Unions Defending Workers: Too Much for the Guardian

Submitted by carolyn on Wed, 22/12/2010 - 23:12

22 December 2011

Keith Ewing, IER President

After the vigour and excitement of the student demonstrations against the cuts, today’s Guardian leader on proposed trade union action struck a disappointingly depressing and defeatist note. Has the Daily Mail leader writer been picked up on a free transfer? Has the cold weather affected normally sound judgment?

Just precisely what does the Guardian think trade unions are for? And just precisely what does the Guardian editorial team – embedded in secure jobs in a plush new office – expect of trade union leaders in the face of the most swingeing attacks on jobs and services in a generation, imposed by a government with no mandate for its actions?

There may or may not be a need for budget cuts, but the promises made at the last election and the ambiguous level of electoral support for the different political parties suggests strongly that government action should be driven modestly by the need for consensus, rather than arrogantly by the conceit of dogma.

But dogma has trumped consensus, and workers are vulnerable, very vulnerable, as a result of the Blair bequest – promised first in the columns of The Times on the eve of the 1997 general election – that under New Labour the United Kingdom would have the most restrictive employment laws in Europe.

That is a promise he kept, a promise which helped to lose the last election, and a promise that yields a very bitter fruit now about to be served up in large measure by the Conservative led (Con Dem) government. As in the 1980s (and history is important to prepare us for the future), workers are about to discover that their contracts of employment are worthless.

Public sector staff will find out soon enough that their terms and conditions are to be changed without their consent (as in the case of the London fire-fighters), employers using specious devices like the so-called Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, section 188; others will be dismissed for redundancy after a charade called consultation.

Those made redundant will find that their job was worth no more than £380 for every year of service. If they have been unfairly selected for redundancy, they will be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal in a tribunal system that is groaning under the weight of other claims. They will not get their job back, no matter how unfairly they have been treated, and will have to settle for modest compensation.

Nor will most of them find work in the fabled private sector, which another fable tells us will pick up the surplus at a time when BBC research reveals that companies are not recruiting. And if there are jobs, those redundant public service workers will find themselves in a bitter competition with dozens of others in a labour market underpinned by a minimum wage of only £5.93 an hour.

So Merry Christmas to you too. In the meantime, let us have a grown up and informed debate about the role and function of trade unions, and the manner of their response to the most challenging circumstances many of their members will have ever faced. The starting point in these circumstances must surely be that the primary responsibility of trade unions and their leaders is to promote and protect the interests of their members. Full stop.
In the good times this means trade unions must ensure that their members get a fair share of the wealth they create; in the bad times it means trade unions must ensure that their members are not left carrying an unfair burden, particularly where the burden has been created by the misconduct and irresponsibility of others, who still insist on paying themselves huge bonuses, in a two fingered salute to the rest of us.

In the absence of any meaningful engagement with trade unions or alternative ways of dealing with conflict, what else are workers to do but take industrial action in defence of their interests? Is the Guardian advocating not passive resistance but passive obedience? Trade unionists may be forgiven for thinking about a different response, particularly as some of them will have absolutely nothing to lose, given the bleak future that awaits them and their communities.

It could of course be so much different. History again. In 1938, Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour in the then Tory led government, announced in the Commons that it was the policy of the government to promote collective bargaining and with it the trade union voice. Radical and revolutionary? Tories taking leave of their senses? Not really. Just a simple attempt by a thoughtful man to increase wages, equalise incomes, stimulate the circulation of money, increase demand, and promote job growth.

Anyone listening?

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