Policy Exchange: Modernising industrial relations, or a crude attack on basic workplace rights?
Here we go again – another right wing “think tank” pronouncing on an issue about which they have little practical knowledge and trying to fix things that are not broken.
Let’s look at their main proposals, as no doubt some of them will be attractive to some in Government – we learned under the Thatcher Government that one day’s mad idea could rapidly become tomorrow’s Parliamentary Bill.
On Strikes they do not seem to have much theoretical knowledge, let alone any practical experience. Industrial action has been declining on a yearly basis since the early 1990s. Unions only ask their members to take industrial action when negotiations have failed. Policy Exchange do not point out that in the vast majority of cases unions successfully negotiate agreements with employers on pay and working conditions. Indeed in unionised workplaces there are far fewer Employment Tribunal cases because individual as well as collective disputes are generally handled internally through dialogue and agreement.
Strike ballot papers and information to employers is a heavily regulated area already. I wonder if the Policy Exchange wonks have actually seen let alone read the statutory Code of Practice on Industrial Action? Unions have to go through many administrative hurdles and delays before they can legally take industrial action. That is how employers have managed to obtain court injunctions stopping strikes on minor technical breaches. For example, BA obtained an injunction against Unite on the grounds that a handful of spoilt ballot papers had not been notified to the employer. This was despite the fact that over 90% of the members who were balloted had supported the strike. It is profoundly unfair to allow the courts to override the freely expressed will of employees.
Any further restrictions on industrial action ballots and notices would be likely to have the unintended effect of provoking far more wildcat action, which is not in anyone’s best interest in the long run.
Introducing a 40% threshold into strike ballots would be a hurdle that does not exist anywhere else in voting legislation. It would mean that those who abstained or forgot to vote would count as “no” votes. If this rule were to be applied to Parliamentary elections very few MPs would now be sitting in Parliament.
Allowing agency workers to be employed to cover jobs done by striking workers would not only break international laws and conventions but would undermine what is a basic human right – the right to withdraw one’s labour. It would be doing it in a horrible way too – putting agency workers in an invidious position – and would undermine employment relations even further in a situation where there was already a dispute and bad employment relations.
The Policy Exchange proposals on union monopolies seem to have missed the fact that the closed shop no longer exists and workers are absolutely free to join or not join whatever union they want. The vast number of recognition agreements between unions and employers are voluntary and fully supported by the employer. A number of large successful companies in the UK recognise unions on a voluntary basis because they understand the benefits of giving employees an independent voice at work.
The claims of taxpayers paying for union are presumably an attack on paid time off in the public sector for union reps to do their union work. The work that union reps do in their paid time off involves working with employers on health and safety issues, representing their members in grievance and disciplinary hearings, negotiating pay settlements on behalf of large groups of workers (thus saving endless individualised pay setting) and providing learning and training opportunities which help workers to gain the skills and qualifications that benefit not just them but also their employer.
The proposals on political funding are purely and simply an attack on the Labour Party, exposing this “policy” paper for what it really is. They neglect to mention that those unions that want to fund political parties have to have membership wide postal ballots to establish a political fund, which have to be re-run every ten years. As well as that there is an individual opt-out where a political fund is set up, which has to be made clear in writing to all members. Curiously, opting out rather than opting in is a principle much favoured in David Cameron’s favourite book, “Nudge”. Too much regulation is a terrible thing except when it comes to unions, where apparently much more is needed.