General Secretary

February 2014 | 06.02.2014

Independent review into industrial disputes


In the aftermath of the threatened closure of Grangemouth refinery and the legitimate and peaceful protests by Unite members, the Government has seen fit to commission an independent review into industrial disputes.

Bruce Carr QC (who the POA knows very well from when he represented the Ministry of Justice against us in 2008 to obtain an injunction) has been appointed to Chair the review and will report to Business Secretary, Vince Cable and Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude. They also wish to have someone from business and the trade union movement on the panel.

The General Council of the TUC has objected to any trade unionist representing the trade union movement and if someone is appointed to the panel it will not be in the name of the General Council and affiliated unions.

It is amazing that the Government can find money for this so called independent commission, yet has failed in the past to provide the money for independent inquiries into obtaining the truth regarding the jailing of the Shrewsbury pickets, or into the Hillsborough tragedy, or indeed into the miners’ strike where claims were made on behalf of workers. This is another kick at trade unions and working class men and women because the Tory led Coalition wants to bring in more anti-trade union legislation and this will be the platform for doing so. Of course, we must keep a close eye on developments and the General Council of the TUC will of course do so.

The truth about unions

This Government must really fear the POA, and the trade union movement in general, as it is always looking at ways to undermine the movement through the media to tell untruths so that the general public believes the myths that are peddled. So let us look at the truth about unions:

The media narrative about unions is a familiar one; mindless militants walking out on strike on the say so of the “union barons”, out only to protect the pay and conditions of a privileged few. But don’t be fooled, unions offer organisation and protection for millions of working people, and that is the real reason why the powerful are so keen to spread myths about us.

Myth: Unions strike at the first opportunity, without a thought for the consequences

Truth: Strikes are very expensive, posting ballot papers alone can cost some unions a fortune, and each member of the union will lose pay for the time they are on strike. Nobody takes the decision to strike lightly. When a union does eventually decide they have to resort to strikes, they discuss with employers to organise emergency cover and ensure that no one is in danger and vulnerable people are not harmed. For example the POA when taking action in the past have always ensured that emergency cover is in place and even offered which Government rejected minimum cover arrangements.

Myth: Unions are just a lobby group for workers selfish interests.

Truth: Public sector workers are less motivated by their own pay and conditions than by a strong public sector ethos. POA members both in the private prisons and public prisons along with our colleagues in the special hospitals and immigration services work additional, unpaid hours over and above their conditioned hours because they care and want to provide the best service that they can possible achieve. Public sector unions such as the POA play a key social justice role, campaigning for decent public services for all. They probably would like to be striking to achieve this goal but that would be illegal. Good conditions are part of ensuring quality services and sadly, POA members have been badly let down by the cuts to key services. Is it too much to ask that POA members feel secure about their futures when they are so flexible for services that they believe in rather than being anxious about their futures and the future of the services they provide?

Myth: Unions are a thing of the past, a declining minority of the workforce.

Truth: The POA has a density of approximately 85 percent (which is hardly declining) and this is against a backdrop of being restricted by anti-trade union legislation on the right to take any form of industrial action. But taking the trade union movement as a whole, there are more than six million trade union members in Great Britain. This makes it the biggest voluntary organisation in the country. And remember; all the legislation that is in place to those unions that do have the right to take action. All the hoops they must jump through. Nobody should under-estimate the role of trade unions in this country and the amount of trade union members. Of course the number has dropped since the seventies but the de-industrialisation and legal attacks have reduced the number in unions since the mid 1970s.

Myth: Unions are a drag on the economy.

Truth: Government commissioned research shows that unions bring an identifiable range of benefits to the economy and the taxpayer, worth up to £1.1billion every year (Workplace representatives: A review of their facilities and facility time, BERR).

This is through their contribution to dispute resolution, reductions in workplace injuries and work-related illnesses, and improved take up of training. There are also productivity gains worth up to £12billion (The facts about facility time TUC 2011) thanks to improved morale and employee engagement, among other factors. Even the International Monetary Fund has published research (Inequality, Leverage and Crises IMF 2010) suggesting that union bargaining helps maintain economic stability by keeping a lid on inequalities and putting a brake on runaway expansions of household debt. Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, says: “If we want a society of broadly shared prosperity we need to restore the bargaining power that labour has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages”.

Myth: Unions only care about the public sector, where most of their members work.

Truth: The Government talks a lot about how unfair unions are for private sector workers, but workers in the private sector won’t benefit one iota from an attack on the public sector. The public sector’s conditions are better because unions have fought to maintain standards in the face of a race to the bottom. Union members’ hourly earnings are around 17 percent higher than those of non-union members. Unions face enormous challenges recruiting and organising in the private sector because of the nature of much employment. But millions of private sector workers are in unions and millions more who are not in a union would like to join one. Unions want to level up pay and terms and conditions, not have a race to the bottom.

According to the British Workplace Representation and Participation Survey, 46 percent of employees in non-unionised workplaces say they would become members if unions were enabled to recruit and organise there. That alone would easily take the total union membership above 50 percent nationally in all occupations.

Instead of commissioning and funding another attack on the trade union movement the Government should see trade unions, including the POA, as part of the solution and not the problem. In Germany for example, unions are indeed seen as part of the solution and that should be the ethos in Great Britain. Unfortunately, we still have some politicians who see trade union leaders and their members as some sort of enemy. How short-sighted when all the evidence points to the contrary.

Steve Gillan
POA General Secretary