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What have the unions ever done for us?

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In writing this I realise I may well be preaching to the converted - and why not?

If I can give a slightly different perspective and possibly give a few new ideas to help recruit then it’ll be a job well done.

What have the unions done for us? I will start with a very high level view.

How often do you hear phrases such as -

  • “Well, what can we do..... “
  • “ What’s the point of voting? They’re all the same......”
  • “ Politicians live in a world of their own....”
  • “ Best to keep your head down at work...”

The counter to this negativity is urge people to do their little bit. Little bits do count and little bits as part of something larger will be so much more influential.

It’s called EMPOWERMENT.

Join a union and ordinary people will have the confidence to speak up, will have a voice, will be able to influence companies and possibly even Government.

I am convinced of two things:

  • The more active one becomes in a union then the greater the sense of being in a position to affect change. It should be remembered that it is Parliament which passes laws (and often, nowadays, the EU which passes Directives which are later adopted into national law)but these laws are influenced and, at times effectively directed, by input from organised labour.
  • This sense of empowerment is a major weapon against apathy the enemy of democracy. This can facilitate greater participation in our democratic system. Any democracy needs to be exercised and nurtured if it is not to become a distortion of the word and allow it to shrivel on the vine.

And now for a little history.

Visit any industrial museum and one cannot help but be horrified at the conditions in which people once worked and the lack of respect shown for the lives of working men/ women and children. This was especially so during the industrial revolution.

It certainly brings home why Trades Unions were and are so necessary.

Not all was doom and gloom, however. In the later part of the Victorian age there existed a society far from perfect but which had current of altruism running through it, a strict moral compass if you like, provided by the Christian church. As a result many of those in privileged positions felt a deep obligation to provide for their employees and wider society. There was, no doubt, a certain amount of self promotion in this altruism, these acts for posterity and a certain degree of bolstering of egos during this time.

Meanwhile Trades Unions, working hard against the odds since the early 19th Century, gained greater influence in later years. Working conditions and prospects for working people were improving. Two world wars had a huge impact on society and, after WW2, many changes for the better were implemented. Unfortunately the UK did not take the opportunity (and arguably didn’t have the finance) to fully change our working practices. Society, far from working together, became increasingly entrenched into workers/ managers, unions / government.

UK Business was at the mercy of on the one hand management that was partly populated by some privileged incompetents and on the other hand some union bosses who, let’s say, overreached themselves. Industrial relations were at a nadir and the Government propaganda machine ensured that the trade union movement took most of the blame.

This situation had to change of course but the action taken at the time (70/80s) was to emasculate the Trade Union movement; made all the easier by the near total destruction over time of the UK manufacturing base. All the good important work done by unions for over a century seem to be forgotten in the ‘me society’ of the 80/ 90s driven by a blind faith in the new religion of economics with adherents worshipping at the altar of free market forces.

Greed, self-interest and short-termism best describes the period; our society had it seemed become ever more secular, lost its moral compass and no longer considered the long term view.

But what about now?

It is quite easy to assume from the popular media that trade- unionists in the UK have not changed from the ‘bad old days’.

They are focused on resisting change, of resisting economic progress and preserving the unfair and uneconomic practices of their members (or of taking over the Labour Party). And indeed much of the head-line activity of trade’s unions in recent years has been about resistance to change, and about gaining what some might seem as unfair advantages for their members (payments not to go on strike by transport unions in London during the Olympics).

It should of course be remembered that headline writers are working to the agenda of the press, which has long been in conflict with their own unions.

There are always two sides to any battle and for a solution to be reached both need to consider change and compromise. When it comes to industrial problems the media has a tendency to concentrate on the negative never on all the good work being done by trades unions.

Now it’s time to dig into a bit of detail. First three key planks.

Right to join a union                                                       The first, and in many ways fundamental thing the unions did for us was to work to allow workers to join together to negotiate collectively with employers, thus helping to balance the power between an employer and individual workers. The Combination Acts had made such joining together illegal; it was this coming together illegally that had led to the workers at Tolpuddle being transported. Without the repeal of the combination acts there would have been no opportunity to become a union member legally.

Rights of recognition                                                     Again, without working to get unions recognised as negotiating bodies with employers, union membership would have had little impact, save during the brutal break-downs associated with strike action – which should be seen as a last, not a first resort of negotiation.

Right to strike                                                                   Although perhaps over-used at times in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the right to withdraw labour - without then immediately losing your job - was a hard fought for right, which has subsequently been tempered and eroded, although paradoxically by legislating for limits to the right to strike (for instance requiring ballots) this legislation has embedded the underlying right firmly into law.

