Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On the obvious lure of unions

This is based on something I first posted in September 2010

I don't belong to a union, I never have and I doubt I ever will. The strikes of last week and the one that has been called off today are pointless because the unions will not achieve their Luddite objectives. All that such strikes achieve is that RMT/TSSA members lose pay for no reason and most Londoners and commuters are severely inconvenienced. Believe me, familiarity breeds contempt: there are many things about the unions and the way they go about things that leave me fuming.

However, disagreeing with a strike is very different from disagreeing with the right to strike. I've always thought that you'd be a fool not to realise that there are several obvious reasons why people join unions. The very reason LU staff enjoy a secure job with good pay and benefits is because of union action. People in other industries and the private sector used to have unions, but gave them up in the good times when their wage packets were growing by the month. Wages in the unionised public sector didn't grow exponentially in that time, but when the 2008 crash happened they kept their value while those in other industries went down with the ship.

Today, in our greed-driven policy environment, people in non-unionised companies and sectors wonder why they have lower pay than they deserve and why they have jobs which are at the whim of their senior managers. Instead of doing something about it, instead of blaming their poor choices and their historic greed, they choose to attack those who played the long game and did better out of it.

You don't get to keep your job and lifestyle the way it is by rolling over. Everyone else saying "that's not fair, we can't protect ourselves so why should you?" will not make union members think "oh yes, how right you are". Having witnessed what has happened in other industries which no longer have union representation, they will only redouble their efforts.

So there you have it. Don't like your salary? Have a worthless pension? Disagree with the right of LU staff to strike? If you answered yes to all those questions then unfortunately, you're either stupid, or a hypocrite.

One final thing. If you think that public image, media coverage and spin is the be all and end all, then you have probably said or thought at some point in the last couple of weeks "what does Bob Crow hope to achieve? Every Londoner hates him". What you need to realise is that Bob Crow doesn't give two hoots about you, or your opinion. His constituency is his members, not Londoners at large. He got to where he is through crony-only votes in tiny-turnout elections, but that's what counts. It's precisely why he can sleep so easily, even in the Rio sunshine, despite your disapproval.


Anonymous said...

No, I think you've missed something fundamental here. Workers in the private sector didn't give up their unions because times were good. Industrial action in the private sector is self-destructive, because damaging your employer also harms your own prospects. Unions therefore have less power over the decisions made by management, meaning there's little point paying to be a member.
Compare that with the public sector, where your employer literally cannot go out of business, and it's not hard to see why it's become so lopsided.

Chris said...

That's simply not true. Unionised companies in mainland Europe and the United States have higher salaries than their non-unionised counterparts. Strikes are the nuclear option, unions can have a great deal of influence without resorting to them.

In the US for example, looking only at private companies, the union "wage premium" varies from 13%-22%. In addition, health insurance, sick pay benefits and pensions are all better in unionised workplaces, and the gender pay gap is smaller (though not non-existent).

Unheard Melodies said...

I agree with most of what you say, including the fact that union membership makes perfect sense if you happen to work in an organisation where union activity has a track record of successful outcomes for the membership (such as LUL). The point is that, until the 1980s, this principle applied pretty much across the board: most significant industries had active union members (including banking, in which my father worked).

That changed - partly, as you say, because of improving living and working standards - but also because of public unease re union tactics, union bosses' sometimes overt and extreme political motives, and the ease with which they were able to make the rest of us suffer. It took a tough government successfully to emasculate them; but emasculate them they pretty much did. Bob Crow is now the last man standing, and is a pigmy compared to the Jack Joneses and Hugh Scanlons and other union giants of yesteryear. He survives because his industry - the London Underground - itself survives pretty much unreformed.