Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Rethinking industrial relations - how shall we grow our trade unions?

I spent this afternoon in Leeds at a half day event marking twenty years since the publication of John Kelly’s Rethinking Industrial Relations, which has been the subject of a special issue of the academic journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.

For me this was a trip down memory lane in more ways than one, since I was a student at Leeds University in the early 80s and then went on to the London School of Economics where I studied Industrial Relations (with John Kelly as one of my lecturers).

Rethinking Industrial Relations was an ambitious attempt to rescue the field of industrial relations (as an area of academic inquiry) both from its own lack of theory, and from being swallowed up by the study of Human Resources Management (a field of enquiry very much at the shallow end of intellectual endeavour and which has subsequently spread so far and wide that, like an annoying puddle, it is difficult to avoid stepping in it).

Today’s event was an interesting opportunity to meet comrades I had not seen for years (or have never seen but have corresponded with online) and to listen to debate around the issues raised in Rethinking Industrial Relations (in particular around “mobilisation theory”, which is really a model explaining how people come to think and act collectively in certain circumstances).

I am not blogging to provide an overview of six hours of discussion because (a) I am tired and (b) I doubt I could do justice to the debate across the various sessions. As I had hoped, attending today’s event has got me thinking, so you may be unfortunate enough to read more here in future (if you are unwise enough to return).

There are really just two points I intend to make here and now. The first, which I made myself earlier today, is that I am not at all convinced that the leadership of our big trade unions really want to “renew” our union movement, in the sense of embedding a radical and transformational approach to organising union members.

Fourteen years on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON (2003-17), all of them also on the NEC’s Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee, showed me that there are activists and officials who are (subjectively) “serious” about organising, but these are massively outnumbered by those who will (at most) pay lip service to the “organising agenda” – which helps to explain why essentially identical and very worthy motions about organising are agreed year on year at National Delegate Conference with only limited impact upon reality.

The bulk of the leadership of the big unions (lay as well as full time) are content to carry on having the bargaining relationships and political influence which they have (however much they might like more) – and are miles away from genuinely wanting to organise the unorganised.

This isn’t just a shame because there are – as I saw today - some thoughtful and radical people trying to work out how we could reverse the decline of our movement (and to understand why we haven’t done so yet).

It is also shaming to our unions because of the second point which I want to make, which was made by John Kelly himself today, which is that an incoming Labour Government might be about to give our unions an opportunity which they may not be in a fit state to make use of.

A Labour Government would legislate in accordance with the Institute for Employment Rights (IER) Manifesto for Labour Law a fairly moderate set of proposals (which would not even repeal all of the anti-union laws introduced since the 1980s). The IER manifesto has at its heart sectoral (national) collective bargaining with representative organisations of employers negotiating national agreements with trade unions (presumably intended to set a floor for pay and conditions).

The very good point which John Kelly made today is that, as desirable as it may be to extend collective bargaining coverage, this will not of itself reverse twenty years of failure of the “organising approach” as applied by UK trade unions. Workers need the right to bargain collectively with our bosses, but we also need trade unions which are strong enough to bargain effectively.

Given that twenty years of “talking the talk” about organising has not really made a significant impact in terms of organising the growing mass of unorganised workers, there is no immediate reason for optimism that our big unions could seize this opportunity to extend union influence for the benefit of working people by driving up union membership.

At the close of this afternoon’s event Gregor Gall therefore took the opportunity to repeat the point which he had made in the Morning Star this summer that a “union default” system would be required alongside sectoral collective bargaining if we were to restore union power so that workers could go into this new collective bargaining machinery with a hope of getting something worthwhile out of it.

In a “union default” system, newly appointed employees would be enrolled in the appropriate trade union on obtaining employment in the same way as they are (now) enrolled in an occupational pension scheme (and – unlike the old “closed shop” – they would have the same right to opt out of the union that they have in relation to the pension)(which seems a bit wishy-washy to me but apparently human rights law requires it).

Although promoted from the Marxist Left this “union default” idea may well come to have wider purchase within the trade union movement, with stalwarts of the (former) Labour establishment, Jack Dromey and John Monks recently promoting the idea of “default” company level joint bodies courtesy of the Fabians, and – keeping it nicely in the family, Jack’s son Joe has made the union default case on behalf of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Now it is of course true that even collective bargaining rights and union organisation won’t necessarily mean that sectoral bargaining will deliver anything for workers. I say this as a local government worker (as regular readers of this blog – Sid and Doris Blogger – will recollect) and although we are the largest bargaining unit in the economy, represented by the three largest unions, our living standards have fallen by 20% over the past decade.

However, at least workers who are covered by collective bargaining and are organised into trade unions have the possibility of fighting effectively to defend our collective interests against employers and the state (even if we may have some internal battles within our own trade unions which we also need to wage to get to that point).

We need the political wing of our movement to provide the opportunity for regrowth that our industrial wing has been unable to find for itself.

Therefore those reading this blog who are active in the Labour Party certainly need to think about how we can campaign to add the “union default” idea to our next manifesto (and those reading this blog who are not active in the Labour Party ought to be!)

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