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Community responds to Trade Union Bill

14th September 2015

Read Community’s response to the Trade Union Bill

Community is the modern union for a changing world. We believe that by working with employers, not against them, we can deliver a decent standard of living for our members and a better employment environment. Community has a long and proud history of working constructively with employers, often assisting them to overcome serious challenges through working in partnership and taking difficult but necessary decisions.

An excellent example of the benefits of this approach can be taken from the response to the Tata Steel plant in Redcar being mothballed and put up for sale in 2010. Community worked closely with the management of the plant to minimise the impact of the closure, helping to prevent compulsory redundancies and retaining contact with displaced workers so that the workforce could be rebuilt should a buyer be a found. This contribution helped secure a new owner and investment in the plant from Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI), a Thai firm that offered the hope of bringing steel making back to Teesside. Since SSI took over the plant, Community has worked with the company to modernise the terms of employment in an industry that witnessed little structural change around working conditions for many years. This was a challenging process, but as we now reach the other side of this endeavour the union and SSI can feel vindicated by the approach we have taken together.

Community, and no doubt our sister unions across the movement, can provide countless examples of the positive contribution trade unions make every day and the vital role we play providing employers with highly-skilled, motivated and productive workers. However, we should be honest and recognise that the image of the trade union movement is not generally positive. Responsible trade unions are a force for good in the workplace and in communities. On a daily basis trade unions are making workplaces safer, smarter and stronger – helping businesses compete globally, delivering public services more efficiently and encouraging long-term thinking. Our problem is that while this approach is recognised by those involved it does not reach beyond a very narrow section of industry and society more generally.

Trade unions need to change and evolve to be relevant and meet the needs of their members and the modern world of work: we fully accept that. We need to moderate the language we use, our leaders need to be more representative of the members they serve, and we need to promote the work we do with employers and be proud of the successes we share – helping people reach their potential in good quality work and enabling businesses to flourish and prosper. Trade unions are not the enemies of business or society; responsible trade unionism has a crucial role to play in the UK’s economic future. Yes, trade unions have a duty to represent their members’ interests, but responsible trade unions recognise that their members’ interests often align with those of a strong and sustainable business.

In Community’s view the Trade Union Bill is unnecessary and it is counter-productive; it feeds into a false narrative that trade unions are bad, employers are good, and the interests of the two parties are diametrically opposed. The Trade Union Bill is a bad piece of legislation that places far too much power in the hands of employers at the expense of workers and will severely damage the finely-balanced relationships between trade unions and business. Community opposes the Bill.

Trade Union Bill: Industrial Action

The Bill proposes various measures to make it harder, or near impossible in some cases, for working people to protect themselves by exercising their fundamental human right to withdraw their labour. The measures advocated will inevitably lead to a serious imbalance of power in the workplace with employers able to unilaterally impose changes to terms and conditions and working practices without taking the views of their workforce into account. This inequality of power will be hugely damaging to constructive industrial relations, and the partnership model in particular, and will demoralise employees leading to increased staff turnover, a decline in workplace productivity and greater inequality.

The government’s contradictory messages on turnout for industrial action ballots are particularly difficult to digest. On the one hand the government is making a case that introducing new thresholds on ballots will boost democracy in the workplace. On the other hand the government continues to refuse to allow trade unions to introduce electronic balloting to increase participation and boost turnout. In Community’s view this is a completely nonsensical position and the only reasonable conclusion is that the government’s proposals are ideological and designed to stop trade unions representing their members’ interests.

It’s hard to find any compelling evidence, reason or public clamour for the introduction of such draconian measures on industrial action as are contained in the Bill. The number of working days lost due to labour disputes in 2014 was 788,000, a long way from the more than 7 million days lost each year throughout the 1980s. For our own part Community has not called upon any of our members to take strike action in more than a year, and we have done so in only a handful of occasions since 2010. It seems the Trade Union Bill is designed to remedy a problem that does not exist, and we would suggest the enormous amount of parliamentary time this Bill will devour would be better used legislating on some of the extremely pressing priorities facing the nation.

It is important to stress that, regardless of what the media might say, responsible trade unions do not take strike action lightly. Industrial action is not just another negotiating tool; it is the very last resort deployed only when discussions have broken down and ultimately it represents the failure of industrial relations. Going on strike is not a good thing for anyone; businesses are obviously disrupted but it’s often overlooked that the workers taking action are not paid when they are taking that action. Workers do not sacrifice their wages without good reason; they do so only when they feel they have been unfairly treated and have no other avenue left open to pursue their legitimate grievance.

