Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant


3:45 pm - June 24th 2010

by Lee Griffin    


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I’m no fan of Trade Unions as they are currently structured and operate, I’ve made this known before but feel it’s worth prefacing this article with that fact straight away. But this doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there is a place for democratic organisations to aid the process of ensuring fair pay and conditions.

However, while those organisations would put publicity ahead of their very reason for existence their credibility can only be shot to pieces; indeed the GMB have managed to do just this in spectacular style in response to Cameron & Clegg’s letter to public sector employees to help find alternative cost saving solutions, by blurting out their faux-fury at the way the situation is being dealt with…:

Cameron and Clegg have a damned cheek in asking public sector workers to cooperate in sacking thousands of them. It is an utter outrage.

We have news for Cameron and Clegg – public sector workers are organised in trade unions and we are perfectly capable of speaking up on their behalf.

The GMB will be joining other organisations and communities to resist the savage cuts in public services.

On the face of it the appearance the GMB is giving is that discussion about cuts with those affected is antagonising and heartless, that now a decision has been made on cuts the only outcome they will see is either complete government withdrawal of their plans voted for by parliament…the ultimate democratic structure of our nation…or for the government to do what they want without consulting employees with the GMB opposing them.

Anything more collaborative is, it seems, just “damned cheek”.

This is obviously strange given that the standard practice of unions during such talks is usually to rightfully stall a redundancy process by demanding that the employee is given a fair opportunity to understand the proposals, and to help devise an alternative that may save that person’s job.

To ensure that fairness is delivered within a decision about organisational employment first of all workers need to be informed that a process is about to be undertaken so that they are able to prepare for what is to come, to get representation if they want it. Then, armed with information about the organisation’s situation, they should be given the opportunity to through consultation and discussion come up with an alternative for the employer to take that they may not have considered.

Only then can an employer reasonably say that they have gone through transparent and fair process to deal with any staff lay-offs or restructuring…to say that they have truly considered all of the options open to them, yet here is the GMB actually arguing such a process is an insult, an aberration. It is everything that is wrong about modern trade unionism that would put a desire to make a statement and gain publicity ahead of advising their members (and potential members of the future) of the smart thing to do.

There is always a danger that such consultations about alternative ways to make savings will be seen as a placatory move with no substance behind it; this is precisely because we rely on trade unions to save our jobs through sheer bloody-mindedness and legal threats. Right now trade unions actually have a stage to make real claims about ensuring impartial assessment of how “fair” or “justified” redundancy action would be. Instead they are choosing to take a step backwards, away from influence and control.

For those that understand a decision has been made on cuts, that this is what is happening, and that the sensible way to fight it is to speak up about the waste that you witness on a day to day basis, excesses in capital spend by management that could go towards someone’s wages, and mismanagement that leads to inefficiencies…take the opportunity that the Government have given you, before July 9th, and speak up about how the coalition can save money without cutting jobs and ensure this is a process truly about finding a better way, and not just the government being able to claim that they did everything they could before letting the axe fall anyway.

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About the author
Lee is a 20 something web developer from Cornwall now residing in Bristol since completing his degree at the lesser university. He has strange dreams, a big appetite, a small flat, and when not forcing his views on the world he is probably eating a cookie. Lee blogs independently from party colours at Program your own mind.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


GMB. The Neanderthal wing of trade unionism.

They still think shouting and table-thumping constitutes negotiation. Lee is right that unless unions get smarter and learn what their members actually want, as well as representing people when they need help, then they will continue to whither.

Unions culturally are at least a decade behind employers. If they cannot recruit during the coming austerity then they have only themselves to blame.

The trade unions came across as plain silly by appearing to oppose any and all public spending cuts in the face of mounting evidence of waste and inefficiences.

There are many cogent and powerful criticisms of the budget to be made in respect of both the risks of delaying recovery from the recession and concerning the fairness of the impacts of tax increases and spending cuts on poorer households, including pensioners.

The critical case has been well made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (as I expected): Stephanie Flanders on IFS reaction to the Budget
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/stephanieflanders/2010/06/ifs_reaction_to_the_budget.html
http://www.publicservice.co.uk/news_story.asp?id=13344

And in the Financial Times: Osborne’s Kill or Cure Budget
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/de6ba960-7dde-11df-b357-00144feabdc0.html

The Budget has been presented as essential and unavoidable with no feasible alternative. This is a lie. If anything, the trade unions have muddied the waters and obscured that important message

The assessment of the Budget in The Economist also emphasises the inherent risk from its underlying assumption that private sector funding – and net exports – will make up for the cuts in public spending: Osborne’s gamble
http://www.economist.com/node/16438792?story_id=16438792

I thinks it’s fair enough for the unions to try and protect their members by opposing cuts likely to lead to unemployment. However, getting pissed off at the goverment’s attempt to let public sector workers have a say is just plain silly.

