Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Sixth Estate - "Unions are the unsung heroes of the credit crunch"

Guest post by Dan McCurry.  "During the tense two years following the Credit Crunch, widespread predictions of civil disorder were both highly credible and seemingly inevitable, but no winter of discontent nor summer of strife came to pass. Yet, the people whose efforts successfully averted this destructive course have gone unrecognised and unappreciated. That’s a great shame and it should be rectified.
When the Lindsey Oil Refinery workers burst into spontaneous anger and destruction, the fire was quenched by the Unions who went in and established a dialogue between Management and Workers. They kept the refinery working and left the media to look elsewhere for their story.
This was one of a number of flashpoints across the country. The predicted civil disorder was never given a chance to take root. In each flashpoint it was the unions who calmed the tension and kept production lines working. Those sections of industry with established unions saw workers agreeing to defer wages, take unpaid leaves, and operate on reduced working weeks to keep their industry afloat. The unions are the unsung heroes of the Credit Crunch, not the despotic opportunists of 40 years ago.
So when we see the Labour leader attacked for having the support of these trade unions, this attack is not based on the modern reality of the unions, but on a historic fantasy of the right-wing press. This is no longer the 1970s, the age of confrontation is over and we’ll never go back there.
Rather than allowing the right-wing press to accuse Labour of being too close to a 1970’s image, we should be setting the agenda by claiming credit for role played by our union friends. But instead we allowed the media to set the agenda and turned a positive into a negative in terms of our future electability.
Although BA has been embarrassing in the apparent inability of the two sides to settle, it seems to me that the Credit Crunch demonstrated that the Unions are a modern, economic-savvy institution. Rather than wanting to abolish Managers as an enemy, they want to support them as the providers of jobs for workers while arguing for the skilled get a fair price for their labours and for the low-paid to be pulled out of poverty and be given a chance to thrive in their working lives.
These are worthy goals, but they are blurry goals to a movement that has never fully recovered from 1983. Although the unions have done everything right by ending confrontation, they have never quite figured out what their new role should be, and so have never quite been able to see themselves, or the employees they represent, as the Sixth Estate.
It seems to me that the confusion is to do with the reduction in union powers during the Thatcher era. Whenever the unions call for their powers to be returned the discussion gets bogged down in the power to strike. However, it’s not the right to strike that hampers the unions, but the right to be recognised that truly damages them in the modern age.
If a single worker wishes to have a union rep advocate her pay round to her employer, why should this be illegal. Why should she have to get 50% of the workforce to also join the union and then ballet them? Yet this is the law of union recognition as it stands.
Everyone else in our society has a right to an advocate. The accused before a court of law, the resident before a planning committee, the prime minister himself has the greatest advocates in the world in the form of our Foreign Office. What is it about being an employee that makes it illegal to have someone more articulate and knowledgeable speak on her behalf?
Like many people I was deeply affected by The Spirit Level. Previously I believed that some inequality was necessary for ambition to thrive and the economy to advance and that this would benefit all, including those at the bottom. But this book provided a scientific argument that the well-being and contentment of society as a whole is severely affected by inequality. Even the well-off suffer greater mental health issues in an unequal society.
So to create a more equal society, where do we start? Bashing bankers has had no effect on achieving greater equality; it’s also become a bit boring. If anyone has a tangible policy proposal that would be likely to bring down the pay at the very top, then it would be most appreciated. But until such an idea comes forth, I suggest we concentrate on relieving poverty in order to create fairness, and although I don’t have all the answers, I do know where we could make a start.
Under the Blair government we addressed the issue of low pay by using the tax and benefit system to subsidise wages. Resource allocation is not served well by the distorting effect of taxing companies in order to subsidise wages. This was never the perfect solution to low-pay; it was only adopted for lack of a better answer. It would be much better to see a rise in real wages and use the money saved to lower the tax burden on the companies in order that the wage rise does not reduce productivity.  The question is how to increase the real wage?
If unions were allowed to advocate on behalf of workers regardless of whether this is a small percentage of the workforce, or even a single worker, then the union rep, with nothing more than a single friendly phone call would be able to achieve a better deal for those members. Either that or the company is not viable and the employees might be best advised to look elsewhere for a wage..
This is the distinction between trade unionism of the past and that of the future. The age of mass membership combined with confrontation as a negotiating tactic has little place in modern society. But the age of advocacy on behalf of individuals with a view of achieving a fair outcome for all is something we see across society and across industry. It’s a different way for unions to work, but a way of working that they would probably have adopted anyway, had it not been for these outdated laws of union representation.
If employees were allowed a union advocate then wages would rise to their right and correct level. This would increase union membership and help to raise wages on a wider base. Wages not represented by a union would likely rise in sympathy. The state would then have no need to tax firms in order to pay wage benefits and the employees would have greater confidence and commitment to the firm that pays their wages, rather than the state that pays their benefits.
This would be one small step towards creating a more equal society, but it would also be a large step toward creating a more productive workforce, not just in the form of the “invisible hand” but also in the spirit level of the employees who get to be rewarded rather than subsidised for their labour."

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