Removing the hidden taxpayer subsidy which meets the salaries of trade union representatives in workplaces across the public services would be a body blow to the British trade union movement.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has thrown down the gauntlet to union leaders: if widespread industrial action is going to be used to block measures such as the reform of public sector pensions, then the coalition government is ready to retaliate with the withdrawal of the agreement allowing union business to be conducted during paid time at work.
More commonly known as shop stewards – especially in the confrontational language of the 1980s – trade union representatives are the backbone of the union movement. If subsidies worth an estimated £86 million were withdrawn and union reps were only able to operate during out-of-office hours, their ability to offer assistance to union members would be significantly curtailed.
According to the latest figures 360 civil servants are engaged full time on union business during working hours and another 2,000 have a part-time role, at an annual cost to the Treasury of £19 million. There are thousands more union reps across the public sector in hospitals, local authorities, transport services etc.
Most employees in the state sector have agreements allowing their elected officials to spend “a reasonable amount of work time with pay” conducting trade union affairs. Their tasks include ensuring the implementation of agreed working practices, handling staff grievances and representing union members during disciplinary procedures.
But during the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the closed shop when union membership was often compulsory, some managers in the nationalised industries and public services lost the will to manage and handed over too much power to militant shop stewards.
Sir Michael Edwardes described the “state of chaos” he discovered in the state-owned car factories when he became chairman of British Leyland in 1977. Managers had abdicated major functions to shop stewards who from their own offices inside the car factories were virtually dictating the speed of production lines.
During the rolling strikes of the 1978-9 “winter of discontent” I recall visiting hospitals and being told by management that I should contact the shop stewards’ office along the hospital corridor to find out whether patients would be admitted next day.
And more recently, during the long-running industrial dispute at British Airways, the then chief executive Willie Walsh frequently complained about the activities of cabin crew who had become full-time shop stewards at BA’s expense and who were promoting strike action rather than seeking a settlement.
But for all the horror stories of the past and the era of shop steward Fred Kite in the 1959 film I’m Alright Jack, there is much to be said in support of trade union representatives of today.
Without their presence in multi-task, multi-shift workplaces, many hard-pressed union members would lack an effective voice when there are difficult and complex negotiations about new working practices, plant closures, redundancies and the like.
Successive governments have recognised the need for an effective trade union voice and grants for training schemes have helped work place representatives to up their game. Many of the managers with whom they negotiate are also union members and they too recognise the need for workers to have a competent union steward.
Francis Maude will need to proceed with caution: if the established network of trade union representatives was neutered, unofficial disputes would be more difficult to control and new working practices harder to enforce.
Nicholas Jones is author of Strikes and the Media (Basil Blackwell, 1986) and The Lost Tribe: Whatever happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? (www.nicholasjones.org.uk, March2011).