Dave Penman: Plans to curb union rights are an unnecessary political sideshow

Opinion: The Trade Union Bill ignores the positive role that unions can play

By Dave Penman

24 Aug 2015

Who said that the living is easy in the summertime? That’s not what it feels like in FDA Towers. The government has launched a consultation on capping exit payments, slap bang in the middle of holiday season. With just four weeks to respond, I’m sure that’s merely a coincidence and that really they’re desperate for thoughts and ideas on the proposals…

Meanwhile, departments are planning for the Comprehensive Spending Review, including apparently whether they would prefer their budgets to be cut by 25% or 40%. Maybe I read that wrong but it’s certainly what it sounded like. Everyone is rushing around trying to get pay offers settled and despite the best of intentions, there are only so many ways you can skin a cat for 1%.

And then of course there’s the Trade Union Bill. With days lost to strike action at an almost historical all-time low and some of the most restrictive union legislation in the western world, this apparently is what’s needed to get Britain moving again. Every government needs a pantomime villain, an imaginary foe just waiting in the wings to be booed by the audience, and it would appear unions are this government’s. So thresholds for ballots and red tape a-plenty but apparently “digital by default” doesn’t apply to unions, so there’ll be no electronic balloting to genuinely increase participation. Bit of blindingly obvious hypocrisy there.

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While the Bill is unnecessary and a political sideshow, what really concerns me is that it frames the role of unions as entirely hostile. I accept that some of my brethren don’t always help themselves or the public perception of trade unions and that as a movement, we’re still a bit reticent to be self-critical, but union members aren’t left wing Luddites desperate to smash the state and resist all change. They are, by their very definition, ordinary hard-working people who want to be treated fairly and their employer to be successful. Overwhelmingly, unions reflect that and play a positive role in society and the economy. 

Many of our most successful companies engage positively with their unions and recognise the value of the role they play in a modern workforce. I’ve always felt that part of what I brought to the table with an employer was being an agent for change; helping employers transform their organisation by giving confidence to employees that their views, concerns or ideas were being considered. 

At the FDA we constantly solve problems for members and employers both individually and collectively. I tried to sum up the essence of the FDA in my address to our conference in May. Strong, pragmatic and honest is the phrase I used and I would hope most of the employers we deal with would recognise that description; but we are not untypical.

I was talking to a group of smaller union general secretaries this week, from across the economy, both private and public sector. Their experience, like mine, is that they have very good relationships with employers and are valued for the contribution they make, often being called on to get employers out of a hole that they’ve dug for themselves. They have a vested interest in the success and survival of the organisations with whom they engage and that is the approach they bring to the bargaining table.

So while painting unions as pantomime villains might work politically just now, with Britain’s economy stuck in a productivity crisis, I can’t see how demonising the very people that help employers adapt, reform and improve really does UK plc any good.

But then that’s not really part of the consideration. As ever, good politics will trump good policy and we’ll just have to get on with what we do best, regardless. 

Oh and it was DuBose Heyward by the way.

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