LETTER: Trade union cash is not Labour Party ‘sub’

Coun. Paul White (February 1st) is to be congratulated in drawing readers’ attention to the fact trade union members can opt out of paying that part of their subscriptions designated as “political fund”.

That his mum had not been aware she was paying it and his dad had been told he had no option but to pay it appears, on the facts as presented, to be regrettable failures on the part of Unison and Unite unions.

All trade unions must in effect have a political fund. If an individual does not want to pay the political fund element, he/she can exercise the right not to pay it. The member will still be entitled to enjoy all the full rights and protection available from the union.

Coun. White’s letter may have left many readers with the impression a political fund was broadly designed to enable members to have donations channelled to a political party, in this case Labour. The reality is rather different.

The worst thing about the political fund is its name. If it had been called the campaign fund I bet virtually no one would question its purpose. To me, it is a bit like the furore caused by the introduction of same-sex marriage. Had a suitable alternative word to marriage been selected, the proposition could have sailed through with much less fuss. It is essentially a semantic problem.

I am a member of Prospect, a union whose members are in a wide spread of public and private sector spheres. Even though 22 years in retirement, I could still benefit significantly from the union’s services and am personally involved up to national level with the retired members’ group. Until 1984, Prospect had no need for a political fund because its rules debar it affiliating with or contributing to any political party.

However, the 1984 Trade Union Act requires any union engaged in any activity which could be described as political must have a political fund reaffirmed by ballot every 10 years.

The key legal judgement in this area was delivered by Sir Nicholas Browne-Wilkinson in a ruling against NALGO in 1987. In a nutshell, this ruling made unions liable for the effect on people’s voting behaviour of any campaign they undertake, whatever its actual purpose. This puts any campaign at risk without a political fund. Without a political fund a union runs the risk of a legal challenge to actions that would be in support of legitimate negotiating objectives but which the courts might deem to be political.

The Prospect RMG is concerned over a number of objectives of importance to many of the retired members, none of which are political but all of which could disadvantage this group because income in retirement tends to be significantly below that during one’s working lifetime.

Readers will appreciate percentage increases on pensions amount to a lot less money because pensions are normally much lower than employed earnings always lead to pensioners losing out progressively compared with the working community. These are not political issues but rather simply issues of fairness and humanity. Nevertheless they fall within the realm of the political fund which is thus a trade union must but not universally also a “sub” to the Labour Party.

OWEN OLIVER

Bents, Colne