Lee, I appreciate your intentions here and understand your argument, but I can’t help thinking you’re somewhat wide of the mark. I’m no fan of the GMB, its modus operandi or its leadership and have harsh personal experience of deals attempted locally that have been against the interests of sections of its membership.

However, consultation is usually defined by trade unions (and backed-up by EU law) as “dialogue with a view to reaching agreement”. That’s a fair definition of talks held with mutual good faith and intent to my mind.

It describes a process whereby discussion reduces the prospect of conflict and produces some consensus about what should happen next in a situation where the overall parameters, usually financial, can’t be changed. When the dialogue works, it’s often because neither side is in a position to alter those parameters whether they like them or not and they trust each other sufficiently to produce least bad options.

No-one joins a union for them to negotiate a pay cut, but sometimes, as an alternative to job losses, and in the absence of other options, that’s what union members prefer. Unions can and do reflect preferences like that, but you won’t find details in union recruitment material or Paul Kenny’s press releases for obvious reasons.

I think the coalition governments tilt at consultation is a PR gimmick.

Before Paul Kenny could open his mouth, Clegg and Cameron had gone straight to employees with their letter and its associated publicity in a pretty obvious attempt to sideline the unions and deny them legitimacy in the exercise.

Moreover, telling public service workers that all serious ideas will be passed on to officials for consideration is hardly the outline of a genuine and transparent process that might encourage public service workers to put pen to paper.

Many who have written up their indictments of dysfunctional public sector organisations in the past, you’ll remember, have been variously dismissed as cranks or, literally, as whistleblowers. Those who want to blow the whistle these days often go to their unions for advice in the first instance anyway.

I could produce a list of efficiency savings off the top of my head, many of which have already been put to ‘officials’, regularly in some cases, and ignored.

Cameron and Clegg trying to put their stamp on consultation, given that it depends on trust and good faith, is really a non-starter.

They showed on Tuesday that neither of them could be trusted on VAT, and yet unions should be expected to trust them on job cuts.

You must be kidding.

lespetroleuse:

I take your points on board, there is most certainly a difference in the way the consultation is being handled in process. Does that make a difference in how it is handled in practice? I don’t think so.

If unions and their members have any idea about alternatives to job cuts then they need to stop tub thumping and start organising their members to make use of the route of communication that has been made available.

Will it just be a gimmick? Unless the unions and public sector workers do things right then we’ll never know. The government will claim that no-one engaged with the process so they are forced to go through with their own plans. If they are organised then the government is unable to hide like this.

“They showed on Tuesday that neither of them could be trusted on VAT, and yet unions should be expected to trust them on job cuts.”

It’s not about trust. There is nothing to lose by engaging with the process as long as the unions spend their time actually documenting the serious options being suggested and organise people to send them en masse to give the options legitimacy.

Worse case scenario the same thing that was always going to happen, happens, and then we can all hold our MPs to account over that (and more powerful people can use it as a fair sized stick in the PR game). But if they *are* being sincere, then look at what you have the potential to gain.

Ultimately just because something is a PR gimmick doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t also an opportunity to be taken. It’s game theory at the end of the day, and the GMB at least seem to be oblivious to the most sensible route of attack.

But yes, like I say I think Unions have their place, I agree with you that the *better* route would have been for the coalition to actually sit down with the unions as a first point of call…but then I can also see that the direct legitimisation of the unions in a process that is actually one of national economic politics as much as it is one of people’s jobs is a dangerous precedent to make.

Note the results of the YouGov Poll on reactions to the Budget:

“The Coalition Government’s approval rating has risen by five points since yesterday’s Budget. 46% said they approved of the Government’s record so far, up from 41% yesterday. Disapproval remains steady at 28%, with those saying don’t know dropping from 31% to 25%. This is the highest government approval rating we have recorded since the General Election, and it would appear that many of those who had been reserving judgement upon the coalition have taken a positive view on the back of the Budget. . . ”
http://today.yougov.co.uk/politics/post-budget-reaction

8. paul barker

The reason Unions take this attitude surely is because they are tied to one Party, its bad for them & bad for Democratic Politics.

I don’t mean to be rude but you all need to get real.

The Conservative Government is planning an assault on the welfare state that is unprecendented in a modern Western democracy. Have you thought what the human consequences of 20-30% cuts across the public sector will be?

Do you not see what is going on?

Bob B’s endless links to examples of public sector waste are completely missing the point. That’s not what this is about. Its about an ideological attempt to dismantle a large portion of the welfare state.

The idea that Unions should just say ‘ok guv let’s just sit down together and come to an agreement’ is ridiculous.

The Unions have got to do what organised labour does in other parts of Europe and force the governmnet to back down.

