Saturday, April 22, 2006

Anne Perkins on failure of the British labour movement

I can remember when books on the General Strike used to be written by activists or historians close to the movement, now a leader writer for The Guardian has a go and connects it to a crisis of the contemproary trade union movement.

Collective failure
As another British car plant closes with no industrial action taken, Anne Perkins considers why, 80 years after the general strike, our trade union movement is in remorseless decline
Saturday April 22, 2006 The Guardian

The workers at the condemned Peugeot plant at Ryton near Coventry, stupefied by the confirmation of what they had long feared, survey an empty horizon for alternatives to acceptance. Once, at about the time some of the Ryton workers got their first jobs, there would have been no need to think. They would go on strike.
A strike in defence of the Ryton jobs in those far-off days would be supported by car workers across the country. There would be mass demonstrations in sympathy. There would probably be talks at No 10, or at least tea at the Department of Employment (RIP).

In the end, the government would intervene: a contract would be found, a subsidy paid out, jobs would be saved ... until the next time, at least.

This week, the trade union leaders who talked of a strike got little support from the workers. "What's the point," one asked, "they'd only shut us down sooner."

When you know you and 2,300 others are headed for the job centre, there is little appetite for risking the mortgage.

Strikes don't happen any more. In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, there were just 130 stoppages in the whole year.

Catering workers are sacked for refusing to take lower pay. Migrant workers die in one of the most blatant cases of exploitation since the abolition of slavery. The even tenor of Britain's industrial life is undisturbed.
Forty years ago, in 1966, the year when the current deputy prime minister John Prescott was accused by the then prime minister Harold Wilson of being one of a "tight-knit group of politically motivated men" masterminding a national seamen's strike, there were about 130 each month.

Eighty years ago next month, Britain's one and only General Strike brought more than 3 million men and women out for nine days, in defence of their own and particularly of the miners' pay and conditions.
On one level it was a miserable failure. The value of most people's pay carried on falling. The miners stayed on strike for more than six months before hunger and the winter drove them back for less money and longer hours.

The Conservative government celebrated victory with trade union legislation that severely circumscribed the conditions in which strikes were legal. It also ended contracting-out, reducing trade unions' ability to fund the Labour party by insisting that members had to opt specifically to pay a political levy. Trade unions lost many of the rights and immunities they had acquired in 1906.

But it forced trade unionists to accept that the parliamentary Labour party was the only route through which serious reform for working-class people could be achieved. It helped Labour become the largest party in the 1929 election.

In industry, the strike's failure gave impetus to attempts to improve negotiating machinery and build partnerships between employers and employees. The number of strikes fell. The numbers of days lost in industrial action was well below half a million for most of the next 20 years.

But the pendulum swung back. And if it swung then, why not now? This slump in industrial militancy follows the failure of another miners' strike, in 1984, and more legislation heavily restricting strike action. In the 1980s, as in the 1920s, there was high unemployment and economic collapse.

Much more is different, however, than the same. Sure, trade unions struggle once again to reinvent themselves. Membership declines and then stagnates. The TUC believes the future has to be through partnership not conflict.

In the 20th century, though, all the conditions that make trade unions so powerful and strikes so effective stayed in place. Once there was full employment again, large-scale workplaces, mass employers and the development of national agreements gave a strength to trade unions outside as well as inside the parliamentary political system.

After 1945, collective action was embedded in the national culture. A sense of common identity and shared objectives infused politics. The Tory party became a vehicle for state socialism. If strike leaders were never quite the heroes they were in France and Italy, they enjoyed a certain notoriety.

In the 21st century, the world has become simultaneously a more friendly and a more unfriendly place. Many people at work earn more and consume more than ever before. Inflation is under control. Pay settlements - if not pensions - look more secure.

But there are no more mass employers, except the state, and many of its low-paid workers work for subcontractors. National agreements, which covered four-fifths of the workforce in 1975, are in decline. Most people work for small employers, tough recruiting ground for trade unionists.

"It takes weeks to organise the same number of people as you can organise in a day at a big plant," points out Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Above all, the legal framework smothers most strikes. The nature of a legal dispute is narrowly defined. Ballots are compulsory and require detailed notices to employers before and afterwards. Sympathy strikes are illegal.

British trade unionists have fewer rights now than in 1906 or in 1926. No general strike would be possible now.

As a result, trade unionists argue, inequality in employment is growing worse. Without national agreements, the strong can no longer pull up the conditions of the weak. Good employers are undercut by the bad.
Last year's Gate Gourmet dispute, which grounded hundreds of British Airways flights when 813 catering workers at the subcontractors were sacked for protesting against the use of agency staff at lower pay, highlighted the limits on trade union action.

The strike, unballoted and spontaneous, was illegal. The settlement negotiated by the Transport and General Workers' Union, which had to repudiate the strike to avoid being sued itself, cost 131 employees their jobs without any compensation. Another 411 were given redundancy. Just 272 were reinstated.

"The Gate Gourmet case shows, as many other disputes have over the last quarter century, the degree to which the anti-union laws of the Thatcher era remain in place to deny workers and their unions the ability to mobilise to create effective countervailing power against management prerogative," write two labour lawyers, John Hendy and Gregor Gall.

The other BA staff who came out in support of Gate Gourmet (once part of BA itself) were also acting illegally in holding a sympathy strike, and again could get no support from their union.

