Misleading TUC report on union facility time

January 24, 2012 2:52 PM

Last year TaxPayers' Alliance research revealed that 2,840 full time equivalent public sector staff were working for the unions, instead of front line services.

Today the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has released a new study looking at facility time, arguing that it provides benefits in excess of the costs to taxpayers.  There is no genuinely new research, an old estimate of the benefits is simply adjusted for inflation, but more than that the study is misleading in a number of ways.

Misrepresenting the source

Within the study, it is described as a "short report, commissioned by the TUC from the Work & Employment Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire".  This suggests that the source is, while commissioned by the TUC, not ideologically motivated.  Though the author is not identified in the report itself, their website identifies him as Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire.  At his page on the university's website he makes clear his close and longstanding relationship with the unions, saying that: "In this I have work [sic] with the Institute of Employment Rights, established a research service for trade unions, write [sic] regularly for the Morning Star and conducted research for unions like the FBU, PCS and RMT."

The Wikipedia page about him records his history in far left politics:

Originally a member of Labour Students and the Labour Party, he ended his membership of these over the issue of the poll tax, then joining the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) in 1990. He joined the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in advance of the SWP joining on mass, leaving the SWP in 2004 after many years of growing disagreements. He remains a member of the SSP and is a member of the editorial board of the Scottish Left Review,[2] editor of its book arm, the Scottish Left Review Press, and the chair of the editorial committee of the journal of the Scottish Labour History Society, called Scottish Labour History. He is a member of the board of management of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. He is working on a biography of Tommy Sheridan (due out late 2011), and a history of the SSP (due out late 2012).


While the author's political history does not mean we should discount this study, the TUC clearly give the impression of a far more disinterested relationship between the researcher and their movement than actually exists.

The cost of facility time

The study compares estimates of the benefits of facility time across the public sector with the cost of union subsidies that we identified in our study.  However, as we made clear in our report, that estimate is a conservative one for a number of reasons:

  • "Some authorities did provide an actual remuneration or cost for facility time taken, and in nearly every case it was higher than our figure of £28,192.36. For example, our total for Barking and Dagenham council was £183,250 in remuneration; the local authority disclosed remuneration of £235,008. For methodological clarity, we used our – generally lower – estimate in all cases."

  • Not all public bodies responded to our Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.  In part because some union staff urged the staff responsible for answering freedom of information requests to say that they could not provide an estimate of facility time taken.  That problem is discussed in the 2010 edition of our research.

  • There will be other costs to hosting those staff, such as office space and other facilities, that were not included in our estimate.

  • Not every public body was included in our FOI request.  Small quangos for example were often left out in order to minimise the cost of administering and complying with the requests needed to produce the research.


That is all the result of the fact our report was an attempt to discover how facility time affected different public bodies, not to maximise the estimate of the total subsidy to the unions.

There are official estimates of the total amount of facility time taken, which are, to quote the Channel 4 Fact Check blog, "far higher" than the figure in our report "at £230m to £243m".

Comparing the total found in our survey with an estimate of the value of facility time across the entire public sector will obviously bias the results in favour of the benefits of facility time.  It is hard to believe that the author of the TUC report was not aware of the higher official figure, which suggests that this was an intentional attempt to mislead the reader.

Lower dismissal rates

A major element in the purported benefits of facility time is that dismissal "rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps – this resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £107m-£213m pa".  But that is clearly only part of the picture when it comes to dismissal rates.  Dismissals can be a bad thing to the extent they represent the loss of workers who could otherwise have represented good value for the taxpayer in their roles.  Or they can be a good thing to the extent they get rid of workers who have behaved improperly or are not well suited to their roles.  In some cases, such as teaching, there are longstanding concerns that it may be too difficult to dismiss bad employees.

In some cases, it may be the case that union reps have helped to turn around situations where workers were not productive, or prevent someone being dismissed inappropriately.  In others they may have worked to frustrate a dismissal that should have taken place to improve services.  The RMT union once urged members to strike after "a union activist was sacked for playing squash while off on sick leave with an ankle injury", for example.

Lower voluntary exit rates

Another large element is that voluntary "exit rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps, which again resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £72m-143m pa".

Again this could be a good thing or a bad thing.  It could be that the workforce is better motivated as a result of the union reps work, or it could be that having full-time activists working for a union secures more generous pay for their members, and means that they are more likely to stay.  To the extent it is the latter, taxpayers will more than pay, in the bill for higher salaries and benefits, for any improvement in exit rates.

