Mike Clancy is the General Secretary of the Prospect trades union.
Ending monopolies has long been a big ambition of Conservative governments, albeit an ideology that is sometimes more honoured in breach than observance.
But given the rise of monopolies in tech or rail franchising, to name but a few, I have to confess I am surprised to read that trade unions, and specifically the right to accompany workers in disciplinary hearings, is the latest ‘monopoly’ to be identified as in urgent need of being broken up.
As General Secretary of Prospect, a politically independent trade union with over 145,500 members, for me trade unions have always been anti-monopolistic, as they exist to counter a pronounced monopoly of workplace power and influence enjoyed by employers.
The reform that has been floated in the press, and advocated here by Mark Lehain, sounds relatively straightforward on the surface. Currently workers attending a disciplinary or grievance hearing have the right to be accompanied either by a trade union representative or a colleague. This is an important part of the support we offer to members, although thankfully most will never encounter this situation.
Mark argues that this discriminates against non-union members and that offering legal and other organisations the same right of accompaniment would benefit more workers. This is an erroneous argument for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is not a monopoly. The law gives a right to employees to involve their union or a colleague, but it does not prevent others entering the workplace if employer procedures allow for it.
Secondly, the package of legal support, advice, and accompaniment offered by unions is an absolute bargain compared to the charges that most lawyers would levy. Furthermore, Prospect brings the benefit of a deep knowledge of employment practices and workplace culture of the organisations in question, meaning we can offer quality, bespoke advice – and of course membership is open to anyone, regardless of whether there is a recognised union in the workplace.
Aside from not really benefiting individual workers, the biggest risk lies in creating an ecosystem of workplace grievance firms, which would be bad for employees and employers alike. The benefit of unions, and one which is underappreciated by Conservatives, is that we are invested for the long term in the success of the companies that employ our members. We want them to expand, to grow, and to be sustainable (and of course, we believe that treating staff well is integral to that).
Unions can be partners for good businesses, not only to make them better employers but to build a virtuous circle where businesses invest in their staff, who become more productive and profitable, and so contribute more to the economy and their communities. Even where there are issues at work, we want to deal with the root causes, not just the symptoms, and resolve situations before they reach the point of tribunals or grievance hearings.
None of this is true for organisations that would ‘compete’ with unions under these reforms. They would have a vested interest in finding or inventing more claims, and (as recent CIPD research has found) in pushing cases to tribunals rather than resolving them in the workplace.
Think about the consequences of ‘no win, no fee’ approaches and you have an insight into the damage that can flow from flooding employee relations with lawyers. This is a vision of UK employee relations which will turn everything litigious, to the detriment of all parties (except the lawyers). I find it baffling that a Government which is determined to end vexatious claims in one area would enable the creation of a claims industry in the workplace.
Finally, none of this takes into account the wider work unions do in helping negotiate employment policies, pay, improving productivity, and other issues. The reality, and something that unions struggle with, is that far from non-union members being the victims, they currently benefit from the work of the union in their workplaces without paying the membership fee.
I agree with Mark that the union movement has to change. The economy is changing around us; the introduction of AI and other new technologies brings new challenges, as does the changing pattern of work and the attitudes of younger workers.
My union is getting to grips with this, we have recently rebranded as the ‘Union for Ambition’ and are changing the way we operate for the 21st Century. As a result we are bucking the trend and growing steadily in size. Unions who do not adapt will continue to stagnate, and the Government should focus on reforms which incentivise the changes we need to see.
There are many things for Conservatives to work with unions on, not least the ‘levelling up agenda’ and challenge of improving productivity, I welcome that debate, and note the renewal of Union Blue as a forum for Conservatives and trade unionists to discuss these issues.
But the reform that has been floated puts all that good work at risk. It feels like a solution in search of a problem – an attack on unions that doesn’t really help non-members, introduces grievance-chasing firms into workplaces across the country, and does not incentivise unions to change to fulfil our role in the modern economy. The Government should drop this idea and focus on engaging with unions on how we turn around the productivity crisis and get wages rising across the country.