A careful balancing act

18th May 2012 at 01:00
Tough economic times and well-publicised strikes mean union reps are increasingly coming under attack for their taxpayer-funded activities

"You patronising little woman. I loathe lefties like you - people who think they can leech off the taxpayer. Why not get the unions to fund your job, instead of the hard-pressed Haringey taxpayer? We're coming after you ."

Julie Davies, NUT rep for the north London borough and the recipient of this vicious email, was stunned. When she had been alerted that someone had used the Freedom of Information Act to request details about how much her trade union duties cost the local authority, she had simply decided to find out why. She had emailed a few details of her role and responsibilities to the local authority officer in charge of such things and enquired why the man in question wanted them.

"The reply was pretty abusive," she says, quietly. Even more shocking was that the correspondent in question was, at the time (May 2009), a leading local Conservative activist. Davies decided to shrug off the exchange and didn't think any more about it.

But she could never have imagined how prophetic the threat would prove to be. And last winter, more than two and a half years later, things became even more personal. This time, the trigger was the now notorious case of Downhills Primary, a school in Haringey that had been issued by Ofsted with a notice to improve owing to its low Sats results, but that was, according to its supporters, improving.

Then, after an inspection in December 2011, it emerged that education secretary Michael Gove was "minded" to make an academy order, effectively forcing Downhills to convert to academy status. This provoked outrage in the local community, and the later revelation that the Harris Federation - the academy chain sponsored by carpet magnate Lord Harris of Peckham - had been chosen to take over the school served only to fan the flames.

Political enemies

Davies insists that she spoke out as a supporter of - not the instigator behind - the campaign against the move by parents, teachers and governors. "We've got 22 (NUT) members at Downhills," she explains. "They don't want to work for `Harris Carpets' - I am going to be involved on their behalf. It's not political meddling; they are very concerned." In a letter published in The Guardian at the time, she wrote: "Michael Gove wants an academy to claim all the credit for the school's hard work. Private sponsors would love to get their hands on Downhills; the work's all done for them."

Downhills quickly became a cause clbre for those at both ends of the political spectrum and Davies found herself at the eye of the national media storm. One Friday afternoon in January, she returned home from work to news that a reporter from the London Evening Standard had been looking for her. Two days later, another journalist knocked on her door. "Have they confused me with somebody else?" Davies tweeted that evening, perplexed by the sudden interest in her.

But the headline in the following day's newspaper made it all too clear. "pound;300,000 spent on NUT official who hasn't taught for 12 years", it read. Davies had been identified by "Gove's elves and pixies", as she describes them, as a "pilgrim"; a pejorative term for union reps coined after nurse Jane Pilgrim hit the headlines when it emerged she was actually a full- time rep for the Unison public sector union. The timing was worth noting: Pilgrim had criticised health secretary Andrew Lansley.

Now it was Davies' turn to be accused of agitating against the government at taxpayers' expense, with Conservative MP Nick de Bois describing her role as a "scandalous waste of taxpayers' money".

But that comment was tame compared with other abuse hurled Davies' way. The right-wing Guido Fawkes blog put up two posts about her that generated more than 430 comments, many littered with obscenities and criticisms of Davies' looks, sexual habits and morals. "I wonder how this parasite fills her day when there's (sic) no strikes on," one commenter wrote.

"There were some horrible remarks on there," Davies recalls. Even Gove had a go. "We have had an NUT official", he told the Commons Education Select Committee, "who operates at taxpayers' expense, leading that . Trot campaign." It was a surreal experience for Davies, who regards herself as being towards the right of the NUT's political spectrum.

But her case does highlight clearly just how contentious the issue of trade union facility time has become. For while there has long been simmering resentment among the unions' critics that their activities are partially subsidised by the taxpayer, the events of 2011, with the row over pensions, saw the issue come to the fore.

Divided opinion

On 30 November, more than 2 million public-sector workers went on strike in what was the biggest demonstration of unrest in a generation. But while thousands of banners were being printed and rallies organised, the unions' opponents were sharpening their claws. Five days before the strike, a report by the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) - a right-leaning pressure group with links to the Tories - reported that trade unions received pound;113 million of government funding in 2010-11, including pound;80 million-worth of facility time. The equivalent of more than 2,800 full-time public sector staff were involved in work for the unions, it claimed.

On the day of the strike, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review of the funding for trade union facility time in the public sector.

The Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC), created specifically to tackle the issue, is working to prevent union officers carrying out union duties in publicly funded work time. It is also opposed to unions being given offices rent free in schools, hospitals and councils.

The fact that the TURC is led by Aidan Burley - the Conservative MP fired as a ministerial aide after claims that he attended a Nazi-themed stag party and hired an SS costume - has done little to ease the unions' concerns.

