Recent Trade Unions Articles

GMB Union’s move today shows that unions feel sidelined by Labour

by Sunny Hundal     September 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

The GMB Union’s unexpected decision today to lower their affiliation fees from £1.2m a year to £150,000 is a warning shot that doesn’t bode well for the Labour party.

The GMB added this ominous statement to their press release: “It is expected that there will further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives.”

Much more will come out this weekend as the annual TUC conference kicks off in Bournemouth, but it’s telling that no one from any of the major unions was willing to make a statement on BBC World at One today. Only Ronnie Barker from the Bakers Union came on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if other unions follow suit.

There’s a tendency for many within Labour to see their relations with Trade Unions as a battle of wills rather than an equal relationship. So many will interpret this as a ‘warning shot’ from GMB that requires a ‘robust response to show we’re not weak’ etc. But I think they forget that there are far more Britons who see their union as more relevant to their lives than the Labour party.

As George Eaton points out, the GMB has decided to slash its funding in advance, rather than seek to recruit members to the party. And they’re not even bothered about picking a public fight over this.

This is bad for the Labour not just because it deprives of the money, but because it indicates relations are so bad the unions are largely unwilling to work with Labour to make it a mass-membership party. They’re essentially saying: ‘if you’re going to treat us like this, then don’t expect us to help you‘.

If that attitude among unions hardens and becomes entrenched, especially if the Labour leadership decide to take it as a personal attack, then expect more unions to follow and eventually look at disaffiliation.

Tom Watson can see where this is headed too, hence his blogpost this morning.

I emailed a well-connected union worker today, who had this to say:

From the perspective of many grassroots Labour activists neither the leader’s stance or the GMB’s response look great since it will make the party’s job of defeating the government that bit harder. We need to be united and campaigning hard in the run-up to the electon to defeat the Coalition. But the reality is the leader’s office appear to have failed to consider the full and severe financial implications of their plans before Ed made his speech. The unions have literally kept the Labour Party out of bankruptcy these last few years and are owed respect. While in an ideal world there would be a much more diverse set of donations, we are simply not there yet and the election clock is ticking.

The question now is what will other unions do. I’d be astonished if CWU and Unite weren’t considering something similar. It’s a nightmare that is keeping a lot of people awake at night right now.

Ed Miliband needs to do two things: to reassure the unions and make them feel this is a partnership not an antagonistic marriage headed for divorce. He also needs to push forward with bold changes so the party engages and empowers its members, and more are persuaded to join and take part.

If, on the other hand, they decide that the logical response is to replace union funding with donations from rich people, say goodbye to the Trade union link and say hello to the slow demise of the Labour party.

The new Lobbying Bill will criminalise even basic campaigning by Trade Unions

by Nigel Stanley     August 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Proposals in a bill slipped out as Parliament broke for the Summer, and due to be debated as soon as MPs return, will gag the TUC, trade unions and every campaign group in the country in what can only be seen as a “chilling attack on free speech”.

The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill will make organising the 2014 annual TUC Congress or organising a TUC national demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 General Election into criminal offences.

The Bill does this by making three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisation in the 12 months before a general election – breaching these will become a criminal offence:

  • Changing the definition of what counts as campaigning – at present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The new Bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy could affect how people vote, this will severely limit any organisation’s ability to criticise government policies in the run up to an election – not just unions, but charities, NGOs and local campaign groups.
  • Reducing the spending limit for third party campaigners to £390,000 – the amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election will be reduced by more than half to £390,000.
  • Including staff time and office costs in expenditure limits – currently only the costs of election directed materials, adverts and activities are regulated. The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now also be included in the limit. £390,000 may buy a lot of leaflets but any major event involves significant staff time.

The notes on clauses for the Bill have more detail of how it would work.

The 2014 TUC Congress for e.g., or a national demonstration would not just take the TUC over the annual limit but each member union as well. But political parties’ own conferences happening in the same month would be given an exemption in election spending limits.

Organisations that campaign locally face even tougher challenges. Spending has to be allocated under tough limits by constituency. Every penny of spending will have to be tallied and reported – this will severely limit campaigns such as those run by Hope Not Hate against the BNP, or local grass-roots campaigns such as those against hospital closures or road building.

It is an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election.

Even though the restrictions on third party campaigning make the Bill a constitutional measure, there has been no consultation process or cross-party talks.

Today we’re seeking an urgent meeting with Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith to protest at the way this damaging Bill is being rushed through without the proper consultation.

Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but we expect there is going to be a very wide revulsion at this outrageous attack on freedom of speech.

a longer version of this blogpost is at the Touchstone blog.

Did Labour stoke up Unite row to force changes in candidate selections?

by Sunny Hundal     July 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm

There’s something I don’t quite understand about the Labour leadership’s row with Unite last week.

