Workers rights gulf opening up in UK

Tory attack adds to case for more powers, says Dave Watson
Good workplace democracy keeps inequality in check ensuring better pay equality. Picture: Craig StephenGood workplace democracy keeps inequality in check ensuring better pay equality. Picture: Craig Stephen
Good workplace democracy keeps inequality in check ensuring better pay equality. Picture: Craig Stephen

We are seeing a growing gap in industrial relations culture between Scotland and England.

One of the early actions of the first devolved Labour-Liberal coalition was a Memorandum of Understanding between the trade unions and the Scottish Government, which has led – through different iterations – to the Scottish Government’s new Fair Work Convention.

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Co-chaired by two women with a background in business and trade unions, this convention aims to improve productivity and innovation, improve employee engagement in the workplace, develop lifelong learning, build constructive dialogue, extend collective bargaining, improve gender equality, bring fairer remuneration, and build workplace democracy across private, public and third sectors.

Of course, our task is to ensure that all this is more than warm rhetoric. Contrast this with the latest Tory attack on industrial relations and you see a gulf of difference.

The UK government’s trade union bill is on a collision course. It plans for a new 50 per cent threshold for strike action, in a bid to prevent working people from withdrawing their labour. These plans might have a little more credibility if they allowed trade unions to ballot their members in a more modern way, but they don’t. In a society where people bank online, why can’t members cast their ballots on the internet? The simple truth is the UK government isn’t interested in increasing the voice of working people; it wants to encroach on workplace democracy.

The same is true for its plans to ban deductions of union dues from pay and cutting facility time. It hopes this will cut the membership of unions, particularly in the public sector, in preparation for its latest slash and burn attack on public services. Its proposals on political funds are simply a partisan attempt to undermine the opposition, particularly when there is to be no equivalent constraints on the Tories’ big business funding.

If it spent a little more time looking at what is happening in Scotland, the UK government might see an approach which has been challenging for all of us. Union officials, as well as managers have had to change. The NHS is an example where industrial relations have brought huge culture change for civil servants, managers and union officials.

Good workplace democracy keeps inequality in check ensuring better pay equality between top and bottom and a better balance between shareholders and wage earners. It increases investment in training, skills development and research and development. And if trade unions reps and managers carry out joint health and safety checks it improves compliance, reduces accidents and improves the sustainability of an industry – with less need for government intervention.

Academic research backs this up. It shows the value of a constructive approach to industrial relations and in particular the role of union representatives. When focusing on NHS workplaces in particular, recent research showed that labour turnover was almost three times higher and the employment tribunal rate 14 times higher in NHS workplaces without union representatives compared with workplaces where representatives were present. Managers in NHS workplaces with union representatives present were more likely to report higher productivity, greater quality of services and “better” financial performance.

Importantly, in Scotland, this approach to industrial relations has cross-party support. Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser MSP recently said: “As Conservatives we should not be afraid to celebrate the role of trade unions, and work with them when we can to deliver a stronger, wealthier, happier and more secure workforce.”

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This different approach to industrial relations in Scotland has been reflected in calls for employment law to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament – long before the latest Trade Union Bill. The debate will be taken forward in the Scotland Bill and hopefully will feature in manifestos for next year’s Holyrood elections. Not just as a call for more powers, but to ensure that we use the powers we have to take forward our constructive approach.

Successive Scottish Governments have been developing a positive industrial relations and fair work culture. This UK government wants to take us back a generation.

Dave Watson is the Head of Bargaining and Campaigns at Unison Scotland.