“Ministers are threatening to end the practice of part-time and full-time union officials working in Whitehall departments and quangos”, reports the Financial Times (27 June).
The threatened attack is on “facility time”, the arrangement by which employers release union reps from part or all of their regular work to do union duties. The purpose is to weaken unions.
The basis of “facility time” is the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, which mandates employers to allow union reps time off for such things as representing members on individual grievances.
In larger public sector workplaces, where union organisation is stronger than in most of the private sector, bosses find it more economical to release a few people from regular work, either all hours or a fixed part of the week, than to have to release people for odd hours here and there.
• Large amounts of “facility time” go unclaimed;
• An official government survey found that union reps in the public sector put in 100,000 hours each year on union activity outside their normal working hours;
• A TUC survey found that one-quarter of all union reps on “facility time” regularly put in time outside normal work hours.
• Even the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a right-wing group campaigning against “facility time”, finds only 2,500 full-time-equivalent units of “facility time” across the whole public sector; this out of a work force of six million.
Many union branches find it difficult to fill “facility time” posts. The work is often more stressful than ordinary employment, and going on to “facility time” can damage your chances of promotion and your CV for future employment.
There is a good trade-union case for all facility time to be partial, a few days a week rather than 100%, so that all union reps regularly spend time in “ordinary” work, know what it’s like, and relate to other workers as workmates rather than as harassed officials.
Union branches can end up with the same people on full “facility time” for decades, and them coming to think of themselves as “the union” and their job as minimising conflict between bosses and workers. A well-organised union branch will always seek to draw in new activists and spread its available “facility time” between as many competent people as possible.
Doing that is often not easy — especially when intense pressure from the bosses produces more and more “personal cases” of victimisation to deal with.
However, it must be the task of the union and activists to broaden the base of those receiving facility time and to end, where appropriate, full facility working.