From the TUC

Government’s union membership changes are aimed at undermining public service workers’ rights

06 Aug 2015, by in Public services

The Trade Union Bill keeps getting bigger as the Government find more ways they can rebalance power away from the workforce. The rapidly increasing package of measures contained in the Bill seeks to reduce the capacity of unions to represent people at work and to undermine the basic right to strike.  

The latest last-minute addition to the Bill is a move to make it easier for the government to end union membership check-off arrangements in the public sector. This is the process by which employers deduct union subscriptions from wages directly – following the written agreement of workers that they want the employer to do so. It’s widely used in the public sector, but also in many large private sector employers. Today’s announcement is part of a ongoing move to reduce check-off and other union organising mechanisms in the public sector. A number of government departments have changed check-off systems so far on an individual basis for their civil servants this year, and today’s new change (including legal provisions to end check-off in the Trade Union Bill) will make it much easier to do this wholesale across all public services.

Cabinet Office Minster Matt Hancock MP has said of the proposals:

“It’s time to get rid of this outdated practice and modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. By ending check-off we are bringing greater transparency to employees – making it easier for them to choose whether or not to pay subscriptions and which union to join.”

The suggestion that this move will improve choice is probably the biggest bit of spin here. Employees currently have to choose whether or not to pay subscriptions – the idea that people are automatically opted in to a check-off system without their permission is simply incorrect. No union member is automatically enrolled into a check-off arrangement. In fact, by actively opting in with the employer transparency as to who is a union member is maximised – the employer has the full list. And the worker gets a reminder of it every month, itemised clearly on their pay slip.

The practice is not outdated. It is widely used across many of our most productive private sector businesses. Good employers generally want to have a more harmonious relationship with their unions. Companies like Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, GKN, Siemens, and many more all provide check-off facilities.

There’s also no sign that the Government want to remove the same process when it’s used to collect payment for other things that are seen as useful for a happy workplace. Deduction from payroll is used for things like bike purchase schemes and childcare vouchers, or collecting money for social clubs, gym memberships and season ticket loans – in both the public and private sectors. Are those “outdated” too? What about payroll charity giving, which the Government recently ran a campaign to promote?

There’s also another potential problem. For some workers, particularly those in the low paid, insecure and temporary parts of the labour market that have grown in recent years, access to a bank account isn’t universal. Matt Hancock’s “21st-century era of direct debits and digital payments” could end up disenfranchising some of the most marginalised workers from a much needed voice and representation at work. This isn’t such a problem in the public sector, where fewer directly employed staff are on the lowest paid and least secure contracts (privately outsourced public service staff are another matter), but what the Government does in its own industrial relations will influence private sector employers, and bad practices will spread into other sectors. Does the Government really want to become such a bad example for industrial relations?

The claim that removing check-off in the public sector will increase the choice of which union to join is a further red herring. In most cases, there’s a recognised union at an employer. If you want to leave that one and join another that doesn’t have recognition, you’re free to, but the union won’t have negotiation rights with the employer, so will be less well placed to represent you. The only person that has an interest in getting people to switch out of recognised unions is an employer who wants to weaken their staff unions.

The reality is that this move seeks to further undermine union organisation in the public sector, making it harder for workers to act to protect their jobs and the quality of public services during the period of significant spending cuts that lies ahead. It will put more bureaucratic hurdles in the way of unions increasing the risk they will lose members, membership density and funds. Transferring members on to direct debit presents major financial and organising challenges for the union, while generating insignificant savings for the taxpayer. As the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said, there is “no fiscal case for doing this, as unions have offered to pay any costs associated with check-off, which are in any case minimal”.

Far from a modern and sensible approach to industrial relations, today’s announcement joins many other parts of the Trade Union Bill in being a deliberate attempt to undermine unions, making it harder for them to represent people at work and for employees to act to protect jobs and services from significant public service cuts.

4 Responses to Government’s union membership changes are aimed at undermining public service workers’ rights

  1. The ghost of check-off past – Danny Alexander returns to haunt Matt Hancock
    Aug 6th 2015, 5:22 pm

    […] We’ve had something to say about this attempt to undermine public service workers’ union… of course, which he probably expected, but he may be rather surprised himself after the Guardian unearthed a letter from beyond the political grave. Danny Alexander, former Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wrote it just over a year ago. In the letter, Mr Alexander suggests to all Whitehall departments that trying to abolish check-off is not only unjustified, but also likely to backfire. […]

  2. Antaine O’Labhradha
    Aug 7th 2015, 3:45 pm

    There should be no problem with this. It’s a simple matter to switch to members paying subs by direct debit from their personal accounts. There’s no need to involve employers in the process of a union’s financial management systems.
    Don’t sweat the little stuff.
    This is easily managed.
    I do agree that the Tories’ intent is to weaken the position of the workers. But this particular tool is not the one which will let them do that, if properly responded to by the workers’ representatives.

  3. Barbara Blair
    Aug 8th 2015, 8:51 pm

    The biggest downside for an employer is not knowing who is in a union and then they don’t know if they have enough staff to keep an establishment open uf a strike is called. Normall they just ring HR and know immediately how many staff will be out (apart from those who chose to break the strike). So you’d think they would want to keep it. However they will do anything which they think will weaken the unions. B A Blair

  4. Silent Hunter
    Aug 12th 2015, 9:30 pm

    I already use Direct Debit for my UNISON membership… it would allow me to stay involved even if I went to another company.