Comment: The government’s double standards on trade unions look like class war

A comparison of the treatment meted out to trade unions and accountancy trade associations


The UK government is rushing a trade union bill through parliament to curb the rights of workers. The Bill imposes a minimum turnout of 50 per cent for all binding ballots and a higher threshold for withdrawal of labour in public services. Organisers must obtain permission from the police.

Despite requests, electronic balloting is forbidden for trade unions. This is on top of the existing stringent requirements, such as one-person-one-vote, no delegated proxy voting system and election of all officers.

Trade unions can also be held liable for damage to employers. The government justifies draconian laws by claiming that trade union activities affect wider society, including those who are not members of trade unions.

Now let us compare the above with the government’s approach to power exercised by other organised groups. Accountancy trade associations, masquerading as professional bodies, wield enormous power.

Accounting logics promoted by accountancy trade associations influence the assessment of wages, pensions, dividends, taxes, utility prices and much more. Unlike conventional trade unions they have secured monopolies and niches for their members and these are guaranteed by the state.

UK companies above a certain size, schools, hospitals, housing associations, and trade unions are required by law to submit to an audit by an accountant belonging to a specific trade association. The market for insolvency is reserved for accountants belonging to selected trade associations.

Tax avoidance is a big money spinner for accountants though no accountancy firm has ever been disciplined or fined for peddling abusive schemes, even after the courts have declared them to be unlawful. No victim of accounting, auditing, insolvency and tax scams has ever been compensated by accountancy trade associations.

The power of accountancy trade associations affects the life chances of all citizens. How democratic and accountable are they? Consider the case of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the largest UK-based accountancy trade association with annual income of £164m.

It has a royal charter and is a statutory regulator of auditing and insolvency. It has 178,000 members worldwide. Its president, deputy-president, and vice-president are not directly elected by members. Instead they are appointed by its council.

For its business at the 2015 annual general meeting (AGM) 6,310 votes (turnout of 3.54 per cent) were cast. Unlike trade unions, electronic voting is permitted. Of the nine seats for council, the candidate with 2,520 (1.41 per cent of the eligible vote) votes topped the poll and an individual with just 1756 votes, less than 1 per cent of the eligible vote, was elected.

This includes 650 votes cast by the President under a delegated proxy voting system, a system forbidden for trade unions, general, local, and the European and Mayoral elections. One can only speculate about the beneficiaries of the President’s bulk vote.

Many companies boast remuneration committees, but shareholders still vote on executive remuneration. There is no such opportunity for ACCA members. Its chief executive collected a remuneration package of £368,157.

Nearly twenty years ago, I organised resolutions to democratise ACCA. Its response was to exert pressure on my then employers behind my back, an episode briefly explained here. Some former council members have been unhappy at the ACCA’s governance practices and have mobilised concerned members.

Such attempts have failed as the leadership has used the Association’s vast resources and the delegated proxy voting system to maintain status quo. Early Day Motions tabled in the House of Commons have condemned the ACCA’s lack of democratic practices.

Such pressures resulted in the appointment of the Electoral Reform Services to count ballots. Prior to that votes were counted by the chief executive.

For the 2015 AGM, concerned members tabled eight resolutions seeking an end to the use of the delegated proxy voting system and calls for greater accountability. About 5,300, or 3 per cent of the membership, votes were cast. This includes 700 votes cast by the President, sufficient to change the outcomes.

All were defeated, and one by just a single vote. Not only did the hierarchy use the organisation’s vast resources to maintain its hegemony, it also inserted a statement on the ballot paper, which in bold letters stated “Council recommends that members Vote AGAINST the following resolutions”.

Whether Electoral Reform Services objected is not known. The fees paid to it by ACCA are not disclosed. Trade unions are not permitted to insert such recommendations on ballot papers. One can imagine the outcry if the ballot papers for trade unions, Scottish independence, or the forthcoming EU referendum contained such recommendations.

A comparison of the treatment meted out to trade unions and accountancy trade associations shows that the government is engaged in a class war. The practices of accountancy trade associations affect every citizen, yet there is virtually no accountability to their own members, far less the general public.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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14 Responses to “Comment: The government’s double standards on trade unions look like class war”

  1. Dieter

    A very relevant comparison – leaves the reader to ask the inevitable question: “How can this be allowed to continue…”

  2. CGR

    What a load of nonsense. A political trade union cannot be compared to a professional body that is created by Royal Charter and has regulatory control over the profession.

  3. Prem Sikka

    Please explain. Since when professions have been apolitical? And is the public not affected by the practices sanctioned by such bodies?

  4. Selohesra

    If unions had acted a bit more responsibly rather than agitating for strikes at every opportunity perhaps there would be less public support to clip their wings a bit. When was the last year we did not have a rail or tube strike? – I don’t know the answer but I bet it was a long while ago

  5. Prem Sikka

    By the token “When was the last year we did not have an accounting, auditing, tax, insolvency” scandal” ?
    Workers don’t go on strikes because it is fun. They do so because there are grievances. All strikes eventually result in some kind of a negotiated settlement. Why not create corporate structures that facilitate this?

  6. Luke Blakey

    how many ‘political’ trade unions can you think off?

    There are barely a handful today, and in the past the alphabet soup of factions and sub factions represented by entirely different unions were hardly that interested in international and national politics. Inter and Intra company politics maybe, but then that is the same as the ACCA, etc.

