TIM DAWSON urges readers to oppose the proposal for a flat-rate levy on trade unions
IT IS no surprise that this government puts the interests of bosses ahead of ordinary people. Just occasionally, however, the detail of Tory schemes to promote the narrow interests of employers is breathtaking.
Dig into the small print of the ongoing consultation on the imposition of a levy on trades unions, for example, to find just such an instance.
This consultation arises from the 2016 Trade Union Act — a wholly nasty piece of legislation that even Brexit Secretary David Davies compared to the devices of the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco.
It created the possibility for expanding the work of the Certification Officer that oversees the work of trade unions and employers’ associations.
Created in 1975, the Certification Officer is little loved by trade unions, which are required to register and supply annual returns detailing their membership and income. It also considers complaints made by union members about the way in which their unions have been run.
Recent evidence suggests that this has not been a particularly burdensome task, however. Only 39 complaints were made last year; from six million union members, that hardly suggests a sector with serious issues.
The Certification Officer also regulates the work of employers’ associations — which generally represent groups of employers and sit opposite trade unions at the bargaining table. The new Act, however, anticipates an expansion of the Certification Officer’s work.
In future, not only will it take complaints from union members, but also from members of the public.
Given how long it takes to respond to issues, which are subjected to scrutiny of a judicial quality, it is easy to see how vexatious, serial complainants alone could soak up union resources.
Worse still, unions are being asked to pick up the tab for this expanded work.
So, whereas in the past year the Certification Officer’s budget was just £535,621, in the years to come it is expected to ballon to £1.9 million — although little detail is provided to justify the quadrupling of the budget.
To pay for this, the Tories are planning to levy trade unions and the other organisations that the Certification Office regulates. And here comes the rub.
Employers’ associations will be required to pay an annual fee of £5,007, meanwhile individual trade unions will have to stump up £22,269. When you consider the specifics, this becomes even more grotesque.
The employers’ organisation EEF — formerly the Engineering Employers Federation — represents the interests of over 5,000 businesses and negotiates the pay across a sector in which 2.6m workers are employed.
It has an annual income of over £40m. The levy it will be expected to pay the Certification Officer will be £5,007, while my own union, the Nation Union of Journalists (NUJ), with 30,000 members and a £5m annual budget, will be required to find £22,269. As a proportion of our income, our bill will be 35 times greater.
That is not the only deeply unjust feature of the government’s plan.
The levy will be applied to unions at a flat rate (for those unions with incomes over £900,000).
Unions with 30,000 members, like mine, will face the same bill as do those with over a million members. To the NUJ, that is equivalent to half a member of staff, from our group of 40.
For federal unions the effect will be even more dramatic. The National Union of Mineworkers, for example, a confederation of separate miners’ associations, could potentially pay this levy six times over.
A levy will also be applied to federations of trade unions, such as the TUC.
The £6,113 levy expected of federations will probably not break the bank at Congress House — although ultimately it represents a further tax on trade union members.
NUJ members, however, will also, ultimately be paying a portion of the levies raised from the Federation of Entertainment Unions, the General Federation of Trade Union, the Welsh TUC and the Scottish TUC.
The good news is that at the moment this is only a proposal. The 2016 Act allows the government to raise a levy, but does not require that it does.
There is also scope to change the detail of the proposal — a consultation on the detail is open until October 26 and responses are invited from individuals as well as organisations.
The more union members, branches, trades councils and workplace representatives who submit their views, the better. It is the opportunity to challenge the Tories’ rhetoric about who they really represent.
Theresa May wrote in the Financial Times that “the Conservative Party is the unashamed voice of ordinary working people.”
Damien Green, the First Secretary of State, meanwhile, told the BBC Today programme that “people at the bottom end of the wage scale are the ones who need real terms increases [in pay] the most.”
Theirs is a hypocrisy that must be unequivocally called out. A flat-rate levy on trade unions is the work of a government that instinctively favours employers over employees.
Draining resources from trade unions and creating needless red tape are the marks of an administration eschewing the most demonstrably dependable means of raising the wages of the low paid.
If you don’t want them to get away with it, act now.
nTim Dawson is president of the National Union of Journalists.
8For more on the Certification Officer levy consultation and ways to response, visit: mstar.link/COLconsultation.