From the TUC

Global union-busters alert

14 Aug 2012, By

I never know whether this is ‘giving them the oxygen of publicity’, especially when the original article was such a naked ‘gun for hire’ piece of self-promotion, but the People Management blog by Freshfields lawyer Nick Squire raises some issues that need airing, and suggests something we need to be forewarned about.

The article bigs up the impact of OECD guideline complaints and Global Union Federation international framework agreements (IFAs) with multinational companies, and ‘warns’ employers that they need to beware such complaints and agreements. The article ends, tellingly, with a checklist of things employers should do, such as (these are Nick’s own words, honest):

    • “appoint someone to keep tabs on global trade union activity and monitor the media for company mentions”… and …
    • “set up an early warning system of labour issues across all countries, and make sure local managers know what to look out for”

In Nick’s warped mindset, although they look harmless enough, these IFAs (as well as the results of OECD-inspired arbitration) could impose all sorts of hidden costs on employers. Like decent pay, freedom to join a union andd respect for ILO core labour conventions (eg banning child labour). You know, the sort of thing multinational companies go multinational to avoid in the first place (according to Nick, I mean!)

It strikes me there are two things going on here (except, as I mentioned, the flagrant laying out of a corporate CV).

First, employers are being urged by the hired guns of the legal profession to resist the perfectly normal processes of collective bargaining that companies and unions usually develop in order to solve their mutual problems. There’s a whiff of the US deep south here, a presumption that collective bargaining is actually the work of the devil or a sign of weak, corrupt management and strong, over-mighty trade unionism. And this is not a unique example: the TUC has complained before about what CBI representative Chris Syder did to attack the right to strike at the ILO Conference this year. Chris works for a different London law firm, but the pattern is there.

Second, I wonder how much employment lawyers really are the ones to blame, and multinational employers their innocent pawns. Forgive me if I sound like a conspiracy nut, but are we actually seeing the corporate CEOs burnishing their public corporate social responsibility images, hoping to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or at least score a knighthood and a ticket to the hippest, socially-conscious after-Oscar Hollywood parties while their legal hired guns do the nasty work out in the alley way, beating up on the workers who just won’t keep quiet about their exploitation?

Collective bargaining between employers and unions about the terms and conditions of employment of workers – wherever they are in the global supply chain – is a sensible way (more ‘flexible’ than government regulation, even) to determine the employment relationship. It has served successful, civilised economies like Scandinavia well for generations, and its abandonment leads to social division, widening inequality, inefficiency and injustice. Employers and their lawyers should be working out ways to do it better, not constantly scheming to take it away.