Opinion: “Workin’ 9 til 5”

How would you feel if you told your boss you wanted a pay increase that kept up with inflation this year, and he then stopped paying you, and hired someone else to do your job, until you changed your mind? I suspect you wouldn’t be best pleased to say the least.

Nonetheless, this is pretty much what the most recent Lib Dem guidance on trades unions is suggesting.

MPs, parliamentary candidates and activists are advised, if asked about the Trade Union Freedom bill, to write something along the lines of:

“I do not believe that strikers should be paid for not working, nor that employers should be prevented from employing temporary replacement workers – it is surely reasonable for employers to take action to keep their businesses running while a strike is going on. Finally, the proposed lifting of restrictions on secondary action are a serious step backwards. They would invite a return to the disputes of the 1970s, which would not be in anyone’s best interests.”

Playing on the stereotype of militant unionists and the three-day week might be necessary to combat the claims of the Tories that we’re actually just ‘reds’ by any other name, but is it really liberal?

I’ve always found the Lib Dems’ attitude to workplace activism rather ambivalent. The main issue that attracted me to the Liberal Democrats was the belief that the individual should be supported to make positive changes to his or her life. This is the value that underlines our belief in localism, decentralisation and the small state. Yet the principle is only partially applied by the party to an area where many of us spend a large proportion of our waking life – work.

Lib Dem policy generally favours positive changes to health and safety law, and employment protection. But it supports giving powers to employers to essentially ignore the concerns of their staff. By undermining an individual employee’s ultimate sanction, the withdrawal of his or her labour, we’re saying that we believe that unionism is only about left-wing trouble-making and not legitimate bargaining.

One doesn’t have to believe in constant industrial action, nor think that employees should have the biggest say in business decisions to recognise that the ability, the possible threat, to disrupt an employer’s business might be needed to make sure that an employer genuinely consults over certain issues and negotiates in good faith about others.

Support for workplace activism and trade unionism should be key planks of our employment policies, as a way to make hugely positive improvements to an individual’s life.

* Anthony Fairclough is Chair of Merton Borough Liberal Democrats. He is an NUJ member, and former union learning representative.

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27 Comments

  • Antony Hook antony_hook 23rd Jul '07 - 2:22pm

    Anthony,

    Isn’t there are balance to be struck? Are you seriously saying someone should be able to stop working on the basis of any demand they make and still insist on being paid in full for as long as they see fit?

    Isn’t it liberal to uphold the basic freedom of two parties to make an agreement; I do something gor you and you pay me and either of us can walk away if we’re not happy.

    Antony

  • Your opening paragraph is a straw man, as it misses out the key “so you refused to work” before “and he then stopped paying you”.

    I would take umbrage if my employer unilateally decided to stop paying me because I disagreed with him on what my pay should be, but not if I was refusing to do the job I was employed to do.

  • Kevin O'Connor 23rd Jul '07 - 3:24pm

    Isn’t the reason that Liberal Democrats “attitude to workplace activism rather ambivalent” is that it is not relevant to the whole economy, and even less so to one we would support?

    The traditional model of trade unionism fits with economic structures of large numbers of individual workers doing similar jobs within large employers, traditionally in heavy industries such as mining or manufacturing.

    We don’t have that sort of economy any more and Lib Dems would not support it. We, as Liberals, should support small businesses and diversity within the economy. Trade Unionism doesn’t really fit with this.

    I admit that our policies regarding emplyee rights aren’t yet as robust as they could (and hopefully will) be, but I believe they are a step in the right direction to squaring the circle of protecting individual employee rights, whilst providing as much flexibility within the employment market for employee and employer alike.

  • Antony Hook antony_hook 23rd Jul '07 - 4:37pm

    Anthony,

    Isn’t the reality that a strike already can be pretty devestating to any company. To give workers some “bargaining power” do you really need to also ban companies from using temporary labour during the strike?

    Aren’t you basically saying a company has no right to do any business (except the payroll) if its workers don’t want it to?

  • Kevin O'Connor 23rd Jul '07 - 4:46pm

    Tom makes reference to the negative experience of business from strikes, but I think a bigger problem comes from the fact that unions have developed a not-undeserved reputation for trying to play politics with their members.

    Its hardly like they’ve only ever acted in their members employment interests. Unions have in the past tried to use their strike power to bring down governments and laws must make it clear that this is undemocratic and unjustifiable.

  • Most strikes are avoidable.During the 1970s companies in such countries as Holland and Germany,workers and employers were willing to negotiate and submit their disagreements to arbitration.There was none of the “trench warfare” that destroyed much of British industry.

  • I agree with Anthony’s analysis. We need to have a much more consistent position on employment issues generally. I’m a bit fed up with Labour constantly throwing back at us that we’re anti-trade union, because we ‘voted against the minimum wage’
    Speaking as a former chair of a Unison branch, it is a spurious argument about employees having ‘too much power’, and ‘bringing down governments’ This is just Daily Mail speak. Strikes are very rare now. Support for workplace activism and protection for employees in the workplace is a fundamental right, which has been fought for and gained over many years. As a party which believes fundamentally in freedom, equality etc, we should have a postive attitude towards trade unions, and where possible seek to work in partnership. A few years ago, Charles Kennedy, was the 1st Lib Dem leader to address the TUC conference. This was very well received and sent a positive message to all trade unionists, who aren’t all natural Labour supporters.