Sheep don’t negotiate with wolves.

BobB et al: Don’t conflate the GMB with unions in general. They are all different. It seems to me that many exist simply because they are useful to employers, the GMB probably struggle even on such a narrow criterion.

Lespetroleuse is right, this is a PR stunt because the parameters have been set according to tory doctrine. There is a deliberate promotion of the worst case estimate of the structural deficit to justify forcing through changes that would have otherwise been politically much harder if not impossible. If any union came to the negotiating table and refused to accept Osbourne’s analysis of the state of the economy how do you think the negotiations would work? It seems to me it would be portrayed as denial or intransigence.

There may be room for efficiency savings but what does that mean? We all work harder for a lower share of GDP year on year, its been the trend for over 40 years, and now we face working harder for longer and for less? I don’t see the pain being fairly distributed.

We should also remind ourselves, whenever the subject is raised, that the New Labour fuckwits made all this possible.

11. Richard W

The first thing unions need to learn is that the point of public spending is for providing services to users of public services and not employment opportunities for union members. When they emphasise job losses in front of poorer services it is clear that they fail to understand the fundamental difference.

@11 Richard W

Yeah, lets ignore the terms of their employment and everything else. Do you live alone in an attic or something? These are real people who are part of the economy and provide services relied upon by many, if not most, of us.

Don’t forget the private companies that supply to the public sector either, if its the idea of “private” that gets you excited.

“The idea that Unions should just say ‘ok guv let’s just sit down together and come to an agreement’ is ridiculous.”

It’s how Unions work, assuming you cut out the middle phase where the unions blackmail employers with strike action. That may not suit you, but thankfully we’re moving away from your type of thinking and not towards it.

“Have you thought what the human consequences of 20-30% cuts across the public sector will be?”

I have indeed, and there will be opportunities lost and also jobs lost, especially if the government is given no other reason or option by people that should be ideally placed to do so. I think Tim Worstall went through how the situation isn’t as dire as a 25% cut sounds on another thread though.

But that’s not the point, it could be a 5% cut and the unions should be acting the same way, to organise and facilitate it’s workforce in being an active partner in their own employment.

Step back a bit Lee.

We know that whatever the unions say, individual public employees will provide their input as part of the Clegg/Cameron consultation. The Government won’t be able to say, with any resemblance of truth, that no one engaged.

So far, trade unions have not been invited to offer any input. They can’t be clobbered for not being constructive unless and until that happens. Well they can be, but it doesn’t have the advantage of being true.

Trust is critical. Who is to say that come the autumn, the government won’t seek to take the ostensibly painless savings offered up and add them to the budget cuts they currently say are needed?

There’s sometimes a fine line between being constructive and taken for a mug. Your worst case scenario can get worse still. This government has already shown itself adept at shifting its ground in fundamental ways under cover of totally spurious unanticipated developments.

The useful work that unions can do now is to involve members in developing a methodical approach to protecting jobs that has members’ support in advance of real consultation in the run up to inevitable redundancies.

We’ve been here before and I expect most unions to seek the withdrawal of agency staff and consultants, acceptance that one persons overtime is another’s livelihood, an advertising and recruitment freeze (already begun), and thorough-going reviews of charges for services where charges are already in place etc, etc.

I expect a serious pinch point to be over the pension guarantee.

This requires contractors bidding to take over public services to offer comparable pensions. Remove that guarantee and for workers whose jobs are privatised, Hutton’s pensions review becomes academic overnight – they lose instantly on transfer. The government gets the service cheaper and the private sector turns in a profit, not through efficiency, entrepreneurial flair or inventiveness, but just from screwing the workforce and dodging their future pension contributions.

It won’t be until the autumn that the real picture of government plans for cuts in services and jobs emerges.

Currently, they seem to take a top-slicing approach to departmental budgets with the NHS, defence and the Queen ring-fenced. The crunch decisions will be within departments in discussion with the Treasury and it’s in this process that unions need their arguments to be brought to bear. Expect some services to be ‘taken out’ completely, reflecting political preferences of the coalition.

The critical questions for trade unions are where can they make a difference, to jobs and services that would otherwise be scrapped, and how? I doubt very much that the way to do it is by feeding in suggestions in a constructive spirit before July.

“Bob B’s endless links to examples of public sector waste are completely missing the point. That’s not what this is about. Its about an ideological attempt to dismantle a large portion of the welfare state.”

Cogent and telling criticisms of the Budget have been made by the IFS and in the FT and The Economist – see links above. The regressive impact of the budget has been powerfully argued by the IFS and the Telegraph (of all papers)
has made this point about pensioners:

“Pensioners came out as one of its biggest losers in George Osborne’s emergency Budget”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/how-budget-affect-me/7847875/Budget-2010-Pensioners-are-the-biggest-losers.html

But none of that conflicts with extensive documented evidence of massive waste and inefficiencies in the spending of taxpayers’ money by the last government. My complaint is not that the previous government was too “left-wing” or too “right-wing” but that it was too incompetent.

