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Trade Unions are a public asset

As reported in today’s Daily Telegraph, the Tax Payers’ Alliance (TPA) , a right wing think tank, is running a campaign against the cost of trade union activity within the public sector, based upon data they have collected via Freedom of Information Act requests to each council. The Tax Payers’ Alliance has grown to be an influential right wing lobbying group under the leader ship of former Westminster Tory Councillor, Andrew Allum, and now employs six staff, and has offices in both Birmingham and London. Given these resources is no surprise that the TPA is able to set the agenda for the Daily Telegraph, and other right-wing newspapers.

Now there is a certain amount of hypocrisy involved here because the Tax Payers’ Alliance will happily share a platform at Tory party conference with Eric Pickles, (alongside the notorious Freedom Association) without raising a squeak of complaint about his ministerial Jaguar worth £70000, and provided courtesy of we taxpayers.

Before we look at the specifics of the TPA’s complaints about time off for trade union duties, let us consider the broader political advantage in attacking public sector trade unions right now. The Con-Dem government will shortly be announcing the results of its comprehensive spending review, which we are expecting to including savage spending cuts. The TPA is seeking to delegitimize trade union opposition to those cuts by misrepresenting it as being based upon self-interest, and implying that there is a layer of trade union activists lazing around at public expense. This attempt to weaken ideological opposition to the cuts is separate from their more narrowly focussed attack on trade union organisation itself in the public sector, which of course also has an effect on the capability of unions to defend services and jobs.

In fact, trade unions in both the private and public sector lead to better working environments, improved industrial relations, and save employers’ money. The TUC has pointed out that unions:

  • help employers communicate better with staff;
  • improve working conditions and practices;
  • help with safety issues, so that fewer days are lost as a result of work-related injuries and occupational illnesses;
  • organise training and development, including access to government funds and support via union learning reps.

Research shows that employee dissatisfaction with working conditions frequently leads to high labour turnover, bad timekeeping, and high levels of absenteeism. It may also occur in the form of slackness by individuals, poor quality work, deliberate time wasting and similar practices. Other evidence of discontent will be revealed in complaints, friction, ignoring rules and apathy.

These are problems that trade unions can help to solve: trade unions usually lead to a more harmonious working environments, by providing a mechanism where petty disputes can be resolved, and where a culture of mutual respect is encouraged.

Disciplinary and grievance procedures proceed much more smoothly with trade union involvement than without, and the union representative will separate out the wheat from the chaff, and help both the employee and the employer identify the actual issue of dispute. Trade unions are trusted better than the employer by their members, and it is not uncommon for the trade union rep to have to explain to a member that an employer is acting legally and reasonably, and suggesting a non-confrontational approach towards a compromise. Trade union involvement leads to fairer outcomes, and if agreement cannot be reached, at least the nature of the disagreement will be narrowly defined.

If during a disciplinary investigation, a member of staff is suspended on full pay, and their post is temporarily filled by an agency worker, then this quickly costs employers thousands of pounds. Such issues will be more speedily and appropriately resolved with trade union input, saving the employer money.

In addition, there are advantages for employers in dealing with union representatives with whom they have built up a relationship, who know the company’s procedures and policies; and trade union representatives are trained at the union’s expense. Consultation with staff over proposed changes is more efficient when channels of communication via trade unions have been established.

What is more, staff who are on release to carry out trade union duties retain the grading they had before taking up the trade union position, and are typically good value for money from the employer’s point of view. This is especially true as most trade unions reps voluntarily put in far more effort and work longer hours than they are paid for. It is essential in a large workplace that trade union representatives can take time off from their regular duties, or be on full time release, in order that they can cover the workload.

There are of course moral reasons why trade unions are valuable. The ethos of trade unionism is mutual support and solidarity, based upon building a sense of collective shared interest. The staff are not only a significant stakeholder in any enterprise, they are also a strategic asset who hold the knowledge, and who have the mental and physical capability to carry out the tasks of the organisation. It is therefore both moral and practical that the staff, organised through their trade unions, should have a say in any decisions that will affect them as staff, or will affect the service that the organisation provides. Strong trade unions are an effective counterweight to decisions being taken which have a negative social impact, when those decisions might only be being taken in order to promote the selfish, short-term interests of a minority.

That of course is exactly what is at stake here. The Tax Payers’ Alliance represent only the most venal self-interest of rich people who don’t care about the social damage caused by public spending cuts. They see trade unions, who represent the staff, the professionals, the service providers, and who have an interest in continuing to provide good services for the public good, as an obstacle to their agenda of slash and burn.

The overriding fallacy of the Tax payers’ alliance is to only see public expenditure as an item on the deficit side of a balance sheet, without taking into account the wealth creation, improved social capital, and greater efficiency that results from that expenditure, and which appears in the credit column on the balance sheet. In exactly the same way, they see the time spent on trade union activity only as a cost to business and the public sector, without taking into account the improved efficiency, better working environment, and the moral value of fairness and mutual respect at work which trade unions provide.

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