Labour Research January 2018


What do we face in 2018?

As the squeeze on real wages continues, the experts at Labour Research look at what else 2018 is likely to bring for unions and their members. 

We can’t rule out a change of government in 2018. But even if this happens, any new administration would have to start with the inherited economic “fundamentals”. 

As things stand, the government’s own forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), expects low economic growth, poor productivity and the squeeze on real wages to continue. 

Despite weak economic growth, the OBR expects the unemployment rate to drop further to a 1970s-level 4.3%, although that ignores a number of categories of people, including part-timers who actually want full-time work. 

It is the toxic combination of rising prices, low wage growth and the freeze on most working-age benefits and tax credits that gives rise to the squeeze on real incomes, which in turn hits consumer spending. That may explain why the OBR expects only a “modest” growth in the increase in household consumption. 

Improved productivity growth is seen as a route out of low pay. But, the TUC has warned, the UK is crying out for decent investment. It says that more funding is needed for infrastructure, transport, science and technology, especially in parts of the country “most in need of more and better jobs”.

Meanwhile, as Labour Research reports, a wide array of issues — from Brexit’s impact on employment law to the duty on employers to publish gender pay gap figures by this April, will continue to occupy unions through 2018.

Employment law


As the UK moves towards its exit from the European Union, unions will continue the work of holding the government to task over aspects of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill which will impact on their members’ interests (see also this issue pages 16-18).

At the time of going to press, the Bill was at Committee stage with the House of Commons voting on proposed amendments. Of particular concern to unions will be the threat posed by the Bill to existing employment rights, as well as the workings of democracy and to basic human rights. 

Cross-party MPs tabled an amendment to the Bill to retain the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights in domestic law, and Labour MPs also proposed an amendment to the effect that, after Brexit, any change to employment rights should require primary legislation and parliamentary scrutiny. Although these amendments were both voted down, these issues will continue to be vital campaigning points for unions as the Bill progresses through Parliament. 

Beyond Brexit, unions will also be alive to the potential for the government to water down employment rights, should they successfully introduce so-called “Henry VIII powers” — enabling changes to laws without a vote in Parliament — under the Bill (see pages 16-18). 

Employment status

Unions are set to continue to fight ground-breaking legal cases in relation to employment status. In particular, the IWGB and GMB unions are likely to face an appeal by taxi app Uber against the Employment Appeal Tribunal’s (EAT) recent decision that their member drivers’ are workers and not, as Uber asserts, self-employed.

As Labour Research went to press, it was being reported that Uber had been unsuccessful in an application to appeal directly to the Supreme Court. In the circumstances, their appeal is likely to be heard by the Court of Appeal this year. 

Another important upcoming case (in February) is that of Pimlico Plumbers Ltd and another v Smith, in which Pimlico Plumbers are appealing against an EAT ruling that the plumbers were workers and not self-employed (see Labour Research, March 2017, page 5). 

Collective bargaining

Promoting and enhancing the right to collectively bargain in the workplace will be another ongoing union priority.

The IWGB has filed a landmark Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) test case against the University of London, arguing that outsourced workers should be entitled to collectively bargain with the university, and that denying them the right to do so is a breach of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The CAC decision will be eagerly anticipated.

Equal pay

The coming year also sees a continuation of campaigning and litigating around equal pay. The GMB’s equal pay case against Asda, involving thousands of claimants (Brierley and others v Asda Stores Ltd [2017] IRLR 1058 EAT), is proceeding slowly through the courts as Asda throws as many obstacles as possible in the path of the claims. 

The supermarket giant’s appeal to the Court of Appeal in relation to the EAT’s decision that the claimants can compare themselves to distribution workers will be heard in October 2018. 

A connected case, Farmah and Others v Birmingham City Council UKEAT/0289/15/JOJ is also on appeal. This is relevant to unions as it is based on the ability to issue multiple claims on the same claim form.

Parental rights

There are some significant legal cases and legislative changes relating to parental rights on the horizon. 

For example, there are two cases on appeal to the EAT which relate to fathers’ pay during shared parental leave (Ali v Capita Customer Management Ltd and Hextall v Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police); the EU Commission has proposed a new EU directive dealing with enhanced parental rights; and a Bill relating to bereavement leave for parents is currently passing through Parliament.

Health and safety

Aside from Brexit, the challenges facing unions this year on the health and safety front include the continuing effects of deregulation and cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and to local authority regulation of health and safety.

The role of health and safety reps is therefore more important than ever and, as part of celebrating their 40th anniversary, the TUC will be rolling out new safety reps’ training in the early part of the year. 

The Unite general union is updating and reissuing its health and safety guide which will include examples of safety reps’ action, and shopworkers’ union Usdaw is updating and refreshing its approach to organising around health and safety issues. 

The UCU lecturers’ union is recruiting additional health and safety reps to carry out inspections and investigations as part of its campaign on workloads. 

This will see it linking health and safety, organising and collective bargaining in order to tackle this, its number one health and safety priority. Public services union UNISON will use recruitment campaigns to encourage more safety reps.

Workload is also a major issue in schools, and the National Education Union (NEU) is to publish new guidance on tackling workloads as part of its work to combat stress and poor mental health. Stress and mental health are also priority areas for UNISON and the PCS civil service union. 


