Today’s landmark judgement by the Supreme Court on the Government’s unlawful imposition of fees for access to Employment Tribunals represents a huge victory for fairness, justice and rights for employees. It also demonstrates the value and importance of effective trade unions – in this case Unison, which deserves massive congratulations and thanks for this long and expensive legal campaign.
This legal victory should be considered in wider context of social and economic contemporary conditions in the U.K.
We are witnessing and experiencing increasing employment insecurity, zero hours contracts, more and more people paid below even the National Living Wage let alone the real Living Wage, rising numbers of people in ‘in-work’ poverty and a phenomenal growth in the reliance on food banks by families and individuals across the country. And there are signs of significant growth in personal debt. In addition to all of this, there is the inevitable anxiety and uncertainty caused by the prospect of Brexit. There has unfortunately been a rise in hate crime and some break down in social cohesion since the EU referendum.
The Government continues to follow its programme of austerity with deeper cuts to many public services yet to come to core services such as child care, schools and the NHS. Its so called ‘welfare reform’ is creating hardship, anxiety and worse. The Government is not reversing these policies nor has it publicly considered reversing some of its tax changes that have benefited the wealthiest and highest earners. Inequality – real and perceived – is itself corrosive.
The lack of public investment in infrastructure is there for all of us to see and experience. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has demonstrated that there is a desperate need for more investment in social housing, better regulation and greater accountability. Yet as a country we are on a trajectory of less regulation and more opaque decision making.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy sadly has also very starkly highlighted the divides with our very divided society. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is very much a contemporary ‘tale of two cities’. The response to the Grenfell Tower community from the local community and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations, faith groups and other civil society groups was tremendous and continues to be so. This response so obviously contrasts with that of the Borough Council, which has seemingly lost the confidence of large swathes of its population. Local voice is coming from the community, its action group and the VCS.
Injustice, hardship and lack of services and support are the very reasons that many thousands of small, large, local, regional and national charities and VCS were created. Their mission is often both to ameliorate and to campaign to eradicate the causes of injustice, hardship and lack of services and support. They represent a form of social collectivism and solidarity. Of course, rightly many VCS sector organisations seek to work with the state at local and national level, to complement but not substitute for it, to meet need and to speak up for their beneficiaries. The latter can bring them into conflict with government and local authorities but that is not a reason to avoid campaigning.
Charities and VCS must stay true to their mission and their beneficiaries. They should be pragmatic but at the same time should remain principled and values driven. They must be bold and ambitious and not afraid to speak out.
Charities and VCS organisations will from time to time must use the courts and legal system to challenge injustice and to defend the rights of communities and their beneficiaries.
Many VCS groups and organisations work in communities in ways that are similar to the way that trade unions operate in the workplace.
There are many similarities and some shared agendas between some VCS and trade unions. They will often share the following
- objectives to fight for and promote social justice in society and work
- are representative of members and beneficiaries and provide a collective voice for them
- are ready and willing to take on the ‘establishment’ and those in authority – employers, local authorities, the wider public sector and government – when necessary
- rely on strong and effective networks and cadres of volunteers
- are willing where necessary to take collective action including recourse to the courts
- are too often attacked by the tabloid press and right of centre – and sometimes left of centre – politicians when they are effective in speaking and acting for their members and beneficiaries
Of course, there are many differences between trade unions and the VCS but let’s build on their shared ideals, objectives and actions. Let us celebrate both the VCS and trade unions as fundamental to a vibrant democratic civil society and fighting injustice wherever and why ever it exists.
Charities and VCS organisations will not be party political in ways that some trade unions proudly are. They won’t organise in the work place as trade unions do but they will often be supporting and working with and for the same people and the same communities. Many of the injustices and issues, which both trade unions and VCS organisations are addressing, stem from the same set of political, social and economic ideologies, policies and practices.
Most VCS organisations and trade unions will recognise the bleak scenario of the contemporary U.K. that is described at the beginning of this article. They will share a loathing for this situation. In their own ways, they will wish to see change and promote progressive alternatives.
I have argued in Huffington Post and elsewhere on many occasions that charities and the wider VCS organisations must be ready to campaign. I have also always recognised that they many of them will wish to provide services to support and enhance opportunities and the lives of their beneficiaries. The provision of services, whether contracted by the public sector or not, and campaigning are not mutually exclusive. Pragmatism is very much in their make up as it is in the trade union movement.
As the Supreme Court rules in favour of workers’ rights and supports the case made by Unison we should be thankful that we have effective trade unions. We should equally be thankful that, despite austerity, we still have many effective charities and VCS organisations.
I believe that they have much in common and should explore how they can work together and find common causes at a local and national level. And in so doing they should always respect their cultural, political and organisational differences.
They could explore common and even integrated service provision – for example advice and advocacy services; joint campaigns; and jointly commissioned and undertaken research and policy activity.
Charities and VCS organisations should encourage and facilitate trade union membership for their employees. Trade unions should encourage their members to be active in the VCS. They seek to agree protocols on the future of public services and in particular on public service outsourcing, and when and on what terms VCS organisations can be an alternative means of developing and delivering public services.
There could be strength in and to be gained exploring how to develop a shared and joint approach to shared challenges and issues including social injustice. Has the time come to explore? I think that it has.