Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Today’s news that trade union membership in the UK is inching upwards (an increase of 1.4% or 91,000 to 6.44 million) is hardly grounds for (even a socially distanced) party to celebrate – but it does tell us something about the resilience of our movement.
To quote further from the official bulletin; “Trade union membership levels among employees have now risen for three consecutive years following the fall to a low of 6.23 million in 2016.”
Trade union density (the proportion of UK employees who were trade union members) “also rose slightly to 23.5% in 2019 up from 23.4% a year earlier, and from the low of 23.3% in 2017.” This does of course mean that for every union member there are more than three non-members at work across the economy as a whole – and plenty of room for further growth.
The union movement is increasingly feminised; “The rise in trade union numbers among employees was driven by the increase in female members, up 170,000 on the year to 3.69 million in 2019.” (which implies that the total number of male union members fell by 79,000). Whereas in the twentieth century there were more male than female trade unionists, since about the turn of the century women have outnumbered men in our unions.
Other features of trade union members which have been reported on previously remain true. Black workers are more likely to be trade unionists than their white counterparts (which may reflect the relative concentration of Black workers in more highly unionised sectors). Trade union members are older on average than all workers, and those who have long continuous service with one employer are more likely to be unionised.
The trade union movement continues to based largely in the public sector; “The overall proportion of employees who are members of trade unions is significantly higher in the public sector relative to the private sector. 13.3% of private sector employees belonged to a trade union, compared to 52.3% of public sector employees, in 2019.”
Public sector trade unionism is continuing the modest year on year recovery which began last year, following a substantial fall in membership associated with Tory austerity policies between 2010 and 2017. However, as with the period before 2010 the increase in public sector union membership is associated (and failing to keep pace) with rising employment in the sector, so union density actually fell slightly in the public sector over the last year.
Overall the statistics suggest that our trade union movement is treading water rather than making real progress – but that is of course better than drowning. Having spent fourteen years on the UNISON NEC Development and Organisation Committee from 2003 to 2017 I am familiar with the challenge of high turnover of union members (as the UNISON NEC reported to Conference last year, recruiting nearly 170,000 members in 2018 hadn’t been enough to prevent a decrease in overall membership).
As our union movement faces the twin challenges of the “return to work” after the partial lockdown and the coming recession, the movement is hardly in robust good health, but nor is it in intensive care. Now would be a good time for a serious debate about the future direction of our trade unions.
It would be good to think that such a serious debate might arise as a result of forthcoming General Secretary elections in both UNISON and GMB.
But that would be a triumph of hope over experience.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
I have been blogging here now for almost fourteen years.
In that time I have sometimes gone back to amend – or delete – posts after they were originally posted.
There are all sorts of reasons why one might do that and it wouldn't necessarily be wrong (although good "netiquette" would be to identify and date any substantial amendment)
It would, however, be a bit misleading if – for example – I were now to go back to a post written in (say) 2014 in order to write in a prediction that the Tories were going to win a parliamentary majority and stage a referendum which would lead to the UK leaving the European Union.
Happily, the internet protects against such gross breaches of “netiquette” and so if I did that (and then sought to claim the blog post in question as evidence of my prescient wisdom) I could easily be caught out.
Remembering what I was saying yesterday about giving advice to workers as a union representative I can only add that, if I were advising someone whose job was to be a high-profile political advisor who had been exposed for rewriting their own personal online history in this way, I would have to advise them that such deceitful behaviour could undermine the relationship of trust and confidence upon which an employment contract is founded.
So they could find themselves in trouble at work.
Unless they were Dominic Cummings and they worked for Boris Johnson, who does not think he is responsible for managing subordinates.
Monday, May 25, 2020
I spent most of my working life, about thirty years, as a union representative. Over those years I represented workers at many hundreds of disciplinary hearings.
Obviously (I hope!) it is the role of a union representative in those circumstances to represent the worker/union member who is being disciplined, and to put forward their explanation.
It is also a very important part of the role to give people good advice – rather than the advice they might want to hear. Sometimes a union member will want to advance an explanation which is so implausible that it you know it will do more harm than good.
In those circumstances, you sometimes need to be quite tough with someone to talk them out of trying to mount a “defence” which flies in the face of the evidence, or which is simply absurd.
I would never have allowed someone who drove his wife and child on a thirty-mile round trip, contravening public health advice which he himself had had a hand in drawing up, to claim that he did so to test his eyesight.
No disciplinary panel would have accepted such an utterly ridiculous proposition, and they would then have been less likely to believe anything else which was said by the person who had spun them this yarn.
How fortunate it is for Dominic Cummings that his boss doesn’t appear to take any responsibility for managing his conduct, regardless of the consequences for others.
Sunday, May 10, 2020
Ninety four years ago tomorrow, on 11 May 1926, a mounted force of volunteer special constables (such as those pictured at the time outside the Town Hall) attacked a peaceful crowd of working people outside what was then Brighton’s Tram Depot (now Lewes Road Bus Garage) in one of the most notorious acts of police brutality during the General Strike (when – for nine short days – our movement stood together to defend the miners from proposals for pay cuts and increased working hours).
Brighton a hundred years ago was not a centre of manufacturing industry and, when the call came (on 2 May) from the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to call out the first wave of strikers (from 4 May) it was only addressed to about 6,000 workers in Brighton and Hove (about 17% of the total workforce at the time).
The biggest impact upon Brighton came from the action of the rail, tram and bus workers who brought public transport to an immediate halt. The middle class volunteers of the “Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies” (who had been established as part of the Government’s plans for the strike to keep services going – and included local fascists) lacked the skills and experience easily to replace these vital workers.