Tom Watson’s resignation had ensured that the controversy would become headline news. So if the Labour leadership really wanted to play it down, why make a big show of referring the Falkirk file to the police the next day? Why also spend all of Friday attacking Unite, saying McCluskey should “face up to his responsibilities” and accusing Unite of “corruption”? All of this only inflamed the situation.

Why were Labour MPs allowed to publish conciliatory and calming articles only from late on Friday evening (see Owen Smith and Ian Lavery MPs). Of course, some in the media will argue that this was a communications cock-up rather than conspiracy. But given that Ed Miliband himself went out there and gave interviews using language that he knew would keep the media interest growing – it seems quite plausible they saw it coming.

I said on Friday that this would blow up in Ed Miliband’s face if the Tories used the row to attack union funding of Labour.

But by Sunday this eventuality was pre-empted by the Labour leader himself.

On party funding, I have also said that as a part of a comprehensive reform we should put a cap on the large donations that any individual, business or trade union can give to a political party. Labour sought to make reform happen in the party funding talks. We continue to want change.

Ed Miliband’s article said Labour ‘must mend, not end, union links’. Guess who is among the biggest barriers to changing the candidate selection process? Union leaders – who worry it would reduce the little power they have to push union-leaning candidates.

By Sunday afternoon the Guardian was getting briefed that the Labour leadership was looking at ‘reducing the power of union bosses’.

Today the newspaper goes further and quotes Harriet Harman saying there will be changes to how Labour selects candidates. “Things like a cap on spending will be a significant change for the right reasons. It is very important that people cannot be ruled out of a contest because they can’t get the backing of a union or have their own independent funds.”

And earlier this afternoon we got emails saying the Labour leader is due to make a speech tomorrow morning on ‘One Nation Politics’.

It increasingly looks like the Labour leadership stoked up this row to finally push for internal changes they had promised years ago.

The Unite row is going to blow up in Ed Miliband’s face

by Sunny Hundal     July 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Well done Labour leadership – you’ve fallen into the Tory trap of turning a local row into a headline scandal, and sent Westminster hacks scurrying to find any activist willing to complain about selection processes.

The longer this drags on the worse it gets. By next week or soon after, the Conservatives will move quickly on legislation to limit union funding of Labour. A financially crippled Labour party is their main hope for outright victory in 2015.

They’ll say this row illustrates the ‘malign and undemocratic’ influence unions have on the Labour party. The Lib Dems will support them. Labour will be completely blind-sided and paralysed. After starting a massive row with the unions they’ll find it difficult to argue that unions don’t try and interfere with politics.

Of course, Labour will argue the Falkirk row shows the party does not let unions dictate policy but the public won’t understand the nuances. The press will pile in. Labour’s message will be lost. And the government won’t find it difficult to pass such legislation.

I have no idea why the Labour leadership are escalating it, but the row with Unite is going to blow up in Ed Miliband’s face.

There’s little here about principles and everything to do with political calculation. That’s how politics now works. There will be some who want to take down union influence a peg or two. There will be some who dislike Len McCluskey himself and want him cut down to size.

There will be other calculations that this row will make Miliband strong and willing to stand up to ‘union paymasters’. Some just like to fight with the Left of the party as they did during the Blair years.

It has now become about egos and political pundits will henceforth intone gravely about who ‘looks weak’ and perhaps even shoe-horn in silly poker references. Most of the public of course will be focused on Wimbledon or the sunshine, and not give two hoots about bickering politicians. What a farce.

Labour’s battle with Unite over Falkirk is a sign of weakness AND strength

by Sunny Hundal     July 5, 2013 at 8:25 am

Let me start with a short story. In 2007 the constituency of Ealing-Southall had a by-election after the sitting MP died. One of the leading contenders was Sonika Nirwal – the first Asian woman to be elected leader of a Labour group (in Ealing). She would have been a breath of fresh air and everyone expected an All-Women-Shortlist to be drawn up. But Ms Nirwal didn’t get it. She didn’t even make the shortlist. The AWS plan was abruptly discarded and only two men made the shortlist: veteran councillor Virendra Sharma and an unknown newcomer. It was obvious who would win.

There are countless such stories across the Labour party. They aren’t new and they aren’t unexpected. As Hopi Sen points out: “The system can be manipulated, so it is manipulated.” Unite’s mistake in Falkirk was to get caught trying to manipulate the system.

So here are some thoughts on this internal battle.

It could escalate
The argument over selection mistakes in Falkirk is merely a proxy battle – both the Progress types and the Left of the party know this. It’s also one both sides are itching to fight, and could escalate unless Ed Miliband seeks to placate both sides not just Jim Murphy’s contingent. It is also utterly absurd for Labourites to say the rules need changing to prevent unions from ‘fixing selections’ – since ‘fixing’ is practiced widely. Change is needed but it cannot just target unions.

