The annual attempt by organisations like the misleadingly named ‘Taxpayers’ Alliance to provoke outrage about the ‘cost’ of paid release for union reps is a bit like hearing there’s going to be yet another series of the X Factor. You know its going to happen but you just wish someone, somewhere would either come up with something new, a bit more interesting and yes, maybe a bit more grounded in reality or just cancel the thing altogether.
Just like the X Factor, whilst each year there’s some tinkering with the format, the attacks on union reps by political organisations posing as think tanks remains the same. Pluck a figure from the air and allege that this is taxpayer’s money ‘subsidising’ trade union activity (usually of the political kind) and list all of the things that this money might be spent on instead.
These ‘reports’ are so partial that they can barely be regarded as credible research, however given their admittedly impressive ability to get media coverage it falls to unions and the TUC, with a little help from independent academic research to set the record straight.
So here are some actual verifiable facts about union reps and what they do.
Union reps are volunteers who in addition to their regular employment take responsibility for making the workplace better for their colleagues and more productive for employers.
They provide advice and representation on employment rights and other terms and conditions; they represent workers in disciplinary and grievance cases; they make workplaces safer; they provide opportunities for learning and skills development; they are advocates for equality.
Union reps are only legally entitled to be paid for time off from their regular jobs to take part in trade union ‘duties’. Trade union duties are a very specific and legally defined range of tasks related to industrial relations, such as negotiating with employers and representing their members. Union reps have no right to be paid for time off to take part in other trade union activities – tasks related to the internal running of unions – and certainly not to engage in party political activity.
Whilst the Taxpayers Alliance loves to talk about the cost of paid time off for union reps, they are less fond of mentioning the benefits that accrue to employers and yes, taxpayers as a result of what union reps do. So, lets have a look at these.
Research undertaken by the University of Leeds for the TUC, attempted to quantify the contribution that union reps make to workplaces and the economy as a whole. Using the results of previous research by the DTI and the findings from the latest Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) the study found that there were five which areas that benefit from the activity of workplace union reps; skills and training; exit rates, labour turnover and dispute resolution; worker safety; and productivity.
The latest WERS report found that there are around 16,000 workplaces with a Union Learning Rep (ULR) in the UK, covering around 11% of all employees. The independent evaluation of the latest round of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) suggests that the total benefits that will accrue from the work of ULRs and associated ULF projects carried out in 2015/16 will be £1,452 million (£653 million benefit to the public sector).
Benefits from the ULF are divided between increased productivity for employers (£558 million, £251 million for the public sector), £895 million to employees in the form of enhanced life time earnings as a result of higher pay and lower chances of being unemployed and a £421 million benefit to the exchequer in the form of higher income tax and national insurance receipts and lower benefit payments.
As a result of the work that they do in providing representation for employees, union reps reduce staff turnover. The University of Leeds research found that in workplaces with union representatives, the dismissal rate was lower, 1.04 dismissals per 100 employees compared to 1.55 for workplaces without union representation.
This suggests there are between 8000 and 16,000 fewer dismissals a year as a result of the activities of union representatives. The corresponding figures for the public sector are 3, 600 – 7,200 fewer dismissals. Taking into account the average cost of recruitment per vacancy in both the public and private sectors this equates to savings to the employer of £32 – 64 million from fewer dismissals (£14 – £29 million in the public sector).
The ability of union reps to resolve disputes and therefore make it more desirable for an employee encountering problems at work to remain rather than quit their job also reduces staff turnover. The report estimates that union reps reduce voluntary exits by between 11,000-22,000 per year (7,000 – 14,000 in the public sector). The estimated savings to employers in recruitment costs is estimated at around £49 – £98 million (£27 – £54 million in the public sector).
The work undertaken by union Health and Safety reps is acknowledged by members and employers alike. In workplaces where there is direct trade union Health and Safety representation, the study found that there are between 5,400 – 8,000 fewer injuries. This is a significant financial and personal benefit to employers, employees and society as a result of reduced lost earnings, avoidance of sick pay and compensation payments, as well as increased output.
A reduction in injuries means around 34,000 – 52,000 fewer working days lost (6,700 – 10,100 in the public sector). This brings the potential range of benefits in this instance to £38.2m – £67.2m (£7.5m – £13.2m in the public sector).
Union reps also provide an important critical feedback loop that good employers utilise to improve processes and procedures that in turn improve productivity. Union reps can also improve the morale of employees and therefore commitment to the enterprise. Lower staff turnover means that skills are retained to the benefit of the organisation.
Considering gross annual earnings reported in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings and using the methodology of previous DTI analysis, the productivity gains across the economy accruing as a result of the work reps across the economy are estimated at between £2.4bn to £7.3bn (£1.1bn to £3.3bn in the public sector).
So much for what union reps actually do and the benefits that this work brings to employers and society, but what does all this cost? Unlike the Taxpayers Alliance we prefer to tell the full story so we asked the University of Leeds to find that out too.
The total number of hours spent on rep duties and paid for by employers, e.g. around 910,000 hours per week, constituted around 0.1% of weekly hours worked in the whole economy in 2011. The report estimates the total cost to employers of paid time off to be approximately £637m (£481 million in the public sector) which equates to just 0.07% of the economy’s annual wage bill.
The report also found that union reps spend over 250,000 hours per week on duties and activities for which employers don’t pay them. Despite this, the work they carry out, particularly that which relates to union duties still has the potential to benefit employers. Using the methodology used to calculate the wage costs to employers, the report estimates the value of this unpaid work to be in the region of £3.84 million per week.
There are just 170,000 union representatives in the UK amongst a workforce of around 25 million. It would be difficult to find another group of employees who in addition to carrying out their regular job make such a significant contribution to the UK economy as a result of volunteer activity.
It is a role acknowledged and valued not just by unions and their members, but also by some of the UK’s biggest and most successful employers. Jaguar Land Rover, British Aerospace, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, British Airways, Morrison’s, Asda to name just a few all have and provide paid time off to union reps. Their contribution is also acknowledged by the CBI.
The case for union reps and the small amount of paid time off that they receive is conclusive. Like a Louis Walsh ‘boyband’, the Taxpayers Alliance sound tired and outdated. In the words of Simon Cowell, it’s a “no” from us.