UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Reflections on 2012 Olympics opening ceremony & Unions as a socio-economic driving force

Danny Boyle’s brilliant display at the opening of the London Olympics has rightly been widely acclaimed. It represented the real history of these Isles – a history of exploitation, class struggle and political achievement; rather than a history of stately homes, King’s and Queen’s, and the National Trust, writes Keith Ewing.

But above all it was a celebration of workers – the workers who toiled in the fields, who moved to the towns and cities to labour in the smoke-stacks and the mines, and the workers who now sustain the NHS despite the attempts by Andrew Lansley and his cronies to undermine their best efforts.

What was missing from this great celebration of humanity – at least as televised by the BBC - was the contribution of trade unions. True, the suffragettes had a conspicuous part, while the CND symbol was also on display. It is also true that the founder of Liberty was seen carrying the Olympic flag. But as one Guardian correspondent pointed out, trade unions were nowhere.

This is a pity, if only because the great social progress that alleviated the plight of workers during the industrial revolution was due entirely to trade unions, not the suffragettes, the peace movement or the NCCL (founded by Ronald Kidd in 1934). It was trade unions that struggled for better working conditions, and trade unionists who made huge sacrifices for their families and fellow-workers.

It was trade unions that campaigned for better legislation to protect workers from the horrors of the truck system, the unsafe factories and mines, and the long hours and low pay in sweated industries. And it was the trade unions that were ultimately responsible for the creation of the Labour party, inspired by a vision of a better tomorrow based on liberty through equality.

This of course is known to everyone of a certain age, labour history proudly taught once upon a time in school classrooms throughout the land. But we live in a country where the trade union contribution is gradually being erased from collective memory, as modern generations no longer learn about the role of trade unions in protecting workers and building a fair society.

That memory is being lost on the movement itself, racked by four decades of neo-liberalism, and now struggling to recall what it is for. Trade unions perform many functions, but central to what they do is to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, collective agreements negotiated by trade unions reached 72% of the workforce. Now it is 32% and falling.

I would call this a crisis for the Movement. But it is only a crisis if we agree that collective bargaining is important. It is true that we can always find other things for trade unions to do. We can secure legislation from a Labour government, such as the National Minimum Wage. And we can provide valuable services to members when employers fail to pay the minimum wage, or fail to comply with other legislation we have persuaded a friendly government to pass.

But this is a dead end to nowhere – displacement therapy and not much else. Not only is collective bargaining density in freefall. Trade union membership is also in decline, though there are welcome signals now and again bucking the trend. Trade unions will not survive as a protest movement enforcing the rules that have been made by someone else. It is essential for the very soul of trade unionism that trade unions make the rules (with employers) by which workers are governed, and that trade unions police compliance with these rules.

But it is not only in the United Kingdom that collective bargaining is under threat. Once the bastion of trade union activity, the great social democracies of the EU are also yielding to the forces of neo-liberalism fuelled by the dogma of austerity. Earlier this year, I attended a meeting of trade unionists in Rome along with my colleague Daniel Blackburn from the International Centre for Trade Union Rights. The hospitality was warm, but the conversation was chilling.

We heard of how in countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain there is strong pressure on employers to decentralise their collective bargaining activities down to the level of the enterprise, giving more power to employers. We heard of how in new member states like Bulgaria and Romania, various anti – union strategies are being deployed by governments and employers, and of how even in countries like Germany companies are looking for ways to escape from sector wide collective bargaining.

We also heard from Cypriot trade unionists, awaiting nervously the arrival of the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF), fresh from its blitzkrieg of the national economies of other member states. They have every right to be nervous, the ILO having recently sent a High Level Mission to Greece, the report of the Mission lamenting that the effect of the Troika has been to bring the industrial relations system in Greece close to collapse.

What was also striking about the meeting in Rome was the total failure to apprehend what is likely to happen. Returning to Danny Boyle’s vision of British history, it is like being on the innocent threshold of a great and bloody war with no capacity to imagine just how brutal it will become. It is only when the lesson has been taught by the great ‘Professor Experience’ that the lesson will be learned. By then of course it will be too late, much too late.

We have been there and have much to teach the rest of Europe. With us collective bargaining decentralisation started in the 1960s, partly because of the demands of employers, and partly because of our own hubris. We have learned a bitter lesson, and we need to put together again that which has been destroyed. If trade unionism is to recapture its historic role, we need to raise our ambitions with strategies that will ensure that every worker is covered by a collective agreement.

That does not mean a strategy for trade union recognition in which we demand some tinkering with the statutory recognition procedure, though that would help. On the contrary, it means a strategy for collective bargaining in which we rebuild the sector wide national agreements that were once as prevalent in this country as they were until recently in most of the EU member states. That will require government support. But is that not why trade unions support a Labour government?

One of the most shocking features of 13 years of Labour government was the failure to engage with this agenda, which is essential to the future of trade unionism. It is all the more shocking for the fact that there were several opportunities to have that engagement – the first with the proposals for sector forums which were promised at Warwick in 2004, and secondly after the decision of the European Court of Justice in the Laval case in 2007 and the related dispute at East Lindsey in 2009.

There is so much that is good to come out of a collective bargaining strategy. Restoring the fortunes of trade unionism is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Higher collective bargaining density will lead to higher wages and a more equal society, which it turn will aid economic recovery by stimulating demand. As a result it will create more jobs and lead to less unemployment, and in the process will reduce the welfare bill while also increasing the tax take.

It is not clear to me what we are waiting for. Eventually the penny will drop, as it did when in the 1930s a Tory-led government embraced collective bargaining as a key lever in the journey from misery to happiness. Labour talks a good game about reflation and growth. But it is about time it proclaimed the virtues of trade unionism and collective bargaining in order to get us out of the current mess. And it is now time for trade unions to do the same, with the same boldness and confidence we saw on display in the work of Danny Boyle.

Keith Ewing
2 August 2012