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.