Thursday, 11 June 2015

Future of collective bargaining




In politics, it seems that most agree that "in-work poverty" / low pay is a massive challenge for law-makers to sort out.

Even the right-wing Adam Smith Institute has just blogged about this "scourge of our time".

For Labour since 2010, "the Living Wage" (the idea that the government can sort out social justice at work for you) was one of it's main policy ideas.

I've just read "Left Without A Future" by Anthony Painter      It's a book that examines each "faction" within the centre-left and suggests complex ways of building new social institutions to deliver social justice, particularly to raise pay in the service sectors.   The book does not even mention collective bargaining.

I found it extraordinary that a book (from the left) about the future of the left & social justice does not mention collective bargaining.

But I was wrong to think that.  It would be unfair of me to single out anyone for ignoring collective bargaining.   After all, the one thing that links most contemporary speeches and writings about low pay is the absence of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is the only mechanism for private sector social justice that is actually proven to work.  So why the collective memory loss?

I believe there are two things going on here, and we need to tackle the second before we can effectively confront the first.....


1.   There is a concerted attack upon collective bargaining going on.     In 1979, 80% of UK workers were covered by it, now it's about 25%.    This is not an accident, and in no other democratic country has anything else so dramatic happened. Few people know this or understand that this is the explanation for the huge rise in in-work poverty during the last thirty five years.

When Unions are discussed in the media, it centres around the annual disclosure of membership figures, never collective bargaining coverage.  And we are told Unions have declined to 14% in the private sector.  But look at Sweden.   Collective bargaining coverage has remained around 80% since 1979, but it's membership is still at over 70% of all workers

It's a non-brainer : most people join a union for better pay and conditions.  In other words, they join where there is collective bargaining.   Where there is collective bargaining, the Union negotiates pay and conditions for it's members. Remove collective bargaining, and you destroy the most compelling reason to join a union.   In those parts of the private sector that still have collective bargaining, union membership largely remains very good.

The media, particularly on the liberal left, tend to say unions are doing a bad job or have somehow failed.  But when the wage councils were torn down in the 1980's, nothing replaced them.  Industry wide collective bargaining agreements were ripped up.  New industries emerged, but for the most part, the legal tools available to union organisers remain woefully inadequate.   Blaming unions that exist in one part of the economy for not existing in another (!) may be ridiculous, but that's what happens.

The Conservatives, of course, continue to undermine and weaken unions.    Unlike so many people on the left, the Tories know perfectly well what collective bargaining is.   Many Labour politicians seem to naively think that the decline of unions is just a natural thing and that government is (or should be) neutral. It is extremely rare to find any politician wanting to talk about collective bargaining.

Ever since 1980 and the start of the attacks on collective bargaining, the share of the UK's wealth that gets paid into wages has been going down.   It's still falling.  It's already a crises.   From tax credits to other state hand-outs, it's costing the state a fortune. And it's causing real misery.

The battering of collective bargaining has been an obscene power grab.  Whilst the Tories enjoy bashing unions, there are no winners. It is a foolish policy that damages the economy. Less collective bargaining means lower tax receipts and higher spending required on benefits.  Attacking pay may sound attractive to some multinational CEO's, but they would be wise to remember they would make more money here if all UK workers had enough money to spend.

This concerted attack needs to be confronted and reversed, but in my view any attempt to do so will fail until we get our heads around the second point.....

2.

The union movement, I believe, needs to wake up to the fact that people no longer know what collective bargaining is.

There is an astonishing lack of information out there about what collective bargaining is.  The ACAS definition is all about the process, yet doesn't explain the point of it. Beyond that, it's quite hard to find anything.

For ten quid, you can buy the excellent manifesto for collective bargaining.  While I would heartily recommend Union branches buy a copy, it's not bedtime reading.

The popular left-blog "Left Foot Forward" often generates hundreds of comments to important articles.   Back in March 2013, it featured an excellent blog called It's time for a collective-bargaining renaissance.

It generated just one comment.

Why?   Because collective-bargaining has been clobbered so much it's now disappeared from our national language....and even left-wing activists cannot be assumed to know what it is.

The media has not explained what has happened to collective bargaining, and isn't going to.  It's not just bias - it's more a matter of them not understanding. All of this is as industrial as it is political. The public need industrial correspondents reporting on workplace trends. But they have all
but vanished.

I believe Unions need to pool resources and embark on a major advertising and social network campaign to put collective bargaining firmly into peoples minds - and generally promote the decency of unions and the good they do.  Until this happens, politicians are extremely unlikely to talk about something that doesn't resonate with people.   Eg, When 70% of people tell pollsters they'd join a union if it one was recognised at work, that should then feature in a newspaper advert.

I've also noticed that unions in the UK seldom mention collective bargaining in communications with members.  In my view this is a mistake that could and should be rectified fairly easily.

When the likes of Norway or Sweden take a right-political turn, at least it's people still have collective bargaining. Or put another way - they can still sort social justice out for themselves.

I repeat - "people having the power to sort social justice out for themselves."

That's the real "big society".
That's justice.
That's making poverty history for people who work.
That's securing fair and transparent pay systems that fairly reward everyone.
That's tackling discrimination and inequality both at work and throughout society.
That's delivering free legal representation for ordinary people.
That's building safer workplaces with more secure employment.
That's the delivery of higher pay, increased taxation revenue and lower state handouts.

That's collective bargaining.