John Redwood's Diary;
Occasionally I hear old rhetoric aimed against the Trade Unions. In the private sector that is a battle fought and decided years ago. There is no need for friends of management to demand tougher laws or to pursue an anti Union vendetta.
Trade Unions can be a good way for some employees to organise their representation to management. They work best where there are large groups of employees doing the same or similar work with a graded pay structure. Modern well informed Trade Unions are not a soft touch, nor are they business wreckers. They recognise the need for managers to manage, and recognise the need to generate revenues and profits before discussing how to share them out. They see the need to raise quality and efficiency if British companies are to survive and compete successfully in a very competitive world. There are fewer jobs from loss making or near bankrupt companies.
In the Thatcher government, John Redwood was head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit in the 1980s. He oversaw the privatisation of the Telecoms industry. He was dubbed the "Pol Pot of privatisation" by the Yorkshire Post. So, why has this man chosen to speak out whilst the CBI are calling for tougher strike legislation?
The answer is that the CBI's call is the voice of a distinct and vocal reactionary element amongst the ruling class. Seeing growing unrest across the world in the face of austerity, poverty, or the class war more generally, they want to bludgeon to death the notion of any such thing happening here. That PCS conference endorsed a ballot for national strike action, and the possibility of coordinated strike action in the public sector looms, will only have exacerbated the fears driving this.
It has to be recognised that these fears are largely an over-reaction. It quickly becomes highly publicised, by this is largely because it makes good copy for the press and fits into their narrative. In short, it is a form of flak applied to a democratic rather than media body - keeping them in line, and laying the ground work for opposition if they step out of it.
Stepping back from reaction and propaganda, however, a more measured view from the ruling class sees something different.
As Flipchart Fairy Tales explains;
Trade unions can be really useful channels of communication when you are managing a large workforce. When things go wrong, it is much easier to deal with union reps who can calm some of their wilder elements down, than with several hundred angry employees among whom a number of loose cannons could go off at any moment.
Many of the firms which brought in pay cuts and short time working during the recession were unionised. It is much, much easier to bring in changes to terms and conditions when you have a collective agreement. Without one, you have to hope that each person will accept the new terms and conditions. Ultimately, if they don’t, you have to sack and re-employ them, something which a lot of employers talk about doing but few actually do because it’s such a lot of aggro and it can sour employee relations for years.
As Redwood says, if you have built up good relationships with your unions, when things get tough they will, more often than not, work with you.
A case in point of this is the fact, as reported in the Evening Standard yesterday, that industrial action is at a record low.
On both the trade union side and the politician / management side, tough talk is part of the bluff and bluster needed to win votes and/or confidence from members or shareholders. But the reality is that trade unions are more often than not operating in partnership with management. This is why we will see the leaders negotiate sweetheart deals which sell out the rank-and-file. Partnership is incompatible with class antagonism.
Or, as Anton Pannekoek once put it, because they "sit in conferences with the capitalists, bargaining over wages and hours, pitting interests against interests, just as the opposing interests of the capitalist corporations are weighed one against another," trade union leaders "learn to understand the capitalist’s position just as well as the worker’s position; they have an eye for “the needs of industry”; they try to mediate." Thus, in fact, "the capitalist function of unions is to regulate class conflicts and to secure industrial peace."
Where the likes of Redwood veer back into dogma and propaganda is by claiming that such "peace" - and the low ebb in industrial unrest tells us we're getting there - is defined by the equivalent duty on employers to "to treat its employees with respect and give them sufficient scope to use their skills and improve their performance."
We know that this is not the case. The steady casualisation of labour over the last thirty years has seen wages decline as a percentage of GDP, often amounting to real-terms pay cuts when measured against inflation. We have seen an erosion of workers' rights which leaves many treated with utter contempt but not knowing how to fight back. It is almost certainly true that, with the coming cuts, the public sector is using industrial relations as a blunt instrument where the private sector is often more savvy and subtle. But this doesn't mean that the public sector will be better if it goes the way of the private sector. That way lies a race to the bottom.
For the ruling class, the task of public sector employers is "to have a strategy to lift the public sector’s achievement as an employer, whilst pushing through agreed changes to working practises that boost quality and output for any given level of resource put in."
For the working class, the task at hand is quite different. We need to rebuild the culture of resistance and class antagonism that we once had. Not to contrast the "militant employees" with the supposed "sensible majority," but to meet the steady decline of pay and conditions and rolling back of everything we've won with a serious fightback. Such a fightback will not come from gesture strikes, even a million strong.
It comes from a militant and well-organised rank-and-file movement, built from the ground up and in control of its own struggles. Such a thing cannot be built overnight, but it is long past time to abandon the broad lefts and official leadership. That the Pol Pot of privatisation is defending the current position of the trade unions demonstrates exactly how far we have to go.