Unions defending and delivering protection from unscrupulous employers for victimised and vulnerable employees has never been so important. In an age when the rise and rise of the multi-national corporation, ruthless profiteering and fly by night exploitation of workers seems de rigeur, providing a voice for the least well of staff is sorely needed.
Time and again we see those at the bottom of the heap taken advantage of. Temping agency deals that are signed for 11 weeks 6 days so as to avoid EU legislation that provides added protection to those who work for a firm for more than three months, zero hour contracts or overzealous terms and conditions which prevent someone having a toilet break are all part and parcel of getting a job in Britain today.
With many of the laws that protect staff in Britain today coming from the EU, and the Tories set to stay in power for Lord knows how many years, the future looks bleak for those workers at the periphery of society and very much rosier for unscrupulous employers. Only unions will be able to help stave off many of the worst practices and help those who genuinely need it.
But that is a problem since there are only three types of union workplaces and none of them seem to be able to fill this vacuum of being able to successfully protect the rights of those who need their rights protecting.
The first workplace is the successful union industries. Only three really spring to mind – the Fire Brigades Union and the fire services, the RMT and the trains and BMA within the NHS. These unions have been incredibly successful at securing amazing deals for their workers as they wield an incredibly powerful stick at their employers to get what they want – and they all too often win.
The bizarre thing is that these unions have been so successful that their staff aren’t exploited. The employers are too scared of doing so. Their members get pay, pensions and conditions way above what other comparable industries provide for their employers. It means that recruitment and retention for the roles is stupendously high and unionisation is almost 100% of the workforce. But because they are seen as less important as the military, police or prison services, they still have the right to withdraw their labour. And it is no coincidence that these unions are successful in male dominated industries and in monopolistic, semi-essential, service providers.
Yet, the FBU, RMT and BMA models could never work in the other two styles of workplace since the roles are considered less essential or the companies would simply go bankrupt and everyone would be left unemployed.
This second workplace is the heavily unionised but unsuccessful in achieving their goals industries – primarily again in the public sector. Think Unite, Unison or the GMB unions. These unions command huge numbers of members but their foot soldiers in the workplace are simply not up to the job of delivering results. As a senior manager in a number of local authorities I watched time and again as unions stewards would take up the cases of truly incompetent and awful staff who were members and mates of theirs whilst leaving people with genuine grievances hung out to dry. I saw vicious, lazy bullies and thugs – who only deserved the sack and psychological help – have their cases taken to employment tribunals because they had paid their subs and yet I saw victims of racism, sexual harassment and outrageously unfair witch hunts hassled out of the building without a peep from the head union bloke because they either weren’t members or weren’t chums.
The thing was that management through the HR departments also knew how to play the game and were all too often complicit in this outrageous behaviour. So they made the most vulnerable and meekest ones redundant and kept the unionised incompetent bullies on. It made for a quieter life. The management could tick the box of ‘cash savings’ whilst the unions could pretend that they had defended the membership.
Yet, over time, this had led to large swathes of the public sector performing poorly because the staff are less and less up to the job in hand and seen with contempt by politicians, media and the taxpayer alike. This, in turn, has led to less money for that same sector, fewer staff and a smaller rump to defend. The short term gains of narrow minded shop stewards have hurt the long term viability of both the unions and the sectors they work in.
The final group are the non-unionised private sector workplaces. Here, there is a place for well managed unions, giving voice to the voiceless, defending potentially exploited workers and warning of unethical or illegal practices. Whether this is in the fields of Lincolnshire, cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay or in the warehouses of Amazon or Sports Direct, there is a desperate need for responsible unions helping the companies help their workers. For a contented, unexploited workforce is a productive one.
These types of workplaces would have been the very industries where unions were initially spawned but where today they are now silent. These are the places where there is the biggest need for additional oversight as workers are less skilled, have a poorer command of English and lack an understanding of the vagaries of the law and their rights. Instead unions of today confine themselves to arenas of the privileged – who already have good pensions, excellent working hours, holidays and holiday pay and management who will, by and large, listen to their grievances.
We see rail strikes about who closes train doors but not a peep when Sports Direct pay their staff below minimum wage or do other outrageous practices which even the owner admits break the law. We see strikes about ‘cuts in education funding’ but nothing when Amazon takes employment law to the absolute edge – paying minimum wage, working the staff up the minute of the working time directive and sacking you if you have three sick days in a month. The imbalance is bizarre and inexcusable.
As Brexit plays out, the rules of the game will increasingly favour the big corporation as UK Plc desperately attempts to woo major employers to stay and provide jobs. As time goes on, and companies know they have bigger bargaining chips to play with, it will mean that there will become increasingly big corporation tax sops and an continual weakening of employment law to make workforces ever more ‘flexible’. Unions need to be there for all of us demanding a better deal. But they won’t as they continue to defend the indefensible and protect the already protected. And it will lead to all of us being worse off.