Farce over ‘facilities time’

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Coalition plans to restrict trade union activities reflect a view that public sector staff are the ‘enemy within’. This is an out-of-date and out-of-touch approach to employee relations

Heather Wakefield’s piece on the PF Blog this week raises an obvious contradiction in Coalition Government policy.

On the one-hand, they want to abolish the tradition of having local unpaid trade union officials granted what is called ‘facilities time’ – that is time off their normal work to undertake trade union duties. At the same time, the Coalition wants locally agreed pay rates. But how is that going to happen without local trade union officials to negotiate it?

First, disclosure – I was given part-time and full-time facilities time when I worked for British Telecom in the early 1980s.

Second, why on earth would BT management give me facilities time? Simply, because it worked, on balance, to facilitate a better working relationship between BT engineers and management.

As a local official, I sometimes opposed local, and national, management decisions and organised protests and industrial action. But the bulk of what I did was to negotiate deals – on individual cases and wider working practices – that enabled BT to work better.

Sometimes this involved helping management to ease out workers who obviously needed to go, whilst making sure it was done with ‘due process’. Sometimes it meant rank-and-file engineers coming up with reform proposals that improved productivity. Sometimes it meant challenging daft management ideas that would have actually been harmful (there were quite few of those).

This is the sort of more collaborative approach to industrial relations that has served the German economy so well for decades.

I have to admit I’m a bit biased, because my first ever job was working as a lab technician for ICI (now Astra-Zeneca). ICI, following the British General Strike in 1929, had adopted a policy of involving workers that persisted into the 1960s, when I joined them in 1969.

This approach, known as ‘Mondism’, was unique in the UK. It involved having no staff ‘classes’, regularly involving staff in consultations about working practices, and keeping staff well informed about strategies and projects.

I was working in a pharmaceuticals research and we’d have monthly meetings at which all the staff – including maintenance and catering people – would be kept up to date on the major research projects. So everyone knew what they were contributing to, however indirectly. A very clever industrial strategy.

Instead, we now have in the 2010s the dominant idea, at least in government, that workers are ‘the enemy within’ (again) and everything should be done to degrade their status, wages, conditions and representation. Just how Neanderthal can you get? (Sorry, that’s probably Neanderthal-ist, they weren’t that stupid).

This blog first appeared on Whitehall Watch

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is Professor of Government in the School of Social Sciences (Politics), University of Manchester, and a former adviser to the Treasury select committee. He writes and comments widely on public management reform. Colin has worked with numerous national and international public sector organisations, as an adviser, consultant and researcher. He blogs at Manchester Policy Blogs.

One comment on Farce over ‘facilities time’

  1. Michael Price says:

    As a former chief officer, I would of course agree that a collaborative approach is preferable in most fields of human endeavour. In my experience, the difficulties begin when personal objectives and egos start taking precedence over the interests of the bulk of the participants – in this case, the desires of the politicians and the TU leadership (nationally or locally) being given higher priority than the staff delivering services or the public receiving them. A great many stupid decisions, detrimental to the true interests of all involved, have arisen because of the adversarial silo mentality displayed by too many people in positions of influence.

    This country is in a dire mess and unless we collectively wish to wind up in the same situations as Greece or Spain, there must be retrenchment in state spending. It would be immensely helpful to our economy, workers in all sectors and the general public, particularly those dependent on public services, if both government and unions ceased throwing rocks from their respective silos and started collaborating in the national interest – but I won’t hold my breath until they do so!


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