Trade Union Bill

Written evidence submitted by John Hannett, General Secretary, Usdaw (TUB 53)

Introduction

Usdaw welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Parliamentary Committee reviewing the Trade Union Bill.

Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) is the UK's fourth largest trade union with over 440,000 members. Usdaw organises across a number of different private sector industries such as Retail, Distribution, Warehousing, Food Manufacturing, and Call Centres.

Over the past 20 years, Usdaw has pioneered the partnership approach in our agreements with many Private Sector employers. The partnership approach is based on the principle that a Company and Union have a shared agenda in ensuring a successful business that can provide strong and secure employment for its workforce. In line with this approach, Usdaw rarely organises industrial action and sees such a process as a last resort following a serious breakdown in industrial relations.

During 2014, Usdaw completed over 135 separate pay reviews, in addition to numerous pensions, redundancy and shift change consultations. Throughout all this work, Usdaw did not undertake one industrial action ballot or take one day's strike action. Whilst Usdaw will only very rarely conduct an industrial action ballot, Usdaw sees the ability to run such a ballot as an important part of ensuring that employers enter negotiations with a mind-set to reach agreement. Usdaw is concerned that any steps to weaken the ability of trade unions to take industrial action will damage the nature of our effective industrial relations strategy. Usdaw sees no benefits from the Government's proposals around industrial action ballots, picketing and Agency Workers.

Usdaw operates our own Political Fund. In addition to funding our affiliation to the Labour Party, this fund allows the Union to participate in political campaigning on behalf of our members. One of Usdaw's most high profiles campaigns is entitled Freedom From Fear. This campaign seeks to ensure that retail workers receive adequate protection from verbal and physical abuse. A major part of this campaign seeks to ensure the creation of an additional offence of assaulting a worker serving the public. Without a Political Fund, Usdaw would find it difficult to pursue such a cause and protect retail workers from the very serious threat of physical and verbal abuse.

Usdaw works hard to ensure that our members are aware of the political campaign work we undertake on their behalf and promote how the world of politics is relevant to their daily lives. In line with current legislation, Usdaw runs a Political Fund ballot every ten years asking members if they believe that the Union should continue to be able to engage in political activity. The last ballot took place in 2013 where the continuation of the fund was accepted with a 93% yes vote.

Usdaw's experience shows that the provisions in the Trade Union Bill are an example of unnecessary regulatory red tape that will offer no discernible benefit whilst damaging the productivity of not only trade unions but also private enterprise.

The Political Fund

Usdaw has serious concerns over the regulatory burden proposed through Clauses 10 and 11 of the Trade Union Bill, relating to Trade Union political activity. Usdaw's political activity is already entirely transparent. As part of the Usdaw membership application form, all new members are advised of their right to opt-out of Political Fund contributions and a number of new members do make this choice. For information, a copy of the Usdaw membership application form is attached to this submission.

Members can also choose to opt-out of contributing to the Political Fund at any time and this is advised on the membership form as well as in the Union's Rule Book, which is voted on every year as part of our Annual Delegate Meeting. In addition, and as outlined above, Usdaw ballots all of our members every ten years to confirm that they agree with Usdaw continuing to operate a Political Fund and undertaking political activity. During this ballot process, Usdaw has to demonstrate to our members that we use the Political Fund wisely and in their best interests. Furthermore, Usdaw takes a proactive approach to ensuring that our members are engaged in our political work, providing updates through our regular member and representative journals.

Without being able to clearly demonstrate that the Political Fund is in our members' best interests, the membership would not vote to continue contributing to it. As previously stated, under the last ballot in 2013, 93% of members voted for the Union to continue to operate a Political Fund.

There is no comparable situation whereby individuals have such control over how money is spent after they have paid for a service, yet through strong engagement and high levels of accountability, Usdaw members overwhelmingly endorse our political work.

Opt-In Process

Our political work, which is heavily supported by our members, is under serious threat from the provisions of clause 10 in the Trade Union Bill. As a result of the proposed provisions, within three months of the Trade Union Bill gaining Royal Assent, Usdaw will be required to gather an 'opt-in' signature from all members contributing to the Political Fund. Usdaw currently has around 420,000 members contributing to our Political Fund meaning that we will need to collect three signatures per minute, every minute of the three month period in order to maintain our current level of funding.

The process will not only require the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures but also updating hundreds of thousands of membership records and storing hundreds of thousands of opt-in forms. Staggeringly, this process will need to be repeated every five years at a time when members already have a right to opt-out of Political Fund contributions and are balloted every 10 years on the continuation of the Fund.

The new provisions will mean that it is possible that, in just over a ten year period, Usdaw will need to contact our members five times regarding the continuation of their political subscriptions and the Political Fund. Three times to collect an 'opt-in' signature and twice to undertake a ballot. The provisions of Clause 10 begin to put the Union in a position of potentially harassing our members to be able to continue to do something that 93% of them already support.

Usdaw members are not cajoled, unwillingly into paying Political subscriptions. Our members understand that political activity helps to deliver the objectives of the Union and they trust Usdaw to spend their contributions wisely.

