Friday, 26 March 2010

Better off without unions?

Strikes are back in the UK news. Last year postal workers disrupted daily life by not delivering our post, then BA cabin crew disrupted holidays and business flights, now it seems that rail workers feel they are being treated unfairly and may come out on strike over Easter. When I say rail workers, I really mean their union. Because that's what happens when unions aren’t happy.

What is most striking (sorry) about all of this is that we are still in the deepest recession for 60 years. A recession in which many people have lost their jobs, a recession in which many businesses have had to rethink how they operate, and a recession that has caused a great deal of hardship. I’m not saying that mistreated workers should shut up and put up, what I am saying is that organisations must be allowed to change.

Refusing to come to work because management want to reduce 12-hour shifts is an inappropriate and out-dated way of behaving. Railways, airlines, postal services and most other goods and services are part of the global economy. Which means we all have to compete in a global economy. Which means changing as they world changes. Which is something that unions seem to find difficult.

The independent Hooper Report on the UK’s postal service was entitled “Modernise or Decline.” The report says “there is too much resistance to change at a time when the company must focus relentlessly on meeting the needs of customers.” How many other businesses does that apply to? Many? Most? All? Certainly all those mentioned above, and most organisations that are likely to come out on strike when unions get upset.

So maybe unions are out-dated?

The good of any workforce will only be well served if they work for a strong business. And all strong businesses need to be able to change as circumstances change.


  1. Hmm, I'm not sure unions are outdated, rather that the decision to take drastic action is a sign that the industry is under intense pressure and will almost certainly fail or drag the company under.

    I see little distinction between professional organisations and unions, except that the professions are white collar and are sufficiently well-resourced (in skills and finance etc) to function as a self-organizing system, whereas blue-collar workers require centralised organisation but are swimming against the tide of a transition to a high-skills economy so naturally feel marginalised and have a more confrontational approach.

    So I think it does kind of depend on what you see as the primary purpose of a union, and that will largely depend upon which industry they are involved in.

  2. Your comparison with professional associations is interesting, and one I hadn't previously considered. I normally think of professional associations keeping their members up to date with best practice, and encouraging change rather than holding it back. But maybe that's because I have more experience of them.

    From a number of angles I have been fascinated to see how unions are defended, despite their tactics.

  3. michael dempsey2 April 2010 at 16:15

    You raise a number of issues here. I hold no brief for RMT because I do think that their current management is far too keen on escalating disputes. They only got a 220 majority for their action on a moderate poll so it wasn't surprising that, if there were defects in it, it could be attacked.

    But contrast that with the BA ballot which had a massive majority for action on an enormous turnout - twice. First of all, if I was in charge of BA, I would want to know how I had so seriously managed to disaffect my staff. There is no way this dispute could be caricatured as a creature of union leadership. Secondly, as a result of recent case law, if there is any defect at all in a ballot, the courts can strike it down even if it is quite clear that the defects would in no way have affected the outcome (as here). I used to manage a union membership register and it is always out of date because members don't tell you when they move or change jobs. This means that it is now almost impossible to hold a lawful ballot. Unless you believe that striking is ALWAYS wrong (which is a difficult position to adopt, on human rights grounds) the effect is that disputes will be decided in the courts instead of between the parties. I don't think that is desirable.

    Most people don't realise that the bread and butter of union work is personal casework. People join unions in case things go wrong for them, not because they are inherently argumentative. There was a woman on the radio this morning who said that her union subscription was the best investment she ever made because of the way that she was treated by a supposedly reputable employer and that the union was the only body that could make sure she achieved her rights. She is typical; most union members never go on strike. The union helps to make sure that they are treated well. This is an advantage to employers as well. Tesco, whose management is no pushover, has a partnership agreement with USDAW in which USDAW is categorised as a strategic partner. There are dispute resolution clauses to make sure conflict is managed properly and USDAW has a place on strategic committees. Their membership has risen enormously and the agreement has been renewed at least twice. I imagine BA could have something similar with their cabin crew, similarly non-militant individuals, if they had displayed any flexibility at all. There is some evidence in the USA that working with unions to achieve change, treating them as primary stakeholders, results in easier and more lasting change than in non-union firms.

    In developing countries, free unions are regarded as a sign of mature civil society. We just don't like them when they cause us a problem at home. But if they didn't exist, we would be finding ways to try to invent them.

    All this demonstrates the value of having a voice for staff in their workplaces. Conflict always happens. Despite managers like Caroline achieving a high level qualification, most British managers remain untrained and many of them are totally unaware of how to manage people. When the trade union laws were introduced in the 80s/90s and collective disputes were made less easy, conflict went underground. As union membership dropped (as it always does when members can't see their union doping anything) applications to ETs soared massively. Individual employees, having less opportunity to ask a union to help them, went in their droves in desperation to tribunals to seek individual redress. I don't know but I am quite sure that many of these worked for organisations who boasted that they didn't need unions because they dealt well with their staff on an individual basis. Oh yeah. Tough love, no doubt.

  4. michael dempsey2 April 2010 at 16:18

    Just to say that the system transposed my last two paragraphs. So read it in that way please.