Why join or stay with ARC?
A personal view from Heather Morrison.
Many people see the union as an expense they don’t need to incur, especially in these tough financial times, when every annual “pay award” is yet another pay cut. After all, it has always been the case that whether you are a union member or not you will still get the same pay award and terms and conditions as everyone else. So why pay so much to be a member?
Many also feel that the union has not distinguished itself in effectively countering issues of particular concern to many members, for example PMR, changes to pensions, year on year pay cuts and the worsening of CSCS terms and wider terms and conditions. ARC’s response is that it has been effective in damage limitation, in making the proposed changes not as bad as they were likely to have been, in the face of an ideologically driven government determined to make changes to the detriment of its employees across the public sector under the excuse and cover of the now very threadbare and passé banner of austerity.
But even if you consider that ARC/FDA has not been sufficiently successful in protecting its members financially, there are still good reasons to belong to a union. Some are altruistic, some more selfish and practical.
The altruistic one is that there is strength in numbers. Only by standing together can we have a voice that will be listened to by our employer, and the more of us that speak together the louder that voice will be.
I had been anything but an ardent supporter of trades unions throughout my life. Indeed, I was pretty hostile towards them as I grew up in the 1970s when many groups of unionised workers seemed to abuse the power they had. I well recall sitting in the dark at home after strikes by utility workers or miners resulted in power being cut off to homes, dockers’ strikes threatened food shortages, the newspaper print workers and various car factory workers always seemed to be on strike—one group of workers after another as the economy reeled. Perhaps the balance of power was too much in the unions’ favour then—you may recall one of the many delightful songs of the time as “…you won’t get me I’m part of the union”… But over the following decades the balance of power has swung more and more against trades unions, whose powers to organise and call strikes has been ever more emasculated, and it is now more the exception than the rule that workers are members of and have strong union representation in the workplace.
The balance of power between an employer and an employee has always been a very unequal one, and trades unions grew up to be part of the balancing up of that.I am humbled when I hear of what people in the past suffered to give us the rights we take for granted today, the courage they must have had to have, and the dire personal consequences to many who stood up for their rights and the rights of others. Think of the early trades unionists and the suffragettes, and the appalling response of the establishment to those individuals that dared to challenge it.
I am humbled when I hear of what people in the past suffered to give us the rights we take for granted today, the courage they must have had to have, and the dire personal consequences to many who stood up for their rights and the rights of others. Think of the early trades unionists and the suffragettes, and the appalling response of the establishment to those individuals that dared to challenge it. The right of a worker to join with other workers and freely associate in a union is recognised internationally as a fundamental human right, but like many human rights they are not always respected, even today in an ostensibly civilised and law abiding country as the UK. You do not have to look far to see the poor conditions for workers in industries where there is no or minimal union membership. Zero hours contracts, the “gig economy” and companies with so-called self-employed workers come to mind.
In 1834 the six Tolpuddle Martyrs—agricultural workers—were arrested and charged with having “taken an illegal oath”, were convicted and transported to Australia as punishment. The “taking of an illegal oath” was an accusation by wealthy landowners and the then establishment as they feared any organised protest by workers, with the French Revolution still fresh in memories. The reason the workers organised and formed a trade union was to protest at their meagre pay which had just suffered a third pay cut in as many years. It was only a massive demonstration in London plus an 800,000 name petition which called the establishment to account, and which led to the martyrs being pardoned and returned to England. But it was not until 1867 that trades unions were decriminalised. They grew in membership and strength over the years, greatly improving socio-economic conditions for workers in many industries.
The election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979 began a steep decline in union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. It fell from 13 million in 1979 to under 6m in 2012, with the proportion of workers in unions falling from 52% to around 25% today. In part this went hand in hand with the reduction in size of many traditional industries—steel, coal, printing, docks—where workers had traditionally been highly unionised. But it also marked the beginning of restrictive legislation on union activities being passed, which has been added to by more recent governments, who see unions as an inconvenient obstacle to their particular view of economic growth and “flexible” working.
Does this downwards drift in union membership matter? It is easy to take good working conditions for granted. But just look how these have been so quickly eroded for us in less than ten years. Consider the rise of the so-called gig economy which has resulted in low and uncertain wages for many with no job security, no sick or holiday pay and with forced designation as self-employed (whatever happened to status inspectors?). Look at how many people working in areas such as retail have been shifted onto zero or minimum hours contracts and don’t know from one week to the next how much they will have to live on. It was the unions who have challenged some of the worst abuses here—and won—in the courts. Many low price low margin industries succeed in their business model only by impoverishing workers, and being very hostile to unionisation, and we are all guilty of benefitting from them—e.g. low cost airlines, internet shopping/delivery companies and cheap sports goods.
