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Has the PM made trade unions redundant?

06 October 2016 #Employment

The start point from what our new Prime Minister Theresa May has been saying is no apparent reason to expect reduced rights for workers, indeed current expectations are possibly for added worker protection. Ironic if leaving the EU leads to better rights in the UK than applied during the many years of adopting EU social legislation. There is to be review of workers' rights, to be protected and enhanced, worker representation on company boards, and the Conservative Government is now "the party of workers".

It will be an interesting development if UK trade unions now must play catch up with a Conservative Government open to enhancing worker rights more than unions ever expected. This despite the unions being long distracted by the Labour Party's well publicised internal strife.

The big picture is of major change for unions from the decades of lobbying in Europe for employee rights, which has been the way much of the UK's employment law has been generated since joining the EU and especially since Tony Blair's Government signed up to adopting the Social Chapter the UK had for several years opted out of.

Unions may be contending for a future trade deal with the EU to cover worker rights, as the TUC General Secretary has already flagged up, but in any event it looks as though the Government will be very focused on delivering on the Prime Minister's evident commitment about worker rights. It will be important and very interesting to see if the Government as part of this fresh approach also addresses the injustice of high fees reducing access to employment tribunals. In truth, reduced access to justice tends to increase militancy by other means, and overall employee relations benefit from employers and employees knowing that there is a legal system to redress wrongs at work. There may be no coincidence that increased union militancy has been notable since employment tribunals became too expensive for most employees to use.

There is clearly no legal solution worth having if, longer term, Brexit means there is a reduction in jobs across the sectors most at risk. However, it looks as though the Government may be innovative and pragmatic when it comes to enhancing workplace rights, so the unions will certainly find they are arguing from an unexpected position of relative advantage despite losing the heavyweight support of EU law and the European Court of Justice.

A contrasting view from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been recently that the EU faces collapse if the EU does not deliver for working people.

While the future is too hard to call, and UK employers will for quite a long time yet be watching and waiting to know what Brexit means in practice, it is at least a strong encouragement to the unions that they do not seem to be facing a hostile UK Government looking to reduce employee protection, and they may have every opportunity to proactively develop good relations with Government and employers in their members' interest. Indeed, we may quickly see the unions looking to exploit the welcome opportunity to gain added presence in UK boardrooms.

It will be a surprising but welcome turn of events if Brexit opens doors to a period of more collaborative relationships in UK industrial relations, but it takes two to tango so will unions and employers take the opportunity to work together to make a success of Brexit? Let's hope so. To make a success of Brexit will certainly need a big combined endeavour of both capital and labour in the years ahead. The unions are not redundant but they, as well as employers, will need to rapidly adapt to the May Government workplace agenda. 

Michael Sippitt

Forbury People Ltd

Clarkslegal, specialist Employment lawyers in London, Reading and throughout the Thames Valley.
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Michael Sippitt

Michael Sippitt
Senior Consultant

T: 0118 960 4642


Employment team
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