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1: Caught in the check off trap

Rail unions learned just how vulnerable their finances were many years ago when British Rail summarily ended the check-off facility to RMT during a dispute in 1993, depriving that union of an income stream of £500,000 a month. As a result, even after the dispute ended and British Rail resumed check off, the rail unions persuaded many members to pay by direct debit instead (although many still pay through check off). Similarly, the teachers’ union the NUT and the UCU, which covers academic-related university staff, have moved to direct debit.

But the warning went unheeded in most of the union movement. And since the government ended check off in the civil service earlier this year – as the employer, it needed no legislation – as part of its attack on the main civil service union PCS, the consequences have been devastating.

Already weakened by ultra-leftism, division and poor workplace organisation, and already under heavy financial pressure, PCS was vulnerable. In the scramble to retain members by switching them from check-off to payment by direct debit, the union has lost a third of its members in a few months. It is now barely able to function, and cannot afford to fund its conference or internal elections.

The Bill now seeks to extend this assault to all of the public sector, and thereby attack all unions that organise in publicly owned employers. It is no coincidence these are the areas with have by far the highest density of union membership.

The NHS, councils, devolved governments, schools, all would be affected. It would affect transport – Network Rail and London Underground are both public sector companies, as are a number of bus companies. And it is looking likely that the provisions could be applied to the private sector companies that run so many public services on a privatised or outsourced basis. The impact on unions such as Unison, Unite and the GMB, can only be imagined.

Anyone who believes that these provisions will not be extended to all unions everywhere if successfully applied to the public services is living in cloud cuckoo land. Without money, unions would be forced to rethink what they are for and how to function. They shouldn’t wait to be forced.

Erratum notice: The original article implied, incorrectly, that the NUT and the UCU rely on check-off; it has been amended accordingly.

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