Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TUC 2012: Trade Union Rights - Why is Britain always different - and always worse?

After close of Congress last night I went to the fascinating "History & Policy" fringe chaired by John Edmonds, former General Secretary of the GMB.  The fringe was supported by the excellent Peoples History Museum.

Professor Keith Ewing started by disagreeing that the UK has always been different. The real problem facing trade unions is the collapse in collective bargaining. In 2010 only 32% of workers covered. If unions don't collectively bargain then what is their purpose?

In the past even the Tories recognised the value of bargaining and encouraged it in 1934 to raise wages and get the country out of the depression. 1979 it was 82%, a time of the lowest ever level of inequality.  This is what trade unionism should be about. The total membership of unions is not key, its impact is.

Three reasons for failure: Hubris of unions who thought that better benefits could be achieved by local bargaining; foreign inward investment with no tradition of collective bargaining and Political (Thatcher).

Sarah Veale from the TUC spoke about being sympathetic to the view that workers want to left alone by employment law. Unions are about addressing collective concerns rather than individual. Individual representation is important but it is very time consuming. It is rubbish that small businesses want tighter employment law. It is only the 6th most important concern in a recent government survey. Need to be careful that we are not just seen as an arm of the Labour Party but as acting to defend ordinary workers.

John Monks, former TUC and ETUC General Secretary pointed out that trade unions in most European countries have declined, but the most in Britain. In 1969 when he started out in the movement unions were intellectually very confident. At a time of full employment the reality was that power did lie in the hands of local stewards. The unions saw off two attempts to limit their power. The Tories learnt their lessons and when they came for the unions again, they fought dirty.  

John remembers Tony Blair making a visit to Congress House soon after he became leader. He asked to see the TUC Trophy room. We said "Trophy room"? Yes, he said, the room where you keep the heads of Wilson and Callaghan? He told us that his head will not be joining them.

He remembered that in those days we use to patronise the German unions with their "work councils" and "limited or no strike deals". "We were the world leaders, we were the hard men". He thinks that there was a missed opportunity in the past. We settled for minimum wage, Social Chapter and Trade Union recognition.

Must learn from Countries that still have high trade union density. These unions provide welfare services and benefits. We were offered this opportunity in the past but refused.

Final speaker was the former trade union official and historian Jim Moher.  Jim believes that the Labour Party and the Unions share the blame for the problems today. Trade unions were first legalised in the UK as far back as 1824. The first country to do so. Trade union support for the first and second world war gave them power.

The unions have to accept that is was the over turning of elected governments that led to Thatcherism. We need to look to ourselves. "In Place of Strife" may not have been perfect but it would have been much better than now. This is a political issue that we have to address.

In the Q&A with regards to unions providing welfare services I asked whether we should consider running a decent defined benefit pension scheme? Final point from Keith - The trade unions are in crisis we have to adapt (and maybe offer services) or we will end up as just another protest group along with all the other protest groups.

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