The government has begun reducing facility time (paid time off from work duties in order to carry out trade union activity) within the civil service.
By the end of this year, we expect facility time will be reduced by about 50% and many, if not most, union activists currently on a 100% facility time will be on 50% or less per cent.
There are good union arguments for nobody to be a full-time rep. But there is the world of difference between the labour movement deciding that and a Tory minister cutting overall time off for all activists. This government is obviously hoping to weaken the union movement within the civil service.
It is noteworthy that the government relies heavily on guidance found in the relevant ACAS code of practice to argue that there should be no time off for union activities (e.g. attendance at union conferences). During the “good” years under New Labour, the TUC made no attempt to get this changed or to strengthen rights for reps to have time off. This reflects the ambivalence that union leaderships always have towards lay officials, and the lack of foresight that unions generally have in failing to fight to strengthen and extend existing rights.
If the government tries to operate a rigid cap on the amount of facility time used, it would probably lose a legal challenge as current laws give reps time off to carry out union duties. Depending on those duties, particularly around personal cases, reps should, in theory, have as much time off as needed to carry them out. So the law, as presently drafted, does not readily lend itself to a cap on facility time.
Compared to many countries where union activity is met with violence, a cut in facility time is much less of a threat and can be overcome. It certainly will not be easily initially, as civil service trade union activity has been based on having ample facility time and so past practises will have to be partly unlearnt. But it could lead to there being a wider base of activists than now, each on a small amount of facility time as opposed to a handful of “100%ers” doing everything.
Whether things turn out that way is yet to be seen. Union activists should resist attacks on facility time, while fighting at a workplace level for better distribution of the time currently allocated.