approval (say annually). This would create a significant administrative burden on both unions and employers and would probably impel the withdrawal of DOCAS in many instances (since, as we know from the experience in the civil service, even contractual arrangements with employers provide no useful safeguard to DOCAS arrangements).
An even simpler legislative change would be to amend either s68 of the 1992 Act or Section 13 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 so that deductions in respect of union subscriptions could not be authorised deductions. This would mean that any employer making such deductions would be at risk that any union member might, at any point, ask for all the subscriptions deducted from their pay to be reimbursed to them. Unless trade unions indemnified employers (at incalculable financial risk) employers would clearly not bear that risk themselves.
Neither of these possible legal changes would be right, or fair, or justifiable and each would only be considered by a Government which cared nothing for fairness but was motivated by an ideological hostility to trade unionism per se. A bit like a Government that would introduce a 50% turnout threshold in strike ballots and a threshold of 40% of the total membership voting yes in ballots in “essential services.
The threat to DOCAS (the means whereby 70% of our members pay their union subs) is very real and very imminent and anyone who doesn’t think we should give a high priority to preparing an urgent response is not paying attention.