As for dismantling the welfare state, note again this reported comment by the chief executive of the NHS:

“The National Health Service can make the £15bn to £20bn of savings needed during the next three years without damaging the quantity or quality of care – indeed while even improving the latter – according to David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive.”
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6fba7dfe-e683-11de-98b1-00144feab49a.html

That is saying cuts in the annual NHS budget of c. £105 billion of around 15% can be made without damaging patient care, which is amazing. But then consider this finding of the ONS:

“The NHS has seen a year-on-year fall in productivity despite the billions of pounds of investment in the service, latest figures show. The data from the Office for National Statistics showed a fall of 2% a year from 2001 to 2005 across the UK.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7610103.stm

Issues like that cannot be brushed aside as “missing the point”. Such silly claims simply destroy the political credibility of those who make them and thereby put in jeopardy the very institutions they say they wish to defend. Note the results of the YouGov Poll reported @7 – the evidence is that public opinion has shifted in favour of the government as the result of the Budget. I suspect that is at least in part due to the ridiculous campaign suggesting there should be no public spending cuts at all.

16. Richard W

@ Yurrzem, I am perfectly aware that real people and usually the most disadvantaged lose out with real terms cuts in public spending. However, any time I see union leaders on TV discussing the issue they emphasise job losses and not the real issue which is services. They seem to think that public spending is somehow a national job creation scheme for their members. If it was possible to provide the same service with half of the staff most rational people would consider that good. A union leader would consider it bad if it resulted in job losses for union members. It is for this reason we end up with too many police officers and too many prisons and a bloated public sector because politicians constantly give in to demands for more of everything. Has a union leader ever said you know what we really could cut the number of people doing this job? Surely every single employee is not doing a vital and necessary job?

17. Charlieman

It is not just the unions that need to address current and future relevance. The same rule applies to universities, NGOs or whoever.

The last General Election campaign was conducted in a dizzy haze of unrealism. Speakers of all three main parties told us that cuts were coming, but the pain factor was blurred. Until it happened. Like the dentist who advises you that “this may hurt a little” before inflicting pain that you can recall today.

Lee has identified unions as organisations that need to change. But university funding will be cut; universities need to work out how to present themselves as wealth creators rather than post-18 child minders; given that most Vice Chancellors were appointed after 1997, I have doubts.

Everything is broken. Everything needs to change. There will be casualties and I do not suggest that we should be Thatcherite about them.

They seem to think that public spending is somehow a national job creation scheme for their members.

Naturally, the GMB would like to make sure that the cost of the country’s predicament is bourne entirely by non-members of the GMB.

It must want to be even more sure that the number of GMB members is not reduced. That would reduce the amount of money being given to the GMB…

@17: “There will be casualties and I do not suggest that we should be Thatcherite about them.”

Quite so.

“During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership public spending grew in real terms by an average of 1.1% a year, while during John Major’s premiership it grew by an average of 2.4% a year.”
http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/05ebn2.pdf

Lee, collaboration can be a good thing, but that Cameron/Clegg invitation is indeed a farce. Paul Nowack (who isn’t anti-collaboration) has written a good critique at the TUC’s Touchstone blog, and sums it up well: “This initiative takes the seed of a good idea and then denudes it of integrity”

http://www.touchstoneblog.org.uk/2010/06/think-of-a-cut-any-cut/

21. Charles Wheeler

Unions should acquiesece to the mantra of cuts, rather than fight them?

It’s this kind of pathetic, toe-curling cowardice in supplication to the markets that has got us here!

Up to now, the casualties of neo-liberal madness have been the voiceless poor. The assault on middle-income earners has only just begun, which changes the dynamics considerably 70-30 to 10-90.

“So far, trade unions have not been invited to offer any input.”

Rightfully so, this is mainly that of an political issue, one of mandate and economic policy.

“They can’t be clobbered for not being constructive unless and until that happens.”

So unions can’t be proactive in aiding the organisation of their members during this process? By using their resources to help bring members together, to help bring out ideas, to break down apprehension…to record and monitor the process…unions could be offering a great deal to this process without being the messenger. God forbid that they should act without the prestige of being in a meeting room demanding the world “or else”.

“Trust is critical. Who is to say that come the autumn, the government won’t seek to take the ostensibly painless savings offered up and add them to the budget cuts they currently say are needed?”

Then unions and public sector workers need to ensure this is seen, the media needs to help…and if it is disapproved of the government will lose support. If it is REALLY disapproved of then there will be wholesale action by the public to lobby their representatives to stop it happening.

