David winning more often than we think
I suppose it’s inevitable given the combination of a hostile government, flat-lining economy, rising unemployment and stagnating household incomes that some commentators are speculating on what all this means for the role and future of trade unions.
Despite significant and ongoing job losses in the public sector, union action on pensions – coupled with a generally raised profile as unions have shown a lead against the government’s damaging austerity programme – has meant that membership appears to be holding steady and in some cases growing. But this is just one one small silver lining in what looks like an increasingly gloomy outlook for our members and their families. Union membership is not just an end in itself. Workers don’t organise for the sake of holding a union card: they organise to help protect their jobs; to ensure they get paid decently; to have access to pensions; to work somewhere that’s safe and healthy; to get a voice on the job; and to develop new skills and build their careers. There’s no doubt that delivering on all these points and more has got harder and harder. Even successful, highly profitable employers appear to be using the current economic crisis as cover cutting back on jobs, pay and pensions (see here and here for current and obvious examples).
It would be easy in this climate to seek solace in counsels of despair. But that’s not my style, and my guess is that if you are reading this blog, it’s not yours either. So I thought it was right to point out that despite all the difficulties, there is plenty of evidence that unions are still in there fighting, and most importantly winning for members. Here’s two very different private sector examples of what I mean.
Most of us grew up with Woolworths. Its record department and pick ‘n’ mix were the stuff of childhood legend, which is why so many of us were shocked when over 800 Woolworth shops and outlets shut their doors at the end of 2008. But it wasn’t just memories that were lost when Woolies closed down – nearly 30,000 people lost their jobs when the company’s administrator pulled the plug. Since then USDAW has been trying to secure at least some justice for those thrown out of work – a long and protracted battle which finally resulted in this week’s news that 24,000 former Woolworth’s staff will share some £68m in compensation, awarded by a Tribunal who ruled that the administrator should have properly consulted USDAW before making redundancies. That’s £68million pound going back into the pockets of thousands of former Woolies staff – and just as importantly, a very clear message sent out to employers and administrators that unions won’t stand by and watch members get diddled out of what little legal protection they have. Without USDAW I think you can safely assume the likelihood of those staff receiving a single penny in compensation would have been close to zero.
The other case I thought I’d highlight shows that unions are not just about helping members when things go wrong, or reacting to closures and redundancies. They can also be on the front foot. RMT have notched up a number of notable victories over the last few months (and as a regular user of Virgin Trains I was particularly pleased with this pay award for contract cleaners on Branson’s West Coast Mainline routes), but the thing that really caught my eye was the news that the union had managed to secure a Olympics paydeal worth some £2,500 for staff on the Docklands Light Railway. A one-off deal for a one-off event? Hard to replicate elsewhere? Maybe… but it’s a win that owes a lot to strong union organisation, and shows what unions can do to buck the prevailing pay trend. With average wage settlements bumping along at around 2%, and unions looking for ways to reverse the three decade long assault on pay, its a good reminder that below inflation pay-rises are neither pre-ordained or inevitable.
At a time when tens of thousands of union members face the prospect of losing their jobs, and are struggling to make ends meet, I’m reluctant to reach for pat assurances that all is well. Of course, all is not well. 2011 was a tough year for unions and their members. 2012 looks like being tougher still. But that makes it even more important that we take heart from – and celebrate – each and every success we have.
The two examples I’ve highlighted above show two very different unions in very different circumstances, who despite all the challenges have managed to tip the balance back a little bit towards their members. These aren’t one-offs. The same is happening in workplaces, both public and private, up and down the country. David is winning more often than we sometimes think. I reckon that something that’s got to be worth shouting about – and if you do too, tell us about your wins at @strongerunions