Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, or so they say. At the moment there’s lots of it around – the 70th anniversary of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain; Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK was compared (often unfavourably) to his predecessor’s stay back in 1982 and some Unions have been threatening revolt, again. I’m not the first person by a long way to think the political clock has been turned back 30 years (see here and here) . I remember the “Winter of Discontent” and was thoroughly supportive (in 1979) of the oil tanker drivers’ strike which gave us all a couple of extra weeks off school. Those were the days …
However, in 2010 is it really conceivable that the Unions can bring the country to a halt again? In response to the threat of public sector cuts in this latest age of austerity Bob Crow of the RMT has been threatening civil disobedience. Indeed, ignore the cockney accent, squint through your eyes and he could almost be Arthur Scargill c.1984.
Added to this is the election of Ed Miliband to the leadership of the Labour party, on the back of support from the Union sections. The Unions are back! New Labour is Dead! Could civilisation be at risk (the Daily Mail thought so when Michael Foot was elected leader back in 1980)? At last, some real meat and drink back in politics. Although this is an employment law and not a political blog, I’ve been wondering whether Unions serve any useful purpose in the 21st Century. Should they be able to cause disruption to commuters, travellers and users of public services? Where is their democratic legitimacy, apart from in ballots of their (comparatively few) members?
Employment law contains lots of legislation moulded around the unions – think the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act. This deals, amongst many things, with consultation periods in redundancy processes. Also, it is possible for collective awards to be made to employees in TUPE cases where there has been a failure to consult. It is automatically an unfair dismissal to terminate a person’s employment because of union activities. All of these (valuable) rights are enforceable at an Employment Tribunal. They are rights that probably wouldn’t have been secured if the Unions didn’t exist, but now that they have, and with Human Rights and European legislation in place, is there any continuing role for the Unions?
Should their role be no more than trying to ensure their members’ access to justice? Unions perform a valuable role in supporting their members in disciplinary and ET disputes but, having said that, on a number of occasions over the years I have acted for union member clients who have been unhappy with the quality of the representation provided to them or have been turned down for union funded support because of the perceived lack of reasonable prospects of success. And then I’ve gone onto win the case or get a reasonable settlement for them. Many solicitors will have had a similar experience I’m sure.
As Mrs Merton used to say “Let’s have a heated debate”