Attempts to remove facility time for union representatives are not just shortsighted. They may also reflect a hidden agenda to impose local and regional pay
Not for the first time, the coalition government is treading conflicting policy paths, this time with divergent proposals for public sector pay and paid facility time for local public sector trade union representatives. As we all know, the chancellor’s first budget in 2010 heralded a two-year pay freeze for all public sector workers, with those earning less than £21,000 promised (though in the case of local government workers – not receiving) a compensatory flat rate payment of £250. In the Autumn Statement last November came announcements that public sector pay would increase by just 1% in both 2013 and 2014 and – to rub a bit of (no doubt, pink Himalayan) salt into it – that national pay bargaining would be dead within two years. The government will – according to Chancellor Osborne – be looking to see ‘whether we can make public sector pay more responsive to local pay rates’.
The arguments against regional or local pay and local bargaining in the public sector are myriad and already well-articulated: First of all, there is little difference in pay or the cost of living between regions or localities (save perhaps for house prices in London and the South East) and many public servants live outside the areas they work in. Few private sector employers engage in local bargaining – preferring instead broad and flexible pay ‘zones’ or local additions in proven recruitment ‘hot spots’. Then there are those huge potential equal pay problems where employees doing work of equal value for the same employer end up on different pay rates. And reducing demand in poorer areas will not help revive the economy.
Another strong case against is the potential for exacerbating the already damaging north-south divide by underestimating the real cost of living in the north. As geography professor Doreen Massey recently pointed out to me, the parents of northern children wanting to visit the ‘national’ science or natural history museums must pay hefty travel and accommodation costs. Football fans wanting to see big matches must travel to Wembley. Yet the inconveniences of living outside of London are unlikely to be factored into pay packets.
Arguments for sector-wide bargaining arrangements are many. They give tight control over labour costs. They avoid duplication, the need for large local bargaining bureaucracies and prevent leap-frogging between adjacent employers. Some – like local government’s NJC – provide enormous potential for local flexibility within a sector-wide framework and most have been equal pay proofed. In the case of local government, leaving it to each local council to ensure gender pay equality resulted in hundreds of millions of precious pounds being spent on litigation rather than services.
But what if the coalition succeeds with the notion of local pay where other governments have failed? If so, as a trade union official I assume that local pay will require local bargaining? And here arises an apparent conflict in coalition policy. For while localism might be the order of the day for public sector pay, when it comes to local trade union activity, quite the opposite seems to be the case.
For some time now the TaxPayers’ Alliance has burdened councils and other public sector employers with uninformed questions about ‘taxpayer subsidy’ of local trade union officials. In 2011 much hoo-ha was generated by the case of UNISON nurse Jane Pilgrim, on full-time paid release in a London hospital. In January this year, a so-called ‘Pilgrims Bill’, sponsored by Jesse Norman and designed to outlaw funded public sector union reps, was defeated at the hands of Labour MP’s. But that hasn’t stopped the crusade against funded local union representation.
The failed ‘Pilgrim’s Bill’ was followed swiftly by the launch of TURC – the Trade Union Reform Campaign – at whose launch DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles accused Labour councils of ‘diverting resources away from frontline services, waging class war with public funds’. Now the Cabinet Office is to consult on reform and reduction of facility time in the civil service and DCLG ministers are urging councils to carry out reviews.
So what is the truth about union ‘pilgrims’? In 2007 DBER published a report which highlighted the fortune saved each year by funded local union reps. Employment Tribunal cases are massively curtailed, workplace injury is prevented and work related illness such as stress reduced by health and safety reps. Workers with a Union Learning Rep are eight times more likely to receive 2-5 days training each year than those without. Dismissals and early exits – and therefore recruitment costs – are minimised. Total annual savings to the economy of between £4 and £12 billion were identified. And many union reps support and represent members in their own time – 100,000 unpaid hours each week according to another DBER survey in 2004.
As John Healey MP said in parliament during the debate on the ‘Pilgrim’s Bill’ – they are the ‘unsung heroes of a long proud British tradition of volunteering’ and should be seen as a valuable component of the Big Society. In these times of mass redundancies and cuts to public services, UNISON ‘pilgrims’ are often all that stand between employers and anxious and angry employees. They absorb the flak, give advice, provide a shoulder to cry on and negotiate the ‘reconfiguration’ that generally follows downsizing. Increasingly they are also referring members to UNISON Welfare, which tries to help them make ends meet when redundant and/or deprived of benefits.
Fortunately, Conservative and Labour councils alike are setting a good example and standing up for good sense when it comes to funded facility time. In June 2011, Conservative–led Leicestershire County Council reported to DCLG that ‘The council is going through significant change (£79 million savings)…Without trade union involvement, the Council would not be able to make the changes required within the necessary timescales’. Likewise Peterborough, another Conservative council, which submitted that, ‘…through building positive relations with the Trade Unions that we have been able to effect change to date without litigation or industrial action/unrest’.
Those for whom good sense outweighs unthinking ideology know that funded trade union reps, well-trained and resourced by their unions – not, incidentally, public sector employers – are literally worth their weight in gold. But could it just be that, in challenging funded ‘pilgrims’, the government is thinking even further ahead to imposing, rather than negotiating, local pay awards? Devoid of religious belief, but with the old school hymns ever present, the words of the English Hymnal, number 402, verse 2, keep resounding in my head: ‘No foes shall stay his might, Though he with giants fight, He will make good his right, To be a pilgrim’. Its original author, John Bunyan, also penned Pilgrim’s Progress. Let’s hope the clock’s not turned back on good-sense public sector trade unionism.