The 6th Estate


During the tense two years following the Credit Crunch, widespread predictions of civil disorder were both highly credible and seemingly inevitable, but no winter of discontent nor summer of strife came to pass. Yet, the people whose efforts successfully averted this destructive course have gone unrecognised and unappreciated. That’s a great shame and it should be rectified.

When the Lindsey Oil Refinery workers burst into spontaneous anger and destruction, the fire was quenched by the Unions who went in and established a dialogue between Management and Workers. They kept the refinery working and left the media to look elsewhere for their story.

Those sections of industry with established Unions saw workers agreeing to defer wages, take unpaid leaves, and operate a reduced working week to keep their industry afloat. The Unions are the unsung heroes of the Credit Crunch, not the despotic opportunists of 40 years ago.

So when we see the Labour leader attacked for having the support of these Trade Unions, this attack is not based on the modern reality of the Unions, but on a historic fantasy of the right-wing press. This is no longer the 1970s, the age of confrontation is over and we’ll never go back there.

Tesco doesn’t reduce the price of a carrot by simply hammering the farmer; they introduce the latest management techniques to help the farmer increase his yield, and then take a share in the benefit. The Unions also, are a modern, economic-savvy institution. Rather than wanting to abolish “Managers” as an enemy of “Workers”, they see “Employers” providing opportunity for “Employees”. Unions argue for the skilled get a fair price for their labours and for the low-paid to be pulled out of poverty and be given a chance to thrive.

These are worthy goals, but they are blurry goals to a movement that has never fully recovered from 1983. So although the Unions have done right by ending confrontation, they have never quite figured out what their new role should be, even though they ought to see themselves, or the Employees they represent, as the Sixth Estate.

The confusion is due to the reduction in Union powers during the Thatcher era. Whenever the Unions call for their powers to be returned the discussion gets bogged down in the power to strike. However, it’s not the right to strike that hampers the Unions, but the right to be recognised that truly damages them in the modern age.

If a single worker wishes to have a Union Rep advocate her pay round to her Employer, why should this be illegal? Why should she have to get 50% of the workforce to also join the Union and then ballet them? Yet this is the law of Union recognition as it stands.

Everyone else in our society has a right to an advocate. The accused before a court of law, the resident before a planning committee, the Prime Minister has the Foreign Office. What is it about being an Employee that makes it illegal to have someone more articulate and knowledgeable speak on your behalf?

Like many people I was deeply affected by The Spirit Level. Previously I believed that some inequality was necessary for ambition to thrive and the economy to advance and that this would benefit all, including those at the bottom. But this book provided a scientific argument that the well-being and contentment of society as a whole is severely affected by inequality. Even the well-off suffer greater mental health issues in an unequal society.

Under the Blair government we addressed the issue of low pay by using the tax and benefit system to subsidise wages. Resource allocation is not served well by the distorting effect of taxing companies in order to subsidise wages. This was never a perfect solution; it was only adopted for lack of a better answer. It would be much better to see a rise in real wages and use the money saved from obsolete wage welfare benefits to lower the tax burden on the companies, in order to offset any loss in productivity. 

If Unions were allowed to advocate on behalf of workers regardless of whether this is a small percentage of the workforce, or even a single worker, then the Union Rep, with nothing more than a single friendly phone call would be able to achieve a better deal for those Employees than they would have got for themselves. Either that or the company is not viable and the Employees would be best advised to look elsewhere for a wage.

This is the distinction between Trade Unionism of the past and that of the future. The age of mass membership combined with confrontation as a negotiating tactic has little place in modern society. But the age of advocacy on behalf of individuals with a view of achieving a fair outcome for all is something we see across society and across industry.

If it were legal for Employees to have a Union Advocate then wages would rise to their right and correct level, while those wages not represented by a Union would rise in sympathy. The state would then have no need to tax firms in order to pay wage benefits and the Employees would have greater commitment to the firm that pays their wages, rather than the state that pays their benefits.

This would be one small step towards creating a more equal society, but it would also be a large step toward creating a more productive workforce, not just in the form of the “invisible hand” but also in the spirit level of the Employees who get to be rewarded rather than subsidised for their labour.

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