It’s not like me to pay any attention to current events in this blog, but occasionally a story comes along to give me a peg for an idea that’s been festering at the back of my mind for a while. And, as luck would have it, Vince Cable was touring the television studios this morning threatening to restrict the right to strike if anyone dares to exercise it.
My first thought is, what an utterly rubbish negotiating tactic. “That’s a nice right to strike you’ve got there. Be a shame if it burned down…” Frankly, Mr Cable doesn’t carry the air of menace required to pull this off.
It seems likely to backfire. I’ve sat across the table from plenty of tough talkers, and my experience is that it’s not always, or even often, a successful approach. Tempers rise, and positions become entrenched, leaving agreement further away.
In this case, the unions may feel that they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if they shrugged their shoulders and decided to do, as a kind of desperate last stand.
Ah well, politicians do like to show that they’re in charge. Who knows whether there’s any substantive intention behind the bluster?
But (contrived segue into what I was going to write about anyway) let’s talk about unions generally…
If I had to put myself into a political box, it would be the one marked “social democrat”. That means that, on a personal level, I’m in favour of unions as a counterbalance to the power of employers over their workers, and (historically at least) as a means of securing improvements in the conditions of working people.
On a professional level, however, unions are anathema. Resourcing flexibility (in terms of numbers, shift patterns and assignments) is fundamental to the industry that I work in. The prevailing view in the sector is that the additional friction that unionisation brings could fatally undermine the business model.
Add to that the inescapable fact that in our sector continuity of service is the paramount consideration for customers, and that margins are generally on the low side. That means that even a one day strike could have a severe financial impact, and even threaten the viability of the affected business.
Now, these fears could be overplayed. I’ve not seen any empirical evidence one way or the other, as the unionised parts of the industry tend to be single client operations where workforce flexibility is less crucial.
But the fact of it is, professionally I’m required to not be anti-union as such, but to take a “not for us, thanks” view. So this is my version of the “how can you represent a murderer” question that barristers get asked at parties – how can I argue a position that goes so much against my own political beliefs?
It has to be said that the unions go out of their way to make it easy for me to buy the party line. I can understand recruitment campaigns based on workplace disgruntlement, but shouldn’t the issues highlighted at least be true? And discussion of employee concerns in Facebook groups is a fact of life, but is the disclosure of confidential information in the same forum really necessary?
And the consistently negative and adversarial tone doesn’t help to present unions as partners. It makes employers wary of their intentions of the unions, and fearful that recognition would bring conflict and increased costs.
As it happens, when unions get involved in individual cases they show that they can be a moderating influence. For example, reps can guide employees away from spurious or hopeless claims, and bring a sense of calm realism to emotionally charged disputes.
So it seems to me that (some) unions are missing an opportunity to present themselves as partners for employers. They seem locked into their role as the scourge of management (and the same is true from the other side, to be fair), with nobody really articulating what a cooperative approach would look like, never mind what the benefits would be.
Maybe this is in part something to do with our business culture and legislative framework. I’m no expert on international labour relations, but the German model of works councils doesn’t appear to be holding back their economic success.
Whatever. Meanwhile I salve my political conscience by doing what I can, within the constraints of my role, to head off or mitigate initiatives that might make our employees’ lives worse. Who said being an in house lawyer was just about legal advice?