We’re losing sight in this particular situation that economic policy is not the same as a company trying to protect it’s bottom line. If the government add those “cuts” on top of the cuts already announced then they will be doing so under the belief that they can get away with doing it, and if they believe that it’s probably because…like it or not…people probably agree more than they disagree. Welcome to democracy.

“I doubt very much that the way to do it is by feeding in suggestions in a constructive spirit before July.”

Pray tell, what is there to lose by doing so? Other than petulance and distrust, what exactly do you gain by not feeding in those suggestions?

Clifford Singer:

Two words, Game Theory.

Charles Wheeler:

“Unions should acquiesece to the mantra of cuts, rather than fight them?”

Not what I said, thanks for playing.

“Unions should acquiesece to the mantra of cuts, rather than fight them?”

Britain cannot continue running a fiscal deficit of 11% of national GDP indefinitely.

That said, there are good, valid reasons for criticising the Budget as the IFS and Financial Times journalists, amongst others, have argued – see links above.

What needs to be exposed as a lie is the claim by Cameron and Osborne that there is no alternative to the Budget as presented. This is the persuasive tack taken by Alistair Darling in media interviews. Defending every item and the scale of public spending and every public sector job is making the unions look ridiculous and that is helping the government to win its hearts and minds campaign as the YouGov Poll on the Budget shows – see link @7.

24. Charlieman

@21 Charles Wheeler: “Unions should acquiesece to the mantra of cuts, rather than fight them?”

I’m unclear which cuts I am supposed to fight against? Is it the £X billion that Labour proposed or the £1.25X billion that the coalition is cutting?

Should I withdraw my labour on one day in five to demonstrate my favour for Labour cuts?

As I wrote previously, everything has to change.

Bob I wouldn’t rely too much on current opinion poll data to judge how these policies go down in the long run. These cuts will spark huge opposition and the chances are the austerity measures enacted in concert with another EU nations, in a kind of mutual suicide pact will lead to a double dip recession.

And then you really might be looking at a sovereign debt crisis.

Also some of the research you cite is not quite as straightforward as you seem to think it is. Measuring productivity in the NHS is a rather inexact science as the report states:

Martin Weale of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are measuring productivity as well as we can, but there still has to be a question of whether we’re taking account of quality improvement properly.” Mr Weale, who is soon to take charge of the ONS body which puts together productivity reports added: “What they reflect is that people want, or politicians think people want an NHS with more nurses around and more doctors around who can see people quickly. “And if you have that, then inevitably the amount of treatment, the number of patients treated per doctor and nurse does tend to decline.” But he added: “Whether people are happy to have lots of extra doctors and nurses around given what it’s costing is a different matter.”

Every Government says that they are going to tackle waste but we are talking up to 30% cuts.

30% cuts in adult education, 30% cuts in social work, 30% cuts in child protection?

You think this can done without enormous social consequences?

Britain cannot continue running a fiscal deficit of 11% of national GDP indefinitely.

But its not indefinitely is it? A big portion of the deficit is a function of the fact that we are in a recession so tax revenues are down and benefit payments are up. If growth picks up it shrinks. But if we get sent back into recession through cuts then the deficit will rise again.

27. Charlie 2

Bob B. Good points on effective spending. The numbers of public employees increased by 700,000- 800,000 under Labour . What also needs to be considered are the remuneration packages. There are certain issues which need to be assessed.
1. The Police receive a pension after 30 yrs this should not be collected before the age of 60 yrs.
2. The number of sick days taken by public sector employees compared to the private sector; 12 days compared to 6 days per year.
3. Working hours, noone should work less than 37.5 hrs /wk.
4. Holidays should be 20 days per yr for first 5 yrs of employment with a maximum of 25 days per year.
5. Noone in the public sector should collect a pension before the age of 60 yrs unless invalided out .
6. Thought should be given to core activities. Does the NHS need to give medicines produced by the major companies or could generic versions be used .
7. Thought needs to be givem how the UK ended up with 8 million economically inactive people during a boom that lasted 15 years.
8. The unions need to be part of the solution in educating and training a workforce so they can be a productive part of a knowledge/ high value manufacturing economy.
9. Why do the unions not set up cooperatives to take part in the running services? I would think a cooperative of cleaners should be able to do a better job than a private company. Unions could set up cooperatives to compete with gang masters and/or recruitment agencies. If unions coud provide better educated, trained and more motivated staff than those supplied by gangmasters/recruitment agencies then they would benefit their members. If unions introduced the sort services supplied by the various guilds of the middle ages, they could provide a valuable service to the self employed and those in temporary work. If a union could guarantee the skills, dedication, honesty, pay employers NI and taxes, then employers may prefer their members to those supplied by gang masters /recruitment agencies.
9. How many of the universities and degree courses created since the mid 60s actually benefit the student and the country? Obtaining a degree in engineering from a Russell Group university will benefit the student but a degree in media studies from an ex-poly benefits the lecturer and landlord far more than the student. The reality is that many arts/social science/humanities degrees from ex-polys are sub-prime. As Dyson has pointed out, only 4% of degrees are in engineering . If we want to create green technology we need people with degrees in technology. As Sykes stated” A £ 1 spent at Imperial is of more worth to he Uk than a £1 spent at Thames Valley University”.

