Check-off, the system by which union members’ subscriptions are automatically deducted from their salaries, has come under threat as the government unveiled today (August 6) measures that would end this system for public sector workers.
The proposals, if implemented, would mean that public sector union members would have to arrange to pay their membership dues from their bank accounts via direct debit.
The government has argued that the check-off system is outdated and incurs administrative fees for public departments, but unions highlighted the move as yet another direct assault on trade unions via the present government’s Trade Union Bill, especially considering unions themselves offer to pay administrative charges.
Former chief secretary to the Treasury, Lib-Dem MP Danny Alexander, sided with unions in 2014, when he wrote a letter to Whitehall departments arguing that ending check-off is a needless proposal, and would only end up incurring more costs to the taxpayer.
“Departments should be aware that there is no fiscal case [for ending check-off], as the unions have offered to pay any costs associated with check-off, which are in any case minimal,” Alexander wrote.
He pointed to a 2013 case in which the PCS union challenged in high court a similar move by the department for communities and local government (DCLG) minister Eric Pickles to end-check off.
Pickles argued that check-off was a waste of public funds, even though check-off only cost the DCLG £350 to administer — which the PCS in any case offered to pay.
In the end, PCS won, after the high court ruled that the department had acted unlawfully and was in breach of contract.
“The experience of DCLG suggests that any attempt [to end check-off by government departments] may ultimately fail as a result of legal action brought by the unions, at a considerable cost to the public purse,” Alexander noted in his letter.
Indeed, the PCS case cost the DCLG £90,000 in legal fees, billed straight to the taxpayer.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail condemned the latest government attacks against check-off, arguing that many private sector companies not only embrace check-off, but voluntarily pay the associated administrative fees.
Although the government has called check-off “outdated”, modern private companies which use the system include British Airways, Rolls-Royce, Tesco and National Express, among others.
“This is another spiteful measure from the Conservatives at a time when working people need unions like never before,” Cartmail noted.
“It is a crude attempt to starve trade unions of money, money that is then used every day to promote training, workplace safety and hold up decent pay for millions of working people throughout the UK.”
Cartmail highlighted that the measures to end check-off were an “unnecessary interference by the government”, which she said, “has not got a clue about the reality of working life and the vital role unions have in workers’ lives.”
“When the Thatcher government attempted this they failed because workers know that unionised workplaces are safer, better paid and better protected against bullying bosses,” Cartmail added.
“This government will suffer a backlash from this too for people will see this for what it is – another needless, malicious attack on the people who are the backbone of our public services.
Cartmail highlighted how this latest attack was one more in a string of assaults against low-paid female workers.
“For the majority female low paid public sector workforce – health visitors, carers, cleaners and cooks – this is now the triple whammy,” she said. “On top of the pay cap and end of working family tax credit, they now have to contend with this attack on their union.
“The Conservative party’s attempt to pose as the party of working people is all the more laughable today than ever.”