No need for an anti-union vendetta says the ‘Pol Pot’ of Thatcherism

An MP responds to the anti-union rhetoric (As discussed in Monday’s post.) which seems to have become fashionable in recent months.

Occasionally I hear old rhetoric aimed against the Trade Unions. In the private sector that is a battle fought and decided years ago. There is no need……to demand tougher laws or to pursue an anti Union vendetta.

Come on then; who said that? A Labour MP? A disgruntled Lib Dem minister? A left-ish Tory?

No, it was John Redwood, the former Thatcherite minister once described as the Pol Pot of privatisation.

He goes on:

Trade Unions can be a good way for some  employees to organise their representation to management. They work best where there are large groups of employees doing the same or similar work with a graded pay structure. Modern well informed Trade Unions are not a soft touch,  nor are they business wreckers. They recognise the need for managers to manage, and recognise the need to generate revenues and  profits before discussing how to share them out.  They see the need to raise quality and efficiency if British companies are to survive and compete successfully in a very competitive world.

He’s right, of course. Trade unions can be really useful channels of communication when you are managing a large workforce. When things go wrong, it is much easier to deal with union reps who can calm some of their wilder elements down, than with several hundred angry employees among whom a number of loose cannons could go off at any moment.

Many of the firms which brought in pay cuts and short time working during the recession were unionised. It is much, much easier to bring in changes to terms and conditions when you have a collective agreement. Without one, you have to hope that each person will accept the new terms and conditions. Ultimately, if they don’t, you have to sack and re-employ them, something which a lot of employers talk about doing but few actually do because it’s such a lot of aggro and it can sour employee relations for years.

As Redwood says, if you have built up good relationships with your unions, when things get tough they will, more often than not, work with you.

Many years ago, as part of my induction in my first corporate job, I went round the company meeting various senior managers, one of whom ran the team responsible for dealing with the unions.

“What do you want to know?” asked the Head of Industrial Relations.

“Tell me about what you do.” I said.

“What do we do? Well, we haven’t had a national strike for two decades,” he replied. “Do you think that’s a coincidence? That’s what we do.”

He went on to tell me about how hard they had worked over the years to build that relationship and how much better things were than in the bad old days of acrimonious disputes. Sure, there was still the odd rumble but, for the most part, they were dealt with before they got out of hand.

This is how industrial relations, or employee relations as we now call it, works in most companies these days. As I have said before, you get the union reps you deserve. Work with them and they’ll work with you. Try and screw them and they’ll screw you back.

John Redwood may be considered a right-winger but even he doesn’t believe we need more legislation to curb public sector unions. The private sector, he argues, managed to improve union relationships within the existing law and the public sector should be able to do so too.

There is no closed shop now and no car park show of hands. All strike ballots are sent by post to home addresses. The mechanisms which enabled some (and they were relatively few) union reps to intimidate members have, for the most part, been outlawed. If people vote for industrial action now it is because most members support it, or at least don’t feel strongly enough to vote against it.

Trade union law, then, has already been changed enough to prevent the excesses of the past and, in most industries, the adversarial relationships and legalistic processes of the past have gone too. It should be possible to do the same in the public sector without further legislation. Given time, better management and a supportive government could make the public sector more efficient. More ham-fisted law certainly won’t.

Legislating against unions will do nothing to improve productivity in the public or private sectors. Blaming unions is simplistic crowd-pleasing rhetoric for politicians and a useful smokescreen for bad managers. New law would be a pointless diversion and would only make government and employer relationships with the unions even worse.

This is 2011 not 1981. With industrial disputes at a record low, there is no need for more anti-union laws. John Redwood understands that. Perhaps he could have a word with some of the wannabe union bashers in his own party.

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2 Responses to No need for an anti-union vendetta says the ‘Pol Pot’ of Thatcherism

  1. Pingback: No need for an anti-union vendetta says the ‘Pol Pot’ of Thatcherism - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. john davies says:

    The BBC should take note of Redwood. Below is an example of BBC approach to strikes. Other examples: no one wins in a strike [really]
    Strikes are ‘looming’
    Strikes are ‘in danger of spreading’
    If I was on strike I would want it to spread !

    Winter of Discontent; Union Barons; The BBC collaborites with the Murdoch press.

    Sally Bundog ,for that be her name, BBC Newsreader World News-Business News
    5-45am October 14
    Ms Bundog ‘so the unions ‘cannot hold the company to ransome’ .No said an industry expert it has too much money etc. {‘Blackmailing the nation’ use to be the one}
    Then of course the debate got onto the relatively favourable conditions BA cabin staff compared with other airlines- so said Ms Bundog -for that be her name-there is room for competition ? Oh yes, said the industry expert No reference to managers relative pay or Willie Walsh’s incompetence. As one comentator on Andrew Marr Show said he usually supports stirkes the problem with BBC coverage is that there no detailed breakdown of the issues from people who are experts in the complexity of industrial disputes which leads the talbliodisations of Bundog and others of similar levels of ignorance.

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