One reason given for voting to stay in the EU was to make sure EU laws continued to protect workers’ rights in the UK; the future is now less certain. When certain politicians talk of wanting to see the UK as a “low tax, low regulation country” after Brexit, think what that might mean for workers pay and conditions. Admittedly, not every new labour related regulation passed of late by government has been bad for workers, some have been welcome and overdue, but the future is more uncertain. As we have seen over the past decade, economic difficulties do not lead to generous terms and conditions, and give an excuse to pay us ever more badly. There should also be concern over the ascendancy of right wing views of late, ideologically hostile to the public sector.
Unions have also promoted equal rights. For example taking cases to court—and again winning—where women have been paid less for doing the same work. You will be aware that ARC is currently taking HMRC to court over the absence of progression pay being discriminatory to women; the motivation being that a win could mean everyone lower down the so-called pay scale could benefit from the pay rises/progression denied for so many years. We still await the outcome of the court case.
The other—more directly a reason of self interest—for being a union member is as a sort of insurance policy. Like all insurance, you don’t need it most of the time, but when you need it you really need it. You simply never know, whoever you might be, at whatever grade, when you might have an issue at work where having someone bigger to hold your hand and help you through it can make all the difference. ARC can’t solve all your problems at work. If you do something bad, inadvertently or otherwise, you might still find yourself out of a job, possibly deservedly so, but ARC will still do all it can to support you and mitigate the consequences. There are many instances where ARC intervention has saved someone their job, where it might otherwise have been lost, or have suffered demotion. If your manager or someone else in a position of relative power or influence is behaving unreasonably towards you, in whatever way, then speaking in confidence to ARC about it, and what can be done to help you, can make all the difference. And it does make a difference. Management does tend to pay attention when advised that the union is now involved; they then know that what they have done will be put under scrutiny and procedures and adherence to instructions checked. It is very difficult to do this without support; you can feel very alone and we all know that what we do is never perfect so there are always grounds for criticism, and therefore self-doubt.
A few colleagues who have benefitted from ARC support have kindly agreed to have their anonymised cases published as they want it known how much they appreciated the support they received. The breadth of the sort of areas where members have received help indicates that literally anyone may need help.
A was successful in a trawl on promotion. When A took up post their new manager advised that they would no longer be able to work from home part of the week despite this having been discussed with the vacancy holder prior to applying for the role. This would have had a devastating effect on A’s work life balance as a single parent with 3 young children and a long commute. A was told by the manager that they should therefore consider whether they could take up the role on promotion. A sought advice from the union. They advised that there was a strong argument for indirect sex discrimination, as conditions on promotion were put onto A which particularly discriminated against her as a woman owing to her childcare responsibilities. The caseworker appointed was able to successfully negotiate with the manager and HR to achieve a successful outcome which was to A’s satisfaction and overall advantage.
B found themselves in trouble during a period of huge personal stress. They had lost a close relative and were suffering ill health themselves. Their manager was sympathetic but ‘the job had to be done.’ B soon found themselves marked as must improve which was a further knock to their already fragile self-esteem. Formal action soon followed and B was in very real danger of dismissal. ARC appointed a caseworker who helped the member through a difficult review process, making sure firstly that referrals were made to occupational health and to the wellbeing service providers. They helped to ensure that the performance measures were both appropriate and fair and acted as a touchstone for the member to speak out and get the help they needed at the time they needed it most. The member is now back on an even keel and working in a job they still enjoy.
C was a trainee. They had always sailed through life, good sets of exam results and a good degree. They were proud to be a trainee starting their working life in HMRC. They were surprised as anyone when as the course moved away from computations and onto writing essays or submissions, to find themselves falling behind and failing both exams and work reviews. They just didn’t understand it. They for the first time found themselves struggling as the words in their heads did not match the words on the page. The union stepped in and helped facilitate a difficult conversation with management and also suggested that there might be a medical issue here. C was a high functioning but as yet undiagnosed person with Asperger’s and mild dyslexia. We ensured that the member was helped through the diagnostic process and that referrals were made to the employer’s occupational health adviser. This supported a series of reasonable adjustments in both work and exam situations. They successfully completed the course without any further issues.
If you have an issue on which you would like advice, please contact ARC’s caseworker lead, John Parkhouse.
The Catch 22 in writing an article on the ARC website to encourage people to join ARC is how is it going to be seen by people who are not currently members? So any members reading this who feel it is making a good case to join, please share it with colleagues you know who are not currently members. It is vital that new joiners—trainees and others—join the union. Trainees in particular can find themselves with issues where they need support to keep them on the course and in their job. It used to be the norm for the local District Inspector to have a little chat with new trainees about them joining the union when they started their training in their district. With no more districts, it is down to all of us to encourage new trainees to join. Having ARC members in senior positions is important—and that starts early in their career. Today’s new trainees are tomorrow’s leaders. Senior people who are ARC members can help influence working conditions and attitudes in their area and make union membership be seen as positive and acceptable.
This article might also hopefully reassure anyone thinking of leaving ARC that there are far greater reasons to stay. And of course, for those keen on such things, there are also some members’ benefits negotiated by FDA which can be seen on the FDA website (FDA Portfolio), e.g. savings on insurance, grocery shopping, car hire and cinema tickets.