Could opposition to radical employment law reform move up the union agenda?

London strike. Truck under police protection (LOC)

As autumn 2012 approaches, the UK’s trade union movement is gearing up for concerted action against the Coalition Government’s economic austerity agenda.

The unions are expected to confront the Coalition Government on multiple fronts.

At last week’s Trades Union Congress in Brighton, unions “backed co-ordinated strike action by public sector workers over pay and opened up a new front in the industrial confrontation with the government after last year’s pensions dispute,” the Guardian reports.

It says that this motion “could lead to nearly 1.5 million employees in the health and local government sectors staging walkouts next spring if negotiations over pay break down.”

It is also possible that unions will take an increasingly concerted stand on the Coalition Government’s radical employment law reform agenda.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady recently said that “already some of Adrian Beecroft’s wackier ideas to strip away hard-won employee rights seem to have been beaten back.”

This suggests that unions could be set to target other areas of employment law reform. (See Beecroft report was inspired by ‘hopeless’ HR director, says Telegraph for more on the employment law reforms proposed by venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft).

’80%’ of Beecroft’s recommendations survive, despite ‘death’ of no-fault dismissal proposals

Last Friday (14 September 2012), Business Secretary Vince Cable’s announcement of a new package of employment law reforms (See Government announces further proposals to ‘streamline employment law’ for full details) included confirmation of what the CIPD dubbed the “death of [Beecroft's] no-fault dismissal proposals.

However, many of Beecroft’s other recommendations have survived, the Guardian reports:

Cable’s aides were anxious not to sound triumphalist in rejecting the central plank of the Beecroft report, stressing that 80% of his recommendations had been adopted or were now subject to consultation. Tory ministers and the Institute of Directors were also content with the outcome.

City law firm Partner Michael Scutt argues that “the proposals do contain a great deal of potential unfairness though” (See Scutt’s post entitled Employment Reforms: Back to the Future? for full details of his argument).

The trade unions are unimpressed by the proposals. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber comments:

For all the government’s talk that helping businesses to sack poor performing workers will make companies more productive, this is little more than a smokescreen to erode hard won rights. Making it easier for bad employers to get away with misconduct is not the way to kick start our economy and will not create a single new job.

Pricing unions out of the game?

However, it should be noted that any union opposition to radical employment law reform could be motivated as much by unions’ concerns for their own future, as for the rights of their members.

Some of the Coalition Government’s employment reforms that are already set to come into effect are likely to have an impact on the trade unions.

Barrister David Renton argues that the forthcoming introduction of employment tribunal fees (See Government publishes details of employment tribunal fees for XpertHR’s report on this topic) could effectively “price unions out of the game“:

It may be that some senior trade unionists are at last starting to consider a collective response [on employment law reform]. If so, this is not before time. Not only are individual claimants in the Coalition’s firing sights, so undoubtedly are the unions themselves. [...] For many years, unions have marketed themselves to potential members on the basis of benefits including protection, amounting to legal insurance, where a worker is dismissed. But the Coalition’s reforms will price unions out of the game.

In Renton’s view, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals could hit unions hard:

Most trade unions have a legal budget, which has to cover more than just Tribunal claims, of around £10 per member per year. [With the introduction of employment tribunal fees, we could be] reaching the point where unions might no longer be able to offer representation to their members.

XpertHR reports that “the Ministry of Justice says it will seek to implement the amended fee structure in summer 2013.”

UPDATE 1 (Wednesday 19 September 2012): BIS publishes details of which Beecroft employment law recommendations have ‘survived’

We noted above that – according to comments from Vince Cable’s aides, as reported by the Guardian – some “80%” of Adrian Beecroft’s recommendations for employment law survive, despite the ‘death’ of his no-fault dismissal proposals.

BIS has today published the following document, providing further details on precisely which of Beecroft’s recommendations have ‘survived’: Analysis of measures delivered in comparison with Adrian Beecroft report September 2011.

Thank you to the CIPD’s Anna Wallace for tweeting a link to this report.

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