The burdensome red-tape created through these provisions will not only impact upon trade unions. Where Usdaw has recognition agreements with employers that provide for paid release of shop stewards, these private sector businesses are also likely to be landed with the costs of this regulation.

Usdaw organises in private industries that operate on a 24/7 basis. The best place to speak to, and get the signatures of, Usdaw members is in the workplace; and with such a short time-frame to sign members up, workplace engagement will be the only format that Usdaw can use to gather enough signatures. This workplace engagement will involve taking shop stewards away from their day jobs to talk to members, filling out paperwork and ensuring that all of the correct boxes have been ticked. This will be time where both the shop stewards and members would be far more productive if they were actively engaged in their job role.

The requirement to re-run this process every five years is likely to lead to a repetitive cycle of lost productivity, bringing with it reduced economic performance and increased costs for businesses. This proposal is the quintessential definition of tick box, red tape, regulation offering no demonstrable benefit, purpose or requirement.

Furthermore, Usdaw recognises that a move to an 'opt-in' system of political subscriptions could be perceived to be an attack on the ability of the trade unions to undertake political activity. During the course of the last Parliament, Auto-Enrolment pension provisions were introduced in an attempt to encourage participation in Occupational Pension Schemes. This change was successful with more people than ever now contributing to an Occupational Pension Scheme. As the proposal to move to an 'opt-in' system of political subscriptions offers no discernible benefit, and has not been proposed for any other section of society, Usdaw is concerned that Clause 10 is simply an attempt to restrict the ability of trade unions to partake in the political process.

Check-Off

Usdaw also has serious concerns regarding the proposed subsection 2 of clause 85 to Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. This subsection will require Usdaw to double the number of subscription rates deducted at source by employers; the current rate along with a rate excluding the political subscriptions.

Usdaw has check-off arrangements in place with all private sector companies where we are recognised and currently 92% of all Usdaw's political subscription payers pay their Usdaw contributions through such check-off arrangements. Check-off arrangements are provided to Usdaw by private sector employers who understand the benefits that an independent and representative trade union can provide for the business. Furthermore, the check-off arrangements demonstrate to members that the business is committed to their relationship with Usdaw.

However, check-off arrangements do present an administrative cost for employers and payroll providers and as such, Usdaw works hard to operate as few membership rates as possible. The proposals contained within subsection 2 will bring about unnecessary costs for employers through introducing a second set of subscriptions as a result of needless Government intervention.

Furthermore, Usdaw believes that the state should not intervene in determining the price of union membership. If a member exercises their right not to contribute to the Political Fund, a union should be free to charge them the normal rate of membership, transferring more money into the General Fund. The Bill proposes unheralded, and potentially undemocratic, State intervention into the inner workings and finances of Trade Unions.

Reporting procedures

Clause 11 of the Bill will provide the Certification Officer with new powers to investigate how Unions' Political Funds are used and where the money goes. Any Trade Union spending more than £2,000 per year will be required to submit detailed annual accounts to the Certification Officer. The detail required within such a report goes far beyond the level of disclosure required for any other source of political donation.

Usdaw understands and wholeheartedly accepts the need for transparency over how political campaigns are funded. However, such a need for transparency clearly does not extend to providing detailed information on the costs of hosting a conference. Usdaw, as a large organisation, frequently negotiates preferential rates with various companies when hosting conferences or other events with the terms of such agreements remaining confidential between the parties. If the Government were indeed to intervene and require that the terms of such arrangements be publicly divulged, Usdaw is likely to be unable to agree such terms in the future. The organisations with which Usdaw agrees such terms could also have their market competitiveness under threat.

Usdaw has seen no evidence or argument that trade union political funding is not already entirely transparent.

· Details of a Trade Union's political expenditure are already publicly available.

· Trade Union political donations, like donations from many other sections of society, are already subject to clear reporting requirements to the Electoral Commission.

· And, a Trade Union with a Political Fund is required to submit an Annual Report of the Fund to the Certification Officer.

The existing requirements not only ensure that Usdaw members, as well as anyone else, can clearly see how Usdaw uses our Political Fund, they also enable members to use that information when deciding whether to contribute to the Fund. Trade Union political expenditure is already far more transparent than any other form of political funding and requiring a union to submit an annual, line by line, set of accounts is an unnecessary regulatory burden that is not seen anywhere else.

Industrial Action

As mentioned earlier, Usdaw promotes a Partnership Approach to industrial relations with the union and employers working together to the benefit of the business. In line with such an approach, Usdaw rarely conducts industrial action ballots and sees such a process as a last resort following a serious breakdown in industrial relations. Usdaw has demonstrated that we are able to resolve industrial disputes within the current industrial relations framework and without the need for an industrial action ballot.

This modern approach to industrial relations can also be seen across the wider economy where industrial action is already at record lows. Since 2010, an average of 647,000 days have been lost to industrial action each year. This compares to an average of 7.2 million days per year during the 1980s. Throughout the Bill, and accompanying notes, the Government has completely failed to recognise how infrequently industrial action occurs within the UK. The fact that industrial relations rarely breakdown to a point that leads to industrial action demonstrates that the current industrial relations framework adequately serves employees, employers and unions.