Lower numbers of employment tribunal cases

This is a relatively small component in the overall calculation.  It is likely to be a corollary of the lower rate of dismissals, which as noted above could be for good or bad reasons.  And it could also be driven by the types of industry that are unionised or not unionised.

Lower rate of workplace-related injuries

Without a more detailed investigation of the underlying data it is difficult to fully assess the validity of this finding.  But there will be a number of differences between unionised and non-unionised workplaces in both the private sector and the public sector that are not the result of the work of union reps, as entire industries tend to be unionised or non-unionised rather than individual organisations.  That could be particularly important in this case.  It could be as stark as the difference between police officers and soldiers on the one hand, and officials working in a Government Department on the other.  Or fishermen on the one hand, and others working in an office.

Lower rates of workplace-related illness

This is subject to some of the reservations noted above.  It may reflect other qualities of unionised and non-unionised workplaces and union reps extracting more favourable terms of employment, which are paid for by the taxpayer in other ways.  At the same time, this is hard to reconcile with the fact that public sector staff take far more time in sick leave than those in the private sector, but public sector workers get far more facility time.  Productivity growth in the private sector is also higher and there are fewer strikes, as I discussed in an earlier article.

Conclusions

Our study was not a comprehensive attempt to study the costs and benefits of facility time.  An honest attempt to do so would be a welcome contribution to the debate.  However this study is both extremely simplistic in its analysis of the benefits and misleading in its presentation of the cost.

It is utterly inadequate as a justification for the counter-intuitive claim that higher quality public services can be delivered when public sector staff work for their union, rather doing the jobs they are supposed to be paid for on the front line.  There are case studies of union reps doing valuable work included in the TUC study.  But those case studies ignore the opportunity cost of those staff being unavailable to work on the front line, and have to be balanced against the cases exposed by MPs, the media and the Order-Order.com blog that show union reps engaging in work that is not in the interests of taxpayers.

And, on top of the direct cost of funding well over two thousand union activists, subsidies to the unions distort the democratic process.  They allow the unions to spend money they raise from their members on building their institutional weight and political power, instead of their immediate work representing those members.

The Government should act to end taxpayer subsidies for the unions, and reject this misleading analysis.Last year TaxPayers' Alliance research revealed that 2,840 full time equivalent public sector staff were working for the unions, instead of front line services.

Today the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has released a new study looking at facility time, arguing that it provides benefits in excess of the costs to taxpayers.  There is no genuinely new research, an old estimate of the benefits is simply adjusted for inflation, but more than that the study is misleading in a number of ways.

Misrepresenting the source

Within the study, it is described as a "short report, commissioned by the TUC from the Work & Employment Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire".  This suggests that the source is, while commissioned by the TUC, not ideologically motivated.  Though the author is not identified in the report itself, their website identifies him as Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire.  At his page on the university's website he makes clear his close and longstanding relationship with the unions, saying that: "In this I have work [sic] with the Institute of Employment Rights, established a research service for trade unions, write [sic] regularly for the Morning Star and conducted research for unions like the FBU, PCS and RMT."

The Wikipedia page about him records his history in far left politics:

Originally a member of Labour Students and the Labour Party, he ended his membership of these over the issue of the poll tax, then joining the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) in 1990. He joined the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in advance of the SWP joining on mass, leaving the SWP in 2004 after many years of growing disagreements. He remains a member of the SSP and is a member of the editorial board of the Scottish Left Review,[2] editor of its book arm, the Scottish Left Review Press, and the chair of the editorial committee of the journal of the Scottish Labour History Society, called Scottish Labour History. He is a member of the board of management of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. He is working on a biography of Tommy Sheridan (due out late 2011), and a history of the SSP (due out late 2012).


While the author's political history does not mean we should discount this study, the TUC clearly give the impression of a far more disinterested relationship between the researcher and their movement than actually exists.

The cost of facility time

The study compares estimates of the benefits of facility time across the public sector with the cost of union subsidies that we identified in our study.  However, as we made clear in our report, that estimate is a conservative one for a number of reasons:

  • "Some authorities did provide an actual remuneration or cost for facility time taken, and in nearly every case it was higher than our figure of £28,192.36. For example, our total for Barking and Dagenham council was £183,250 in remuneration; the local authority disclosed remuneration of £235,008. For methodological clarity, we used our – generally lower – estimate in all cases."

