From the TUC

How can we extend collective bargaining?

18 Dec 2009, By

Gregor Gall has an article in the Morning Star today, following up the TUC’s Union Advantage report (and linked ‘Union Adventage’ pieces we’ve been running on this blog).

As usual with Gregor’s articles I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with him in equal measure (!),  but he makes the very valid point  that we need to ensure that we don’t ‘sell’ trade unionism as if its a product like any other – ‘just sign up here and all these benefits could be yours’. Of course,  the reality is that the union advantage only exists because of the collective effort and activity of trade union members. The more active and engaged our members are, the more likely we are to be able to achieve collective gains. Winning collective agreements – and making those agreements worthwhile – is a function of active, not passive, trade unionism.

This feeds into a piece of work we’ll be picking up in the TUC in the New Year about how we make the positive case for unions and collective bargaining. The decline of collective bargaining has been relentless over the last 30 years. Even though union membership (and to a lesser extent, union density) has stabilised in the last decade collective bargaining coverage has continued to fall, meaning that today less than 1 in 5 private sector workers are covered by a collective agreement. Whats more, where collective bargaining has remained quite often it has become ‘shallower’: more consultation, less negotiation. All this matters to unions and to our members, but it also matters to society more broadly.

One of the factors underpinning income inequality in the last 30 years has been the decline of collective bargaining. As the TUC has shown, relative levels of income, wealth and social mobility for those on median incomes and those on higher incomes have diverged very considerably over the last thirty years. Under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997, those on median incomes saw their salaries rise by 1.6% each year, while those on higher incomes enjoyed rises of 2.1% and the richest 1% experienced increases of 3.9%. Although this trend has weakened since 1997, wealthier groups have still seen their incomes grow considerably faster than those on low-middle incomes. Median earners have had a 1.9% growth in their incomes each year since 1997, while those on higher incomes and the wealthiest 1% have enjoyed 2.1% and 3.2% respectively.

Of course, one obvious way would to reverse the negative trend in collective bargaining coverage would  be to  grow our membership and secure more new recognition agreements, but with the average CAC ‘win’ covering just 137 workers, that’s a hell of lot of small, hard-fought campaigns.

So here’s starter question for 10 – how do we go about extending and deepening collective bargaining coverage?  What more could unions, government (and even employers) do to promote a collective approach to employment relations? As a special Christmas incentive, there’s an Organising Academy polo-shirt on offer for the best suggestion! Suggestions in the comment box please.

2 Responses to How can we extend collective bargaining?

  1. Gregor Gall
    Dec 18th 2009, 5:06 pm

    One suugestion about how to resuscitate the coverage of collective (and which does not require legislation which would be difficult to achieve in the current circumstances) would be to think about how and why industry-wide bargaining is maintained and in a few cases established for the first time. To me this highlights the need to try to get employers to see their common interests which can be represented through trade associations (especially on issues of regulation of their industry and of the employment relationship). And from there then try to make the case that the industry/sector could be experience less instability if wages/labour costs were taken out of competition so more concentration on service/quality etc. All this is admittedly a long shot because power (of workers) is ultimately what makes employer see things in a different so that they recalculate costs and benefits. Also this is true because much of the material basis of employer profit is competitive advantage through labour cost competition. Yet, and with no obvious sign of a grassroots revolt to strengthen unions and despite much effort put into union organising, it seems that unions may have to take a lead in trying to fashion the form of employer interest. Of course, this would be a long-term strategy with no immediate gains … but we have to start somewhere.

  2. Ashley
    Dec 18th 2009, 5:44 pm

    I think one of the challenges we face as Trade Unionists is that it is all too easy to characterise or misread our core beliefs as somehow not relevant or even unattainable. It’s not to say that the vast majority of people disagree with our values – what’s not to like with about values based on equality and democracy.
    In practice we make a connection and organise around particular issues which while being very important to those directly effected are small in the grand scale of things – thus we are only ever going to ever engage with relatively small numbers as evidenced by achieving collective agreements to represent less than 150 workers at a time. Paul’s right it’ll take a long time to build strength in depth at that rate.
    The Trade Union movement has to lead partnerships with government and employers not on the micro issues (though we still have to keep this part of our work going as well) but on the big issues – shared visions for tackling global warming, joint delivery of improving training and education, coalitions for social justice. The sort of issues where there is only one side to be on and to not be on that side is to be seen as outside the mainstream.
    It’s almost certain that these issues are going to be outside our traditional industrial relations arena of historic influence. But then at the moment so are the most of the people we need to join us.
    So as roadmap I’d suggest at local level, trades councils need to be looking for the big issues they can take to their opposites in the Chambers of Commerce. Regional TUC needs to be doing the same with regional government and regional employers organisations. Same nationally – with the CBI and who ever is in charge at Westminster after May 2010.
    If as movement we can show local, regional and national leadership on some genuinely national interests – this could open the door to closer workplace partnerships on the back of common interest and maybe an increase in collective agreements which reflect an ethos of joint working.
    Well I can dream – cant I ?