The Tories hate trade unions. In the context of the Social Liberal Forum’s conference on 13 July in Manchester, with the theme “Ownership and Democracy – where does power lie?” the Tories’ policies regarding the unions have been to try to remove as much power and as many rights from them as possible, in order to free up company bosses to use their power as they see fit without the need to discuss their plans with the workforce.
The problem with strengthening corporate power while weakening trade union and individual rights is that it allows a return to working conditions that any civilised person would consider in contravention of all the principles we hold dear.
As a national trade union official, I often hear of companies hiring people to work for them for expenses only – no pay. People are so desperate to get a foot on the ladder that they agree to this unlawful contract. Other companies ignore laws limiting working hours. Workers stagger home at 2am, knowing that they are expected to return seven hours later.
Perhaps some Liberal Democrats secure in high quality jobs never see the soul-destroying problems that unions deal with day in, day out. For millions of people, their trade union is the only real defence they have against blatant exploitation.
But this government has severely undermined the possibility of ordinary working people obtaining justice at an industrial tribunal. Now the individual has to pay hundreds of pounds merely to apply for a tribunal hearing, and possibly more than £1000 as it goes forward. These fees put justice out of reach for many, many ordinary people. Of course, sensible trade unions will recruit members on the back of it because the only way many ordinary working people could afford justice from now on is going to be via their union which will no doubt pay the fees for them.
In the public sector the Tories, Eric Pickles in particular, are trying to reduce the number of union representatives having paid time off to undertake trade union duties such as representing union members at grievance or disciplinary hearings or on health and safety duties. They are also proposing a new pointless waste of time ordering unions to carry out an annual audit of their membership and demonstrate that their membership figures are accurate. Given that large numbers of union members choose to have their subscription deducted from their pay by the employer and sent to the union, employers already know precisely how many members there are and even who they are.
I hope Liberal Democrats will join the discussion about unions and industrial democracy at SLF conference (more details from http://socialliberal.net/slf-conf-2013/) and listen to Deborah Hargreaves, director of the High Pay Centre, who will be speaking at this session.
It is to Britain’s shame that we lag so far behind the grown-up systems of workplace partnership and industrial democracy so common to many of our European partners. While in Germany, big companies have half their board of directors elected by the workforce, in the UK executive pay is getting further and further separated from that of ordinary workers as there are fewer constraints on corporate greed. This is an area crying out for real Liberal proposals for reform and greater opposition within the Coalition to Conservative attempts to turn the clock back to Dickens.
* Janice Turner was chair of the Young Liberals from 1983-85 and is now a member of SLF Council