Ministers have vowed to end the automatic deduction of membership fees from the pay packets of all unionised civil servants, in a move that the unions say is politically motivated.
Under plans included in the trade union bill - currently making its way through parliament - all civil servants and employees in the wider public sector who belong to a union will have to switch to direct debits or other means in order to pay their fees.
Announcing the measures, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said automatic payroll deduction - known as check-off - represented a “taxpayer-funded administrative burden” on public sector employers.
Lucy Powell brands Francis Maude reform update a 'pre-election union-bashing exercise'
Mark Serwotka: attempts to break us will fail
Treasury to press ahead with £95,000 cap on civil service exit pay-outs
Ministers to press ahead with Trade Union Bill
“In the 21st century era of direct debits and digital payments, public resources should not be used to support the collection of trade union subscriptions,” he said.
“It’s time to get rid of this outdated practice and modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. By ending check-off we are bringing greater transparency to employees — making it easier for them to choose whether or not to pay subscriptions and which union to join.”
But the TUC - the umbrella body for Britain’s trade unions - has attacked the decision, arguing that the changes are an attempt to undermine union representation in the public sector.
“If payroll payment for union membership was out-dated, it would not be popular with so many of the UK’s biggest private companies with positive union relations,” said Paul Nowak, the TUC’s assistant general secretary.
“Instead of going out of their way to poison industrial relations, the government should engage positively with workers and their representatives for the good of public services and the economy.”
The ending of check-off has already been sharply criticised by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), the largest of the civil service unions.
The union argues that the move is an attempt to “undermine the organisation, membership and finances” of PCS in particular. It has now launched a drive to encourage members to switch to direct debit payments.
In a statement issued on Thursday, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka branded the proposals "unnecessary and vindictive".
"The [check-off] system is long established and efficient and used by some of the UK's largest companies and civil service charities," he said.
"Where removal has already been imposed in the civil service it has been done to arbitrary and ludicrously tight deadlines, driven by a political agenda."
According to the most recent update from ministers - given just before the election - eight government departments have already informed unions that they intend to end check-off.
Those departments include the Department for Work and Pensions; HM Revenue and Customs; the Ministry of Defence; the Home Office; the Department for Communities and Local Government; the Department for International Development; the Foreign Office; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
However, the wider roll-out of the changes was the subject of a heated coalition dispute between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat elements of the last government, with ultimate discretion left to departments.
At the end of last year, the then-Lib Dem Treasury minister Danny Alexander wrote to Cabinet ministers and senior officials across Whitehall to say that there was “no fiscal case” for ending the practice because unions had offered to pay the “minimal” costs associated with check-off themselves.
That put him at odds with then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who, in his own letter telling departments to review whether or not they were to continue with check-off, said the process could “impose additional costs as well as constraints on the way employers administer their payrolls”.