Sunday, 29 March 2009

Organised labour and the recession

Carmi has asked for comment about "Should we be getting tough with unions, and the old-style companies that can't seem to break them? Will this recession finally kill organized labour? Should it?"

As my thoughts are lengthy for a comment I thought it best to put them on my blog and link it to his. It is a big subject and much could be written on it... However...

From a UK perspective the unions are sometimes necessary. I used to live near where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to death for meeting to organise the opposition to wage cuts for farm labourers exploited by wealthy landowners (later commuted to 7 years transportation to Australia), similarly with the Peterloo Massacre here in Manchester on 16 August 1819, many were killed by dragoons when they charged the crowd on horseback with their sabres drawn for meeting to oppose the evils that were taking place.

I joined a union when a government minister decided we would have miniscule percentage rises while he would a large % rise on his already large salary. I left when they became more concerned over political correctness and fringe rights than their main purpose.

If all businesses were fair and just – no we would not need them. Unfortunately this is not the case and many businesses have strange views of their employees wealth as a human being. Some years ago a French co-operative (80s?) operated on the basis of no one was worth more than three times the lowest paid employee based on a full working week. If something like this came in world wide and those who sought to get round it were very heavily financially penalised....

In the UK we had a bad case where the CEO of a bank which had very done badly and had to be bailed out by the government received a mega million payout on ‘early retirement’ in his early 50s. He refused to give this back despite public outcry and government requests; and whilst some years ago words would probably have been spoken and an accident would have occurred, today it is left to members of the public who in this case attacked his house and car.

I believe there is a case for a strong workforce representation at board level and it should have more influence than the shareholders currently do. Maybe we should make greed an imprisonable offence...


  1. I seem to have touched off a bit of a debate with this post. I'm glad to see that!

    While I don't doubt that unions haven't been instrumental in balancing many of the excesses of profit-seeking businesses and tilting the playing field back in favor of labor, I wonder if, in their current form, they have at least partly outlived their usefulness.

    To wit, entire industries are in the process of being reshaped by global forces beyond the control of any one company or government. Yet here the unions sit, clinging stubbornly to wage and benefit levels that are unsustainable in today's climate. In many cases, they'd rather see te parent company die before they give up so much as an inch.

    I don't get the attitude, and in an economy where countless others are losing their jobs in a constant barrage of bad news, why unions feel their members should stand above all others is beyond me.

    As someone who's never been a member of a union, and who has singlehandedly scratched out a living by virtue of individual flexibility, it galls me when people kind of expect a certain level of treatment just because they've been in a role for X number of years. The world doesn't work that way anymore, and the unions need to evolve, or become extinct.

  2. I think unions, shareholders and directors have all lived outlived their usefulness in their current form - all need to evolve since the old system is completely unworkable - But what happens post capitalism?

    Everyone can point the finger at everyone else and it is never their fault. One trouble (in the UK anyway) is that the directors' prime responsibility is to shareholders, whereas it should be equally between: those who lend the business money including the shareholders, employees, customers and the government for taxes etc.

    I also believe that any 'pinch' should be clearly seen to be deeply hurting at the top first as an example, not bottom up which it tends to be.

    In my work area when staff move / retire etc they are not replaced, there is the same or more work and fewer staff to deal with it and that equals extensive changes in how the job is done. My wife sees it with increases in agency staff (with no responsibility or long term commnitment) trying to fill the gaps because they will not employ full time staff.

    Yes the world is changing, but it has changed significantly form my days as a teenager when I used to see the chauffer driven cars waiting outside Waterloo station at 10.00 to take the senior civil servants to their offices and back fon the 15:00 ~ hardly time to fit in lunch at the club! Equally with trades unions where one person could not do a certain task because that belonged to another union [not that long ago in the UK you could not have been a newspaper journalist working for a national paper without being in the union] ...then lawyers and estate agents working on percentage fees....

    But equally how do we deal with professional associations and bodies who set fees etc? They are similar to unions. Perhaps we should also be saying to city lawyers £25 an hour maximum, or even mnore drastically realign them downwards on the payment scale. If the recession really bites it those who produce food will be the most valuble people in society so the farm labourer planting and digging up potatoes is the highest paid. Food for thought.