Is there room for trade unions these days or has employment law taken over?

Claire Berry

Claire Berry - Credit: Archant

As Huntingdonshire District Council is going through an appeals process after cutting wages of almost 300 employees, Cambridgeshire firefighters are picketing outside fire stations without success and workers at VIP Polymers are taking on a series of strikes, The Hunts Post asked employment law specialist Claire Berry of Leeds Day Solicitors and Richard O’Leary of the GMB Union whether there is a place in this day and age for trade unions or has their power been replaced by law.

Richard O’Leary, GMB regional organiser, presents the unions’ side.

The role of the trade unions in protecting working men and women is as important now as it was 130 years ago when the trade unions were founded.

According to many of the country’s eminent lawyers, the employment law changes introduced by the coalition government have taken this country back to the 1840s.

Figures released this week show since the introduction of fees to lodge an Employment Tribunal claim, there has been a 79 per cent reduction in claims.

This means justice if you are unfairly dismissed or have your contract unfairly changed is only available to those who can afford it.

If you are a member of GMB, legal services are free and we will pay the tribunal fees for members.

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The trade unions at a national and regional level have worked with local authorities to manage the savage cuts in their budgets and introduce Single Status Agreements which fully comply with Equal Pay legislation.

The region’s local authorities, with the exception of Huntingdonshire District Council, have successfully negotiated equality proof pay and grading structures and dealt with the issue of compensation without the need for litigation.

The process applied and imposed by HDC does not comply with any of the legal guidance or case law in relation to an equality proof pay and grading structure.

HDC has negotiated though a staff council, which has no legal rights to negotiate a collective agreement and its members have no legal indemnity against litigation.

The trade unions have to obtain legal approval of any single status agreement and provide comprehensive advice to members before consulting members on the proposed agreement.

Solicitor Claire Berry argues the union role has diminished.

The role of unions has changed significantly over the past 30 years and their influence has diminished in the private sector compared to the public sector.

This is mainly due to the way in which employment law has developed over recent years, increasing the protection afforded to employees.

Employees are now more than ever afforded greater protection in terms of employment rights. By way of example, employees are protected from being unfairly dismissed, there are specific rules outlawing discrimination on various grounds and family friendly policies have been developed.

In addition, there is legislation to ensure that all workers are entitled to at least a national minimum wage and hours worked on a weekly basis are regulated. As a result of this greater protection, which is continually developing, there is less of a need for union action.

There is also the way in which employers now negotiate with their employees, which has changed with an emphasis on collaboration rather than confrontation. There are new mechanisms in place for employers to discuss work place issues with their employees, for example, by electing employee representatives, thereby removing the need to consult and negotiate via union representatives.

Union representatives do of course have their place in accompanying employees to internal disciplinary and grievance procedures, collective bargaining and collective redundancy. However, unions are no longer the only mechanism.