Are Unions still relevant? Are they even needed anymore?
Theses were the topics on national BBC live radio yesterday morning, and have been "debated" regularly within the media for as long as there has been media.
Trade Unions may be the most enduring institution Britain has produced, but they are also the most battered, attacked and misrepresented.
The same tired arguments are used against organised labour the world over. Of course, this is no coincidence.
Here are three of the most common put-downs:
1. "I'm sure they did good things in the past but we don't need them anymore, now we have employment laws that protect workers so they can speak for themselves."
Most attacks on Unions include false or faint praise. This is a cynical and deliberate ploy to appear rounded and reasonable to the lay-person. In any case, here just a few examples of why this is nonsense:
* An Agency driver at Tesco might be earning £6.21 per hour (Swedish Derogation contract) whilst a "perm" doing the same job might earn £10. This is not unlawful in UK law (subject to EU legal challenge by the TUC). Answer ? Unions.
* A permanent worker earning £7 per hour, with the state topping up poverty wages is working for a multi-billion corporation. The worker is in poverty. The taxpayer is ripped off. There are two possible routes here to a living wage - one is collective bargaining via a Trade Union. The other route is by political change, brought about by the Trade Union movement and the pressure it can bring upon the Labour Party.
* The growing masses (nobody is accurately counting) of zero hour workers, gang-masters, slavery and other abuses are very much on the increase. Exploitation is on the up. Around 1.3 million workers are "agency" but should be permanent. As union density falls in the private sector, exploitation increases. Unions are as essential now as they were in the past and will be in the future.
The talking up of UK employment laws by right-wingers is not only galling rubbish, but they know that it is. Most UK workers can be sacked unfairly for the first two years in the job, usually without redress to a tribunal. The tribunals themselves are massively costly and legalistic, and the chances of any non-union member actually winning anything are massively remote - a statement of fact you won't have read in a newspaper.
2. "Union barons/bosses are extreme left-wingers who only care about ideological politics. They are hypocrites because they earn £100,000 per year " etc etc or the popular "Unions should stay out of politics"
Trade Union General Secretaries are elected. They are not "barons". They are not "bosses". They are leaders. The most prominent Union leaders in the UK have been elected to office with many thousands more votes than any MP.
For the reasons listed above (and scores more), they all have a multitude of reasons for being political, as does any well informed decent person in the UK. A General Secretary not being political would be disgracefully failing the membership.
If British Unions were not shackled by internationally unlawful, restrictive laws, and if people were not exploited, there would of course be a massive reduction in the need for unions to be political. When was the last government that didn't regulate or legislate on/against Trade Unions ? I'd have to check but I think it was back in the 1860's.
A generation or so ago, a leader or "boss" was usually paid between four to six times the average wages within that business/organisation. Unions have not changed, but just about everything else has. Pay differentials are through the roof just about everywhere, even within the charitable sector. But divide your Union leader salary by six, and find that the traditional structure is still in place.
It is galling beyond belief that Union "barons" are attacked as "fat cats". This is ridiculous, and a well informed public would not stand for it. The dishonest opportunism of the rampant anti-union right is as shameless as it is unrelenting.
A Labour leader can speak about the break up of the NHS and it is barely reported. A single utterance about Unions and the entire media class - including the BBC, spins into obsessive mode and the issue is as big as big gets.
As for integrity, Union leaders mostly came from the shop-floor and worked up through the ranks - the hard way and the correct way. This is not the case for business barons - the modern CEO has seldom done lower status jobs within the organisation they lead. And how committed are they to the long-term prospects of the business? Few stick around, and many don't or won't work exclusively for the company that employs them. It's astonishing how many senior company directors also find time to sit on the boards of other companies. But when are these "wealth creators" held to account, and by whom?
3. "Union are just not relevant anymore. I have no access to a union in my private sector company and it just annoys me when unions press for more - there isn't more to be had. More for union members means less for me"
I listened to exactly this on radio call-in show yesterday morning.
It's not surprising if Unions don't seem relevant to somebody who works in a non-union firm. Right-wingers will say that workers have rejected unions, but of course this is totally false. All the evidence suggests that most workers will join a union if the union is well organised within the workplace. It's seldom mentioned that unions have been systematically frozen out of the new and emerging private sector, and that unions simply don't have the resources to organise very far beyond where they already are. And let's face it, knocking on a locked and bolted door is not easy. The 1999 union recognition laws are helpful, but crucially they fail to give unions the right to enter workplaces and actually speak to people.
In the UK, political parties pretend that union membership is a matter for individual choice. The reality is that unions are kept away from most of the private sector so that individual workers cannot make any informed choice at all. I would argue that it's too important to simply be left to individual choice - membership growth and collective bargaining should be actively pursued as instruments of government policy.
I can understand this caller believing that the country is poor and that everyone and everything must be cut back. After all, his media will be telling him that everyday. The facts though are clear - rising union membership and increases in collective bargaining are the only proven way to deliver affordable higher wages across the economy.
And until we do that, the economy will continue to suffer.
In the meantime, truly vile attacks on our movement continue. "Thugs", "Ballot Rigging" ( actually, the Electoral Reform Society run our ballots !!!), "shady", "crooked", "militant", "fix", "extremist", "leftie", "jurassic", "ideological", "outmoded", "Outdated", "Throw-backs". These are all words/phrases that have been regularly used in national newspapers during the last week. Even the "liberal left" have been joining in.
Worryingly, attacks on American Trade Unions have become even more hysterical than in the UK. Private sector density in the USA is around 7%, less than half that the UK.
If we become weaker, then the more confident and outspoken the attacks upon us will become.
Our enemies our ruthless. But strip away this hatred, bile and distortion, and the case against us does not exist. On the other hand, our case is as timeless as it is compelling.
The other great myth about Trade Unions is that we are in permanent decline. We're not. We're growing. Private sector membership grew by 59,000 last year. And it grew the year before that....
Neither is it true that we are a temporary phenomena caused by the industrial revolution. Unions, in one form or another, have existed in these islands since written union records began in the fourth century.
It's time the media and political class got used to us - we are not going away!
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