Usdaw is deeply concerned that, as a result of a union's diminished ability to take industrial action, some employers are more likely to believe they can push through their own agenda during negotiations. This will subsequently make it more difficult to reach agreements, leading to unresolved grievances, lower engagement and higher turnover. Usdaw firmly believes that the provisions in the Bill are an irresponsible attempt at undermining what has proved to be an effective and successful framework for UK industrial relations.

Usdaw is alarmed that throughout the Bill and accompanying paperwork, the Government has not made one proposal aimed at encouraging employers to seek an earlier settlement of disputes.

Ballot Thresholds

Usdaw believes that the proposed threshold requirements are likely to damage workplace democracy rather than improve it. The proposed threshold system offers an incentive for those people who do not support industrial action not to take part in the ballot. An individual's vote against industrial action would be added to the threshold requirement and potentially increase the likelihood of industrial action being accepted. As such, the proposed system of ballot thresholds is likely to harm workplace democracy by encouraging some people not to participate in the democratic process.

Usdaw shares a desire to improve workplace democracy and believes that this can easily be achieved through the provision of electronic balloting. The security of online registration systems has been clearly demonstrated through online banking and shopping platforms. In fact, all major political parties have recently deemed online security to be robust enough to run online balloting. Usdaw is concerned that the refusal to consider different forms of balloting for industrial action appears to demonstrate lukewarm support for actually increasing workplace democracy. This refusal may suggest that the Bill could in fact be motivated by a desire to restrict the right to strike in contravention of various ILO Conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Usdaw, as a Union organising solely in the private sector, is also concerned over the proposed 40% yes vote threshold for important public services. The consultation document suggests that this threshold may apply to ancillary workers along with where an individual's absence would have an 'adverse impact on the delivery of the service'. Such definitions are likely to create significant ambiguity in the formation of industrial action ballots and lead to increased litigation from employers attempting to redefine the relevant groups. Not only will such litigation bring with it needless costs for both unions and employers but it also takes attention away from the goal of effective industrial relations; resolving industrial disputes as quickly as possible.

Usdaw believes that if the proposals are enacted in their current form, the only option for trade unions will be to conduct the vast majority, if not all, industrial action ballots under the 40% threshold requirements. Such a restriction will clearly be a disproportionate means of meeting the Government's stated aim and is likely to fall foul of an individual's right to take strike action as outlined in Section 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Requirements During Industrial Action

Usdaw believes that the Government's proposals to make the Code of Conduct on Picketing legally enforceable are unhelpful, excessive and unnecessary. Furthermore, Usdaw is surprised to see a Conservative Party Government proposing such unwarranted regulatory burdens on civil society especially when no clear evidence has been provided of any situation that would have been resolved as a result of the proposals being in force.

Usdaw agrees with the Regulatory Policy Committee that it is unclear how compliance with the Code will in any way prevent intimidation of non-striking workers. Whilst it is not clear how these proposals will provide any form of benefit, there is no doubt over the potential cost implications.

Due to the new notification procedures, Usdaw will have to ensure comprehensive training is provided to all members attending a picket line as a minor breach, such as using a loudspeaker without prior notification, could invalidate the whole picketing process. In fact, the proposed notification requirements represent some of the most burdensome regulatory excesses of the whole Bill. The idea that a perfectly legal and democratic industrial action ballot could be undermined because a ballot supervisor leaves an armband at home is a clear attack on the authority of a free and civil society.

Usdaw was pleased to see reports that the Social Media notification requirements are likely to be dropped from the Bill. Social Media is a tool used across Government and private industry to quickly communicate with customers and members of the public. So much so that there is now a widely held expectation on large organisations to respond quickly to messages and contact through Social Media platforms. The Bill's proposals to require unions to advise on plans to run Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as the likely content, represent a severe restriction on the right of unions to communicate with their members.

Under UK law, there are already strict regulations on pickets and protests in place. As a result of this framework, anyone stepping outside of 'peaceful picketing' rules can face a raft of civil and criminal charges, including that of causing intimidation on the picket line. Usdaw believes that the proposals around picketing and protest are ill thought out and agrees with the Regulatory Policy Committee that they are not fit for purpose.

Conclusion

As highlighted above, there is already a raft of legislation and self-governance covering the trade union movement. In addition to regulations covering industrial action ballots, picketing, political donations, registering with the Certification Officer, publishing accounts and electing officials, Trade Unions are permanently accountable to their members and potential members.

Usdaw's experience shows that the provisions currently contained within the Trade Union Bill are not only unnecessary but a clear example of overreaching bureaucracy that would seriously curtail the effective functioning of industrial relations across the country. However, it is not just trade unions that are shocked by the scope and scale of the proposals. The leading Human Rights Groups Liberty and Amnesty International have called them a major attack on civil liberties and the Conservative MP, David Davies has likened to a Franco style dictatorship.

As outlined already, Usdaw sees no justification for the provisions contained within this Bill.

October 2015

Prepared 28th October 2015