It should also be noted that, while it is an undesirable outcome, in some cases industrial action, or the threat of that industrial action, can lead to equitable, mutually acceptable and even innovative solutions to industrial disputes. Community has an excellent recent example of this taken from a situation that took place earlier this year involving our members employed at Tata Steel. The issue related to future funding of the final salary British Steel Pension Scheme, one of the best run and most mature pension schemes in the country with more than 143,000 members. The scheme is hugely valued by the workforce but also relied on by the company for decades as a vital tool to manage succession and restructurings. Regrettably, after many months of intensive discussions to address a funding deficit talks broke down and the company moved to close the scheme to future accrual. Understanding the strength of feeling throughout the membership Community, along with the other unions present in Tata Steel, proceeded to ballot our members (in excess of 6,000) for industrial action.

The results of the ballot for industrial action were 88% voting in favour of strike action and 96% voting in favour of action short of strike action, on a turnout of 76%. Confronted by these overwhelming results the company acknowledged they had misjudged the mood of the workforce and returned to the negotiating table. Further discussions led to a new proposal on pensions; the scheme would remain open and would become an innovative hybrid pension scheme combining elements of final salary and elements of defined contribution pension arrangements. This new proposal was put to a ballot of the members, recommended by the trade unions, and subsequently endorsed by a huge majority. While it is regrettable that the eventual settlement could not have been reached without recourse to the industrial action ballot, it led directly to a fair and innovative, mutually acceptable agreement, and industrial action was avoided.

Community would also like to stress that allowing agency staff to be used to break strikes is a pernicious proposal that will ultimately divide families and communities. There is little doubt that agency workers can provide some important flexibility to businesses, working closely with employers and direct employees to ensure workforce cohesion and enabling businesses to cope with fluctuating market conditions. Our experience in traditional industries such as steel is that agency workers tend to have extremely close links with direct employees; they come from the same tight-knit industrial communities and agency workers are often the sons and daughters of those directly employed. To ask those workers to cover the duties of family members and friends taking industrial action would be grossly unfair and would inevitably divide loyalties and damage community cohesion.

Trade Union Bill: Political

Regarding the proposed changes to restrict the use of trade union political funds, we are almost at a loss for words. The new requirements to make trade union members opt-in to paying the political levy every five years, as well as the onerous new requirements for reporting campaigning activities to the Certification Officer, are so nakedly party-political and opportunistic that they should be treated with the contempt they deserve. It is perverse that a government that has made so much of reducing red tape and regulation is so determined to ignore that principle when it comes to organisations that collectively represent 6.4 million citizens. Already trade unions have to ballot their members every 10 years to retain a political fund, and political funds are subject to extremely stringent regulation with stiff penalties attached to their misuse. The proposals are designed to attack the finances of the Labour Party, pure and simple. It is shameful that the government is seeking to introduce these changes without a cross-party deal on party funding while continuing to turn a blind eye to massive donations from big business, opaque ‘clubs’ and wealthy individuals seeking influence.

Community’s position

The UK economy faces enormous challenges in this era of globalisation and in the wake of recession at home and overseas.  Now, more than ever, the UK needs government, business and trade unions working together to deliver a more sustainable and productive economy that can continue to compete on a global basis. Government needs to recognise that trade unions are not a problem that needs to be resolved; trade unions have to be an integral part of any strategy that works to deliver long-term economic and inclusive growth. Government should be promoting the development of strong working relationships between businesses and trade unions to deliver the productivity improvements, innovative working practices, safer workplaces, and highly skilled and motivated workers that our economy and society so desperately needs. Government should not be undermining those relationships as the Trade Union Bill so clearly seeks to do. The Trade Union Bill is unnecessary and extremely damaging to constructive modern industrial relations – Community condemns the Bill in its entirety in the strongest possible terms.

Community would like to place on record our full support for the TUC’s detailed submissions on the three areas the government has consulted on in connection with the Bill: ‘Ballot thresholds in important public services’, ‘Hiring agency staff during strike action: reforming regulation’, ‘Tackling intimidation of non-striking workers’.