Unintended Consequences?

It’s another blog post on ET fees. Sorry about that. But hey, I guess it gives regular readers a break from my musings on employee engagement.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a webinar when someone posed the question as to whether the introduction of employment tribunal fees would encourage employees to join trade unions. Whether this might be an unintended consequence of the recent legislation. Something the government hadn’t banked on.

We all know the numbers. A slow, steady and almost continuous decline of trade union membership in the UK since the late 1970s. Increasingly older members. Increasingly public sector based.

But now some of the big unions have put their money where their mouth is and are paying employment tribunals fees for those members who wish to bring a claim against their employer. We are yet to understand how many of those claims that are still being brought are being supported by trade unions. And only time will tell if the recent fall of a cliff claim issue will continue.

But even if some employees join a trade union because they are going to pay an ET fee, is this really the sort of membership that a trade union wants or needs; is it the sort of membership that will stem the tide?

Joining a trade union on the off chance something goes wrong in the future is treating the union more like an insurance policy than an organisation of workers, united in common cause to improve the working conditions of their members. For those members, it’s not about the politics, not about class, or the aims of the collective. The willingness to put the common good over your own personal needs is the essence of trade unionism. Bringing an ET claim is, big equal pay class action type stuff aside, often more of an individual rights thing than an organised labour, collective bargaining thing.

Over the years I have seen plenty of people who have joined a union when they have had a problem. When they have been placed at risk of redundancy, want to raise a grievance, are facing a disciplinary. Never interested before, they suddenly become staunch advocates of workers’ rights, join the union and demand the every attention of its officials for their one month worth of fees. And feel hard done to if the union doesn’t fall over themselves to support them. The payment of a claim fee on behalf of members may just encourage a little more of this behaviour. But do these new members stay members, after the problem is resolved?

Here’s the thing. On a practical level, most people don’t expect things to go wrong. They don’t join a company, all fresh faced and excited on day one, and think about joining the company recognised trade union just in case it doesn’t work out, just in case in a few years hence a problem arises and they need some help with the sticky stuff. If trade union membership is your thing, you will join. If it wasn’t before then it probably won’t be on your induction day either.

Right now, employers can play a harder game than they have been able to do for years. Two years’ service to bring an ET claim. The fees themselves, and now the ACAS hurdle to jump on top. It all adds up to hard work and hard cash on the part of the claimant.

But is this going to be the thing that sends employees back to the unions in their masses? The thing that encourages membership from those currently under represented groups? I’m not convinced. And those that do join, might just be of the short term, uncommitted to the cause variety, and not the sort of member that the unions really need if they are to turn the tide of decline and engage with a whole new cohort.

Only time will tell whether unintended consequences will be.

6 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences?

  1. Some very good points here, Gemma, but for the last 20 years at least (and possibly longer) unions have marketed themselves by emphasising the “products” they offer (cheap insurance, affinity credit cards etc) so it’s hardly surprising if potential members join on the basis of perceived benefits. Arguably that was a response to the loss of members in the 1980s, but I’m not convinced that for a long while people have joined unions out of a sense of collective loyalty.

  2. Some great points as Simon has already pointed out. If there is to be an increase in union membership it wont just be because of ET fee’s. Workers will start joining if the continuing trend of below inflation wage rises, (That’s if they are lucky enough to get one) continuing mis-use of Zero hours contracts etc. continues against a back drop of continuing high bonuses and executive pay, it will seem to most that the very people who got the country into this position & I include politicians of all parties in this have not been affected by it.

    Will people start joining unions? A lot will depend on how quickly growth feeds down to the ordinary working people, The slower the feed the greater the possibility.

  3. As a retired TU official, i can promise you that no union enrols members so they can fight a case, you usually need 6 months membership at least before the case will be taken on. Using the insurance example, no one can get it after their house burns down! Group actions may be different, and you can be sure the smaller unions wont be paying these ridiculous fees just so a new member can have his or her day in court. Their will be occasional exceptions, of course, but i doubt unions will be ambulance chasing.

    • Thanks for the comment. I know most unions have an understandably firm view on this, but I’ve come across many a new member being most put out when they don’t pull out all the stops for their particular issue. It will be interesting to see whether data will be available in due course as to how many fees are union funded. Doubt we will know.

  4. I would endorse Bob’s comments. I am member of the Largest Public Sector Union. It will not represent new members for at least three months after joining regardless of how strong the case or how gross the injustice suffered. Since all political parties long ago abandoned any attempt to give effect to the wishes and aspirations of ordinary people in the workplace, Unions are all we have left.

    • I actually used to work with a large and well known trade union that would represent people from day one – largely based around the willingness of one official to do so. He went above and beyond for these members – I often wondered how long they stayed around when they had got what they needed from him. They were just the sort of people I describe in the post – never members before but demanding of plenty of immediate attention.

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