Plans to clamp down on trade union activity are “a major attack on civil liberties” and could lead to a breakdown in relations between school and college staff and their employers, according to one top academic.
The Trade Union Bill, which increases voting thresholds for strike action, is “counterproductive”, “ideologically driven” and “out of date”, said Ian Cunningham, professor of employment relations at the University of Strathclyde.
Mr Cunningham made the comments as teaching unions expressed concerns about the plans, which will reduce reps’ facility time and stop members automatically paying into political funds.
Failing to allow teachers a voice in the workplace or preventing them from taking industrial action could force them to vent their frustrations in other ways, or leave the profession altogether, the academic said.
Professor Cunningham told TESS: “Unions can help solve workplace problems before they come to a head. Union members are not agitators, they are ordinary people responding to and seeking representation for difficult issues that can arise.
“I would share the concerns of organisations such as Amnesty International and Liberty that this bill is a major attack on civil liberties. Moreover, I would agree with professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development that it is an out-of-date response to issues in the modern workplace. It is counterproductive and ideologically driven.”
‘No room for complacency’
The Scottish government has described the Trade Union Bill as “an attack on workers” and said it would “vigorously” oppose it.
Local authorities umbrella body Cosla has said it will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the unions, vowing to “honour and protect existing industrial relations arrangements in local government”.
However, Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, warned that teachers should not be complacent as local authorities might still choose to exercise the powers in the bill.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said the headline-grabbing parts of the bill were not the most dangerous. Plans by the Westminster government to impose higher voting thresholds for strike ballots were “undemocratic” but could be worked around by moving from national to local action, he said. However, he voiced concerns about the proposals for facility time and the political levy.
“School reps are the backbone of the EIS,” Mr Flanagan said. “We have around 4,000 reps and they are the first port of call for teachers. Currently they get time remission to represent colleagues in different fora – back-to-work interviews, to represent members who have concerns, to sit on local negotiating committees. To take away facility time is to undermine a union’s ability to function.”
Getting union members to pay into political funds, meanwhile, was not just about filling Labour Party coffers, he said. It was important that unions had money to campaign ahead of elections on issues such as class sizes and, potentially, national standardised assessments.
Mr Searson said: “The UK government is determined to paint the trade unions as the bad boys, but trade unions work with employers to sort problems out. Without them in schools things can fester and get out of hand.”
For the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS), the most concerning aspect of the bill was the proposal to abolish “check off”, the practice whereby union membership fees are deducted directly from salaries. Greg Dempster, the union’s general secretary, said this would create “a big administrative issue”.
The Trade Union Bill: key elements
At least a 50 per cent voting turnout of union members will be required for ballots on industrial action to be valid. In addition, teaching unions would need the backing of at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote.
The government would have the power to introduce a cap on the amount of money public authorities can spend on facility time.
There would be an end to the ban on using agency workers to replace striking staff.
The number of days’ notice a union must provide ahead of a strike would be raised from seven to 14.
Members would have to “opt in” to paying the political levy.
The practice of “check off”, whereby union membership fees are deducted directly from salaries, would be abolished.