UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

CO - friend or foe?

In the 1999 Employment Relations Act the Government abolished the Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members (CROTUM) – established by the Tories in their late 1980’s post miners strike offensive against the trade unions.

The task of the CROTUM was to assist union members in taking legal action against unions. The same regulator doubled up as Commissioner for protection against unlawful action.

What is less widely known is that upon abolition of the CROTUM its powers were transferred to the Certification Officer (CO) and complaints formerly heard in the High Court (in which members would be assisted by the CROTUM) would now be heard by the CO instead. And whereas the CROTUM could exercise discretion on which cases to support the CO has to hear each and every complaint made to him.

The powers conferred on the CO by the anti trade union laws lead to an ever increasing involvement by the state in internal union matters. Individual interests are being given precedence over collective interests and weakening union solidarity but most significantly undermining union autonomy.

On the latter point let’s be clear. ILO Convention 87 provides for union autonomy - in other words freedom of association without state interference. It was signed by the UK in 1949. Yet the ILO’s committee of experts has found that the UK labour laws, specifically the 1992 Act to be in breach of ILO Convention 87.

Time and time again individuals who no doubt demand that unions support the Trade Union Freedom Bill apparently see no contradiction in using anti union legal machinery to run complaints against unions which empower a Government regulator to impose his personal legal interpretation on a union. It is an attack on trade union freedom that the state appointed CO has such powers over unions. And make no mistake powers such as enforcement orders were conferred on the CO as part of the Thatcher offensive.

As the recent BA dispute graphically demonstrated, much of the Tory anti union legal architecture has been retained and refined by New Labour in power during 1997 to 2010. Among other things, it has been a missed opportunity to reinforce trade union independence from the state and return back to unions the fundamental right to determine our own rule books.

Bob Oram