Sunday, 24 May 2015

Lessons for Labour: 25 years since "secondary picketing" was banned

In 1990, all "secondary picketing" was outlawed.    I was a student then, and to me the new law didn't sound that bad.  Like most people, I thought "secondary picketing" was when workers at company A went out on strike in support of company B.  I thought "why should they be able to?"

Ever wondered why virtually all the security guards in the UK are treated so badly?  Or the cleaners? It wasn't always that way.

Back in 1990, if the guards were shouted at or abused, the Union rep for the largest group of workers would step in and sort it out.  A collective grievance procedure could apply for all the workers in the business, irrespective of what job they did.   So this meant that these minority groups of workers were protected by the majority, even if a different employer was involved.

Think of any middle sized or large employer.  Chances are, they will have dumped ("TUPE'd") cleaners, guards, cooks etc to a new employer.   And for millions of these workers, they will have been transferred from one employer to another many times during the last quarter of a century.

But that employer I asked you to think of.....will still very much be in control and calling the shots.  In law no....but in practice yes.

It is now extremely hard for the majority to defend the minority.  Let's use Pirelli Tyres as an example.   The union today is very strong and does a superb job of representing both the shop floor workers and the white collar professionals.  But during the last 25 years, guards, canteen workers and cleaners have been "TUPE'd" to more employers than anyone can remember. This is the norm across British industry.

This is horrible for all concerned.  Corners get cut.  The new employer typically gets a management fee for running the cleaning contract.  The only way to extract additional profit is to attack workers terms and conditions. Make no mistake, Pirelli still (of course) call every shot in respect of what happens on it's sites.  In law no, but in practice they very much remain the employer of everyone on site.

The "anti-trade union laws" might better be called "anti-fairness" or "anti-worker" laws.   Since 1990, all industrial action must be as part of a trade dispute with your employer.   Before 1990, employers in unionised firms would not have dared abuse and mistreat it's guards, cooks and so on.   But the 1990 Employment Act has proven to be the green light to do just that.

It frustrates me greatly that for legal reasons, we have to talk about "secondary picketing."  It's extremely misleading.   Most reasonable people would agree that a strike (or grievance procedure) at Pirelli by Pirelli workers in support of cleaners at the same factory - would be a legitimate trade dispute.  Morally, there is no doubt any such dispute would be totally legitimate.  But not in law.   This restriction places workers rights in breach of the UK's international treaty obligations under the ILO

There is very little evidence that there used to be large numbers of strikes in support of minority groups of workers. The anecdotal evidence is that negotiations were successful the vast majority of the time, so industrial action wasn't often needed.

The legal mechanism that secures union recognition only applies to groups of twenty or more workers.  Typically, there are less than twenty workers in these sort of situations.  Over time, these groups of workers are often replaced with Agency or zero hour workers.   This is turn creates a situation where the original "TUPE'd" workers are on superior terms and conditions to the newer entrants, which itself creates a perverse incentive for management to bully these people out or otherwise attack terms and conditions.

This has been a hands down victory for bad bosses.  But I gave the example of Pirelli, who are not a bad employer.  When employers start to cough, the rest catch a cold.  To be competitive, virtually all employers feel pressured to do these things to these groups of workers.  Many senior managers I speak to hate this system and wish they could go back to directly employing people.

I find it startling that 25 years on, so little is written or understood about the massive detrimental effects that banning "secondary action" had.  We've had 35 years of "anti-union laws", and there are more to come.  Taken together, the impact has been overwhelmingly negative for the common good. The laws have delivered an abundance of in-work poverty, injustice and bullying.

I speak to a lot of security guards.   A few weeks back I spoke to a 74 year old guard at a Warehouse.  He has right-wing attitudes to immigration and welfare.  His favourite politician ever is Enoch Powell.  Yet despite these views, he still voted labour until about ten years ago.   This time he voted UKIP. He told me the Labour Party "isn't the same anymore and isn't for the working man."

I'm certain that the Labour vote will have slumped dramatically amongst guards, cooks, cleaners etc.  Most of them I speak to no longer see Labour as their party, so now feel free to vote according to values/issues they care about.  As politicians don't discuss the workplace, they don't think about it either when they vote. There is much debate about Labours lost 5 million working class voters since 1997. Labour's refusal to listen and understand the effects of the "anti-union laws" is certainly a factor - and of that there can be no doubt.

There is no chance of UKIP improving the life of this particular guard.  The world of "flexible labour markets" - being constantly dumped from one dodgy employer to another - have caused this man and millions of others to be permanently unhappy.  Again, it is astonishing that this misery is so utterly non-reported or understood.  For example, the BBC no longer employs any industrial correspondents, yet as it's priority, still employs Royal ones.

I sometimes think that when Labour strategists and politicians hear Trade Unionists talk about "the anti-union laws", they think we are a stuck record and immediately stop listening.  

The spirit of solidarity is profoundly weakened when the law expressly tells you which people under one roof can and cannot join together in an issue of injustice.  Not only is this against international labour law, it is surely a matter of natural justice that workers - not courts, bosses or politicians, be the ones who decide whether they wish to make an issue of something...or not.

