There is no doubt that the election of a majority Conservative government in May was a considerable setback for working people. Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party were proposing a number of positive reforms to employment law that would have improved rights at work, and tackled some of the more pernicious and exploitative aspects of the current labour market: where millions suffer from low pay, zero hour contracts, and bullying bosses.
The new Conservative government has made clear its intent to make it harder to organize lawful industrial action, to quote Professor Gregor Gall:
the Queen’s Speech in late May set out two new rules. The first requires at least half of eligible union members to vote so that a minimum turnout is established. The second is that in essential public services (health, education, fire and transport), there will also be the requirement that at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must vote for action (meaning that non-voters are treated as ‘no’ voters). These reforms (along with others on the repeal of the restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes; ensuring strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballot mandates ‘conducted years before’ and tackling alleged intimidation of non-striking workers) will be laid before Parliament as the Trade Union Bill later this year.
The response from the TUC was apocalyptic:
The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady said these new laws would benefit the country’s “worst bosses” and that they would “make legal strikes close to impossible”, adding “union negotiators will be left with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more.”
This was a strange and ill advised response from the General Secretary, and raises the question of how unions will recruit and retain members if they are seen as so ineffectual. Of course the proposed changes to the law need to be opposed and challenged, politically, legally and industrially, but unions will always adapt, survive and innovate to overcome obstacles.
Before we consider the current state of trade unions it is worth reflecting upon the fact that the proposed restrictions by Cameron’s government are still less restrictive than the Trades Disputes Act 1927, which was not repealed until 1946, and which made unlawful any strike whose purpose was to coerce the government of the day directly or indirectly, made incitement to participate in an unlawful strike a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years, banned mass picketing, banned civil service unions from affiliating to the TUC, or having any political objectives.
Nevertheless, while that draconian act was in force, trade union membership doubled, and broke into new industries which had been considered unorganisable, such as the new aircraft and car factories.
British trade unions built their strength against far more unfavourable conditions than we have today, indeed we will shortly be celebrating the memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs, deported to Australia for organizing. A battle which the trade unions won.
It is necessary to acknowledge that for many groups of organized workers, meeting the proposed new ballot thresholds will be straightforward.
Where it will be a challenge will be those parts of the public sector where either membership density is insufficiently strong, or where workplace organisation is weak. We will need to give this careful consideration, and in particular strengthen organisation where we can.
It is reasonable to question, for example, the effectiveness of the PCS strategy of continued industrial action against the government on low ballot turnouts, that are poorly observed by the members, and which seem to have limited leverage.
Of course, while industrial action is the indispensible foundation upon which trade union strength is ultimately built, in the modern world, many companies have built substantial investment into the value of their brand, and are susceptible to bad publicity. The Carr report, commissioned by the coalition government to discuss the type of trade union campaigns which Unite have called “leverage” was very interesting.
In evidence to Carr, Pinsent Masons LLP described “leverage” as
“an umbrella term for any action (other than traditional forms of industrial action) by a trade union which aims to put pressure on an employer to settle a trade dispute or otherwise meet the union’s demands. Leverage tactics may be used in addition to or instead of traditional industrial action, and may be used for example before a trade dispute is officially declared. Leverage tactics typically seek to pressurise and commercially embarrass employers through targeted campaigns aimed at shareholders, customers and business partners, suppliers and the general public.
Employers regard such tactics with trepidation, as “extreme”. Again giving evidence to the Carr inquiry
The Engineering and Construction Industry Association (ECIA) offered the following description: “‘Leverage tactics’, which can also be ‘extreme tactics’, seek to extend the intimidation and disruption to those parties indirectly involved, such as shareholders, suppliers and customers; and seek publicity through the media to make public the discomfort they are causing – in attempts to embarrass and further intimidate.”
Industrial action is an important component of any trade union’s armory, but often it is necessary to look for other weaknesses to incentivize an employer to change their position.We need to understand that no particular form of action by a union is more virtuous than another. As Von Clauswitz observed, war is diplomacy by other means, but the meaning of that aphorism is the acknowledgement that every war results in a negotiated settlement, once the war itself has altered the various bargaining positions of the combatants.
