Need insurance? Then join the union

The labour movement is now offering financial services, writes Stephen Pritchard
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THE LAST two decades have been difficult for the trade union movement. But having survived unsympathetic governments and falling membership, unions look set to enjoy a revival. The Government's Fairness at Work proposals, issued last week, will oblige employers to recognise unions in some circumstances.

Behind the scenes, trade unions are already increasing their usefulness by becoming important players in financial services negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services.

Members of TUC unions are being invited to sign up for discounted gas supplies through Union Energy. The offer will also apply to electricity when the market is deregulated. Union Energy has a deal with Scottish Power to supply the fuel, and the utility promises that its prices will be among the five cheapest providers over the next few years.

The company claims this could save members up to 20 per cent on bills. Union Energy also gives free payment protection of up to pounds 200, and the unions benefit from an annual payment for each member who signs up.

The trade union movement runs its own bank, Unity Trust, which has a financial services arm, Unity Financial Services (UFS). UFS is a joint venture between Unity Trust Bank and Colonial. UFS offers a package of services, including pensions and financial planning, home insurance, personal loans and a mortgage broker service.

Some of the savings are worthwhile: on home insurance, union members can save up to 30 per cent on market rates. If you're a union member, call UFS (see below) and find out what's been negotiated for your union. The latest UFS perk is a discount shopping card that gives up to 50 per cent off in high street stores. At the moment only Aslef, the train drivers' union, has the card but other unions are expected to launch the deal soon.

Unions can mix and match Unity services with products from other banks or insurers. The First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, offers an American Express charge card without the pounds 37.50 annual fee. Twenty per cent of the membership responded to the Amex offer. The FDA also has an arrangement with Towry Law, independent financial advisers, which is widely used.

Manufacturing Science Finance (MSF), the union, offers home insurance through Lombard. It has also negotiated a separate car insurance deal for members who are part of the Professional Sales Association: mainstream insurers will not pay out when salespeople's samples are stolen from cars.

Arranging this sort of specialist insurance cover is an increasingly important part of trade unions' work, especially in the white collar sector. Some professions face active discrimination for a wide range of financial services, from mortgages and life cover to car insurance. For others, it is cheaper and simpler if the union negotiates cover on a central basis. Union officials can arrange cover according to their members' exact needs, and usually premiums are less than in the open market:

q NASUWT, a teachers' union, gives free cover of up to pounds 80 for members' property damaged on school premises, or on an official school trip. The union also provides up to pounds 100 of cover for malicious damage to cars or cycles, plus personal accident cover.

q Alliance Multimedia offers discounts to members of the National Union of Journalists for insurance on cameras and computer equipment. The company also has a general policy for people working from home.

q Bectu, the broadcasting and cinema union, includes free public liability insurance for members. Bectu has also negotiated specific professional indemnity insurance for members.

Motor insurance can be expensive for television and film workers as they may carry thousands of pounds of camera equipment. Other professions suffer because of insurers' prejudices about their lifestyles. Musicians and actors have difficulty arranging car insurance. Insurers either quote high premiums, or will not offer cover at all.

This has led Equity to organise its own motor cover through a specialist broker. Trading as First Act Insurance, it guarantees to cover Equity members.

Equity gives its members help with tax and benefits; the rules on National Insurance for performers are particularly complicated. A growing number of unions provide tax advice services, in part as a result of self-assessment.

Union membership also offers you access to legal advice. The package can extend to free wills, offered by unions including MFS and the NASUWT; MFS members also benefit from low-cost conveyancing.

Unions retain solicitors to deal with work such as employment law or industrial tribunals but most unions give some free advice on non-work matters too. In cases such as a personal injury claim, this takes the form of an initial consultation with a union solicitor.

q Union Energy 0800 0279000; Unity Financial Services 0800 600999.

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