Brendan Barber, general secretary electof the TUC, explains to Paul Nelson
how the forthcoming workplace regulations will provide the perfect opportunity
for unions to raise their profile
The new head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) plans to use the forthcoming
raft of employment legislation to increase the influence of the trade union
Brendan Barber, who takes over from John Monks as general secretary of the
TUC in May, believes workplace regulations being introduced over the next three
years offer an ideal opportunity for trade unions to raise their profile and
He points to the Employment Act, which comes into force this month, and new
laws outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, belief or
religion that will be introduced before the year end.
The Information and Consultation Directive comes into force, followed by age
discrimination law will also provide opportunities for the unions.
Barber believes the union movement can highlight its importance and boost
membership by campaigning for employee rights as these new laws bed in.
"Unions must win public attention and create a higher profile in new
ways and on issues where we haven’t traditionally done so. There must be a real
focus on a range of workplace issues and not just on pay."
He insisted that the unions "must grab the opportunity the new legal
framework gives to make trade unionism a growing force again".
But, with the skill of an experienced political operator, he quickly adds
that he will balance active campaigning with influencing government policy from
within through improved relationships with ministers.
The first area Barber will lobby on is the Employment Act, introduced last
week, which gives parents with children under six and disabled children under
18 the right to request flexible working.
The Government has promised to review the right to request flexible working
in 2006, and Barber warns firms that if they do not embrace the Act, the TUC
will campaign for tougher laws that are harder for employers to refuse, and
compulsory equal pay audits to force employers to provide pay transparency.
"If it [requests for flexible working] doesn’t work, then we will make
an application for making it harder to dodge," he said.
The Act also introduces equal pay questionnaires allowing staff the right to
request pay information on a comparable colleague of the opposite sex, but
Barber said: "I’m afraid the equal pay questionnaires won’t make a huge
difference. There’s no evidence that employers would undertake audits unless
there’s stronger pressure on them."
He believes that an even more important piece of legislation for the profile
of the union movement and its relationship with employers and the Government,
is the Information and Consultation Directive.
From 2005, employers will have to have mechanisms in place to consult with
staff at an earlier stage and more fully on all issues that affect employment –
including redundancies and restructuring. The Government is currently deciding
how the European directive is to be introduced into UK law.
Barber told Personnel Today the new law will have to be fairly prescriptive
if it is to have any teeth.
"Employers can’t be allowed to chose how it is implemented or who the
staff representation is, otherwise staff will have no confidence in the
Another area identified as critical by Barber is pensions. He is disgusted
by the number of large firms that are turning their backs on staff by closing
down final salary pension schemes.
In the TUC’s response to the Government’s discussion paper on pensions,
Barber demanded a statutory minimum pension contribution from employers of 10
"Relying on employers to accept they have a responsibility in this area
on a voluntary basis is not working. Evidence shows that where there is a
decent employer contribution, individuals will save as well," he said.
He also wants compulsory staff pension contributions set at a 5 per cent
minimum. He is unhappy that the Government is considering increasing the age at
which staff can access their pension to 55, because he thinks this would hinder
the efforts made in improving the work-life balance of workers.
"It is swimming against the tide," he said. "More people
being pressurised to work longer is going in the wrong direction and is not
what people want."
Barber knows he is taking over the TUC’s reins at a critical time for
unions. He will be leading a movement that has become increasingly disgruntled
and disappointed with the Labour Government’s second term in office.
The unions believe the Government is ignoring its staunchest supporters and
brushing aside workers’ rights in a bid to win business confidence.
Industrial action over the last 12 months has included strikes by train operating
workers over pay and safety, JobCentre staff over safety, and local government
staff over pay and London Weighting. The confrontation between the Government
and the unions, culminated in deputy prime minister John Prescott attempting to
introduce legislation banning strike action, and imposing a 16 per cent pay
settlement on the firefighters, following their acrimonious six-month dispute
with local government employers.
Barber believes in the fundamental right of staff to take strike action and
fears that if Prescott is successful, the Government may attempt to take
similar action across the public sector.
"There is always the fear that it is a model the Government will try
and apply in other areas of the public services," he said, surprisingly
Barber is acutely aware of the balancing act he will have to perform in his
Ever the diplomat, he is careful not to criticise the Government too
vehemently in public in case it jeopardises Labour’s chances of re-election for
a third term.
"We have issues and problems that we are pressing the Government to
change, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture.
"We must actively campaign in positive ways but give credit where
credit is due, and there is a lot," he said.
HR should take its place on the board
Brendan Barber has criticised HR for
not "building the case" for the profession’s involvement at boardroom
The HR director should be a permanent fixture on all company
boards in the country, Barber believes. But he is disappointed the profession
doesn’t champion its cause.
He wants HR professionals to prove to chief executives that the
sector has a vital role to play in making organisations more competitive.
"HR should have a higher status," he said. "Our
productivity lags behind that of the US and Europe, and a major factor is
because we do not manage, motivate and involve our people as well as they do."
"In part, this is because not enough attention is paid to
HR issues and strategies in some of the biggest boardrooms."
Barber feels an improvement in industrial relations has led to
HR being sidelined in organisations.
"There was a period 20 to 30 years ago when – for the
wrong reason of lots of industrial action – HR had a lot of attention. There
has been a feeling since that, because some of the problems are not quite as
prominent, HR does not need such a high profile," Barber said.
"It must be on the main board and must be given more
Brendan Barber’s CV
2003 – General secretary, TUC
1993 – Deputy general secretary, TUC
1987 – Head of organisation and industrial relations
1979 – Head of press and information department, TUC
1976 – Assistant secretary of organisation and industrial
relations department, TUC
1975 – Training policy officer, TUC