Tories set sights on trade union reps

The fallout from the pandemic has been seen by many in the corporate world as an ideal opportunity to change the terms and conditions of their workforce. Once again we have a Conservative government that is asking ordinary working people to become poorer, while MPs line their pockets with second jobs and the salaries of company CEOs skyrocket. It is therefore no great surprise that trade unions have once again entered the crosshairs of the Tories and the hard right dominated media.

It seems these days that any attempt to defend the rights of workers, or merely ask for wages to keep up with inflation, will mean you are labelled by the media as either a Marxist, a dinosaur from the 1970s, or both.

My MP Richard Fuller is the latest of a long line to join in the union bashing. On the 27th of June, he wrote to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister of State, Brexit Opportunities, recommending a cap on trade union representatives’ facility time within the public sector. The letter is in full below.

Letter from NE Beds MP Richard Fuller to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg

Where do we begin with this?! This well worn attack line on trade unions is clearly an attempt to piggyback on what Tory MPs see as a wave of revulsion against working people standing up for their terms and conditions. Judging by the results from various opinion polls on the actions of the strikers, as well as the response to Richard Fuller’s post, I believe he has misjudged the mood of his constituents and the wider public.

Mr Fuller quotes ‘recent research’ but neglects to provide a source. However, I can reveal that the source is the Taxpayers’ Alliance ‘Public sector trade union facility time’ paper published in June 2022. You can read the paper in full via a link at the bottom of this blog.

While £98,126,371 (the actual figure) may seem like a substantial amount of money, this pales into insignificance if you compare this to the total spending of MPs which was £132,500,000 over the same period. This figure does not include the salaries of MPs which was £81,932 over the same time period 2020-2021. Again, a link to this information is provided at the bottom of this blog.

MPs can claim up to £25 a day for food and can reclaim travel season ticket costs in full – no wonder that the government seems very relaxed about rail ticket price increases, as it has zero impact on their finances. Further, they can also claim up to £175 a night for hotel expenses. With our representatives so insulated from the financial struggles faced by the majority of the public, is it any surprise that they create policies that fail to take into account, and often worsen, the relentless daily grind faced by ordinary people? Finally, and I have by no means included all the allowable expenses of our Parliamentarians, members of the House of Lords can claim up to £323 a day through an ‘attendance allowance’ – and they do not pay any tax on this.

Now I know a fair number of MPs personally, including Mr Fuller, and am aware of how hard they work for their constituents. I am not suggesting that expenses should not be permitted, but perhaps we should look at the above before attempting to limit the vital work that union reps carry out in workplaces across the UK.

Mr Fuller frames the £98m spent on facility time as a ‘cost’ to the taxpayer. However, this completely ignores the substantial savings to businesses and the taxpayer as a result of the work of union reps. In 2007 the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) found that the work of union reps resulted in;

  • Savings to employers and the exchequer of between £22m – £43m as a result of reducing the number of Employment Tribunal cases;
  • Benefits to society worth between £136m – £371m as a result of reducing working days lost due to workplace injury and;
  • Benefits to society worth between £45m – £207m as a result of reducing work-related illness.

Further, using the same formulae as used in the BERR report, but using updated figures, it is estimated that the work of union reps results in;

  • Overall productivity gains worth between £4bn to 12bn to the UK economy;
  • Savings of at least £19 million as a result of reducing dismissals;
  • Savings to employers of between £82m – £143m in recruitment costs as a result of reducing early exits.

On a personal level, as a union health and safety rep, I know that the work that me and my colleagues undertake to make the workplace safer for our members, also makes it a safer environment for our passengers. I should also point out that much of the work undertaken by union representatives is outside of work and unpaid, a point recognised by the BERR who estimated union reps contribute 100,000 hours of their own time each week to their role.

So far from being a cost to society, union representatives are a significant resource to workplaces across the UK and bring a substantial net benefit in financial terms to the taxpayer. This lazy and populist attempt to pit the public against unions under the guise of cost to the taxpayer should be seen for what it is, a blatant attack on organised labour. The Tories, backed by a hard-right dominated print media are falling over themselves talking of a ‘return to the 70s’ and ‘union barons’ who pull the wool over the eyes of their membership – they clearly haven’t ever met any rank and file union members! Even the more balanced broadcast media roll out tired old cliches of union members engaging in violence on the picket lines and union leaders whose prime motive is to convert the UK to communism.

Kay Burley interviewing RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch on 21st June – I don’t see Mr. Lynch getting flustered here…
Richard Madeley interviewed Mick Lynch on 22nd June.

It was heartening to see Mick Lynch, the RMT General Secretary, calmly and forensically rebutting the usual attack lines on unions put forward by the media. Just as our parliament has a dearth of working-class representation, you have to question whether any of the interviewers who spoke to Mick Lynch had ever actually been on a picket line. We need more working-class representation in Parliament, but we also need greater balance in our print and broadcast media. See Dan Walker’s interview below to show how an interview can be conducted without resorting to tired union-bashing tropes.

Dan Walker’s interview with Mick Lynch on 22nd June.

Labour’s attitude to the strikes has so far been lukewarm, to say the least. Obviously concerned that they may fall into the trap of being seen to back unpopular and disruptive strikes they have sat on the fence and stated that they back all working people, not just those who are on strike. This position was cemented by a Labour Minister refusing to support striking British Airways workers – a position that they later retracted and apologised for. While politically I understand this cautious approach, the fence-sitting appears weak and it risks being seen by many as a party waiting to see which way the wind blows rather than having the courage of their convictions.

As inflation is set to increase further over the coming months and with further energy price rises coming up before the next winter, there is likely to be further industrial unrest across many sectors of the economy and more and more people falling into poverty as wages continue to fall in real terms. Many will face a choice this winter between heating and eating. The Tories and particularly Boris Johnson from his time as London Mayor see the rail unions as ‘unfinished business’ and want to destroy their influence as a warning to workers in other industries not to rock the boat.

Over the coming months, you are likely to see many more examples of the Tories and the media attempting to pitch workers against each other, the train driver against the nurse, the post worker against the care worker. It is the classic tactic of ‘divide and rule’. With the Tories prepared to scrap limits on bankers’ bonuses and happy to accept second jobs at hourly pay rates of up to £625 an hour do we really need to be told whose side they are on?

Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s 2nd Job entry in the Register of MPs interests.

What can you do? If you’re not in a union join one. You can find a union for your workplace in the link below:

Unionised workplaces are safer and apart from having the collective power of your union to negotiate better terms and conditions for you, you will have a representative to assist you with any issues with your employer.

Judging by the response to Mr Fuller’s social media post which included the above letter, it would appear that many of his constituents are recognising that, far from being militants who are holding the country to ransom, rail workers are just the vanguard of what is likely to be a concerted push from workers not to passively accept being made poorer while CEOs pocket millions in bonuses and shareholders receive bumper dividends.

Of course, we shouldn’t be anti-business, but we should expect that businesses are run ethically. We have seen in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy what happens when the pursuit of profit is prioritised above people. When it comes to a choice between CEOs with their bumper pay and key workers forced to rely on foodbanks, I know whose side I’m on, Labour needs to make crystal clear which side of the fence they sit on too.

Julian Vaughan

June 2022

Join the Labour party here:

Further reading:

The facts about facility time for trade union reps – TUC October 2011

Public sector trade union facility time – Taxpayers Alliance June 2022:

The cost of MPs – Taxpayers Alliance January 2022’_expenses_2020-21.pdf?1642701013

House of Lords – financial support for members

How to get trade union recognition in your workplace

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