Last week the Taxpayers’ Alliance published another withering attack on trade unions, on this occasion their ire was directed at the concept of facility time; this is the time off during work that a trade union rep or officer can take to complete their duties. The amount of time needed to complete those duties really depends on whether the employer in question is any good or not, since duties usually include representing members in some way. If an employer was perfect, in some imaginary world, facility time would be a thing of the past.
The Taxpayers Alliance, which is certainly an alliance, but not made up of taxpayers, often has a pop at trade unions when they’ve run out of other areas of workers’ protections at which to direct their anger. Facility time crops up ad infinitum in their documents, alongside publishing the wages of union officials (which is authorised by the membership), lobbying for the Trade Union Act to become law long before it was in its formative phase, which areas trade unions are strongest (and thus dangerous) etc. etc. – I want to use this blog post to explain why facility time is not only necessary but a force for good in the workplace but first I’d like to mention something about the Taxpayers Alliance and its structure.
The TA is the most perniciously named body in public life. It makes sure it operates just inside the “small company” tranche of employment law so it is exempt from… tax audits. Its funders are a mixture of Tory donors and shady businessmen including construction magnates (aka blacklisters) McAlpine and Bamford. We only know this because those people themselves have come forward – The “Who Funds You” project which aims to promote transparency in the funding of think tanks have labelled the TA less transparent than most other think tanks. Whoever it is that does fund the alliance, they have the cheek to claim TAX RELIEF on their own donations to the right-wing group. But then, that should no surprise given their non-executive director, Alexander Heath, has not paid any British taxes for years since he is self-exiled to the Loire Valley.
The TA show everything that is wrong with our current “churnalism” style of media – get the story out, and fact check it later when the damage is done and people have moved on to another scandal. TA Press Releases are treated as statements of fact; there is never any caveat about what the group is, for whom they work and the ulterior motives for their “research”; which is a smaller state, lower corporate taxes and less regulation on business. They are not an independent body and they represent a small clique of ideologues who lack the grace to even tell us who they are. The TUC on the other hand, which represents over 6 million paid-up individual British workers, is rarely given the platform to respond, and when they are it is with obvious contempt by the broadcaster in question, whoever it is, from BBC to Sky to Talk radio.
Now, on Facility Time, the TA often insinuate that trade unionists are given paid time off for all sorts of things, this is nonsense. There are very specific parameters to FT and they have to be covered with what are termed trade union “duties”, as opposed to trade union “activities”. Generally the difference can be summed up as duties being dealing directly with members and the employer on things such as pay, terms and conditions or grievance and discipline while activities are internal union matters such as branch meetings, union policy making, recruitment and campaigning. Some individual workplaces may have an agreement with the recognised union(s) that includes some activities in to their paid facility time, but this is a local issue and time off for duties only is the legal responsibility. A full list of what duties means can be found in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
Just as a quick aside to this as well; when the TA and other Tory related groups talk of “paid time off” they allude to trade unionists being paid to take time off; they are not paid anything. Being a trade unionist is a completely voluntary role (unless you are a paid officer and that money comes from union members), often involving high-stress situations and use of negotiating and mediating skills that will often be way above the pay grade the trade unionist is on. All it means is that the trade unionist isn’t losing what they would normally be earning while away on trade union duties – usually this is for a quick meeting with a member or HR representative, not for days or weeks at a time. While the trade unionist is away someone else is supposed to cover their work; this is rarely if ever done, so the work still needs to be done by that individual later on.
In 2007 a rare, but full, cost-benefit analysis of trade union facility time was done by what is now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The report stated that “the overall benefits from the funded provision of trade union facility time in the public sector will be a proportion of those – when updated – from the BERR report because this included both the public and private sectors. The working assumption used to divide the calculated accrued benefit is that of 60% – this being related to the proportion of union members to be found in the public sector…. In using this working assumption, it should also be borne in mind that the accrued benefits for the taxpayer relate to the entire workforce in the public sector and not just union members because of coverage of collective bargaining. Any ‘benefits’ of union representation are spread across the whole workforce, not just those in membership.”
The report also goes on to mention the following facts:
- Dismissal rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps– this resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £107m-£213m per annum
- Voluntary exit rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps, which again resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £72m-143m per annum
- Employment tribunal cases are lower in unionised workplaces with union reps resulting in savings to government of £22m-43m per annum
- Workplace-related injuries were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps so resulting in savings to employers of £126m-371m per annum
- Workplace-related illnesses were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps so resulting in savings to employers of £45m-207m per annum
Essentially this equates to every £1 spent on facility time by employers (using even the dodgy analysis from the Taxpayers’ Alliance) equates to between £2 and £5 gained by the same employers. It is worth remembering also, that this report is 10 years old now so inflation dictates that these benefits have only increased over time. Also, benefits that cannot be quantified in areas such as increased productivity and working confidence are bound to have increased alongside the fiscal gains in unionised workplaces, both in the private and public spheres. Not to mention the amount of discipline and grievance cases that are dealt with early on thanks to efficient union representation, meaning less endless “he said, she said” cases for HR to deal with.
More recently the University of Leeds carried out research to point out the amount of work trade union reps do for which they are paid nothing amounts to over 250,000 hours, or £3.84m a week. Proper paid Facility time covers just 0.1% of weekly hours worked and the money spent on this by employers nationally equals just 0.07% of the national wage bill. Meanwhile workers education through the Union Learning Fund benefits employers with increased skills sets and creates an additional £895 million to employees in the form of enhanced life time earnings – this means higher tax returns for the Chancellor and a lower unemployment benefit bill as those unlucky enough to find themselves out of work, won’t be for long.
What groups like the Taxpayers Alliance’ really want, when you read between the lines of any of their output, is the destruction of the last bastion of defence for workers and their rights. Were it around 150 years ago the Taxpayers Alliance would have been publishing reports on the benefits of child labour, the 14 hour day, why days off were for the workshy, why workplace accidents were useful in keeping people on their toes and why deaths at work kept poor relief down – this is what work was like before trade unions. They don’t have workers’ interests at heart, and they certainly don’t have taxpayers at heart when you look at the contempt with which they hold the philosophy of taxation. Trade unions are a force for good; join one, before it’s too late, because we are only as strong as our members allow us to be.