Recent Trade Unions Articles
Ever since the disaster at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, some commentators have been trying to guilt-trip cash-strapped western consumers for the terrible conditions of workers in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector, where wages are as low as £27 a month.
We’ve been told that our insatiable desire for cheap clothing is what keeps wages down, and working conditions so poor that factory fires are endemic and corners cut so badly that buildings collapse, as Rana Plaza did.
But we think cash-strapped consumers aren’t the problem, and the TUC have researched and published a quick graphic to explain:
The suggestion that consumers are to blame struck us as a bit too convenient. So we asked the textile unions in Bangladesh how much their members were paid to make a t-shirt.
Believe it or not, there’s actually a term for how long it takes a textile worker to run up a basic t-shirt: the ‘Standard Minute Value’ or SMV. And the time it takes is 10.565 minutes. That’s a rough estimate, presumably!
Textile workers usually work over 200 hours a month, producing nearly six t-shirts every hour. So the princely wage they receive for each t-shirt is roughly 2p. We’ve found costs in high street shops ranging from £2 to £10, with the archetypal t-shirt mentioned in several reports costing £6.
So the price you’re charged for a t-shirt has nothing to do with the wages of the textile workers who made it. To double their wages would increase the production cost of a basic high-street t-shirt by 2p.
That all suggests that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes about who’s really responsible for the low wages and poor health and safety standards in Dhaka’s RMG sector, and it’s the global brands and manufacturers who set the prices.
Bizarrely, some of them have insisted that they have no control over wages, hours of work, factory safety and the like. But they can determine the time it takes to manufacture a t-shirt down to three decimal places and determine what the stitching on the hems looks like! Pull the other one!
We’re supporting the global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, who are demanding that global brands, retailers and manufacturers sign up to an agreement on health and safety and wages. You can support them by by taking this e-action.
Crucially, workers in Bangladesh need the right to join a union and the right to negotiate terms and conditions with their employers. But they also need to work in safety, as the International Labour Organisation has insisted.
The people who should be feeling guilty are the people who run those global multinationals and the Government of Bangladesh. Not shoppers like you, struggling to get by on wages that are also not increasing, while the costs of food, fuel and accommodation continue to rise.
Workers everywhere need dignity at work, based on decent wages and decent jobs.
In exchange for shares between £2000 and £50,000 employees may be asked to sacrifice their rights on unfair dismissal, redundancy, the right to request flexible working and time off for training and they will be required provide double the notice of a firm date of return from maternity leave.
Firms opting into the new form of contract, called ‘owner-employee’, will not be required to offer any other kinds of contract when taking on new hires. This could mean that workers will have to sacrifice their rights in order to find employment. Existing workers may be offered the new contracts, but will not be obliged to partake.
Any gains on the shares will be exempt for Capital Gains Tax. When an employee is dismissed, the company will buy the shares back at ‘a reasonable price.’
The Treasury claims that the contracts are intended to stimulate growth for small and medium sized businesses by creating a ‘flexible work force’, but companies of any size will be able to use them.
Legislation to bring in the owner-employee contracts will come later this year, with companies able to use them from April 2013. Details will be consulted on late in the month.
contribution by Michael McCarthy
Such a convenient word, ‘pre-distribution’. Close enough to redistribution to charm the left, but also carefully distanced from that dangerous notion of returning to ordinary people wealth which capitalism has so efficiently concentrated in the hands of the few.
We have already had massive redistribution for the last thirty years, only it has been from the bulk of the population to the wealthiest. Or as Warren Buffet tactlessly put it: of course there is a class war, and the rich are winning it.
So what light do Ed Miliband’s recent pronouncements throw on what adopting predistribution as a policy might mean?
Blair/Brown’s New Labour, of course, relied on transfer payments – income support, tax credits, housing benefit and the like – to subsidise low-wage employers and ameliorate family poverty.
Challenges it shirked included getting up the nose of business (and redistributing profits) by enacting serious legislation to outlaw poverty wages, to stop privatised utilities from increasing inequality by ripping off rail passengers and energy consumers, and to remove Thatcherite constraints on trade union activity. Thus enfranchised, unions would themselves have been more able to exert pressure to drive up earnings, resist closures, and challenge low-paying employers.
From what has emerged so far, little is about to change.
What seems to motivate Ed Miliband’s embrace of predistribution is an acceptance that resources for making transfer payments will be severely limited for an incoming government. Especially so for one which, as Ed Balls has made clear, has no intention of doing more than staying “vigilant” in respect of tax havens.
The declared aim then is to create a higher skill, higher wage economy which will reduce the need for transfer payments. But how is that to be achieved?
Improved skills training is apparently on the agenda (as if it had ever been off it) but there has been no more mention of unshackling trade unions than of serious wealth transfers from the plutocrats. Indeed, unions barely rated a mention either in Ed Miliband’s Policy Network conference speech, or in Chuka Umunna’s recent Today programme interview.