A week into the strike a rumour that volunteers strikebreakers (or scabs to use the correct technical term) were going to try to take trams out of the depot brought crowds out into the Lewes Road, at about the time that local primary school children were being brought to their homes for lunch. What followed was christened, by the local paper, “the Battle of the Lewes Road.”
The crowd was peaceably preventing the possibility of any trams being taken out when the mounted police drew their batons and charged into the crowd, putting men, women and children to flight. The mounted special constables clearly had the best of the subsequent fighting (although at least one of their number was injured) and – police being police – they arrested 22 of their adversaries who were marched in handcuffs to the police station.
On the subsequent day, sadly also the day on which the TUC General Council called off the General Strike, abandoning the Miners’ Federation to fight on until defeat that December, those who had been arrested were hauled up before the local Magistrates, under the chairmanship of the then Mayor of Brighton (a noted opponent of the strike). Though defended by a local lawyer – the Labour Councillor for Lewes Road ward – all were found guilty and were sentenced to between one and six months hard labour.
The capitulation by the General Council meant that there were other victims of the strike on our side – as some local employers (including, in respect of the tram workers, the local authority) refused immediately to allow all strikers to return to work. The tragedy of this betrayal is underlined by the fact that support for the General Strike in Brighton and Hove had been so solid. No tram left the tram depot on 11 May, nor on any day during the strike.
I have been remembering these events as I read through the notes prepared by my sister, Mim Rogers, before her untimely death in 1985. Mim was planning to write her undergraduate dissertation about the General Strike in Brighton (and in particular about the Battle of the Lewes Road) and had gathered a fair bit of material. Now that I am retired, I have set myself the task of pulling that work together in preparation for the centenary of the strike in six years time (which I hope and expect to see!)
The General Strike of 1926 revealed the fear and hatred which the wealthy have for the workers upon whose labour they depend, and the weakness and cowardice of the leadership of the movement which workers have created to defend ourselves from the consequences of that fear and hatred.
The Battle of the Lewes Road was an important – and revealing – moment in that historic event, and one which our movement in Brighton and Hove should be sure to remember, particularly as we approach the centenary.
Tuesday, May 05, 2020
As a retired trade unionist I have been helping out my union branch by commenting, from time to time, on risk assessments which have been prepared by the employer to deal with the hazard posed by covid-19 in the work environment. Union activists need to be on the ball now to use our health and safety legislation (so many of the requirements of which are more often honoured in the breach than in the observance).
Where our employers recognise trade unions, who have safety representatives, then we can – and should – hold management’s feet to the fire by challenging inadequate risk assessments and insisting upon the implementation of control measures, bearing in mind that the employer’s overarching duty is to do “what is reasonably practicable” to protect health and safety.
With unions only representing a minority of workers in this country, many people may be facing returning to an unorganised workplace – but health and safety law applies to those workers (and their employers) too (and may even provide an opportunity to organise and unionise those workplaces).
All employers have the duty, under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act, to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This means that practicable safety measures should be adopted except where they are ruled out because they involve grossly disproportionate sacrifices (in terms of cost or inconvenience).
In order to identify measures which should be taken, employers have a duty, under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, to carry out a risk assessment (and – if they employ five or more people – to record it in writing). Regulation 3(3)(b) says that risk assessments must be if there has been “a significant change in the matters to which it relates”. The covid-19 pandemic is obviously such a “significant change” so new risk assessments are required for any employer proposing to resume work.
Even in an unorganised workplace with no trade union this risk assessment is not just something for the employer to do quietly by themselves – by law they have to consult employees. Regulation 3 of the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 requires employers to consult employees about “the introduction of any measure at the workplace which may substantially affect the health and safety of those employees” (the consultation must either take place directly with employees or with “representatives of employee safety” elected in accordance with Regulation 4).
Regulation 5(1) provides that the employer must, if consulting directly with employees, “make available to those employees such information, within the employer’s knowledge, as is necessary to enable them to participate fully and effectively in the consultation” – so the law requires employers to carry out risk assessments, write them down and share them with their employees (so that the employees can comment upon them and say what they think).
The Health and Safety Executive guidance on the 1996 Regulations makes clear that employers have to consult employees “in good time” which means that (in relation to re-opening after the coronavirus shutdown for example) the employer needs to give employees information in advance, allow time for them to consider and respond to that information and give themselves time to respond to whatever employers may say.
Employees who receive this information can then decide what to do, bearing in mind their legal rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This bars the employer from imposing a detriment upon an employee where “in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work.” (s44(1)(d)).
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 state – in the introduction to the Regulations - that they have been made “in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in England.”
The Government – in proposing those Regulations – and Parliament – in passing them have told us all that there is a “serious and imminent threat” from the current pandemic. Therefore anyone whose employer tells them to go back to work without appropriate safety precautions can reasonably believe that they face “serious and imminent danger” which (if appropriate safety measures have not been taken by the employer) they could not reasonably be expected to avert. If they therefore refuse to return to their place of work – their employer would be acting unlawfully if they imposed any detriment upon them (by threatening to discipline them, or refusing to pay them).
Section 44 is no panacea. If an employer breaks this law in an individual case the employee might have to go to an employment tribunal for compensation (months later) – but a group of employees who understand the law set out above are in a strong position to insist that their employer does what is reasonable to protect their health and safety.
Employees can insist that the employer shows them written risk assessments before returning to work and – if those risk assessments don’t seem to recommend adequate safety precautions then the employees can point out to the employer that they are aware of their rights and will only come back when adequate precautions are in place.
A group of employees, acting together, can enforce their legal rights much more effectively than any lawyer – and if they go on to join a trade union together then asserting their rights as they return to work now could be the beginning of getting better treatment at work for the future.