But the TURC has support from many prominent figures, not least Cameron himself. In a letter to Burley, the prime minister wrote: "I strongly believe the current level of public subsidy to the trade unions cannot be sustained, either morally or economically.

"At a time when across the private and public sectors people are having to take very difficult decisions in order to save money, it is difficult to justify some people in the public sector not being paid to do the job they are employed for, but instead to undertake full-time trade union activities - much of this should be funded by the unions themselves."

The TURC, according to chief executive Mark Clarke, does not oppose the trade unions' right to exist or campaign. But it does oppose them being given public money. "We are employing people to be teachers and they are not teaching because they are doing union work," he says. "That's wrong. In a time of public-sector cuts, we are using taxpayers' money to fund what we regard as, at best, non-jobs and, at worst, obstructionist jobs.

"There is evidence that people who receive facility time are heavily involved in campaigning against academies and free schools. They are certainly very much on the front line of the anti-academy campaigns. They seem to have an awful lot of free time to do it. It is scandalous to think that parents fighting to create free schools and academies are forced to pick up the bill for the salaries of the trade unionists who oppose them."

Clarke believes that even rank-and-file union members have reservations about their union representatives. "People who are full-time reps tend to take up more senior roles in the unions - they seem to have an awful lot of time to go to conferences and make deals. They don't tend to be the genuine volunteers, who are doing the union work in their lunchtimes and evenings. It's the trade union members themselves who tell us what it's like."

Clarke argues that the original intent behind facility time - to give union reps the protection they need from "nasty managers", allowing them to protect workers - has been subverted by "extreme radicals beyond the mainstream Left of British politics, who have managed to be funded for their political activism by taxpayers' funding".

"It's just wrong; it's off the scale of wrong," he exclaims.

Brian Lightman's role as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) means he has to take a holistic approach to the issue. As the leader of a trade union himself, he is a passionate supporter of the concept that employers should foot the bill for maintaining a good relationship with their workers.

"We believe facility time should be given to union reps, it is part of the employment costs of an organisation. It is good employment practice," he insists.

But equally, with the ASCL representing the interests of many of the headteachers who come into conflict with classroom union reps, he is acutely aware of the problems they can cause. "Trade union reps are there to represent their members. They will raise issues that are of concern for their members. It is going to be a potential area of conflict. We do hear about incidents with some individuals who get a bit carried away (with cases). We do find local problems; we try to work with the other unions to resolve them."

A self-funding system?

The crux of the problem is, of course, the thorny issue of who foots the bill. In January this year, Conservative MP Jesse Norman tabled a bill before the Commons, calling for employers to be refunded for trade union work by the unions themselves.

"Inevitably, some union reps will be tempted to engage in political activity during time funded by the taxpayer . the conflict between political activity and taxpayer funding would be removed if unions were required to refund public money received," he told MPs.

The proposal was promptly voted down, largely thanks to vehement opposition from Labour MPs. But among those who voted against it was Tory MP Robert Halfon, who warned against framing the debate in the simplistic terms of the Left versus the Right.

Explaining the decision in his blog, Halfon wrote: "I do not believe it should be the duty of the state to dictate to intermediate, independent institutions, whether it be trade unions or charities, in this way. It should be up to employers to decide whether or not to fund trade union activities.

"Some facility time is useful, in that union representatives have the time and ability to look after union members and offer constructive advice when there are disputes between workers and management.

"I strongly believe that Conservatives should move away from `union bashing' and work constructively with moderate trade unions. Behind every militant, so often unions on the ground embody the Big Society, are community institutions and offer invaluable services to their members."

Halfon went on to cite Margaret Thatcher - the ultimate bogeywoman for many on the Left - who in 1975 said: "For over 100 years, ever since Disraeli's day, since before the Labour Party existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit but that it should assist the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members."

On the union side, the picture is equally complex. While the unions themselves have traditionally been staunch supporters of Labour, they are - formally at least - politically independent. Teachers, however, represent all points on the political compass. "Our members would hate it if we were affiliated to a particular party," Davies admits. "In Haringey, there's a good spread of Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters (among NUT members)."

It seems that conflict between the Right and the reps is not necessarily inevitable - but it tends to flare up as a result of specific political flashpoints.

For Davies, it was the Downhills dispute. In the case of union stalwart Hank Roberts, it was the pan-union national pensions strike on 30 June 2011 that sparked widespread infamy.

Since starting as a geography teacher in 1973, Roberts has become a prominent figure within all three of the main teaching unions, and has personally spearheaded a campaign to unify the NUT, the NASUWT and the ATL. In September, he will become ATL president. With the right-wing media keen to undermine the industrial action, Roberts was an easy target.

