Thursday, 3 November 2011

Facility time and fighting back

For those not sad enough to follow them, an adjournment debate in the House of Commons is where MPs have their say in an open-ended forum when most of parliament has gone home. Not exactly thrilling stuff. However, the subject of the debate last Wednesday has been brought to my attention because it concerns government attacks on public sector trade unions.

The argument raised by the Conservative MP Aidan Burley is a familiar one. He argued that "the taxpayer is directly funding those organising strikes and chaos," and cited figures by the Taxpayers Alliance which show that "in 2010, trade unions received £85.8 million in total from public sector organisations." He further says that "few would take issue with unions working on behalf of their members, but they must do it in their own time and with union funding."

This is an old argument. I've pointed out before that time off to perform trade union duties - facility time - is a statutory right for all elected representatives of trade unions and clearly defined by the ACAS code of practice (PDF). It is therefore misleading not only to cite this as some kind of boon to the public sector, funded by the taxpayer, when the same applies to trade union reps in private sector workplaces.

Further, Burley deliberately obfuscates the matter by saying that "2,493 full-time equivalent public sector employees worked for trade unions at taxpayers’ expense." Despite the implication, the people he speaks of are volunteers who perform their union duties part-time whilst still performing their ordinary job. In fact, a recent government survey found that they contribute 100,000 hours of unpaid work to their unions - a figure I know I contribute to. So when he says that "full-time trade union officials should be paid for by union members" the answer is that they are, and when he says they should undertake trade union activities - as distinct from duties, defined by ACAS (PDF) - "on their own time and it should be paid for by themselves, not by the taxpayer," they do and it is. What he is really objecting to is employees taking on the role of lay reps and representing members in personal cases or meeting with management on paid time, despite this being a statutory right.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this statutory right, whilst apparently costing £85.8 million, unions actually save employers a considerable amount of money;
Even though its clear that employers don’t pay for all of the time that union reps put into supporting their member they certainly benefit significantly. Once again Government research in 2007 found that union reps in the public sector SAVE the taxpayer between £167m and £397m every year by helping to resolve disputes, increasing the take up of training and reducing staff turnover.

Taking in to account reps in both the public and private sector, workplace union reps reduce dismissals creating a benefit to employers’ worth between £107m and £213m and reduce voluntary exits that benefit employers to the tune of between £72m and £143m. Union Learning Reps are worth between £94m and £156m to employers in enhanced productivity.
Of course, the real aim in attacking public sector unions isn't to reduce costs - if that were the case, then the logical step would be to encourage and build upon the kind of savings described above. The objective is to try and undermine public support for the unions and shatter resistance to cuts and privatisation in the public sector.

The unions themselves may be offering only tepid opposition to the cuts, but the anger of their membership has forced us to the point where up to three million people may be out on strike on November 30. And that has become a focal point for other forms of radical and/or militant resistance people are trying to initiate - even if in the form of the Occupy movement or UK Uncut those forms have their limitations. Thus, what we're seeing is less an attack on the unions themselves and more a reaction to the fact that for now a militant rank-and-file have forced their leadership into action.

Proof of this can be seen in the comments from Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who declares himself a "proud trade unionist." Whilst he "agree[s] with my hon. Friend’s sentiment," he also points out that "there are many moderate trade unions around the country that do a great job." He argues that the Tories "should do all that they can to build bridges with moderate trade unions," clearly of the school that recognises the benefit of the trade unions as "keepers of industrial peace" in the form of people like Brendan Barber running around at the Tory Conference in a desperate attempt to make a secret deal and call off the biggest strike in a generation.

If that wasn't explicit enough, there was Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop, who warns that "the Government, who are trying to provoke public sector strikes, should be more fearful of small and medium-sized enterprises in the private sector that are not unionised, where the incidents of wild-cat strikes are increasing." This is the same danger of which Brendan Barber warned, in essence that a pissed off rank-and-file would take matters into their own hands. Faced with such a thing, the unions are clearly a valuable pressure valve to release that anger in a more controlled manner.

Clearly, when the government comes for facility time, we will need to have a fight. If we don't, not only does it threaten to blast apart the strength of organised workers in the public sector, it also threatens to demobilise lay reps so that more and more falls to the full time officials outside the workplace. For militant workers and in a time of heightened class struggle, the danger of this should not need spelling out.

But at the same time it is clear that we should not be merely defending the status quo. Whilst the government are talking a big game because their current focus is the public sector cuts and privatisation, we also know what they fear beyond that immediate fight - an angry and militant working class which cannot be controlled by bureaucracy. We can even see it in action - from the Guildhall cleaners to the Sparks - and that it works. Thus, if we are to defend what we already have (from the welfare state to facility time), we must become that thing which both the government and trade union officialdom fear the most.