Ending check-off would make absolutely no sense

Ending union members’ right to have their subs deducted from wages would be disruptive, centralist and risk damaging partnerships

Just as it seemed theTrade Union Bill couldn’t get any worse, the government is pushing ahead with its last minute amendment to the bill – bringing in new plans to scrap check-off arrangements across the public sector.

Check-off is the system through which employers make deductions for union membership via the payroll – taking the cash out before it goes to the employee’s bank account. Millions of workers from many unions pay their subscriptions like this.

It’s the easiest way for the union members themselves, their union and their employer – a system that’s worked well for decades in both the public and private sectors.

This new measure seems to be designed solely to cause disruption for unions like UNISON, but it also runs the risk of damaging partnership working and morale in health, schools, and local government.

In all, over 7,200 public sector employers operate check-off systems with UNISON. Not one of them has said anything in relation to this Bill that would lead me to believe they want this blanket ending of check-off arrangements.

In fact, it doesn’t seem like they were even asked for their thoughts when the Bill was being put together. NHS Employers weren’t asked. The local government employers weren’t asked. Individual employers weren’t.

Little wonder many of them are now speaking out against a disruption they weren’t consulted on.

It also undermines the government’s attempts to promote localism – by removing employers’ choice as to whether they work with unions or not, and whether they can reach local agreements if they wish to.

Instead it brings in draconian central planning, flying in the face of devolution, not just to the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to English regions and the combined authorities.

Many big private sector employers have check-off arrangements, but the government isn’t setting out to interfere in those. It seems completely inconsistent – as though ministers are deliberately setting out to set employers in other sectors a bad example in how to manage their industrial relations.

Central government shouldn’t be issuing diktats.

It shouldn’t be saying that local employers are doing something unlawful in reaching an agreement with their local unions to deduct subscriptions at source – especially when there are so many other different areas where this is happening, and where there doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. Childcare vouchers, bike loan fees, season ticket loans, social clubs – the list of things that can be paid for with agreements like this is long.

It’s hard to see why unions should be singled out.

At the moment, any employer can already withdraw check-off – if they should want to. There’s nothing in the law to prevent them from doing so, and it would be virtually impossible for us to take industrial action to stop them. Indeed some employers have taken us off check-off before. Wandsworth Council did. One of the new private probation companies might.

We’ve been treating it as a local issue, because it’s an issue between us and that employer, and maybe we can reach compromises where we need to – something totally different to a blanket ban.

But there’s one thing that’s being overlooked completely, and which makes this amendment look even dafter.

UNISON pays for its check-off agreements. They’re not a gift, and it’s not something that’s costing the taxpayer anything.

Fife Council charges UNISON 5% of subs (£39,575) for collecting members’ subscriptions. It doesn’t cost anything like to process the payments.

Bradford City Council charges all unions a collective £38,000 a year in check-off processing fees. That’s the cost of one and a half social workers. If the government ends check-off, that’s the equivalent of one and a half posts taken away from Bradford. Is that really what ministers really want?

Some employers take a payment instead by simply hanging onto the money for three months, putting it in the bank and keeping the interest to cover their costs.

All in all this is a bad addition to an already very bad Bill. We believe any government that values its public sector workforce should be looking to work positively with employees and their representatives, not dreaming up new ways to make their lives harder.

This blog first appeared at touchstoneblog.org.uk