We are one

Today this blog stands proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the US trade union movement in its respect our rights campaign, defending the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

In Wisconsin, most notably, as well as Ohio, Indiana and in other states across the US, Republican legislators have passed laws curbing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers allowing public authorities to impose pay settlements and changes to terms and conditions, including pension rights, without reference to trade unions in negotiations. Inevitably, this opportunistic attack on collectivism in the workplace is being made in the name of austerity measures and the global economic crisis, and the US union movement has called today – the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis as he supported the organising efforts of sanitation workers – as a day of solidarity action.

The ideological nature of the assault is reason enough to oppose; but it also makes little sense strategically: what will get us out of the crisis is an expansion of demand and every attack on wages and living standards makes that a less likely scenario. We know also that – as today’s TUC letter to the US ambassador points out – the declining value of real wages and the declining share of national income being taken up by wages played a role in how the crisis evolved in the first place. Furthermore, here in the UK, right-wing politicians and think tanks are no doubt watching keenly to see how much could be replicated in this country; while we know that private sector employers tend to be keen followers of US practice and that what happens over there happens over here after a lag of a couple of years. The lessons of the long-term decline in private sector union density are clear, and need to be addressed.

The right to bargain collectively with an employer is an essential freedom of modern, advanced democratic societies and it’s no good fighting for democracy abroad while ignoring it at home. An injury to one is an injury to all.

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For decent work, stand up…

Today is the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work 2010; while tonight sees Shappi Khorsandi join Philosophy Football for the TUC’s Stand up for Decent Work event. I’ve joined with a bunch of other bloggers over at Bloggers Unite to celebrate it.

What’s interesting about the Day is that it’s not about standing up for labour rights on behalf of someone else, in some other country – important though that is, too. It is, on the other hand, about standing up for your own rights, right here, in your own country. However, you want to define ‘decent work’, it doesn’t matter – what counts is that you do something to recognise the need to strive for it. And that, at the same time, you call to mind that, all over the globe, other trade unionists are doing the same to move the principle of ‘decent work’ forwards as well.

As trade unionists, we know that no social advance ever falls into your lap – whether it be (more) equal pay, union recognition or decent wages. What we do sometimes forget, however, is that, unless we continue to keep pushing forwards, not only do we not make further gains, we’re also likely to lose the progress that we’ve already made.

As the ConDems make the final preparations for their Spending Review, which will see departmental budgets cut by 25-40%; as call-me-Dave starts to repeat the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra of his Tory predecessor as Prime Minister but one, while his Foreign Secretary starts to retreat into a Little Englander mentality; and as paying for the costs of the crisis is lumped not on those that caused it but on the shoulders of ordinary working people, we need to remember that an alternative worth achieving is one that has to be fought for.

Stand up.

More Policy Exchange nonsense

One of the nicer things about the period of Labour government since 1997 was that all the daft right-wing think tanks that marked the Tory years since 1979, especially in the area of trade unions and industrial relations, seemed to have all crawled back into the woodwork (and certainly had, as regards policy impact). Unfortunately, they’ve only been hibernating and the last year has brought a few out again. I mentioned the Institute for Economic Affairs yesterday and Policy Exchange, which has produced a couple of nutty pieces, not least on pensions and on industrial relations, has gone and done it again.

Sarah Veale at the TUC has done a pretty good job running through the report, but I wanted to emphasise a couple of things:

1. trade unions tend not to prosecute a dispute if there isn’t much support for it – it’s a question of strategy and credibility. Self-evidently. As a result, disputes that go ahead tend to have a high level of support from the workforce.

2. employees can, actually, choose to be a member of any union they want (subject to admission criteria in the rule book). It does, however, make sense to join a union which is recognised by the employer (and let’s not forget that employers recognise unions for a reason). So to call this ‘monopoly conditions’ is stretching the definition of the term very thin.

3. I can’t even begin to understand what the policy implications of ‘using competition policy to address monopsony power on the part of employers’ means in the context of ‘replacing the system of monopoly unions bargaining with monopsony employers’. I know what monopsony means, technically, and I’m guessing that what the report is implying is the splitting up of large public sector employers into  a series of smaller ones. I haven’t yet read it – though I will (owing to a lack of time and, besides, the simple act of downloading the report would just make me feel dirty 😉 ).

4. Unions are simply not monopoly suppliers of services: where workers have a choice of being in the union or not, there can simply be no question of monopoly power. I think everyone should be in the union as a matter of principle and also in terms of giving meaning and strength to the union memberships of those who are members – but it’s never a monopoly.

Evidently, the issue on taxpayer support for unions is an attack on public sector unions and the extent to which lay reps receive paid time-off for union activities. Time-off for reps is a good thing – industrial relations run much smoother as a result of the hard work done by activists in representing fellow workers’ views to managers, whether it’s in the public or the private sector. All Policy Exchange has to do is to read ACAS reports on the issue and there is a long-standing body of academic research citing the practical and economic benefits to employers of the union voice (as a special service to Policy Exchange staff, try here and here).

At the same time, this sort of nonsense does need to be knocked back whenever it appears – allowing it to gain traction by not being challenged is the simplest way of seeing it wind up on the statute book.