Interestingly, the Carr Report discussed Unite’s campaigns but not GMB’s, and I think that this is partly attributable to the more media savvy approach of GMB, that taking a slightly humorous, or cheeky approach makes it harder for the employer to pose as an aggrieved victim.
For example, when AA was taken over by the asset stripping private equity boss, Damon Buffini, and GMB were derecognized in favour of a scab staff association, the current Southern Regional secretary Paul Maloney, responded by lobbying parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common on the asset stripping activities of Damon Buffini. They were accompanied by a live camel. This was to illustrate that biblical quotation about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven”. Buffini was associated with this church and was then estimated to be worth between £20/40 million.
The result was to push a complex story of private equity into a media friendly format, for example in the Daily Mail
the GMB purposefully chose to personalise the issue. The ins and outs of private equity finance are highly complex, but by directly linking the millionaires at the top with the newly-jobless at the bottom, it has managed to catch the public’s attention.
Paul Maloney is the GMB’s National Organiser for the AA and makes no bones about the campaign he has overseen: ‘Before we found out about Buffini, he was a hidden man. He’d just made thousands of people redundant but nobody knew about him. He was the spirit behind the evil, as it were. So we decided to make him the focus of our campaign.
The Carr report interestingly includes the views of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that for protests which are not pickets there is no distinction between protests associated with an industrial dispute, and protests which are not. It is therefore extremely challenging for the government to restrict protests by trade unions without curtailing those civil liberties consistent with the exercise of freedom of speech and association in a liberal democracy.
One of the achievements of the Paul Kenny era in the GMB, is the GMB@work strategy, which recognizes that there is a fundamental and ultimately irreconcilable conflict of interest between employers and employees, and therefore trade unions need to be always organized to conduct lawful industrial action, if necessary. Of course this does not preclude modern, professional and constructive relations between the union and employers to their mutual benefit of securing harmonious industrial relations, but this is a relationship of equals, and therefore the union needs teeth behind the smile.
As with any culture change, the implementation of GMB@work has not been uniform across the union, and indeed the relative rates of growth of different GMB regions allows a comparison of the effectiveness of GMB@work. It is in Southern Region where GMB@work has been embraced, which has involved standing up to tough employers, and often organizing low paid workers in precarious employment. GMB has shown that this can be done, for example we recently achieved recognition with an employment agency exploiting workers in the Marks and Spencer supply chain in Swindon.
Following continued membership growth in June, GMB Southern has now become the second largest region in the Union with 82,447 members. This follows a period of record growth where the region has increased its membership by 9837 members (Equivalent to 13.6%) since September 2012.
The growth in membership has followed a series of high profile campaigns within the Region, for example:
• Leading the campaign against low wages and poor treatment of staff in Next
• Protesting against tax evasion and poor treatment of staff by Amazon and Starbucks
• Winning an 8.7% pay rise and full Agenda for Change Terms and conditions for caterers, cleaners and porters at Woolwich hospital
• Leading the campaign and petition against Michel Gove’s planned teaching assistant cuts
• Achieving the living wage for cleaning staff at the University of Arts London
• Winning a campaign against redundancies & poor wages at an NHS contractor in Brighton. The Contract is now returning in house
• Preventing the privatisation of London Fire Control centre in Merton
• Seeing off cuts of £4000 a year to refuse workers wages in Brighton
• Winning legal action to prevent wage cuts of up to £16,000 a year for care workers employed by Prospect housing in Surrey
• Forcing the MOD to stick to their deal with Gurkha staff
• Taking legal and industrial action to support staff employed at Swindon Hospital by blacklister Carillion
To quote Paul Maloney himself:
“The growth of 10,000 members since September 2012 is no accident and followed a process of dedicated organising by everybody within the region. This has been achieved solely by the efforts of members, activists and staff and shows that where we take on unscrupulous employers we will win and grow the union in the process.
This is good news for GMB, good news for the movement as a whole and shows that there is no need for any union to be managing decline. ”