  • Not all public bodies responded to our Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.  In part because some union staff urged the staff responsible for answering freedom of information requests to say that they could not provide an estimate of facility time taken.  That problem is discussed in the 2010 edition of our research.

  • There will be other costs to hosting those staff, such as office space and other facilities, that were not included in our estimate.

  • Not every public body was included in our FOI request.  Small quangos for example were often left out in order to minimise the cost of administering and complying with the requests needed to produce the research.


That is all the result of the fact our report was an attempt to discover how facility time affected different public bodies, not to maximise the estimate of the total subsidy to the unions.

There are official estimates of the total amount of facility time taken, which are, to quote the Channel 4 Fact Check blog, "far higher" than the figure in our report "at £230m to £243m".

Comparing the total found in our survey with an estimate of the value of facility time across the entire public sector will obviously bias the results in favour of the benefits of facility time.  It is hard to believe that the author of the TUC report was not aware of the higher official figure, which suggests that this was an intentional attempt to mislead the reader.

Lower dismissal rates

A major element in the purported benefits of facility time is that dismissal "rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps – this resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £107m-£213m pa".  But that is clearly only part of the picture when it comes to dismissal rates.  Dismissals can be a bad thing to the extent they represent the loss of workers who could otherwise have represented good value for the taxpayer in their roles.  Or they can be a good thing to the extent they get rid of workers who have behaved improperly or are not well suited to their roles.  In some cases, such as teaching, there are longstanding concerns that it may be too difficult to dismiss bad employees.

In some cases, it may be the case that union reps have helped to turn around situations where workers were not productive, or prevent someone being dismissed inappropriately.  In others they may have worked to frustrate a dismissal that should have taken place to improve services.  The RMT union once urged members to strike after "a union activist was sacked for playing squash while off on sick leave with an ankle injury", for example.

Lower voluntary exit rates

Another large element is that voluntary "exit rates were lower in unionised workplaces with union reps, which again resulted in savings related to recruitment costs of £72m-143m pa".

Again this could be a good thing or a bad thing.  It could be that the workforce is better motivated as a result of the union reps work, or it could be that having full-time activists working for a union secures more generous pay for their members, and means that they are more likely to stay.  To the extent it is the latter, taxpayers will more than pay, in the bill for higher salaries and benefits, for any improvement in exit rates.

Lower numbers of employment tribunal cases

This is a relatively small component in the overall calculation.  It is likely to be a corollary of the lower rate of dismissals, which as noted above could be for good or bad reasons.  And it could also be driven by the types of industry that are unionised or not unionised.

Lower rate of workplace-related injuries

Without a more detailed investigation of the underlying data it is difficult to fully assess the validity of this finding.  But there will be a number of differences between unionised and non-unionised workplaces in both the private sector and the public sector that are not the result of the work of union reps, as entire industries tend to be unionised or non-unionised rather than individual organisations.  That could be particularly important in this case.  It could be as stark as the difference between police officers and soldiers on the one hand, and officials working in a Government Department on the other.  Or fishermen on the one hand, and others working in an office.

Lower rates of workplace-related illness

This is subject to some of the reservations noted above.  It may reflect other qualities of unionised and non-unionised workplaces and union reps extracting more favourable terms of employment, which are paid for by the taxpayer in other ways.  At the same time, this is hard to reconcile with the fact that public sector staff take far more time in sick leave than those in the private sector, but public sector workers get far more facility time.  Productivity growth in the private sector is also higher and there are fewer strikes, as I discussed in an earlier article.

Conclusions

Our study was not a comprehensive attempt to study the costs and benefits of facility time.  An honest attempt to do so would be a welcome contribution to the debate.  However this study is both extremely simplistic in its analysis of the benefits and misleading in its presentation of the cost.

It is utterly inadequate as a justification for the counter-intuitive claim that higher quality public services can be delivered when public sector staff work for their union, rather doing the jobs they are supposed to be paid for on the front line.  There are case studies of union reps doing valuable work included in the TUC study.  But those case studies ignore the opportunity cost of those staff being unavailable to work on the front line, and have to be balanced against the cases exposed by MPs, the media and the Order-Order.com blog that show union reps engaging in work that is not in the interests of taxpayers.

And, on top of the direct cost of funding well over two thousand union activists, subsidies to the unions distort the democratic process.  They allow the unions to spend money they raise from their members on building their institutional weight and political power, instead of their immediate work representing those members.

The Government should act to end taxpayer subsidies for the unions, and reject this misleading analysis.

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