Michael Reed is a solicitor and principal legal officer for the Free Representation Unit (the FRU). I should say at the outset that I have immense respect for the work of the FRU (and if you can, I would encourage you to support them).
As a union rep I have also referred cases to FRU and always been impressed with their work in securing good results for our members.
All of the above is by way of preamble to introducing a post Michael has posted on power relations in employment. Here’s a taster:
If we’re worried about people being mistreated and exploited in employment, the people we need to be concerned about are those who lack power. That means people working in unskilled and commoditised jobs, who are likely lack the cultural capital and personal characteristics to balance the employer’s power.
The point of employment law, really, is to give those people, without other sources, a bit of power. That, we hope, means they will be treated better than they otherwise would.
That’s what makes things like employment tribunal fees and zero-hours contracts so dangerous. They take power away from people who are already in an unbalanced power relationship with their employer. And the more unbalanced that dynamic becomes, the more likely they are to be badly treated.
There really is nothing in the post itself to disagree with. It is certainly the case that the greater the power differential in employment (as in the rest of society) the greater the extent of exploitative employment practices. Sometimes this is down to plain exploitation (I am thinking here of companies like Sports Direct who keep the majority of their staff on vulnerable employment contracts); but equally, sometimes there dynamic comes from more ‘soft power’ sources such as being from the same social grouping as ‘the bosses’, being a skilled worker (and thus harder to replace), or even just being more erudite.
But what baffles me about Michael Reed’s post is the complete absence of any reference to trade unions. Although trade union membership has undoubtedly declined in the last three decades it still remains the largest political grouping in the UK, at just under 6 million workers. And although a significant percentage of trade unionism is within the public sector there are signs that the levels of membership private sector are on the rise.
Power in the workplace as it relates to trade unions works in different ways. On one level there there are occasions where a union being present or asking questions reduces inequitable treatment. On a personal level this does sometimes happen in disciplinary and grievance cases. A worker raises a question and they have no joy resolving an issue or are subject to disciplinary proceedings on tenuous grounds but when a union rep is involved the employer takes a different tact – more assiduously complying with fair processes for example.
To give a recent example I was recently approached by a union member who had had about 10 days annual leave from his allowance at the end of a leave year. He had previously tried to book that leave earlier in the year but had been refused and when he tried to book it again he was again refused as ‘he did not give enough notice’ despite giving trying to book over one month in advance. Despite the member escalating the issue through their line management chain they had no joy – however, after coming to PCS a simple question about how their decisions could be consistent with the Working Time Regulations resulted in the decision being overturned. Because of union intervention that member did not have lose 10 days leave and this was done without any need for an unlawful deduction of wages claim using an employment tribunal.
But the advantage is not just personal. One of the problems of modern trade unionism is it has a tendency to follow the individualistic turn or broader society. It is this type of tendency that leads to the the trade union as individual insurance policy type of approach. The main benefit of trade unions is on the collective rather than purely individual level, this is what TUC refer to as the Union Advantage. Trade Unions do deliver benefits to employees. Where a union is recognised for collective bargaining (which can only happen if individual membership reaches a critical density) members do get better pay and conditions of service which themselves minimises the power differential Michael Reed referenced. At it’s most basic that power is itself in the hands of members themselves. Individually an employee can be picked off by an employer and reject their grievances but if each employee stands together – for example, by unanimously taking industrial action together – those same grievances can be remedied. It is the union, therefore, that offers a remedy to the power differential which Reed referred, even more than an employment law system whether access to it is restricted or not.
I will leave you with the Billy Brag classic There is Power in a Union. But before I do so if you are not a trade union member why not join today? Not only is it in your interests but also in the interests of your colleagues.