The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

State of the union

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?

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4 responses to “State of the union

  1. Miriam Said June 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Wow. What an absolutley fantastic post and with views from both sides of the fence.

  2. Jane Rae June 7, 2011 at 7:14 am

    Great post. I come from the other side of the fence but made me sit back on the train this morning and think about where I stand. The role of the union is totally different now to when they first set up as the workers they are there to help and protect are not longer so helpless. I agree with you that the unions need a total ‘rebrand’ if they want to be seen as partners. I think they have a long way to go to change opinon. Now all employees have the right to request flexible working if they can show the business case that it can work. I believe the unions need to be seen to showing a business case for what they are requesting. Maybe they do, but if so their PR is doing an atrocious job as thei behaviour and speeches should reflect this and give the appearance of a team wanting to help the business grow. Thanks for making my train ride in more interesting than normal.

  3. HighlandLawyer June 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Here’s a question: what is the difference between a trade union and a professional body? And further to that, what should be the difference (if any)?

    Originally trade unions were set up to give workers a unified voice against capitalist business management, to even up the negotiating strengths. They came from the same thread of thought at co-operatives, and friendly societies. Now in the UK most trade unions are the foot soldier cohorts of the Labour party less interested in promoting the interests of their members than promoting the interests of the unions management.

    If trade unions are to be relevant and useful to their members, they need to return to the principles of their foundation, and provide a voice for the members about what is in their best interests; it is not in the best interests of the members to be unemployed, so bringing a business to its knees is A Bad Thing ™. On the other hand making massive profits for the business only benefits the union members if they get their fair share of those profits. Therefore it is in the best interests of the members to have the business performing profitably for fair conditions and remuneration – which may be different in each business in which the union has members – and the job of the unions should be to maintain a dialogue between workers and management, promoting best practices (on both sides). Without that, alternative methods of doing this will evolve (as they are already doing) and unions will become obsolete.

  4. Arfan June 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Maybe I’ve watched to many gangster films in my time where ‘union trouble’ was normal threat. However in practice as you touched upon above, I have found that Unions more often then not in case of employment disputes are keen to get a dispute resolved without it going to Tribunals and the like. (saying that a good HR department will also do the same).

    On a side note how is he proposing to stop strikes from occurring? Yes I get there is a high unemployment rate at the moment but you cant afford to fire your workforce and rehire a new one if they do strike! you will have to sit on a table and negotiate if the strike is ‘legal’ or not.

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