latest plans to attack trade unions illustrate quite well their lack of
understanding of workplace realities and of the history of employee relations
in this country. These plans don’t pose much of an immediate material threat to
our movement, but they highlight the ideological hostility to collectivism
which drives the Government – and which will drive them to further attacks when
this one turns out to be something of a damp squib.
This wheeze has
Tory supporters, who think it is “fairer” to eliminate the unions’ “monopoly”
of the right to accompany workers at hearings. It would create new
opportunities for non-union organisations offering individual representation
(for those who don’t want to be bothered with collective bargaining, solidarity
or industrial action) – such as Edapt
in the schools sector.
ignorance of our history would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that they
are, well, our Government. The statutory right to be accompanied (by a work
colleague or trade union representative) at a workplace disciplinary or
grievance hearing was introduced only just over twenty years ago, alongside the
statutory process to seek union recognition, during Blair’s first term.
workers had no statutory right to be accompanied (by anyone) at a disciplinary
hearing at work. Trade unions had fought for and established this right through
collective bargaining outside the law. Following the introduction of the right
to claim unfair dismissal in the 1970s, case law – and the concomitant growth
of the personnel function throughout industry – permitting workers to be
represented at hearings had become commonplace but – until 1999 – it was not on
a statutory footing.
Conservative opposition had opposed Labour’s Employment Relations Act in 1999
said, it would “jeopardise
employment, endanger the successful legacy of good industrial relations left by
the last Government, impose further damaging costs on British business and risk
industrial strikes and disruption, rather than leaving employers and employees
free to settle relationships for themselves without outside interference.”
John Redwood said; “I am all for people
belonging to trade unions if they wish, but I am not in favour of forcing them
to become members, or making them use the trade union to represent them when
they wish to represent themselves. Some people prefer to negotiate for
themselves, and some people make a good job of negotiating for themselves.”
Conservative opposition, in 1999, did not argue that workers should have other
options for representation – they argued against enshrining in law the right to
union representation in order to defend a status quo in which there was no
(statutory) right to representation at all. This was – and is – consistent with
the argument always advanced by employers who resist union involvement in the
workplace – that they do not want an “external third party” involved in their
relationship with their workforce.
introduction of the statutory right to be accompanied, with its restriction to
work colleagues or trade union representatives, created some additional work
for the Certification Officer, the Government official who has the job of
maintaining a register of trade unions. From time to time “trade unions” would
arise which weren’t really collective bodies negotiating terms and conditions
of employment but which had been set up to try to offer individual
representation (presumably in order to make money). The Certification Officer
refused to list these as trade unions.
In the third of
those links you can read the Certification Officer’s comments to one of the
would-be founders of a “trade union” which wasn’t. “Section 10 (of the Employment Relations Act 1999) was not enacted so as to allow workers to be
represented at internal disciplinary or grievance hearings by solicitors or
consultants; such outside representation being opposed by most employers and
therefore, is the point at which the history lesson comes up to date – and the
Government’s ignorance of workplace reality is made very clear. Sensible employers
would prefer that worker representation was provided by organisations with
which the employer has some ongoing relationship, rather than by “no win no fee”
solicitors or any other organisation which is focused only on the individual.
Anti-union employers might prefer a tame staff association. No employer wants a
free-for-all for workplace representation.
Of course, a
Government which is looking to crash out of the European Union without
regulatory alignment is obviously not simply reflecting the views (or
interests) of large employers (it’s called “relative autonomy” for any students
of political economy). The opening up of individual workplace representation to
new organisations is clearly being driven ideologically. It’s probably the sort
of thing we can expect from “assorted
The plan to let private consultants try to make money from individual representation in the workplace may be intended as an attack upon trade unions, but it is really an attack upon good employee relations and a "spiv's charter."
It is fairly
obvious that the option of “alternative representation” won’t pose much of a
direct threat to trade union membership in the long run. If there was a lot of money to be made
out non-trade union individual representation of working-class people it would
have happened by now. At most there could be a marginal impact on union
membership among higher-paid professional workers who could afford to pay the
sort of subscriptions to a “non-union” from which a profit might be made.
cunning plan is no more than a straw in the wind, but it is a chill wind which
further restrictions on the right to strike. We need to defend the principles of collectivism from every attack, even the daft ones.