Should trade unions operate as supplicants of local councils? Should they have full time posts and office accommodation funded by the Council Taxpayer? This was something we looked at on Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Value for Money Scrutiny Committee (which I chair) in Hammersmith Town Hall. We had a report on "trade union facility time." We have cut back the number of "Full Time Equivalent" union posts funded from 12.7 to 7.5. But this still puts us high up the league table of the 32 London boroughs in their generosity towards unions (with their residents money.) We are in fourth place (Labour-run Greenwich comes top funding 9.5 posts.)
Our bill comes to around £400,000. We have salary costs of £333,3922. "Additional Costs I.T." come to £37,250, Accommodation costs (rent free office space in Council buildings) is worth another £30,740. We also collect their subs for them via the payroll without charging for the service. This smacks to me of us encouraging our staff to be union members – as an employer we should neutral about whether or not our staff choose to join a union. The committee felt their were scope for further savings in this area.
One or two Labour councillors attempted to plead the case that funding their paymasters constituted good value for money – but I thought they sounded rather half hearted. One of them asked about management asking if that should be the focus for savings. How many HR managers do we have? 54. Wasn't that rather a lot? Yes, but then under the previous Labour administration it had been over 100. Despite reducing the number of HR staff heir performance has improved – as evidenced by the average number of days sickness absence falling from an average 9.2 days a year per employee to 8.2 (we have a target of the private sector average which is 6.4.)
So what should a Council's relationship be with the trade unions? One suggestion was that there should be monitoring of what shop stewards funded by the Council do with their time. I can understand why the trade unions resist this – wishing to operate as free, independent organisations. But in that case they should be self financing. This is not to say that they would never be of benefit to the Council. Sometimes they are shared interests (for instance in attempts to keep the sums spent employing agency staff under control.) Often some of the petty regulations and ridiculous procedures bureaucracies come up with are frustrating and time wasting for staff as well as residents.
The unions will make representations on behalf of their members sometimes it will make sense for managers and Cabinet Members to agree to what they are asking for, sometimes it won't. I don't think the process is helped when the unions are in the pay of the Council – or when the councillors are in the pay of the unions.