Guest post by Lawrence Shaw, NUJ Assistant Organiser (North and Midlands of England). Personal capacity.
Does anyone recall the momentous day in the spring of 2008 when the Tories hired an envoy to approach trade unions after more than 25 years of not talking to each other?
This trivial shift of posture was exaggeratingly hailed as a major change in Conservative Party ideology. No longer did “the old antagonisms” between the Tories and the unions exist, the corpulent Eric Pickles told a bemused Tory conference in Manchester in 2009. The appointed Tory emissary Richard Balfe spoke in glowing terms of unions as “great voluntary organisations” and assured union leaders in cosy private meetings that there were “no plans” to change employment law.
Justifying himself, Balfe drew on the many criticisms made of New Labour's approach to employment law that came from within the union ranks. He argued that as Labour was so bad to unions the Tories couldn’t possibly be any worse – somewhat ironically a very similar position to that taken by ultra-left parties and sects.
Now, less than a year after the general election, huge strikes loom large, the Tories want to weaken employment law and the trade union envoy who assured us everything would be OK is nowhere to be seen. Intriguingly, Balfe now doesn’t even like to mention his time as the Tory trade union envoy on his CV.
Senior Tories like Boris Johnson are openly salivating at the prospect of further restricting some of the most restrictive laws on taking industrial action to have ever existed in the developed world, seemingly ignorant of the fact our un-elected judiciary has been doing the job already over the past few years.
Outrageously, the Tories also plan to double the length of employment service required for individuals being able to claim unfair dismissal at a tribunal.
This will mean that anyone in a job for less than two years can be sacked for no reason, with no legal recourse or compensation available whatsoever. The fact they may have up to 23 and half months unblemished, loyal service will matter not a jot.
It also leaves the sacked worker potentially unable to claim jobseekers benefits for up to 6 months following dismissal. As for the private mortgage or income protection insurance people buy into, it is always hidden in the small print that in the event of a “dismissal for misconduct” the insurer is not obliged to pay out. And, of course, all-important references to try to secure future employment are impossible to obtain so people often have to pretend they haven’t been working at all. Anyone who has ever faced this situation knows that longer the gap on your CV, the more difficult it becomes to disguise where you have been and that you got sacked.
An unfair and unjustified sacking on the abstract grounds of “misconduct”, especially at a time when jobs are scarce, can quickly throw an individual or a family from relative security straight over the edge of the precipice into poverty and destitution. I have seen it happen to people, and it can often affect individuals more deeply and fundamentally than a violent crime or chronic health problem.
The ludicrous justification put forward by Cameron for planning to raise the threshold is to limit the number of “vexatious claims” that go in front of the employment tribunals and, in doing so, make it “easier for employers to hire people”.
Not one shred of statistical or analytical evidence that stands up to any scrutiny has been put forward by him, or anyone else, to back up this wild claim.
As the TUC has correctly pointed out, the move to raise the unfair dismissal threshold will not create a single job. There are no crowds of entrepreneurs and investors waiting for the unfair dismissal threshold to rise to two years before they rush in and splash the cash in a jobs-creation bonanza. The estimated £600bn record corporate cash surplus sitting idly in the banks isn’t going to be freed up and invested in the country because you can sack workers a bit easier.
There is even an argument that making it easier to sack people actually goes against the hallowed labour market flexibility and social mobility that neo-liberals venerate. People are less likely to risk the upheaval of moving to another employer as they lose rights and face a longer period of insecurity, and end up staying in a job where at least they know they are relatively safe from sacking, meaning the natural churn of the job market slows.
The one-year threshold that currently exists is, in itself, an on-going national scandal. Only yesterday I was contacted by a union member concerned at the number of casual staff being taken on at his workplace. After completing 10 months service the casuals are forced to take a one month unpaid “sabbatical” - sacked to anyone else - then taken on in the same job again once the continuous service is sufficiently broken.
It is abundantly clear through examples like this that employers can easily find routes and loopholes around existing laws if they are so minded to do so. So what is the real rationale behind Cameron’s plans?
In weakening employment law, Cameron wants to send a message to employers that they can get away with being unfair towards their staff. This is because he wants to create a greater climate of fear amongst people considering fighting back. Worried that the on-going political demonstrations flaring up are likely to spill over into the workplace, Cameron now wants to put fear in the minds of individual employees, particularly younger people who are unlikely to have continuous employment of more than two years. The message coming down from on high is that daring to question anything you are told to do by authority – be it from the state or from your management - will see you out of a job and destitute. And that you can basically forget about getting any sort of retrospective justice, even if you’re innocent.
Quite how all this squares with the Lib Dems assurances on delivering “fairness” prior to the election remains to be seen.
It’s true to say that New Labour's improvements to employment laws and rights were imperfect and in many cases only implemented because of European pressure rather than through any genuine desire by Tony Blair to help ordinary workers.
But there were significant improvements nonetheless, and improvements that have made things fairer for people at work and for union reps. To dismiss them now as minor is to wilfully ignore the reality facing union reps and officials on the front line fighting for every job. The many real improvements we have seen since 1997 are all now very clearly under threat.
People join unions, in the main, for protection from bad treatment at work. It is the bread and butter of trade unionism, and what ties up the vast majority of union officials – both paid and voluntary - on a day-to-day basis. The ultra-left mantra that full-time union officials simply sit there colluding with managers to preserve capitalism is not based in reality. Fact is that four days out of five, all officials I work with and know are tied up in lengthy and complex talks over individual and collective situations to try to win justice for members, spending whatever time remains trying to organise and encourage demoralised members to collectively fight back against constant attack.
Our ability to protect union members on a day to day basis relies on both the law AND the wider general political climate which is why the number one priority for trade unionists and socialists must be to get the Tories out of office and a new government elected on a clear mandate of protecting existing employment laws, and improving them in the future.
The lies being peddled by Cameron on the unfair dismissal threshold cannot be justified on any factual or scientific basis and the plans will negatively affect all workers at all levels, from headmaster to classroom assistant, from Michelin-starred chef to McDonald’s staffer. The Labour party would be pushing at an open door to highlight and build widespread opposition to this straightforward workplace injustice that cannot be seriously defended, and should be doing so as a key priority. That is, if the Labour party wishes again to solidify a base amongst the very many politically aware trade unionists in workplaces across the country.