The last decade has seen a significant expansion in devolution in the UK. For example, ten areas in England now have a devolved mayoral structure, with another seven planned by 2025 and further non-mayoral devolution deals being planned in other parts of the country.
Devolution can shape the lives of working people for better or worse. Therefore, it is crucial that the trade union movement is aware of and informing the work of devolved authorities to ensure devolution improves the world of work and improves the lives of our members.
Trade unions have long worked with devolved authorities. In the north of England, trade unions have been at the forefront of shaping employment charters in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and West Yorkshire, in an effort to bring together local government, unions and employers to boost working conditions and employment practices.
We’ve also engaged with Combined Authority mayors on issues that matter to working people. Trade unions have secured a seat on the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) board. This has led to a joint initiative between the Mayor, automotive manufacturers and unions to seek government financial support for this vital sector during the pandemic, as well as a TUC Midlands-WMCA skills partnership which has leveraged devolved funding to deliver workplace learning.
The expansion of devolution provides unions and committed leaders with opportunities to deliver improvements for working people. With some public services and funding being devolved away from central government to local bodies, unions have been able to work with supportive devolved decision-makers rather than a Westminster government that has been hostile to us.
In Wales, for example, we’ve seen an ambitious devolved agenda for workers – with Fair Work Forums established in areas like social care (which secured a real living wage guarantee for care workers) and retail. The Welsh Government has also passed primary legislation to cement its social partnership approach. This has borne fruit in areas like transport – where the Welsh Government reached early agreements with train unions and avoided the protracted industrial action seen in England.
But it’s not all good news. For too long devolution has simply meant reallocating the same limited pots of money from central government books to Combined Authority budgets and continuing the race to the bottom created by austerity.
And opportunities have been missed to put working people at the heart of devolution. Where there is real devolution, decision-makers, whether they be mayors or council leaders, need to ensure unions have a seat at the table so that all workers have genuine input into the decisions that affect them – from public services workers shaping the future of the services that they are delivering, to ensuring that investment is targeted at closing local skills gaps. That begins with Combined Authorities setting a good example for employers by implementing trade union recognition and collective bargaining agreements to cover their own workforce.
Devolved authorities should also strengthen democracy, accountability and transparency, including meaningful trade union participation in decision-making, so that devolution becomes a real transfer of power rather than simply a new layer of bureaucracy.
Unions are committed to making sure devolution delivers concrete improvements in the lives of working people.
That’s why TUC has worked with affiliated unions to develop a new trade union agenda for devolution. In our new briefing we lay out principles and priority actions to ensure that devolution supports working people, reduces inequalities and delivers quality public services.
The development of these principles is a significant step forward in the trade union movement’s work on devolution and provides us with an opportunity to think how we can not only respond to devolution, but shape it in the interests of working people.
TUC is playing its part - we are committed to working alongside our affiliated unions at regional and national levels to ensure devolution delivers for local people.
If you would like to speak to us about devolution or discuss our principles further, you can contact your local TUC regional office or email TUC’s national devolution policy officer, Abigail Hunt (email@example.com).
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