Last month a group of Conservative supporters operating under the harmless-sounding name of the Trade Union Reform Campaign commandeered a House of Commons committee room.
Speeches were made and in what was no doubt meant to be light-hearted irony; beer and sandwiches were served. A few ministerial big beasts floated around and murmured words of support. A pretty normal Tuesday night at Westminster.
These young TURCS, as they style themselves, desperately want to be the shock troops of an assault on trade unions from the Conservative-led government. They would like nothing better than for the relations unions have with employers and the government to return to the open hostility and conflict of the past.
They have read Lady Thatcher’s memoirs (the ones who find long books difficult will have seen the film) and they are ready for action.
The Trade Union Reform Committee has got off to a rather bumpy start. Its chair is Aidan Burley, who soon after his appointment found himself in very hot water over Nazi uniforms and salutes in a French Alpine restaurant. Remarkably, for a man under investigation by French police for serious offences, Aidan Burley retains both the Tory whip and the chairmanship of the group. He reappeared at a Westminster Hall debate on facility time this week, suggesting a windfall tax on trade unions.
But the TURCs’ biggest problem is that the totemic ‘dragon’ they want to slay – facility time – is actually a long-established and moderate measure that brings real benefit to employers.
Facility time isn’t a Labour invention – it has existed for decades, including through the Thatcher years. Yet it is an example of the sort of relationship of trust and responsibility that New Labour in government was successfully able to advance in workplaces. Unions and the employees they represent value it, and employers are not exactly battering down the doors of ministerial offices to demand its removal. Indeed, the CBI has been supportive of facility time in workplaces.
Let’s be clear: regardless of what rightwing Tories will tell you, facility time isn’t public funding for agitation and picket-line manning. This is the time that workplace representatives (only half of whom are union-linked, according to a 2007 DTI study) use to represent employees, resolve disputes and support workplace learning and training schemes. And employers don’t grant facility time because stereotyped union militants are holding guns to their heads: they do it because it actually helps them achieve their objectives.
In 2007, the DTI estimated that facility time saved employers between £476m and £1,133m annually. Even the most conservative end of this estimate represents a net financial benefit to employers – fewer tribunal hearings or grievance procedures; reduced levels of industrial action; and better trained, more productive workforces. The record low levels of strikes achieved under the Labour government didn’t come about by accident: facilitating a constructive relationship between employers and unions was vital to it. When Labour increased employees’ rights, we sought to take employers with us, ensuring the burden was as limited as possible, and the rights were sustainable.
John Healey was spot-on in his response to the bill to ban facility time introduced by Tory MP Jesse Norman. He said: ‘Our union reps are the unsung heroes of the long, proud British tradition of volunteering. They are the workplace wing of the prime minister’s “big society”. There should be receptions in Downing street to pay tribute to their work.’ And in today’s debate, shadow business minister Gareth Thomas was equally right to say that reps ‘reduce costs to the employer and ultimately help to reduce the cost to the taxpayer.’
On that occasion, the Tory right was defeated by 211 votes to 132. But they will be back. Those of us who believe in a modern, effective and constructive trade unionism need to be on our guard against the young TURCs.
John Woodcock MP is a shadow transport minister
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.