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

Monday, 29 July 2013

Wheel of justice goes full circle as Tribunals outlive usefulness for employers and the state

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady speaks for all trade unionists in condemning the introduction of expensive fees for access to Employment Tribunals: “Today is a great day for Britain’s worst bosses. By charging upfront fees for harassment and abuse claims the government is making it easier for employers to get away with the most appalling behaviour. These reforms are part of a wider campaign to get rid of workers’ basic rights at work. Its only achievement will be to price vulnerable people out of justice.”

It was as recent as 1971 that the first case of unfair dismissal was heard at a (then) Industrial Tribunal – which had been formed under Section 12 of the Industrial Training Act 1964 to hear appeals by employers against training levy assessments imposed on them. Their authority was extended to hear disputes under the Redundancy Payments Act 1965. The despised Tory Industrial Relations Act 1971 further extended the scope of Tribunals to include claims for unfair dismissal.

Laurie Anstis provides a fascinating insight into the origins of unfair dismissal laws - tracing the current system of unfair dismissal law back to its origins in an era of intense industrial militancy which had been the subject of a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations(known as the Donovan report) which was published in 1968.

‘As the title suggests, individual employment rights were not the focus of the report. Its terms of reference were: “to consider relations between managements and employees and the role of trade unions and employers’ associations in promoting the interests of their members and in accelerating the social and economic advance of the nation …”

At the time, individual employment rights were very limited, and, as the report noted:

“In the period 1964-66 some 276 unofficial strikes took place each year on average as a result of disputes about whether individuals should or should not be employed, suspended, or dismissed.”

It was in that context – troubled industrial relations – that the commission made its recommendations on unfair dismissal.

“It is desirable that satisfactory voluntary procedures governing dismissal should be developed and extended.”’

A majority of the Commission recommend early legislation to establish statutory machinery to safeguard employees against unfair dismissal. This will encourage employers to improve their arrangements for handling dismissals, and may well spur employers and trade unions to establish satisfactory voluntary joint procedures which can be exempted from the coverage of legislation

42 years on, perhaps it’s now a case of mission accomplished for Employment Tribunals given the straitjacket of anti union laws and the changed balance of class forces since the Donovan Report:

· trade union membership halved since 1979

· in 1972 23.909 million days were ‘lost’ to strike action compared to 2011’s 1.4 million days (the year of the co-ordinated pensions action which itself was a 21 year high)

· collective bargaining coverage now down to 29% from 75-80% in 1970 

In an act of low cunning that’s becoming a trademark of the Coalition government (and having extended the qualifying period from one to two years last April) it’s obvious that they’ve worked out that it’s easier politics to restrict access to workplace rights than to abolish them altogether.