Friday, 17 September 2010

Big, bad trade unions.

This is one of those opinions of mine that has shifted, quite a fair distance, over a few years. Despite being a lefty I used to think of trade unions as something of a liability at times, and got rather annoyed when they started striking. Now, I've shifted, and I'm much more sympathetic towards them, but I do have some suggestions for them. Here's why and what.

People will often do something similar to trade unions that they do with the 'state', in that they make it out to be a separate entity. When people say 'the state does this' it's often insinuated that the 'state' is some kind of horrible organisation which will eat up aspiration and churn out bureaucracy. The reality is that the state, as are the trade unions, is simply the sum of its parts. The state and the trade unions (when done properly) are both the machines of their ordinary voting members, not some top-down driven corporate machine. Because of that, they can change as quickly as their members attitudes do and its wrong to suggest that they are inherently anything, whether that be inefficient or self-serving. Sometimes they need tweaking, but they are fundamentally good things at their core.

In the '80's the trade union movement suffered a double whammy. Not only did it get beaten to a bloody pulp by Thatcher, but more crucially, it lost the support of the public. People no longer saw them as champions of rights, but as self-serving nuisance makers, particularly after the miners strikes. Union action is far more powerful if the general public are on side, it puts far more pressure on government, and take piles of pressure away from the strikers.

There is a way to make your point, and keep the public on side.

First of all, unions need to make sure they talk to the public as much as they talk to their members. They represent their members interests, but those interests are far better served if the union leaders are out in the media winning the arguments on why rights must be protected. Win the argument, and you'll win the public.

Second, do everything you can to negotiate, to the very bitter end. If the other side is being antagonistic, negotiate anyway, be the bigger man so to speak. It may come to a stage where negotiations fail, but that should be a last resort, not a handy threat to bandy about without thought of consequence.

Finally, be inventive. Don't get sucked into thinking that when workers are threatened the progression is always negotiate, then strike. One of the most successful and inspiring trade unionists was so well respected because he was inventive, thoughtful, and respectful to the public. Jimmy Reid, who recently sadly died, didn't decide to strike when the government threatened to close the ship yard he worked at, but decided to make a much more impressive point by instead carrying on working. It was essentially a sit-in, but they carried on working because there were still contracts to be completed.

This is from a speech he made at the time:

"We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity."

That's the kind of leader trade unions need and deserve. Someone who understands that the best way to help its members is to show them for what they are, decent hard-working folk who are fearful for their livelihoods. No-one could attack the work-in as people wanting to skive, they couldn't say they were making mischief and they couldn't say the shipyard wasn't profitable because clearly there was still work to be done.

He won the argument, he won the public support and because of that, the government backed down. We should learn the lessons. Its going to be a tough time for unions in the near future, as they rightly need to oppose the horrendous and damaging cuts coming down the line from the demolition government. We can only hope that in their number are a few Jimmy Reid's, who realise that losing the respect of the average man means you're losing the argument.

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