Unionists press to secure even more workplace rights

Employer hopes that the recent raft of employment legislation would satisfy unions are misplaced. Helen Rowe heard the reasons why at the TUC’s annual conference held in Glasgow last week

Stop whingeing about workplace legislation, was the message TUC general secretary John Monks delivered to employers. As a theme for a keynote address it was hardly surprising.

And – as required of a union leader in this new era of management-union cooperation – it was couched in suitably measured language.

But what Monks’s address and the platform speeches of numerous delegates failed to disguise was the union movement’s determination to secure more workplace rights for employees.

The measures introduced in the Government’s first term, it appears, have merely whetted the appetite of trade unionists.

As delegates and union leaders made clear last week, they want more – and they are focusing with renewed determination on how to get it.

If they have their way, at least, there will be no let up in the legislation HR professionals are required to implement.

“The truth is that UK employers have had it too easy for too long,” Monks said. “That’s why they are complaining.”

Monks attacked the British Chambers of Commerce for specialising in “saying that every modest advance will cost millions and millions of pounds.” Instead he urged employers to stop complaining and cooperate to improve areas of weakness in British industry such as training.

The recurring theme of the conference was that while much has been achieved, much more remains to be done to redress the balance following years of anti-union legislation under the Conservatives.

The TUC has already set out the policies it hopes to see introduced as a result of Labour’s anticipated second term. The Next Five Years document compiled by the TUC identifies a number specific measures. These include full employment rights from day one and the extension of the Working Time regulations to excluded sectors with the removal of the individual opt-out.

The TUC also wants to see an “effective reinstatement remedy” for employees who successfully claim unfair dismissal and union recognition rights for those employed by small firms.

In the meantime, the union movement appears to recognise the work it faces to tackle a range of problems.

These difficulties – if not addressed – threaten to undermine its ability to build on those policies that have already been introduced.

As leader of the GPMU print union Tony Dubbins argued, reports of a resurgence in union strength may have been exaggerated.

“I read in the Daily Mail that we are in a union golden age,” he said. “We might have moved from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, but the golden age is still on the distant horizon.”

Boosting membership is the trade union movement’s most pressing task.

Building on the right to statutory recognition provided for by the Employment Relations Act depends on half the workforce being union members or 40 per cent voting in favour of recognition in a ballot.

“The watchword for the TUC in the 21st century has got to be recruitment, recruitment, recruitment,” said Dave Gott, of the RMT.

“The figures have shown membership is rising, but we have got a long way to go, work has got to be done.”

While tried and tested recruitment methods were stepped up in the run-up to the implementation of this part of the Act, new industries such as call centres have presented unions with a series of difficulties.

In addition to problems of access to staff, those working in call centres tend to come from groups that are traditionally least likely to belong to a union.

The New Unionism Project is part of the TUC strategy to boost recruitment. Stated aims include helping to strengthen existing bases and breaking into new industries. Increasing unions’ appeal to young people and women is also a priority. Activity has recently been intensified with a number of regional initiatives.

The TUC’s Organising Academy is also following a series of recommendations ranging from improvements to activist training to the doubling of the annual intake of trainees in some unions.

Proposals to supply specific training in combating so-called union busting techniques were also given the go-ahead at the conference.

Over the two years to last December, according to an independent study, the academy has been instrumental in recruiting some 29,000 new members and 1,000 activists.

Last week’s conference also carried a motion calling for a formal procedure to make “portable membership” a reality.

Prompted by increasing employee mobility, this will see the automatic transfer of members between unions.

Membership in the finance sector is expected to benefit. The sector has been a dramatic rise in the number of short-term contract workers and the ever-increasing number of mergers and takeovers has been identified as an obstacle.

The issue of unions recruiting in areas already covered by sister unions is also set to be addressed.

As the General Election approaches developments will be followed closely by HR practitioners. There is undoubtedly optimism among trade unionists.

But the TUC is battling on two fronts – to influence the next Labour manifesto and to overcome problems preventing the movement building on recently introduced rights. The success of each remains to be seen.


A vision for the next five years in office

The TUC report, The Next Five Years was compiled for the Labour Party Policy Commission on Industry, Culture and Agriculture. The commission was devising its proposals for consideration by the 2000 Labour Party conference.

But while there is approval within the trade union movement of policies such as the National Minimum Wage, New Deal, and the Employment Relations Act, a number of areas of concern were highlighted. These include working time, public sector pay and staffing levels.

Themes identified for future action range from life-long learning opportunities and better work-life balance.

Specific proposals include:

• Making the Low Pay Commission responsible for proposing regular updating of the National Minimum Wage

• A statutory framework for training

• Assuring funding for the New Deal

• Updating and extending existing anti-discrimination legislation

• Extending the Working Time regulations to excluded sector

• Ensuring all employees – whatever the size of the firm they work for – are covered by the Employment Relations Act

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