With the TUC Congress convening in Brighton this month, there are encouraging signs of a possible renaissance in recruitment. But the government is gearing up for yet another legal assault on trade unions...
THE British state has released the results of its latest Labour Force Survey. What does it tell us about trade union membership and activity? A different picture emerges in public and private sectors, but it is not all gloom and doom. Overall a drop of 143,000 trade union members, but with an increase of 43,000 members in the private sector. That means 186,000 public sector trade unionists lost, but bear in mind there were 369,000 public sector jobs cut in the last 12 months.
Membership density in the public sector is up, representation in bargaining units is up, trade union presence in workplaces is up. The private sector, though increasing members by 43,000, saw density drop by 0.1 per cent, while bargaining remains the same at 16.9 per cent and presence in the workplace dropped marginally from 29.6 to 28.5 per cent.
But the increase in this sector reversed a huge drop during the previous three years, where over 450,000 members were lost, leaving 3.9 million members in the public services and 2.5 million members in the private sector – 6.4 million TUC affiliates. It is estimated that non-TUC affiliates account for roughly the same number with density the best since 2000 and presence in bargaining units up for the first time since 1998.
So after two years of the Coalition and its economic programme of poverty, have workers deserted their trade unions? Obviously not. There are quirks in the figures as Lloyds Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland trade unionists are now classed as the “public sector” and as yet it is not possible to determine how many outsourced trade union members who have been privatised have contributed to the increase in the private sector.
But the most draconian anti-union legislation in Europe is about to be made even more vicious. This time the attack is not only against the collective of trade unions but also at every individual employment right exercised by workers. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is part of the Coalition’s attack. Their rhetoric is that over-regulation in the workplace holds entrepreneurs and business back from growing out of the economic disaster they have been responsible for.
“Efficiency” and “competitiveness” are the buzzwords, to create cowed workers who will do whatever they are forced to do while the threat of dismissal and long-term unemployment and poverty hang over them. In other words, all legal protections achieved in the workplace need to be removed. Hence the much-trailed Adrian Beecroft report on employment law, Lord Young’s report on Health and Safety, the review on sickness absence, the “streamlining” of the national minimum wage and so forth. All are intended to return the whip hand to the “masters” in the workplace and a clear understanding by us, the “servants”, what servitude means.
So what is Beecroft’s proposal? He says, “I strongly favour a fourth approach which allows an employer to dismiss anyone without giving a reason provided they make an enhanced leaving payment....This type of dismissal could be known as Compensated No Fault Dismissal.” So scrap unfair dismissal law and legal precedents and go back to hiring and firing as in the good old days – but with a caveat of limiting compensation to £12,000 maximum. Plus raise the one-year qualifying period for compensation to two years. This means employers can often sack without even paying any paltry sum.
Small businesses would be exempt from almost all employment legislation. Discrimination law as introduced in the Equality Act 2010 is to be binned. Employment Tribunal Procedures and Awards are to be stood on their heads and fees for every case lodged to be introduced – make the victim pay! There are further attacks on pensions and tweaks to the Criminal Record Checking System which will introduce additional costs of £50 million for a watered down system. Changes are being made to work permits; getting migrant workers into Britain by bypassing Jobcentre Plus and going straight abroad to recruit.
There is a full-blown attack on the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment (TUPE) regulations, most of can have a coach and horses driven through it even now. Likewise, we see weakening of collective redundancy consultation and Equal Pay legislation; abolition of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority; and abandonment of the Agency Workers Regulation – another EU directive ineffective in protecting agency workers.
Beecroft’s and similar reviews were leaked and then extensively published in 2011. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in nine short pages addressing employment law brings in all if not worse options though it drops the Compensated No Fault Dismissal. It introduces a lesser measure whereby an employer can be “fined” up to £5,000 for sacking someone unfairly, a small sum in the scale of things.
Fees for hearings will be introduced; compensation for loss of earnings claims slashed by 65 per cent, which ironically Beecroft opposed; awards will be capped, with differing awards depending on the size of the company and so forth. In the name of setting business free, the existing employment law, which already works on the principle that a worker is guilty until proven innocent, should give a still bigger stacked hand to the employer.
Of course the idea that employment rights are what hold back business and economic revival is nonsense. Employment rights are a response to the inequality in the workplace. They have never been a solution. With these changes, workers are going to have to face up to the reality.
There is no third way of ducking issues. There will not be that day in court which always gives the victim some illusion that all wrongs will be righted. Usually the worker loses anyway when the employer shows “reasonableness” in process or decision making despite behaviour which borders on criminal.
Back to the union
So where does it bring us back to? Being organised in the workplace and asserting our collective rights as workers. That means being members of our respective and appropriate trade union. Not as some meaningless so-called community, divorced from the workplace, unwaged, non-working, with an affinity to a local pub or park, but as “The Union”.
What does being the union mean? Coming together around our employer, around our skills, around our economic interests, around the things which unify us at work or through the work, not some separate or sectarian agenda which removes us from the workplace.
What constitutes, past and present, our greatest strength and greatest victories? It is our collective action in the workplace, not dissipated outside the workplace – whether in election, demonstration, rent strike or other. The contradiction of being in conflict with the employer, whether public or private, large or small, being at the workplace as the sharp end is far more valuable and instructive than stepping outside and taking that energy elsewhere.
Workers are going to have to find out or rediscover that when under attack that the only form of defence is to attack. Our first move in battle will be to find re-awakening class consciousness. Workers might also reflect on the fact that every EU country and many others – as far flung as Australia and the USA – are almost identical in their clamour for their so-called austerity programmes. And the first thing to go are workers’ rights at work. ■