  • Jonathan Hunt 23rd Jul '07 - 11:41pm

    This anti-union stance is just another part of the drift to the Right that is so damaging our party, and preventing us winning the disillsioned and principled Labour vote.
    Trade unions help to empower individuals by preventing them being victimised and picked on by corporate bullies. And assist them obtain a living wage.

    As elected leader of the journalists at the Observer during the Lonrho takeover, it was the NUJ that gave us the collective power to negotiate for the kind of essential editorial safeguards a great newspaper needs.

    Or perhaps our right-wing crypto-Conservatives would say whoever owns it should decide what it becomes?

    Our most popular policy was once to end industrial strife by giving workers shares and thus a stake in the company they worked in.
    Like many Liberal values and principles it melted away as we began to win more power.

  • The balance of working arrangements assumes a level of mutual benefit for it to work, so when an agreed employer-employee relationship becomes antagonistic it is failing.

    And when the only option for a set of workers is to strike then it highlights a wider failure to provide/allow for opportunities through education and enterprise.

    #18 provides a good example of the relevance of trades union representation, but the problem of distributing ownership (NOT redistributing the wealth) of the economy is unresolved so long as the full value of collective investment in education and society remain inadequate/unrecognised. Somewhere there is a financial mechanism missing.

    On both sides it is a issue of finding the right balance, which is a question of leadership.

  • Geoffrey Payne 24th Jul '07 - 7:19am

    I want to respond to Jonathan’s comments. Although I am broadly sympathetic, I think the left of the party needs to get out of victum mode and make it’s case in a positive way. If we object then we should be putting forward amendments. This area is not one where I have expertise so I have not done so, but I hope someone has.

  • Jonathan Hunt 24th Jul '07 - 10:27pm

    It may be a truism, but it has been oft repeated by many of the more thoughtful captains of industry: “No truly well managed organisation ever has a labour dispute.”

    People recall the excessive power unions once exercised; they forget the appalling management that allowed it to happen.

    One can’t pretend that trades union have never been sexist, racist or run dictatorally by bullies, but the benign effects of collective action are enormous.

    Where a person benefits from the action of the union, such as its protection of individuals treated wrongly, it is fair that s/he is asked to contribute.

    Similar arguments can be made against compulsory membership of the NHS, for example, or having to insure one’s car. Why should I have to pay my residents association for repairing our road?

    Geoff Payne raises a different but interesting point: That we who now see ourselves on the Left of the party have failed to stand our corner, or make out a coherent case against neolithic ‘economic’ Liberals, more concerned with ‘freedoms to’ than with ‘freedoms from’.

    He is largely correct. It is not enough to say that the inside right and midfield is so crowded with New Blue Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives, that the only place for us is out on the Left, where we could effortlessly double our votes from the present position.

    Or even to just repeat the famous words of the great Graham Turner: ‘Do I not like orange.’

    Perhaps we should start a union.

  • As Meral notes, strikes are low in Britain today, both by our own historical standards and by international ones. BUT some sectors do seem to be strike prone – the post office, the underground, university lecturers (my union seems to call me out almost every year). Most strikes now happen in monopoly services, and disproportionately in public services and former public services.

    In cases where consumers have a choice, I don’t think that firms should be able to strike break. If Tesco is closed, go to Asda. But where customers have no choice, I think it is different – I want the fire brigade to be able to hire in others if firemen go on strike. Ditto if train drivers strike.

    Sometimes unions behave scandalously. My union (AUT) asked me not to mark exams last year – and said that as it wasn’t a strike, we should all get paid. Exam marking is clearly part of our jobs, and to refuse to do it but still expect to get paid was at best cheeky. And the employer went along with it! (I did my marking, and all scripts at LSE were marked on time).

    Unions can be the voice of vested interests as well as of reason. Clearly we are all in favour of the right to join a union, but I would be surprised were many LibDems to want bigger powers for them

  • Trade Unions do have a place in representative democracy, simply because they have a real role in representing people – specifically in the workplace.
    The democratic estate of the Trades Unions is clearly unbalanced by their constitutional ties to one specific partisan grouping – which they argue is necessary in order to advance their cause. This relationship has evolved into codependency which is to the benefit of neither and is to the detriment of public debate.
    With a seperation of democratic interests (ie by giving proper, indirect representation to all the estates of the country in a reformed HoL – Lords, estates, geddit?) the TUC would become a benign force implicated in active government, rather than the sad neutered talking shop that it has become since (and as a result of) Labour’s entry into government.
    This would also have the consequence of totally undermining the antagonistic Labour movement across the whole of one wing of the political spectrum. But this is a task they are incapable of fulfilling – not even Blair could explicitly turn Labour into a social democratic party. I suspect, however, that the autocratic-statist consensus is more likely to start to crumble from the left with the decoupling of the cooperative movement from the Labour party – which will happen when Brown’s Treasury-enforced diktats become completely indigestible.
    The cause of equity and equality – in the workplace or wherever – can only be successfully borne by a liberal movement, because they are wholly liberal values.

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