Monday, 10 September 2012

Unions have a progressive part to play

Talk of strikes at the annual TUC conference, which kicked off in Brighton earlier today, must be good news for The Strawbs. While most long-forgotten Seventies rock-bands rely on Never Mind the Buzzcocks to remind people they once existed, the merest hint of industrial unrest results in an airing for Part of the Union.  For a time the turntables were silent but with a new generation of union bosses confronting the government over its general economic strategy as well as cuts to public sector jobs, pay and pensions there is a renewed mood of hostility.

We shouldn’t, however, get carried away with the idea that the UK is on the verge of a new period of union power. Although I’ve stated consistently since the last General Election that some kind of ‘general strike’ is likely before the end of this Parliament, this will struggle to be as disruptive as in times past. Having reached a peak of 12.2 million in 1980, the TUC tells us, union membership has more than halved to below 6 million as employment has switched away from manufacturing to services and legislation curbed union power, with the bulk of union members now confined to the public sector. Consequently, despite having the ability to directly challenge the impact of fiscal austerity in the workplace, union influence is nowadays felt mainly in its contribution to debate on economic and social policy, as demonstrated this morning in outgoing TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber’s well-constructed Olympic themed critique of a Plan A that shows no sign of working.

The trade unions are thus relatively impotent, even though those who know and welcome this still like to talk up the threat of union militancy whenever politically convenient to do so. This relative weakness is not a wholly bad thing. Unions have at times in our history abused their role, which as a result has necessarily had to be tempered by appropriate legal restrictions to ensure that they behave responsibly.  The current treatment of unions in UK law would therefore seem about right. Yet wanting to go further by introducing further curbs so as to effectively paint unions out of the national picture would surely be wrong.

Experience shows that responsible trade unions, working in partnership with employers, should be embraced rather than treated with suspicion. Unions can act as an important channel through which organisations build strong engagement relations between management and workers that help raise productivity and improve the quality of working life. Moreover, unions can limit the worst aspects of exposure of workers to market pressures which if totally unchecked can lead to excessive disparity in the distribution of incomes.

It is no coincidence that the slump in union membership has accompanied a steady fall in the share of national income received in wages relative to profits. In the mid-1970s wages and salaries accounted for 65 per cent of UK gross domestic product. Today the figure is hovering just above 50 per cent. This may be of little concern to ardent neo-liberals who believe that allowing labour markets to clear is good for jobs and a higher profit share good for investment. But those of us concerned about the impact of this for low skilled workers and the public finances in an economy where levels of business investment disappoint in time of boom as well as slump, take a different view.

The consequences have been highlighted in recent days with the emergence of the wonkish concept of ‘predistribution’ into UK political debate. It’s very costly to maintain a large proportion of the workforce by means of what is in effect ‘in work welfare’ support. Better, if possible, to ensure workers earn enough not to need such hand-outs. This, as we will doubtless hear in the coming months, can be achieved in a number of ways. A progressive role for trade unions is one of them.   

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