The reality is that many members of the public do consider every pound spent by government to be well spent. Too often one comes across jobsworth type people or those doing unneccessary work. British industry, especially manufacturing has had to develop lean methods since the early 80s; it is time the public sector followed suite.

Rightfully so, this is mainly that of an political issue, one of mandate and economic policy.

I don’t agree with this because the unions do represent a lot of workers. And it’s silly to deny that.

Furthermore, you say further up, Lee, that the unions should engage more constructively. Agreed. Then you seem to be saying the government is right to ignore them?

Lee @22

“We’re losing sight in this particular situation that economic policy is not the same as a company trying to protect it’s bottom line.”

It’s ironic, but this is precisely how the government is presenting the ‘emergency’ that requires this week’s budget, to the voters.

Rather than mitigate economic collapse through the counter-intuitive maintenance or stimulation of aggregate demand by borrowing and public spending, we’re back to the down-home corner shop economics of Thatcher with the risk of a double-dip.

“Welcome to democracy.”

The point is Lee, however much it might act like it, this government doesn’t have a clear mandate and we still have a democratic deficit. Cameron no more won a majority of support to become PM than Brown, never mind the absence of fair votes and the fact that AV won’t deliver fair votes however a referendum turns out.

It’s not democracy to sit back wringing your hands whilst the government does its worst, thinking, ah well, they got a mandate for this back in May 2010.

“Pray tell, what is there to lose by doing so? Other than petulance and distrust, what exactly do you gain by not feeding in those suggestions?”

Dave Prentis of UNISON spellled out the reality on the ground (see Clifford Singers link at 20 above).

“Of course UNISON members will co-operate in any exercise that helps cut out waste and delivers value for money for the taxpayer. They have been co-operating with the Gershon reviews for the past three years and have delivered efficiency savings of 6%.”

Rightly, he distances the union and its members from the untenable position of denying or defending waste. But the Clegg/Cameron invitation to public employees isn’t just about waste, it’s about suggestions for fair cuts.

Chancellor Osborne told us in his budget broadcast,

“We’ve already found over £6 billion of wasteful spending in just 50 days”

This included I believe, scrapping plans to lift 500,000 kids out of poverty by giving them free school meals. Fairness, indeed. One could argue that what these youngsters haven’t had, they won’t miss and this is therefore a painless ‘saving’.

I’m actually delighted the suggestion didn’t come from a union that promotes equality, has campaigned for higher nutritional standards in the (often privatised) school meals service and purports to represent those who work to deliver the service.

It provides a good example of the dilemmas involved in engagement and what unions can lose by it.

Its impressive how deeply the memes of the capitalists who have caused this recession seem to have pervaded the thinking of the left. So many on this thread are just trying to tweak bits and pieces here and there without looking at the bigger picture.

Wages have fallen in proportion to GDP for decades as greater profits have been made by technological innovation and exploitation of cheap overseas labour. So why do so many so-called progressives seem happy to join in proposing new ways to exploit the less well off? Do they all see themselves in government at some point? There is a kind of groupthink that I find quite staggering. If this is left-wing radicalism we’re fucked.

I fear that the left are lost at the moment, with real radicals such as Yurrzem pretty well unelectable (check out public support for proper socialism), whilst the main body of the left cannot distinguish personal freedom from the right of corporations and vested interests to exploit under the banner of law. The unions, being large vested interests themselves, are perhaps good examples of this. There has been a drive to create larger unions, with less focus on skills, which therefore are less representative. Their raison d’etre often seems to be political rather than the interests of their workers, their aim to have money and clout, not integrity. This is not to deny the brilliant job union officials and staff at a local level do for their members, but rather to point out that unions are not all about their members any more: the justifiable political campaigning for Labour of the last century (give or take a generation) has been replaced by a blind lust for power without clear principals, expressed as concern for all the population and not primarily their members.

The perennial rallying cries of avowed leftists have been: Peace, not war, along with claims that left-centre governments can run an economy more efficiently and with greater fairness than would result from unregulated free market capitalism.

By all those eminently worthy aims and objectives, the New Labour governments were a lamentable failure.