Four days before the strike, the Daily Mail ran a story revealing that local authorities had spent pound;13.6 million paying teaching union reps. The newspaper highlighted the example of Roberts, who used to teach at Copland Community School in Brent, northwest London, as a union rep who no longer works at the chalkface. He was held up as a scapegoat for the hundreds of union reps across the country who, the Daily Mail wrote, "provide no public service". The story alleged that Roberts had used his publicly funded union rep role to "bully" staff into going on strike.

Spending money to save money

Roberts was livid. "There's obviously an agenda there," he says. "I just think, `address the issue'. Play the ball and not the man." The claims were untrue, he explains. "I missed the union meeting at the school to discuss (the strike). I wasn't even there . I took out a libel action."

In February, Roberts made another more gratifying appearance in the Daily Mail. This time it was in the corrections and clarifications column. "We accept that Mr Roberts did not bully anyone," the item said, "and are happy to set the record straight." Roberts grins. "We settled on terms that were very satisfactory. They printed an apology on page two. It was extremely nice. But reasonable behaviour would have averted the whole thing."

Now semi-retired, Roberts works as a union rep three days a week. His days in the classroom are over. But the argument in favour of facility time, he believes, is simple. "Many private firms, especially larger ones, give their union reps time off work to do with industrial relations . They do that because it helps their bottom line, it saves them money by having good industrial relations. It saves them money by not having to go to an employment tribunal and get cases awarded against them. They wouldn't do it, those private firms, if it didn't save them money.

"If it saves a private firm money, might it save a council money to have union people, who spend most of their time arranging compromise agreements . sorting out disputes?"

The TPA report counters by claiming that, in the private sector, facility time accounts for 0.04 per cent of the annual pay bill, around a third of the equivalent figure for the public sector (0.14 per cent).

But Roberts is adamant that, rather than agitating, reps work to serve their members; they act on their teachers' views. And he is unconvinced that cutting facility entitlements would dilute the unions' influence. "You will not stop the members, if they feel aggrieved, from being prepared to ballot for strike action. And they are legally entitled to do so."

A report by the Trades Union Congress, published in January, estimates that facility time saves the public sector between pound;223 million and pound;586 million a year. It supports claims in a 2007 report by the former Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that the numbers of dismissals, resignations and employment tribunals - not to mention workplace-related illnesses and injuries - are lower in unionised workplaces.

"For every pound;1 spent on trade union facility time in the public sector . between pound;2 and pound;5 is returned in accrued benefits on the measures of the costs of dismissal and exit rates. That is a very good return on investment," it says.

It is an argument passionately supported by Roberts. In 2009, he discovered that almost pound;2 million had been paid to former senior staff at Copland in bonuses and "unwarranted payments" - a case he believes could have been averted - which highlights the kind of financial benefits that union reps can bring. "You'd have to pay a union rep a lot of facilities money for him to get pound;1.9 million," he says.

Having one union rep in a local authority, representing members in all the schools, means the least disruption for pupils, Davies believes.

Whereas critics of union facility time perceive being a rep as an easy way to pick up a decent wage without having to set foot in a classroom, Davies says that, professionally, becoming a rep can be a dead end.

"A lot of union reps give up career opportunities," she says. "My ability to work my way up through the ranks at the school where I work is basically curtailed by being the union rep. I'm not someone who goes round being rude to people and pointing out faults, but you are always challenging people, pointing out their mistakes. It's probably not the best basis for a promotion."

Davies is sceptical about the benefits of asking the unions, rather than local authorities, to pay for facility time. The only way to afford this, she says, would be to pass the cost directly on to members. And that throws up problems.

The fact that unions have two core purposes is at the heart of the predicament in which union reps have found themselves. They have to represent their individual members by providing support and advice, while at the same time representing teachers' collective interests through public and political campaigning. Juggling these two interests is no mean feat.

Davies recognises that the duality of the unions' core purpose is likely to remain a divisive issue. "It's a tough job," she says.

Only one thing is certain. In an increasingly hostile political environment, it is not going to get any easier.


According to Julie Davies, their duties include:

- representing members in disciplinary hearings

- dealing with grievances and sickness

- monitoring meetings, capability cases and tribunals (she argues that these would have to take place at weekends if no reps were available during the week)

- negotiating at authority level on conditions of service, policies and procedures, health and safety concerns, continuing professional development and escalated disputes

- training for other reps

- serving on various committees.


Union reps are allowed to use facility time for matters connected with:

- grievance and disputes procedures that have been agreed between the teachers' associations at authority level, the local education authority and governing bodies

- responsibilities of the teacher representatives to their unions (for example, attendance as delegates at their national conferences)

- responsibilities of the teacher representatives to support their members in schools

- functions connected with the teacher training of members, including attendance at training courses arranged by recognised teacher organisations at national, regional or authority level. Consultation with the authority will be part of those functions.

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