New Labour strategists made the mistake of thinking that solidarity was now permanently out of fashion.  They argue that as class becomes less evident in society, solidarity will inevitably wither.  This in my view is a mistaken analyses of Trade Unionism , albeit coming from well intentioned Social Democrats who do not understand unions.   In my experience, solidarity within a company during a union campaign stems from shared values of fairness and/or economic self interest - and as such is timeless. The "anti-union" laws prevent working and middle class employees from joining together in the pursuit of fairness and/or economic self interest. If I dare be so is utterly ridiculous to believe that the willingness of people to demonstrate solidarity is now passed. History strongly confirms otherwise.  I'm reminded of the Chamber of Commerce leader who declared that guilds (unions) were not needed in the modern world.  It was 1643.

Let's face it - it is horrible that well treated workers watch helplessly as colleagues they have known for years are treated miserably.

Why are Pirelli Tyres producing in the UK?  As they like to remind me, this is a high wage economy.  They are here because the UK is an extremely lucrative and profitable market for them to be in.     They are operating in an increasingly neo-liberal economy that permanently excludes millions of low waged workers.  Yet the UK would be even more attractive for the world of business if the masses of underpaid British workers were paid what they are worth. So being pro-union and pro-worker is not to be anti-business and is not to be left wing.  The reverse is the case - the constant bashing of unions is not only widening inequality and poverty, but is demonstrably weakening our economy.

Most people recognise there is a real problem of low wages for millions of non-union workers in the UK, particularly in the service sectors.   Fix that problem, and the UK becomes an even more lucrative economy for businesses to invest in.

It's interesting - yet rarely mentioned, that one of the only policy retreats of the Conservatives in recent times has been on "no fault dismissals".  Labour strategists would be wise to understand the panic in middle England that this proposal created.  The pressure to drop this idea came from frightened Tory MP's.

UK plc is obsessed with the never ending cycle of business reorganisations.   In particular, men over the age of 40 are in fear of never getting as good a job again as they already have.  It is clear that the Conservative direction of travel is to create ever more insecurity in a world that already has far too much of it. Never mind "aspiration", we need to start talking about "security".

Foolishly, Labour strategists decided that as polls suggest that people don't care about employment rights, it was pointless talking about them.   As the no fault dismissal retreat shows, insecurity is a massive issue. A strategy for reassuring workers - particularly professionals - that family life will be more secure with Labour - is in my view just as important as the tag of economic competence.   

Unions need to stop simply calling for the repeal of the "anti-union laws" - because this alone is now insufficient to repair the damage that's been done over 35 years. There's now a two year wait for employment rights. Hefty fees for tribunals. Zero hour contracts. Shorter redundancy consultation periods. Weaker TUPE protection laws. Loopholes to allow lower pay for Agency workers doing the same graft as the perms....I could go on.

Banning zero hour contracts would itself have been just a sticking plaster at a time when it's major surgery that is required. Ruthless neo-liberalism is building an increasingly brutal model of capitalism that few people actually want. Labour need to be radical if they are to be serious about overturning this and delivering an alternative model of capitalism that is fair, stable and delivers social justice for most people.  The question needs to change from "who is best to run the economy", to "which sort of economy do you want?"

To that end, here's some non ideological but practical, radical ideas to turn the tide -

* Repeal the Employment Act 1990. Widen the definition of Trade Dispute to include so-called "secondary picketing".   Restore full employment rights from day one of employment. Make Agency pay the same hourly rates as perms. Beef up union recognition laws. Let unions use company email systems. Give unions access to workplaces. Stop zero hour contracts. Allow workplace balloting and new electronic methods of voting.
* Challenge the never-ending business reorganisation culture. Massively improve our miserable statutory redundancy payments.
* Stop the misery of annual tendering for contracts.  Big business use this to bully smaller business.  Annual tendering has workers in constant stress and state of flux.
* What other Human Right requires you to opt-in?   Union membership is so strange in this regard.   Let's legislate to make it the other way around - all workers to be auto enrolled into a union, which they can opt out of.  Such a simple idea, but would deliver a profound and long lasting victory for social justice and social democracy.
* Give six months notice of higher corporation tax for firms that refrain from the common good and have not signed a collective bargaining agreement with a union.
* Restoration of the wage councils or similar collective bargaining mechanisms to be established across different industrial sectors.  The minimum wage should become sectoral, eg £14 per hour in Banking would be very affordable, and would save the state a fortune.

The biggest threat to social justice is the ongoing fall in the share of the nations income that goes on wages.  It is becoming a real crises. Significant increases both in collective bargaining and union membership are the only sure methods of reversing this unwelcome yet deliberately engineered trend.

Tax credits are state subsidy / incentive for low pay.  The increased tax revenue from workers earning higher pay would have the double benefit of the state also paying out less in tax credits.  This would enable consumer driven economic growth, whilst simultaneously allowing much needed options for government spending and/or deficit control.   It would be common sense - a marriage of economic competence with long term social justice.

And finally yes I know....the media would be hostile to the point of hysteria.  No change there then!