“The chances of a child from a poor family enjoying higher wages and better education than their parents is lower in Britain than in other western countries, the OECD says”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/mar/10/oecd-uk-worst-social-mobility

@27 Charlie 2:

For a detailed analysis of the various contributing factors to economic inactivity of the working-age population, try this:
http://www.touchstoneblog.org.uk/2010/03/are-the-employment-figures-really-the-worst-for-a-generation/

Those who make issue of the headline 8 million inactive really should explain which contributing element they propose to cut: students; people looking after family and home; the long-term sick and diasabled; temporily sick or injured; the retired; and discouraged workers:
http://www.ons.gov.uk/about-statistics/user-guidance/lm-guide/concepts/inactivity/reasons/index.html

For an analysis of public sector employment at 6.1 million check this out:
http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=407

The (large) 2008 Q4 employment increase reflects the classification of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and Lloyds Banking Group to the public sector (with effect from 13 October 2008). Note that Civil Service employment is fairly steady at about 500,000 FTE. The big increases in recent years have been in health service workers – the NHS alone employs 1.4 million now.
http://www.publictechnology.net/content/22150

34. Charlie 2

33 Bob b. My concern is that we have too large a proportion of our population with poor education, training and health. We need a system where an individuals education, training and health are assessed in order to improve the quality of their life. If someone is unskilled and in poor health, they often lack the fitness to return to a manual job but lack the skills to enter semi-or skilled employment.

I cannot see why the NHS cannot offer physiotherapy, osteopathic, diet and exercise advice in order to improve someone’s health. At the same time if there is problem with poor English and Maths skills, then these should be corrected through education. Health problems due to poor diet and a lack of exercise cause a significant cost for country and reduce the individuals quality of life. If we look at how injured service persoonnel can find new skills with the correct training then I am sure this could be applied to many people on sickness benefit.

The decline in manufacturing, which mainly exists outside of S England means there is a decline in skilled employment . The creation of skilled jobs in the private sector outside of S England will help to reduce the income gap. But empoyers are unlikely to take staff who have poor Maths and English GSCEs and are unfit for the job. The inability to develop our industrial base since 1945 has been well documented by Anthony Sampson and our inefficient bureaucracy by Northcote Parkinson.

@34: “My concern is that we have too large a proportion of our population with poor education”

That’s a perennial problem in Britain. In the mid 1970s, half Britain’s adult population had no education qualifications at all. By the mid 1990s, that percentage had dropped to a quarter. Even so:

“Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the [HoC] Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4642396.stm

“A £2bn scheme to improve basic skills among adults has been called a ‘depressing failure’ by education inspectors.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4506410.stm

This is not a particular failing of New Labour. The Conservative government of the early 1990s funded adult literacy classes run by local education authorities but without conspicuously successful outcomes. The (sad) fact is that our popular culture has a traditional aversion to education. “Academic” often has pejorative overtones.

What brought this home to me was a family camping holiday in France in the early 1980s. Motoring through rural France and stopping off to buy refreshments at the equivalent of newsagents in villages, I’d find a range of paperback of classical French literature – Balzac, Hugo, Zola and so on. You don’t find anything like that in Britain. I often quote Orwell writing in 1936:

“The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.” [Road to Wigan Pier, chp.7]
http://www.george-orwell.org/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/6.html

As for manufacturing, I’m having difficulty locating recent EU statistics but suspect that manufacturing as a percentage of Britain’s GDP and employment is broadly similar to most other western Europe except Germany. This is one of the more recent papers I found comparing growth trends in different manufacturing industry sectors:
http://www.strath.ac.uk/media/departments/siom/documents/media_90370_en.pdf

With the currently rising unemployment rate, skill shortages don’t generate the publicity they used to but probe a little and my guess is that skill shortages are still a significant barrier to expansion of manufacturing, especially beyond London and the SE.

You lost me at
“by parliament…the ultimate democratic structure of our nation”

No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. There’s nothing democratic about parliament.

What the unions really need to do, rather than engaging in a patronising PR exercise for the unrepresentative ConDem government, is to relearn how to fight. Members need to take control and prepare for a battle the likes of which unions haven’t seen since the 80s, at least, if not the 20s.

The unions need to become less bloody collaborative – 13 years of a Labour government and the UK still has the most repressive anti-trade union laws in Europe. We, the trade unions, need to recruit, organise and fight like they did 100 years ago (1910-1914, the great unrest). If people want to get involved rather than bitch from the sidelines, start here: https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/industrialsyndicalist

37. Rhys Williams

I think many of you are missing the point of unions.
They do not care about the broad left or right. Many of the right think the Labour party and the unions are involved in some left wing conspiracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unions are there to represent their member’s incomes, rights, views and fears. Whether they are right or wrong that is their purpose. Many of their members fear for their job losses. So hence the statement.
Teachers for instance will not strike over the pay freeze but will over SATs because that is the issue that vexes the teaching profession.
During the winter of discontent, it was the unions who brought down the Labour government.
In fact Callaghan, Bob will probably know better than I, had brought down the government deficit in real terms. The Unions did not care, to them it was their members views and incomes that count.
In a way they are correct, for instance you wouldn’t expect a company not to put their shareholders first.

