A Collective Conscious

15 Jul

Collective bargaining should be the life-blood of the trade union movement. It may be obvious but it’s worth stating once again what it is because the principle is eroding from the collective consciousness of workers, particularly young people, as less than one in three are covered by such agreements with the figure as low as 17 per cent in the private sector.

It’s the process of negotiations between employers and their representatives aimed at reaching agreements that regulate working conditions. It’s what separates trade unions from other organisations in that we seek to raise the living and working standards of our members – and those who we seek to represent – across industries.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote in Industrial Democracy (1913) ‘By a series of remarkable legal decisions of the House of Lords, the Trade Unions of the United Kingdom have seen their use of the Method of Collective Bargaining seriously curtailed’. Fast forward a hundred years and many of us will come to the conclusion that we’re not in a much different position to then.

There’s no need for a history lesson on the reasons why there has been such a steep decline in collective bargaining coverage. Despite the rights based legislation of the previous Westminster Government collective bargaining coverage is five percentage points lower than when Labour came to power in 1997 – now standing at 31 per cent. This contrasts with around 67 per cent in 1960, 70 per cent a year after the Conservatives came to power in 1980 and over 90 per cent after the Second World War.

The political route was the other primary way in which the Webbs viewed the trade union movement as protecting and advancing their objectives (with the emphasis being on the former). They termed it the Method of Legal Enactment. However, it’s clear that this avenue is not open to trade unions with the ConDems at Westminster and many neo-liberal oriented institutions in Europe.

Therefore, are trade unions in a quandary in that both the aforementioned methods of advancing working peoples’ interests are not open or viable? Must unions accept their plight, retreat and manage decline, or, are there other ways of getting collective bargaining on the agenda?

Well maybe we should look to a Celtic solution! It’s true that measures such as a higher minimum wage, increased in–work benefits and credits, and, broader income transfers that reach poorer households can’t come from devolved institutions. But, there’s an opportunity to think of applying old methods to the new constitutional landscape of the UK. This, of course, would require the support for extending the principle of collective bargaining by devolved institutions on the premise that it is a social good which can help to reduce the economic and social inequities of our societies.

Devolved institutions have an opportunity to take the lead and set themselves apart from the Westminster Government’s savage attacks. Sector forums – a principle enshrined in the Warwick Agreement in 2004 – would help to combat inequality and assist in improving workers’ purchasing power in contrast with the downwards spiral of consumer confidence and reduced incomes.

If we properly reward workers through collective voice machinery then they will spend more, if workers spend it creates demand and if there’s greater demand then we make things which in turn reduces the unemployment count. It’s not rocket science!  There’s a stronger case for collective bargaining fostering growth than the clamour coming from Northern Ireland and Scotland to have lower rates of corporation tax yet who is talking about this as a method to create growth?

Collective bargaining coverage in mainland Europe remains high (though under constant threat). Of the original 15 member states of the EU, the UK and Ireland are the only countries where coverage is less than 50 per cent of the labour force.   In some cases, density exceeds 90 per cent such as in France and Austria while Germany has 63 per cent of workers covered by collective agreements – a figure which would be higher were it not for reunification.

Although the main focus of sector forums within devolved countries would be on pay and other terms and conditions of employment it’s important to emphasise that forums would have other functions as well.   They should address other concerns, such as productivity, procurement, investment grants, competitiveness, and the skills and training (including apprenticeships) needs within the sector in question.

The revitalisation of collective bargaining must be a key strategy in revitalising our economies and to creating a fairer society. Countries with stronger collective bargaining, greater degrees of economic balance and regulation in the labour market have coped with the effects of the global recession to a greater degree than those countries that have pursued a neo-liberal agenda. Hence, it’s not a matter of economics it’s a matter of political will and the type of society we wish to create.

As Paul Krugman has succinctly put it: “So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity…we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages” (New York Times, 6 March 2011). Celts forward march!





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