Opinion: Angry Union Men – whose fault are the Lincolnshire strikes?

As Britain stares down a 1970s-style Spring of Discontent, with the Credit Crunch now being supplemented by industrial strife and wildcat strikes, who is to blame for the crisis on the Humber, and how can it be resolved?

First of all, these workers have every right to feel angry. We all do. Like the rest of the country, they were told that ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, they were even promised ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, and yet here they are again, back to picketing and strikes. Now, that isn’t to say that companies like Total shouldn’t be able to recruit workers or hire contractors from wherever they so choose – it would hardly be liberal to try and stop them – but the fact that their own local workforce apparently doesn’t have the skills to fill these new jobs being created in the UK – and that an entire staff is having to be imported lock stock and cafeteria – from Italy means that something has gone horribly wrong.

And I blame the Unions. Blair and Brown made promises they could never keep; Total have obviously not showered themselves in glory, but they are out to make a profit. The organisation that ought to be looking out for the interests of these workers is their union, Unite. Why, in between running for internal elections, merging with any other union that stays still long enough and writing government policy in a probably-no-longer-smoke-filled room, have this union’s bosses not been able to find the time to help their members train and develop?

This new facility opening in Lincolnshire cannot be a huge shock, nor can the fact that its workers will need skills. So where was Unite when the employers were drawing up these plans? Where were they when the skills deficit was first noticed? Why was there no programme of training for Unite members to make sure they were able to fill these newly-created jobs?

I am not the biggest fan of trade unionism. But one area in which they have an essential role is protecting workers from expolitation, developing their potential and improving their employability. Unite were too busy with their political priorities to remember that their first responsibility is to their members and their families. The unions have failed in their main function and left an entire community unable to compete at the worst possible time. And that should make us all very angry.

* Benjamin Mathis is Vice-Chair of Campaigns for Liberal Youth, and writing in his personal capacity as a Lib Dem member.

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11 Comments

  • Jobs, Jobs, everywhere 2nd Feb '09 - 8:23pm

    Whilst I have no truck with those who shout “British jobs for British workers” – but your assumptions show a certain amount of naivete.

    You say yourself you’re “not the biggest fan of trade unionism” (why aren’t you a fan of people coming together to collectively change problems? You probably spend more of your time at work than anywhere else).

    But, why is it a trade union’s responsibility to train its members (presumably you support the right of people not to join trades unions – who is to train them in your imaginings)? And why do you believe the employer, without doubt or qualification?

  • Jobs, Jobs, everywhere 2nd Feb '09 - 9:36pm

    For a number of years I was a Trade Union Learning Representative, which in the general trades unions is supposed to sort out basic skills training – hopefully encouraging the employer in providing resources for such. In my workplace, we used it as a platform to put pressure on the employer to negotiate over training and development issues.

  • I’m not saying the Unions ought to be doing it all themselves – but they certainly should be expected to make sure it happens. Whether that means using their advocacy talents to persuade the government to provide more training or getting it written into workers’ contracts that they be developed, Unions should be working for their members to improve conditions and prevent situations like this.

    I fully support this, original, kind of unionism which is centred around the needs of workers. I don’t see any of that in the activities of our modern Unions which have simply become lazy, deeply conservative institutions focused on their own power. A strike is a symbol of a Union which has failed, not one which is succeeding.

  • “I blame the Unions”

    I must say that takes me back.

    Mind you, a couple of days ago I re-watched that wonderful sixties film “The Knack”. It has much more side-splitting incidental dialogue in the same vein (though much nmore wittily written, of course).

  • Liberal Eye 3rd Feb '09 - 12:25pm

    So, just whose’s responsibility is it to provide skills training?

    Employers are often fingered but why? Large firms may have the resources to provide training if they are so minded, but most small firms have neither the managerial or financial resources.

    Yet it is small firms that employ the majority of people so an employer-led approach is never going to work for most people.

    Unions might do it but again most people are not members and training per se is rather different from unions’ traditional role.

    Govt might provide training but their inability to manage schools education effectively even though it is a far less diverse requirement suggests that Govt is far from ideal as a provider.

    Indeed the late Alan Clark, who was for a time a junior minister the the Department of Employment under Thatcher, confessed in his Dairies that the Department’s main role was to provide employement for civil servants.

    Yet this is not an difficult problem to solve. There are training models out there that work extremenly well and which could easily be adapted. It’s an open goal waiting to be scored. Sadly, Westminster seems to be very short of strikers (of the goal-scoring sort!).

    I once asked a very senior Lib Dem policy person which working group (new ones were just being formed at the time) skills training would fall under and after a moment of thought he said, “It doesn’t really fall under any; it’s not an issue we’re addressing”.

    Why not?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Feb '09 - 8:28pm

    Er Benjamin, you too, mate. Stop reading the Daily Mail, and start thinking and reading some history.

    “I don’t see any of that in the activities of our modern Unions which have simply become lazy, deeply conservative institutions focused on their own power.”

    Just what power might that be? One that enables them to keep their employment when the bankers decide to shut it down? Er, no. No such power there, is there?

    Now, I know you may have had stories read to you about the National Union of Mineworkers being a power in the land, holding us in our grip. But Mrs Thatcher got rid of all that, so now instead we’re in the grip of Russia who we rely on for our energy.

    Oh, isn’t that funny? Wasn’t she the Iron Lady who was supposed to be standing up for strong defence against Russia? At least that’s what the Daily Mail told us.

  • David Allen 3rd Feb '09 - 10:37pm

    Do we have the faintest clue as to what this is really all about I wonder?

    Is it really lack of skills? I see no evidence that it is.

    Is it that the foreign company is discrminating against the Brits? There seems to be no evidence for that either.

    According to the Guardian, the issue seems to be that the company can bring Italians and pay Italian rates, which are lower than UK rates. So the Brits wouldn’t want those rates, anyway. It is, apparently, EU rules.

    Is that, if true, a bad thing? Not sure. Open competition does have its merits in driving costs down and promoting efficiency. Against that have to be balanced the social costs.

    Why do we know so little about this issue? Perhaps because some of the protagonists have a vested interest in not making the issues clear.

    So why am I writing all this and then not offering a firm opinion on the rights and wrongs? Because I hate seeing people fire off glib opinions on subjects they don’t understand, and there are far too many on this subject, so I won’t join them!

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Feb '09 - 10:35am

    I am reminded of the story of the trade union leader in a car factory who was taken by his boss to see a factory where robots built the cars.

    “Look” said the boss, “they don’t have tea breaks, they don’t go on strike, and they don’t ask for pay rises”.

    “Hmmm” said the trade union leader “and they don’t buy cars either”.

  • David Morton 4th Feb '09 - 11:03am

    This is the worst article on this site for quite some time and certainly one of the least liberal in terms of its lack of spirit of enquiry and cheap sterotyping.

    1. It says that “apparently” the problem is some British workers lack of skills.yet we get not a shred of evidence for this assertion let alone a source for it. What’s next after “apparently” in public policy making ? ” I heard down the pub” ” I read in the Daily Mail” .

    2. Even if point one doesn’t completely destroy the credibility of the piece then we move on to the assertion that it is the responsibility of Unions to provide skils training to its members.
    Why ? Is it really ? No discussion just an assertion with no consideration of the role in training of (A) Government (B) Employers (C) Individuals

    This whole article wouldn’t survice 10 minutes in a 6th form ( showing my age) debating society let alone an election hustings in one of the concerned constituiencies.

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