  7. Selohesra

    Well I’m glad you compare this over zealous use of industrial action to other scandals – its a start

  8. Woo11

    Not interested in national or internation politics?????????? Clearly you have never been to the TUC annual general meetings, or had anything much to do with Trade Unions at all. Trade Unions have historically been members of and funded numerable national and international organisations – like Amnesty International for instance when I worked with them. I suggest you check you facts, I’m sure all such Trade Union links with organisations are listed and in the public domain.

  9. Luke Blakey

    Hi Woo, I was trying to underplay the fact that one or two unions actually do do a occasional political thing to CGR. I believe that more trade unions with royal charters for their work would actually be a good thing, particularly in all these jobs we are told are low skilled, but which we know are done better with people who know what they are actually doing.

    One thing I will say, as you did mention the TUC, is so what? Not every union joins the TUC and only 12 or so pay a political levy to Labour. Members are political, but unions? I am a member of a trade union and of a political party. One sends out long winded emails, and arranges campaign meetings with no defined goal or end point, 50 miles from where I live, and the other actually does political stuff day in day out exclusively. Guess which is which.

    Trade unions are essential and important.But they are also factional, disconnected from changing means of production (print/steam engines/gas lighters) and subject to being bribed by a establishment handing out goodies to them to the detriment of others (nuclear 1980s). Really important, but a political force? i’m young and not convinced.

  10. Woo11

    I was a member of the “old” trade unions you decry. And it wasn’t just one or two who had genuine interests as I stated above, Remember it is the membership, normal everyday people who are the Union. Look Luke, I am very well aware that Unions have lost a great deal of power, they apparently,so we are told, once had too much, this is rubbish. You lay the blame at the wrong door, the anti trade union bills of the 80s and 90s under Thatcher inc. after the Miners Strike, and never rescinded by the Labour Gvt, are a lot to do with why we are in such a state, working conditions that exist now with short term contracts and bad wages and awful conditions were simply unheard of and unimagined by the “old” union members on the scale they are now, yes there were sectors that were very poorly paid like the hotel and catering industry, but now everyone fears for their job and puts their head down and accepts anything. I feel as if I’m in another country sometimes. I really feel for the youth and younger adults of today, it is extremely hard,the austerity rhetoric is cruel, but please dont give up. every generation has to fight again, and I wish you well, truly.

  11. Woo11

    Prem was not comparing s/he was saying that the effects of the financial scandals we have been and are subject to are incomparable to days lost through strike action. As Prem said it is absolutely the last resort, like when the Mayor, or head of Tfl announces that they will not even discuss the loss of jobs, the semi staffed stations, the safety questions, and the relentless attack on working conditions, the amount of times stupid mamnagement decisions accutally provoke strike action is fantastical. But this doesn’t even compare to the amount of revenue lost through, for instance tax avoidance, banks collapses and all the rest of the murky dealings that cost the people of this country greatly.

  12. Woo11 Just one example of the current Trade Unions actions Luke, in support of the Luxleaks whistleblower Antione Deltour, and joining the Global Alliance for Tax Justice in their struggle for all countries to make country by country tax audits in respect of mutinationals, and to make those audits public. This has to become a reality.

  13. Luke Blakey

    Hi Woo, your post is right in many ways, however for me, making the point I actually made in that first point (and not the full swath of argument you falsely attribute), i’d have to say in conclusion that its all very nice that we both think of ourselves as card carrying members of the UK Labour movement & therefore like to think nice thoughts about it and its role internationally.

    But and its a big but Woo, in actively doing that, there is a problem: is it not the case that in doing that, you and I are in the minority of members who care even to think about the subject, nevermind spending time typing away online about it….?

    I am not convinced 90% of modern unions (including associations,farmers, accountants, professional bodies) are active politically in their day to day activities, nor able/get round to throwing hours of members effort into a cause from time to time. Unite is a exception today, as is the National Farmers Union (extremely successfully), and possibly the Miners Union, not sure, but supporting a candidate for labour deputy leader is political . Unite, NFU and NUM though for me are exceptions rather than the norm.I am also pretty certain that 90% of direct debit members of trade unions pay even less time on politics than they do on their own union ie nothing but the occasional glance at a pay slip and moan about how long a pay review took…

    The old unions/ alphabet soup thing refers to my lack of understanding of how 10,000s of little union factions, 12 say per company, ever used to work? How could it be the case that a coal powered steam train be worked on/run by members of 12 different unions/associations/ separate clubs all just within the one railway. How can different factions fighting each over bring overall progress? That is a very different issue snd down to my own lack of understanding, and not really anything but a aside to what the article is about. As for fighting: consciousness that there is anything at stake to fight for is at a premium these days, so many people, in so many areas of life shaped by politics, are so certain that politics has no meaning, relevance or impact for them…

  14. Luke Blakey

    Hi Woo, i’m sorry, but those two examples do not impress me. A trade union should support a whistleblower/ fair tax & for me its something you’d discount them for when they fail to, rather than praise them for just doing (or belatedly geting round to) .the fact most associations do nothing to become Fair Tax Mark accredited, pressure their firms to do more or allow members to speak out annoys me. I must be going through a unimpressed stage overall to be having quite such a long tete a tete with you… regards L Blakey

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