Asbestos in schools is another NEU priority area, with a particular focus on its management by academy trusts. 

Unite will be campaigning on asbestos as part of its work to prevent respiratory occupational disease, which also includes action to tackle diesel engine exhaust emissions, silica dust and welding fumes. 

Tackling violence at work continues to exercise unions, and Usdaw will review and update its Freedom from Fear campaign following a sharp upturn in incidents in shops. 

The UCU’s work over the coming year will include a focus on issues related to offender learning. Here, members providing education in prisons and secure training institutions face rising levels of assaults.

Meanwhile, the TUC is to review its guidance on risk assessment to ensure it reflects the issues employers should be looking at beyond safety concerns, including workplace harassment, violence, working time and insecurity. 

TUC and unions

June marks the TUC’s 150th anniversary when, it says, it will not only celebrate its “proud history” but will also “look forward”. It says: “We’ll be reaching out to a new generation of working people, and seeking to put trade unions back at the heart of British civil society and public life.”

Another anniversary is celebrated this year — the 25th birthday of public services union UNISON. 

UNISON was formed by the merger of the NUPE, NALGO and COHSE unions on 1 July 1993 with a total of almost 1.5 million members.

Political fund contributions

Elsewhere, all UK unions will need to make some organisational changes this year because of still-to-be implemented sections of the Trade Union Act 2016 (TUA). One of these is a change to the way unions must collect political fund contributions from members, which comes into effect from 1 March. 

Unions with such funds will have to ensure that new members are not automatically “opted in” to the funds when they join the union, but must expressly opt in if they wish to contribute. 

Unions have been drawing up rules to implement this requirement, which must be agreed with the certification officer (CO). 

The change is likely to make it harder for unions to build up funds for campaigns deemed “political” by other legislation.

In addition, unions now have to report to the CO in great detail how they spend their political fund, with their first report due in June this year. This is the same deadline for the new requirement on unions to report to the CO any industrial action taken in 2017.

The TUA also brought in rules relating to check-off — the deduction of union subs from wages — in the public sector in England and Scotland, which come into force this year. By 10 March, unions and employers must have reached check-off arrangements which ensure that unions pay for any administrative costs incurred by employers who provide check-off facilities.

Some unions are already being affected by the new requirement on public sector employers in England and Scotland to report details of spending on paid union facility time, though the first reports are not due until 31 July. 

Legal cap

The government may use these to introduce a legal cap on facility time. However, due to successful union lobbying, there will be no cap before 1 April 2020 at the earliest.

The government last year consulted on three other matters arising out of the TUA: proposed new enforcement powers for the CO; the levy to be raised from unions to fund the extended role of the CO; and electronic voting in industrial action ballots. 

The results of those consultations were awaited as Labour Research went to press. 

European Union

Negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union is not the only challenge that the EU will face in 2018. There are differing views on its future, with some favouring closer and greater integration of a core group of countries and others strongly opposed to a so-called “two-speed” Europe. 

French president Emmanuel Macron is one of those wanting closer economic and financial integration, but it is unclear whether the German government will be willing to cooperate. 

Economically, the EU can face 2018 with much greater confidence than in previous years. The latest forecasts from the European Commission, published last November, suggest that there will be economic growth in all 28 EU states, with the average reaching 2.3%. 

This is expected to continue into 2018, although growth is forecast to dip slightly to 2.1%. This is still higher than the Commission’s forecast for the UK’s GDP, which it expects will be 1.3% in 2018. 

Greece, which for a long time has faced the biggest economic problems, is finally expected to leave the bailout programme in August 2018.

One result of this improved economic outlook is that unemployment is expected to fall from the current 8.9% (September 2017) to 7.3% in 2018. However, it is still forecast to be at very high levels in Greece (20.4%), Spain (15.6%) and Italy (10.9%).


By 4 April, organisations with 250 or more staff will have had to publish their gender pay gap figures. 

However, figures produced at the end of last year by media company Golin in its Gender Pay Gap Corporate Risks Research show that only 85 of 9,000 employers from across the public, private and voluntary sectors who will be required to publish their figures, had so far taken the opportunity to submit their data early. 

Disappointingly, the regulations do not require employers to provide an explanation to accompany the information they publish, or an action plan setting out how they intend to narrow any gender pay gap in their organisations.

The TUC has also been highly critical of the regulations for failing to sanction employers who do not comply. 

However, it has said that once the pay gap information is published, unions will be able to use the data in their negotiations with employers, work with them to identify the causes of the gender pay gap and develop strategies to eliminate it.

Learning and skills

The learning and skills agenda for 2018 looks set to be dominated by proposals outlined in the government’s industrial strategy White Paper, published at the end of November 2017 (see page 25). 

Industrial strategy: building a Britain for the future, includes details of a formal National Training Partnership bringing together the government, CBI and the TUC to “set the strategic direction and oversee implementation” of a new National Retraining Scheme (NRS).

The NRS will initially target skills shortages in key sectors, focusing on digital and construction skills.

In a welcome development regarding the Apprenticeship Levy, the White Paper states: “From April 2018, we plan to allow levy-paying employers in England to transfer up to 10% of their funds to another employer, including within their supply chain.”