Civil Society

Voluntary sector and trade unions: the need for common cause has never been greater

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Voluntary sector organisations and trade unions have much in common. They seek social justice for their beneficiaries, they rely heavily on volunteers to help organise and support beneficiaries; and they rely on non-paid bodies to oversee their strategic direction and governance. Both types of organisation are also heavily regulated; and scrutinised by a sceptical, often hostile, media.

Yet despite their similarities, few voluntary organisations are unionised; and common campaigns to further the mutual interests of their beneficiaries are rarely mentioned. There are exceptions of course. Examples include the Working Families manifesto which is supported by charities and unions; and last December’s Human Rights Day, that saw the voluntary sector celebrate alongside trade unions. More recently 70 organisations, made up of charities, NGOs and trade unions, came together in an alliance to push for limits on powers given to ministers in the Brexit Repeal Bill.

But shouldn’t such co-operation be normal rather than exceptional?

Back in 2008, an ACEVO report, The Way Ahead, looked at the relationship between unions and the voluntary sector. It referred to a perceived ambivalence towards the sector from unions and a concern that unions do not understand the unique nature of the sector, particularly in relation to its funding structures.

Of course at the time the report was written, the Labour government’s policy was resulting in voluntary organisations competing for public sector contracts to deliver services. Not surprisingly, the pressure this put on their members’ wages and jobs was not something trade unions were going to take lightly. Indeed, unions still are of the opinion that public funding must be used to support the independence, advocacy and additionality of voluntary organisations rather than use them to provide statutory public services on the cheap.

But the ACEVO report also recognised that where there was a strong partnership with unions, such engagement helped in the delivery of change, and resulted in HR best practice. Indeed, unions were seen as filling a gap in HR expertise, often providing management with free and helpful advice.

Clearly, since 2010 the political climate has changed. Years of austerity has seen wide-ranging cuts and more privatisation, with the voluntary sector and trade unions working hard to mitigate the effects of government policy.

But the voluntary sector has its own issues too. Low pay is a problem, with very few voluntary sector organisations being accredited living wage employers. This needs addressing, yet funders are often reluctant to cover wage costs; and the biggest source of voluntary sector income – the public – would rather see their donations spent on beneficiaries than on staff.

The irony here isn’t lost on the unions. Siobhan Endean, National Officer of Unite, which has 48,000 members in its Community Youth and Not for Profit section, said, “How can charities challenge poverty if they are not prepared to pay their own staff a living wage.”

Yet it is common cause on such issues that should be uniting trade unions and the voluntary sector.

A good example is employment tribunal fees. In July, Unison won a landmark victory when the Supreme Court ruled that fees were unlawful. This was welcomed well beyond the trade union movement, with Citizens Advice saying the fees had “prevented people from getting justice” and Mind saying, “Too often, people with mental health problems feel that they have been forced out of a job because of their mental health; and these fees were yet another barrier for us in the fight for fairness and equality in the workplace.”

This particular decision prompted some to call for trade unions and the voluntary sector to work much more closely.

Nor should it be difficult to make this happen. The Unite union’s strategy for a strong voluntary and community sector has a vision for the sector in which the government must take “a hands-off approach, strengthening the sector’s autonomy and advocacy.” This surely would be welcomed by the voluntary sector. Indeed, Unite go on to say, “This means de-politicising the Charity Commission and repealing the Lobbying Act.”

But with some 850,000 staff working for voluntary organisations; and only a small number of mostly larger ones recognising unions, there is a long way to go.

Sadly, none of the voluntary sector’s national umbrella organisations were able to give me any insights into relations with trade unions, despite my requests. Indeed, I had to go back to 2004 to find something positive from NCVO who said, “Unionisation is central to establishing good employee relations that are based on the principles of consultation and representation. These principles also lie at the heart of our sector, which is dedicated to creating a fairer society.”

Nothing has changed in this respect. For everyone in civil society, working together has to be the way forwards. Indeed, with a government that seems quite content to marginalise the voluntary sector, stifle our trade unions, and continue down its path of austerity, the need for common cause has never been greater.

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