Unions: A Dinosaur of Old Or a Place in the Mordern Era?

Unions: A Dinosaur of Old Or a Place in the Mordern Era?

I notice that unions have featured prominently in the news of late. Firstly with respect to the judicial review application in relation to Employment Tribunal fees due to commence on 29 July 2013 and today with the news that Labour leader Ed Miliband has pledged to end the automatic “affiliation” fee paid by 3 million union members to Labour.
As a foreword to this article I should state that I have no personal or political affiliations with unions and that the contents of this article are merely observations based on my own professional experience as an employment solicitor and my dealings with union members and union officials.
My own personal view on unions based on my professional experience is that they are a throwback to the 1970s and offer no real value or purpose in the modern workplace. I have dealt with numerous clients over the years that have been long standing and loyal union members. They have gone 15 – 20 years of their working careers diligently paying their union subscription fee and receiving no real benefit from this. Then when a surprise disciplinary event occurs and the member actually requires help the union seem to specialise in trying to avoid liability and becoming involved. By way of example I recently acted on behalf of a client who was a member of a union for over 12 years he had an unblemished disciplinary record and yet made a mistake that resulted in disciplinary action the client turned to his Union who offered him very little support and guidance. The client in question was dismissed for gross misconduct and as a result did not receive any notice payment. Consequently his regular monthly subscription fee to the union was not paid directly out of his wages and on this basis the union denied liability in assisting him going forward with his Employment Tribunal claim as he had failed to make a payment. Clearly the client had bigger issues on his mind than whether or not the union membership would be paid after losing his job and he even offered to make a separate payment to the union in respect of this. However the union still denied assisting the client on the basis that one payment had not been made. This is exactly the type of action I have come to expect when dealing with unions.
A further issue I have is with the legal support that unions offer. Many union representatives have very little or no legal training. Therefore during a disciplinary process they are not correctly trained and rather than make helpful suggestions to assist their help seems to extend to trying to cause as much disruption and confusion during the disciplinary process as possible. It is a common tactic used by the unions to try and delay or sidetrack a disciplinary process. However the harsh reality of the situation is that the union’s conduct frustrates and infuriates the employer and guess who they consequently take their frustration out on yes the union member.
I should say at this point that I have encountered a few union representatives who have provided a terrific service to their members and fought diligently for their rights. However sadly in my experience this number is a very small proportion of representatives.
The purpose of this article is not to make damaging or derogatory statements about union membership. It is merely provided as an example that people should make enquiries before they join a union and personally I would suggest meeting with your local representative to try and gauge the type of representative they are.
As a viable alternative to union membership and a suggestion I have made to numerous clients in the past is that rather than pay the monthly union subscription fees they take half of that sum and place it into a separate bank account. The one or two times throughout their career they may then require professional assistance with regards to a workplace issue the sum in the bank account should more than cover a few hours consultation with an employment law solicitor who in my view would be far better placed to give helpful and useful advice and support.
Finally I would again like to reiterate that there is no agenda behind this article and it is merely my own personal view based on my own extensive professional contact with unions.
I would be delighted to hear your views on my article and if you believe that unions do still provide a useful and valuable service today in the modern workplace. Alternatively if you are suffering some workplace issues and your union is not being as helpful as they could be then I would suggest that you contact the dedicated employment team here at Michael Lewin Solicitors and we will be delighted to discuss your issues in detail with you and assist you whenever we can.
Written by Ian Abel Head of Employment

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