Labour still has a working class problem
Unite’s actions are justified for many activists on the left for one reason: working class candidates are badly under-represented across Labour. At least Unite is trying to address the problem, while the Labour leadership isn’t, they say. Unless it is rectified there will always be resentment over perceptions that middle-class candidates are able to stitch-up selections while working class candidates aren’t. Many point out that Unite have the right to pursue their interests in the same way Progress do, but with added legitimacy.

It is a sign of strength…
…that Labour is willing to stand up to its biggest donor and tell them to stop interfering so blatantly. The Tories don’t have the guts to stand up to the City or big business. And to an extent Ed Miliband is right to be angry since the Labour Party and Unite are separate entitities, not joined at the hip.

But it is a sign of weakness…
…that Labour capitulates so easily to the right-wing press over a minor beltway story. Take another example: twice a year Ed Miliband’s office hosts a reception for the political press. Some left-wing bloggers (including myself) are invited too. But for some unexplicable reason they also invite Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) and Harry Cole even though there is absolutely no benefit in doing so. Several journalists always point out that the Tories don’t even bother with the New Statesman, let alone hostile bloggers. Whatever the Labour leadership say, to everyone it looks like a sign of weakness they feel the need to invite mortal enemies, and feeds into the view that they are always worried about what the rightwing press.

Fighting the battle of the 80s
It feels like many of those stoking up fears about unions after Falkirk are still living the battles of the 80s against Militant. Of course Falkirk was nothing like that. In fact, there are far more instances of irregularities with Asian voters in areas such as Birmingham and parts of London. Are they going to ban Asians from standing or voting for Labour? Of course not. The point is that this controversy is being hyped up by people who either have an agenda against the unions or are fighting battles of the past.

The full report needs to be published – otherwise it just looks like Labour is pursuing a vendetta against Unite.

Three myths about the popularity and relevance of trade unions and Labour

by Guest     July 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm

by Neil Foster

From time to time certain politicians and journalists question the link between trade unions and the Labour Party. The core arguments typically centre on a mixture of three core assertions and are used to question the validity, legitimacy or relevance of the trade union role in the Labour Party.

But recent polling and statistics does not support these arguments in many cases.

Myth: unions are in decline
First, according to official figures, union membership has increased by 59,000 during 2012. Private sector membership of trade unions is up for the second year in a row. 6.5 million people in the UK are currently members of a trade union.

According to House of Commons statistics this is 33 times the number of people who are member of the Labour Party and 16 times the combined membership of the three largest political parties in the UK. The National Trust is the largest voluntary organisation in Europe with 4 million members, yet this figure amounts to only two-thirds of those in trade unions in the UK.

Myth: unions are not supported beyond their own membership
According to Ipsos MORI, trade union officers are trusted to tell the truth by 41% of voters, not trusted by 47% and with 13% saying they don’t know. At first glance these do not appear to particularly striking results, until you compare it to others, such as business leaders, many of whom are assiduously courted by political parties. The same poll shows that only 34% trust business leaders to tell the truth, 57% do not trust them and 9% don’t know.

In fact Ipsos MORI has found unions more trusted than business leaders every single year it has polled since 1999. Politicians are even less trusted, with only 18% telling Ipsos MORI that they trust them to tell the trust, 77% don’t trust them and 4% don’t know.

Myth: Labour must distance itself from unions to secure electoral success
In fact, a majority of the public remain supportive of the links between Labour and trade unions. 69% of Britons agreed with the statement ‘it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain’. Only 28% disagreed and 3% didn’t know.

The poll revealed that 90% of Labour voters said it was important that the Labour party retained its strong links with unions. This was view shared by 67% of Liberal Democrats and even by 53% of Conservatives. 69% of voters in the South East also felt it was important Labour kept its link with the trade unions. Same for 87% of 18-24 year olds.

All these figures suggest the trade unions are in better shape than their critics admit. The next time journalists (trusted by only 21% to tell the truth) or Westminster politicians (trusted by only 17%) decide to challenge or dismiss trade unions, they should reflect on public opinion first.

Don’t blame consumers for the Bangladeshi factory disaster – blame multi-nationals

by Owen Tudor     May 10, 2013 at 8:40 am

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:

T-shirt graphic

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.

Workers may be forced to give up rights for shares

by Sarah McAlpine     October 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm


George Osborne has today announced that in the future new employees could be forced to exchange worker rights for shares in their company.

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.

How can ‘pre-distribution’ mean anything if it ignores the Unions?

by Guest     September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

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.

Why conservatives should support Trade Unions, not cheer their demise

by Chris Dillow     September 11, 2012 at 9:15 am

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.


These considerations lead me to this chart. Drawn from the OECD and other sources, it plots union density in 1991 (admittedly an arbitrary date) against GDP growth since then.

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.

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