Mark Lehain is Chair of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence’s Network, and was the Conservative candidate for Newcastle North in last year’s general election.
Yesterday it emerged that No. 10 is looking to make a small change to the Employment Relations Act. It might seem at first, a technical tweak, but it could potentially shake up the world of trade unions and workplace representation, for the better of millions of workers. Let me explain…
Currently, if you find yourself facing a disciplinary or grievance procedure with your employer you have the right to be accompanied to meetings by a trade union representative, an official employed by a trade union, or a fellow worker. If you want them at a hearing, your employer can’t say no.
However, if you’re one of the three-in-four workers who are not in a union, in such a situation you could be stuck. Legally, your employer doesn’t have to allow you to bring anyone along with you other than a fellow worker. Unless your friend happens to be an expert in employment law, you’re going to be at a massive disadvantage.
This is obviously bonkers, and incredibly unfair.
It grants trade unions in the UK a legal monopoly that is almost unique in the developed world. It also means that if you work somewhere that unions haven’t organised, you’re at a disadvantage if something goes wrong.
So it is only right that the government look to correct this. Most people join a union as a back-up in case something goes wrong. It is vital that people have good representation when they’re in a sticky situation, and it’s wrong that to guarantee this they have to join a union, particularly if it is one whose political actions they disagree with.
I’ve experienced this myself. I was a teaching union rep. for several years but left when they embraced extreme stances on all sorts of issues. That this affected my employment rights isn’t on.
The change being considered to the Employment Relations Act is simple: it would just mean that people have the right to be accompanied in meetings by a non-union qualified person. This would immediately empower the millions of workers who are not in a union and it would improve practice across the board.
It could also transform how employment relations work more broadly. Removing the union monopoly opens up the sector for alternative organisations to emerge to support people. There are already a few out there – including Edapt in education, and the MPS and MDU in medicine. But there would be far more if their subscribers could know for sure they’d be able to take them into conflict situations.
Imagine the positive impact of this. More support for workers in the gig economy where traditional unions haven’t penetrated. Greater choice for teachers, doctors, social workers, rail workers, and so on. And existing unions would have to become more focused on, and responsive to, their members’ priorities, to keep them happy.
It really is a common sense, win-win change, and one that wouldn’t take much effort to enable. Put it alongside the increase in the Living Wage, wider earnings growth, record high employment, and record low unemployment, and you have yet further evidence of the Conservatives’ commitment to levelling up the quality of life of workers.
Of course, trade unions may resist such a change. After all, they benefit massively from their legal monopoly. However, all workers, union members or otherwise, deserve the same access to their rights, and it is a thoroughly Conservative thing to make this happen.