It all looks like businesses proceeding very much as usual. They will ignore utterly ineffectual moral suasion by Miliband and Balls to improve wage rates, and so leave largely disempowered workers to be ground between the millstones of reduced transfer payments and low wages.
Trades union membership has fallen to its lowest level since the 1940s. In principle, this should trouble conservatives.
This is because trade unions are an example of non-statist self-reliance, of people organizing to help themselves rather than looking to government.
I say this because of a fact pointed out by Philippe Aghion and colleagues – that there is a strong negative correlation across countries between union membership and minimum wage laws.
Countries with strong unions, such as the Nordic nations, tend to have no minimum wage laws whilst countries with lower union membership, such as Greece or France, have stronger minimum wage legislation.
The UK had no national minimum wage in the 50s and 60s, believing that collective bargaining could better regulate wages. It was only after the collapse in union power that a NMW was enacted.
I suspect that what's true of minimum wages might also be true of other aspects of regulation. Elf n safety laws also increased after the decline of unions.
Unions, then, are an alternative to state intervention.There's a simple reason for this. Workers, naturally, will always want their working standards improved. If they cannot pursue this aim through unionization, they'll do so through politics instead.
But the thing is that collective bargaining is a more efficient way of protecting workers than the law.One reason for this is that the law inflexibly applies to everyone, whereas bargaining allows for workers to accept worse wages or working conditions where it would be prohibitively expensive to improve them. Also, the complexity of the law creates uncertainty which can be worse for business than good working relations with a union.
You can see that there is only a negative correlation between the two because of that Korean outlier.If Korea is excluded, there is a positive correlation (0.25) across the 22 advanced nations in my sample between union density and subsequent growth.Highly unionized Finland and Sweden have done better than less unionized Japan or the US.
This isn't so robust as to suggest that unions are definitely good for growth. But it does mean they aren't obviously bad*.
In this sense, people who want less state intervention and stronger growth should be sympathetic towards unions. So, why aren't Tories mourning their decline? I mean, it's not as if they just blindly hate the working class, is it?
* There is a strong negative correlation between the change in union density and GDP growth over this time; faster-growing economies have seen bigger falls in union density. But there's an endogeneity issue here. It could be that fast growth is associated with more creative destruction, which sees the decline of unionised workplaces and emergence of more non-unionised ones, whereas a sclerotic economy preserves unionized workplaces.
After a massively high-spending recall campaign in Wisconsin, union-busting Republican governor Scott Walker has held onto power with a slightly increased majority. But he lost control of the state senate.
Naturally, the oh-so-left-wing US media are spinning this as Terrible Democrat Defeat, Disaster Due for Obama in November, etc.
It has been pointed out in various places that the Walker campaign spent $7 for every $1 his opponent could muster. But this is not really a feasible plan for the November election (not even for someone with Mitt Romney’s wallet).
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contribution by Becky Wright
The local elections are over, France and Greece have seen people vote for an alternative and as pundits scramble to analyse and say what it all means, I want to take a step back and consider the role that organising and campaigning plays in building for change.
In these times, that is the greatest challenge we face. Whether it is for elections, for a plastic bag free area or for better, more equitable pay and conditions, we need to reorientate our view of success of campaigns to incorporate organising more fully.
In the trade union movement we debate about what it means for us to organise. I want to briefly explain how I view campaigning and talk about my approach to organising.
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contribution by Lorcan Mullen
In a recent LC post, Sunny wrote that trade unions need to “diversify, modernise and become more relevant”.
Here are a few ideas, not entirely original, for how trade unions can do just that.
Without greater success in reversing austerity at the source, unions are in danger of being run ragged fire-fighting at the workplace or regional bargaining level.
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contribution by Annie Powell
Earlier this week David Cameron branded a proposed strike by Unite petrol tanker drivers as “completely irresponsible.” He went on to say that “the sorts of things they [the union and employers] are discussing, whether it’s health and safety or whatever, is no justification for a strike.”
It doesn’t seem to matter to Cameron that oil companies and their contractors are cutting corners in a way that could have serious implications for health and safety: the duty of responsibility only applies to workers, apparently.
Unlike some other recent strikes, the potential strike by Unite drivers has clear moral and social merit.
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The #cashforcameron scandal offers easy picking for Labour at the moment, but it won’t last long.
The Tories are already working hard to cast Labour’s union funding arrangements in an even worse light than its own, and a compliant media will ensure that, when the dust settles, it’s a score-draw.
Miliband and his team should now think strategically, not tactically.
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Most people on the left are instinctively supportive of unions – collective bargaining and employee representation are the bedrock of left-wing politics after all.
But support for the union movement should not mean shying away from openly discussing the challenges they face.
It’s arguable that the case for stronger unions isn’t being made firmly and clearly enough, and the unions themselves are sometimes failing to adapt to changing circumstances.
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