The very interesting results to last week’s survey reveal some serious dislike of the appraisal system among our readership. In one of the biggest responses to our surveys to date, 60% of those who voted were in favour of abolishing the appraisal system and 71% were against replacing it with something less formal. Perhaps most tellingly of all, 89% of respondents said they intended scaling back their appraisal process. The appraisal sceptics are establishing some real traction and it would seem wise, therefore, to start thinking creatively about alternatives to the more conventional appraisal process. For the survey results, see here.
This month our debate is all about the Government’s Trade Union Bill and strike action – a highly charged subject especially for those of us who travel to work by tube or train. Arguing in favour of the proposed limitations in the Bill is Eugene Wojciechowski while Daff Richardson argues against them. The gloves are off and their debate can be found below.
When looking at the reforms proposed in the Trade Union Bill, the common perception is that they are ‘Tory reforms to break the unions’. What those sensitive to trade unions seem to ignore is that not all changes to the way trade unions are restricted are bad and anti-union. A number of such changes have been long overdue and would create a more democratic workplace in which a minority group is less likely to prejudice the majority of employees in a workplace. When considering this debate let’s try to put aside all of our preconceived ideas and political views and concentrate on the issues.
For a strike currently to be lawful, all that is required is a majority vote by those who take part in the ballot and vote. So here’s an example of how the law works as it stands. Company A recognises Unite the Union; Unite goes through the necessary formalities when organising the ballot; 100 employees are entitled to vote; only three employees turn up to vote and two of them vote in favour of a strike while the remaining one votes ‘no’. Is a strike now possible? Yes, a strike may lawfully take place despite the fact that only 2% of those entitled to vote are in favour of it.
We all have heard the horror stories of what harm a strike can do to a business and, as the law stands, a very small minority could potentially put a business on its knees. This makes no sense at all. What we have is a loophole the size of a black hole that needs closing. The Trade Union Bill does this and would impose a minimum 50% turnout with public sector unions requiring the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote.
Other changes proposed include:
- a four month time limit for taking industrial action after a ballot, which would mean the support of employees is being regularly considered and disputes do not drag on for years where employee support has fallen
- greater protection for non-striking workers from intimidation (which can only be a good thing)
- a requirement of 14 days’ notice of strike action as opposed to seven days, which would provide more time for a potential settlement to be reached through conciliation with ACAS
- permission for agency staff to be used to fill the gaps left by striking workers, and
- trade union members having to ‘opt in’ for the dues they pay to be transferred to political parties. This will provide them with greater choice and seems fair. To allow such funds to automatically be transferred to a political party (usually Labour) which the union member may not support, as is currently the case, seems wrong. It does not sit well with the financial regulation placed upon other businesses and organisations.
Leaving any political affiliations to one side and looking at the proposals from a democratic perspective, they make complete sense. If we examine the proposals with an open mind, the Trade Union Bill provides fairness and protection of democracy and not the opposite as has been suggested by trade unions.
The trade union opposition to the reforms is unsurprising though. Although the reforms will create a fairer playing field and make sense, they will provide additional restrictions on the trade unions and wouldn’t any organisation want to fight against increased restriction? This leaves us with an unsurprising state of affairs but, for those who have read the small print and ignored the hype, the proposals are right.
No-one, whether living or working in London or watching from afar, can fail to recognise the transport chaos, lost business and frustration caused by the recent Tube strikes. The striking drivers do not cut sympathetic figures in this sorry tale. And parents forced to juggle work and childcare arrangements to deal with teachers' strikes may also have little sympathy for the industrial action.
Why, therefore, would anyone oppose the current proposals for union reform? Should strikes not be more democratic, better organised and less likely to affect key public services? No-one wants a return to the days of flying pickets, Red Robbo and the three-day week.
But the answer to the question posed above is no. The Bill is not a necessary or indeed sensible check on the ability of a union to call a strike. The proposed reforms, which passed their second reading in the Commons this week, are ill-conceived, draconian and counter-productive. It would not be overly dramatic to question their compatibility with Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to freedom of assembly and association with others. The reforms are said to improve workplace democracy but are fundamentally undemocratic.
Unions play an essential role in oiling the wheels in many aspects of workplace relations, including pay bargaining, representing colleagues in individual grievances and disciplinary meetings, and negotiating changes to terms and conditions. A harmonious, respectful relationship between employer and union is fruitful and effective. Giving employers radical new strike-busting powers such as the ability to draft in agency workers to cover for striking staff is divisive and can only serve to harm that relationship.
For "essential" public services, the level of support required under the Bill for industrial action is unrealistic and undemocratic. At least 50% of relevant members who are eligible to vote on strike action need to turn out to vote (no electronic voting here). And 40% of relevant members must support the action. So, where there is a 50% turnout, 80% or more of those voting must support the measures for them to be passed. It would be interesting to see what our current Parliament would look like if this voting system applied to the General Election.
The impact of strikes is often keenly felt by the public when health, transport or education is involved. Everyone understands the fiscal strain on public services. Conversely, everyone expects excellence in public services. If inexperienced agency staff, unfamiliar with their 'customers', location and workplace, are drafted in to cover for workers taking industrial action, will this really provide an adequate, appropriate and safe alternative service?
The days of wildcat strikes are long over. However, it’s entirely foreseeable that the draconian regulation and, in some cases, potential criminalisation of the right to withdraw labour may well lead to unions and workers operating outside the law and seeing what happens.
Finally, context is everything. In the 12 months to April 2015, 130 million working days were lost to ill-health absence, whereas a mere 788,000 working days were lost to industrial action, with no evidence that it is liable to grow significantly. If we are looking to have a competitive, productive economy and excellent workforce, improving public health should surely be the priority.