38. Chaise Guevara

“I think many of you are missing the point of unions…”

This is a good point. Unions are representatives first and foremost. In individual cases, many unions will fight the corner of a member who they know is in the wrong simply because they see it as their job to do so, a little like a defence lawyer who privately accepts that there is very little chance of his client being innocent.

Before the election, Labour (and the other parties) was taking flak from unions protesting over cuts in their specific industries: to the country at large they looked unrealistic at best and narrowminded and selfish and worst, but presumably they considered it their duty to do whatever they could to defend their members’ livelihoods. Had they been thinking more politically, it might have made more sense for all of the unions to band together and demand that cuts be weighted to do the least damage possible to jobs, but also to publically back Labour, the major party that would probably have done the most to defend their interests had they stayed in power.

“The point is Lee, however much it might act like it, this government doesn’t have a clear mandate and we still have a democratic deficit.”

This government has more of a mandate to govern than pretty much any government since world war two, so let’s not have this kind of nonsense.

“It’s not democracy to sit back wringing your hands whilst the government does its worst, thinking, ah well, they got a mandate for this back in May 2010.”

It is democracy for it to be happening, what the minority then do about making sure their voices are not lost is a separate matter in a country where you should have the right to have your voice heard.

It is unfortunate, but they DID get the mandate for this, and therefore by proxy the majority of voters want this too…polls back it up.

“It provides a good example of the dilemmas involved in engagement and what unions can lose by it.”

To me this statement and explanation above gives me absolutely no proof that there is a negative side in engaging unless by doing so you abandon your very principles to do it. I’m not suggesting that unions and workers should witch-hunt their way through a cuts programme to try and save themselves; or are you suggesting there simply are no new ways of thinking to save money that previously un-consulted workers may be able to come up with without also selling their soul to the devil in the process?

“Furthermore, you say further up, Lee, that the unions should engage more constructively. Agreed. Then you seem to be saying the government is right to ignore them?”

Yes, in this situation the unions don’t have the same role that they do in traditional business disputes. It is undemocratic for them to be trying to put the issues of their members head of the mandate of the government. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play their part in an organisational role…supporting the collaboration of workers to most effectively make their case, to ensure the process is as transparent as possible.

“In a way they are correct, for instance you wouldn’t expect a company not to put their shareholders first.”

They are not “helping” or “representing” their members by slamming the government plans and refusing to go through the basic processes that they would demand of other employers in arbitration.

40. Rhys Williams

Yes, in this situation the unions don’t have the same role that they do in traditional business disputes. It is undemocratic for them to be trying to put the issues of their members head of the mandate of the government. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play their part in an organisational role…supporting the collaboration of workers to most effectively make their case, to ensure the process is as transparent as possible

Does that count for heads of business, CBI, press barons, and think tanks.
I am quite happy for unions to be gagged from talking about these issues as long as the other vested interests are also told to zip it.
But I do remember the CBI constantly attacking Labour governments and policies.
For the bosses it is ok but not the workers.
Lee the tommyman

41. Charlie 2

There are plenty of employers who cannot recruit people with the relevant technical skills.

42. Chaise Guevara

“This government has more of a mandate to govern than pretty much any government since world war two, so let’s not have this kind of nonsense.”

I’d agree that the government absolutely has a mandate to govern, by the rules. But this suggests that there is a problem with the rules.

The thing is that many people who vote either Lib Dem or Labour are actually voting against the Conservatives. Now, neither of those parties has defined themselves as the anti-Tories (although Labour in effect are), and Clegg specifically said before the election that he would consider offers from either camp if put in the ‘king-maker’ position. In other words, the Lib Dems haven’t betrayed the voters, but the system has. Because people often (usually?) can’t vote for the party they actually support and have any hope of it getting them any power, we end up with negative voting and, as a result, the shock many Lib Dem voters felt when Clegg decided to deal with Cameron.

I may be preaching to the choir. All of the above is a roundabout way of saying that the government has a mandate to govern given to it by the system, not the people.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  2. Colin Heinink

    RT @libcon: Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  3. Andrea

    RT @libcon: Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  4. Lee Griffin

    RT @libcon Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  5. Niall Millar

    God yes. RT: @libcon: Unions need to do better after the Budget to stay relevant http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  6. Lee Griffin

    For those that didn't see it earlier, my annoyance at unions that refuse to evolve and be useful. http://bit.ly/aCEgH2

  7. Daily Cuts Briefing – Friday 25th June « A Thousand Cuts

    […] other commentators say the TUC’s line is too dogmatic and that trade unions should engage with the […]





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