Collective Agreements – A Better Indicator of Trade Union Reach Than Membership Numbers?

Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 25/08/2011 - 15:07
Keith Ewing

Prof Keith Ewing, IER President

25 August 2011

Earlier this year, the TUC joined forces with unions elsewhere in the world in a display of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Wisconsin. The collective bargaining rights of public sector workers were being signed away by the Governor, in a State that once pioneered workers’ rights.

US unions quickly realised that the use of government power in this way was a great threat to organised labour, producing what looked like copycat initiatives in other States, with one informed observer claiming that no fewer than 820 bills had been introduced in State legislatures this year alone, aimed at restricting bargaining rights.

But the solidarity of British unions was as ironic as it was virtuous. For what was happening in Wisconsin was already happening here, beginning with the refusal by the Cabinet Office to honour collective agreements with civil servants, on pensions and redundancy payments.

As in Wisconsin, the Con Dem government in this country was also prepared to use the legislative power of government to remove the requirement that changes to these benefits can only be made with the agreement of the staff trade unions, in what has proved to be only the beginning of an assault on public sector conditions.

So at the same time, local government workers are also facing serious threats to collectively agreed terms and conditions of employment, the problem here being the proliferation of so-called ‘section 188 notices’, whereby employers give 90 days’ notice to fire thousands of workers at a time, with an offer to rehire on inferior terms.

While all this is taking place, union organisation is facing a renewed political onslaught. We see the ugly face of right wing Tory supporting bloggers, encouraged by the ‘respectable’ right wing press, who mount vicious personal attacks against lay trade unionists in the workplace.

These foul campaigns have been accompanied by the attacks on trade unions by right wing backbenchers, lobbying hard with the support of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, to reduce the facilities provided to workplace representatives, facilities (including time off) that enable the latter properly to represent their members.

This is by no means the end of it, with some of the same backbenchers joining the London Mayor to tighten the strike laws. Borrowing ideas from Bulgaria, the attack dogs of the Tory right are now demanding that strikes should be banned unless they have the support of at least 40% (or in some cases 50%) of those eligible to vote.

We should not under-estimate the vigour and determination of these attacks, nor the bile and bigotry by which they are fuelled. Nor should we under-estimate their impact at a time when trade unions already face formidable challenges, not the least of which is the relentless fall in collective bargaining coverage.

To put the matter into perspective: when Thatcher became Prime Minister, more than four out of every five British workers was protected by a collective agreement or similar instrument. By the time Tony Blair became Prime Minister it had fallen to just over one in three. Today it stands at less than one in three, and falling.

To put the matter into even greater perspective, there is no evidence o such collapse elsewhere in the EU15. Sure, trade unions are under siege everywhere. But in Germany, collective bargaining coverage remains healthy at 63% of the workforce, and until recently in most of the EU15 the figure was higher.

Why does this matter? Actually it matters a great deal, for collective bargaining density (not trade union membership density) is the greatest indicator of trade union IMPACT. It is the best indicator of how many workers trade unions reach, and how many people’s lives trade unions touch.

In the absence of collective bargaining, workers are left to fend for themselves, and to rely on what little ‘market power’ they do not have. Hence the recent growth of ‘master and servant’ contracts, in which employers are taking the contractual power unilaterally to change ANY terms and conditions of employment at will.

In the medium to long term, the biggest challenge facing British trade unions is thus to reverse this decline. We need to understand why it has happened, but stop making excuses. And we need to lift out ambitions: trade unions are and ought to be regulatory bodies, raising pay and equalising incomes. They are not service providers.

In the short term, however, trade unions have more immediate concerns, notably the working conditions and indeed the livelihoods of their members. By taking action to protect their members, trade unions are protecting us all. By protecting the service providers, they are protecting the service they provide.

This leads us to confront the other great role of trade unionism, which is advancing and protecting the interests of working people in the political sphere. It is here too that we can assess the IMPACT of trade unionism, not in terms of the people they reach, but in terms also of the workers and their families whose interests they defend.

Trade unions thus have a responsibility - as the only source of organised power - to resist the attacks by this government on the welfare of their members. That power needs to be used wisely, effectively and responsibly. Large scale demonstrations and protest strikes are responsible exercises of that power.

First Published in Red Pepper, July 2011

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