Without these three key planks, allowing individual workers to come together, ensuring that their union could negotiate with employers, and allowing them the ultimate sanction of withdrawing labour as a collective action; individual employees would have been always at the mercy of the overbearing employer, where the balance of power would have sat absolutely with the employer. This creation of a more fair and level playing field between employer and employee has meant that as an individual employee in the UK you have levels of protection which do not exist in many other countries. Much legislation which now protects employee rights would not have been enacted if such rights could not have been effectively (but at great economic cost) enforced by unions individually on employers individually.

And there’s more

Pay                                                                                        The most obvious area of union influence (if the tabloid headlines are anything to go by) is on pay. Pay disputes make news. But it is true that if you want to work for an employer where pay rates are fair and pay progression is equitable, where pensions (deferred pay) are fair and where the risk between employer and employee is more evenly shared, where pay rates when sick are above the legal minima, where payments on redundancy, again, are above legal minima, then you will pick an employer who recognises and negotiates with unions. And if you only get the legal minimums, then remember that without trades unions agitating for these, there would be no minimum pay, no minimum payments on redundancy, no sick pay, and no maternity pay. Oh – and it was agitation by unions which forced employers to pay you in real money and not credit notes to be spent only in the company shop (Truck Acts).

Protection of young people                                Laws which govern the ages and hours that young people can work are the direct result of union agitation. We are all worried about the exploitation of child labour in ‘third world’ countries, but pre-unionisation Parliament (1813) would only restrict under 9 years olds from factories (and limited hours for 9 year olds at 12 a day!) By 1847 child labour hours had only been reduced to 10.

Working hours, working days, holidays.      Without input from Trades Unions there would have no legislation which limited working hours, reduced the working week or gave workers paid holidays. Where long hours are worked, these are now recompensed (where there has been union input) by additional (over-time) payments or by Time Off in Lieu (TOIL) agreements. It is noticeable that in non-union employers, excessive and unrewarded working hours (particularly in management/ professional grades) are still a norm (outwith any EU Working Time Directives).

We have moved from a 6 day week (working all day Saturday, with only Sunday a day of rest) to (broadly) a 40 (or less) hour week spread normally over 5 days, with additional work rewarded by overtime payments. Trades union negotiation has been instrumental in this, even at a time when 24/7 business is becoming increasingly the norm.

Paid holidays (part of a rewards package which is inflation proof) are directly consequential, often, on union negotiation and influence. It is worthwhile noting that in Europe and the UK (where unions are strong) 4-6 weeks paid holiday is a norm – in the (substantially un-unionised) US, 2 weeks is often standard.

Unions have been strongly instrumental, finally, in ensuring that employees having families are recognised and protected, though maternity (and more recently paternity) leave, as well as negotiating for flexible working for those with care (child or adult) issues.

Some of all this has now been fixed into legislation, much is the result of individual negotiations with individual employers – if you are working for a unionised employer then your leave arrangements, flexible working and so on, where ‘better’ than legislated for, will have been the direct result of union negotiation on your behalf.

Health and Safety.                                                      Union officials in the UK have a direct and recognised role to play in the establishment and monitoring of safe working practices. Union safety representatives have a formally recognised and protected role to play in monitoring safety within companies, unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that unsafe working practices are identified and addressed.

Equality                                                                             Unions now are well aware of issues to do with gender and race equality (even though their past reputations in some of these areas are less admirable). Certainly unions now can be expected to monitor (and be prepared to take collective action about) equality issues. And it has been union pressure, amongst others, which has stimulated legislative changes in these areas. Equally, unions are now at the forefront of ensuring that employees with disabilities are properly treated. Unions are concerned about issues of equality for those applying for work , for those in work and for those obliged to leave work.

Employment Protection                                         Unions exist to protect members’ employment rights, both as groups (for instance negotiating dispute procedures and redundancy terms) and as individuals, ensuring that members are treated fairly and equitably. Frequently the unions’ positions on employment protection have later become enshrined in law, thus giving to all employees what was initially won by unions for those they represented. Unions have also worked to protect members who become too ill to work, and most schemes which allow early retirement (and access to enhanced pensions) though ill health owe their existence to union negotiation. Unions have also worked hard (and have won government backing although there is still more to be done) in protecting those who ‘whistleblow’ to identify malpractice etc. in the workplace, where ‘normal’ channels have failed to gain action.

Disputes                                                                             We all know about the ‘big’ disputes, between the union collective and the employer on behalf of all employees (actually members, but other employees get the benefits of what is one for their members by trades unions) – what is less well known is the support given to individual members by their unions, from advice about rights and accompanying members to hearings with management to formal legal representation at industrial tribunals.

So, what have the unions done for us?

If you want to be or have been - recruited fairly, paid fairly, promoted fairly, treated fairly in work, worked in a safe environment, worked a reasonable but not an excessive number of hours, got access to pensions, to paid holidays, to maternity leave, been treated fairly where problems with your employer have occurred leading to reductions in staff levels, been allowed to work collectively for your own and others’ benefits – if indeed you want to be or have been an employee and not a powerless wage slave – then that’s what the unions have done for you.

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