In one of Tony Blair's early victories over his party, he declared: "There will be no return to secondary action, flying pickets, strikes without ballots, the closed shop and all the rest. British law [will be] the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world."

So it is. Trade union legislation here breaches conventions of the International Labour Organisation, the UN's International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the Council of Europe's Social Charter.
But watch how many come out to campaign on May Day, when MPs and trade unionists will be trying to create a national profile for a new trade union freedom bill to restore some of the rights and immunities all but lost in the 1980s.

No one thinks that changing the law will unleash waves of frustrated workers. Trade union membership, already down by half on its 1980 peak of 13 million, continues a slow but remorseless decline. Unions struggle as much as political parties do to engage the attention of potential members.

"You only get strikes in the areas where it still looks like the old economy, not the new," David Coates of the Work Foundation argues. That means areas such as the post office, the railways, and the public sector. This is a life-threatening challenge for the trade unions. The way people live and love, what they expect from life, has changed beyond all recognition.

The unions struggle to find a way of accommodating the individualistic nature of their members' aspirations with their traditional reason to exist.

Employers have leapt in to undermine them further. Digby Jones, outgoing director general of the CBI, accuses the unions of rediscovering militancy in a vain effort to recruit.

"The only protection people need in a tight labour market with skills shortages is to be so adaptable, trained and valuable that no employer would dare let them go or treat them badly."

Modernisers like David Coates and many at the TUC accept that some unions are still locked in the old world. But others believe they are misrepresented, constrained not by reality but public perceptions.

Professor Keith Ewing talks of the "misrememberd memories" of the 1970s and 1980s, the years when unions challenged government and, in the end, government won - the years when trade unions squandered their authority in the headlines and comment columns of every news bulletin and national newspaper.
"It is absurd to suppose that trade unions now would behave like the trade unions of the 1970s were supposed to have, even if they could," he says.

Meanwhile, unhappy workers resort to less confrontational methods. British workers change their jobs more often than any others in Europe. Days lost to strikes have plummeted. Days lost to absenteeism are soaring.
Fed up at work? Just pull the duvet up over your head.
· Anne Perkins is a Guardian leader writer.

1 Comments:

Blogger vkk1_hypno said...

Your subconscious mind is a powerful force. It can be an un-defeatable ally or a dangerous foe! It is a powerful force of nature that can be harnessed and made to work for us or it can be a wild beast that runs riot with our lives.
How powerful is 'powerful'?
Take the first Atomic Bomb - it could lay waste to an entire city in seconds. Or the gravitational pull of the Sun which stops our tiny planet from hurtling into space. Imagine the power of a black hole - that region of spacetime from which nothing can escape not even light travelling at 186 thousand miles a second. The Universe is full of powerful forces. Yet, all these wondrous things pale into insignificance when compared to the power of the subconscious mind.
The subconscious part of your mind is that part which regulates your heartbeat, lungs, digestive system and everything else in your body. It directs the inner workings of your body and such things as (what biologists call) 'machines' - tiny living cells that are composed of motors, drive-shafts and propellers - seriously!!! There is mounting evidence that the cells in our bodies have memory and that our very DNA is coded with memories of our ancestors. As well as having full control of all these functions and more your subconscious also retains all the thoughts, experiences and emotions you have ever felt. It regulates the most complicated mechanism in the unknown Universe - your body - and it can calculate the trajectory of multiple moving objects while supplying you with the words necessary to debate an issue while controlling a complex task of activities such as driving a car!
These tasks alone show how powerful the subconscious mind is. But it is much more powerful than that!
The truth is: No-one knows the limits of the subconscious mind's power!
Tell yourself that you will wake up at 6 a.m. and chances are you will awake. Go to a crowed party and through a mass of voices you will hear someone at the other side of the room mention your name! Set a problem aside and miraculously, out of nowhere, the answer comes while you are involved in another task. It recreates situations in your life that correspond to your beliefs. Time and time again you find yourself in the same situations, with similar partners, in almost identical jobs. Like a wheel your subconscious mind creates situations that bring your life back to the same spot.
Likewise it can totally transform your life - even overnight! It can bring you new situations, life experiences, luxuries and even people.
However, it is like a na�ve child or a better analogy is that of a computer. It believes everything that you tell it. Your conscious mind is the gatekeeper. Anything you think with complete faith is immediately past to the subconscious mind - which it then takes as literal fact. There will be no arguments because it has no discriminating capabilities.
Although your subconscious mind is more powerful than you can possibly imagine it is a mere servant. It is at your disposal. YOU are in charge. It acts just like a computer and like every computer it needs software to run. So if you do not program it then someone else will! You are constantly being bombarded with software programs for the mind every minute of everyday. Buy this product and you will look slim, drive this car and you will seem sexy, drink this potion and you will feel more vibrant about life. You are told what to buy and when to buy it, when you are too young to do a thing and when you are too old. You are told what is possible and what is not. Snap out of it!
Take back your control over mind and body. You were born with the most powerful computer system known to man - a bio-computer that regulates a sophisticated, highly flexible, changeable, self repairing vehicle. You are amazing, a true miracle. If you bought a new top of the range diesel Mercedes would you let Joe or Sue down the road fill it up with petrol?
Begin to think for yourself. Who told you that you could not achieve your dreams? Do you believe it? Who told you that you were too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too smart, too young or too old?
Does it matter?
No! Because you are and always have been in total control. Change your thinking and you will change your subconscious beliefs. Change your subconscious beliefs and you will change your life. subliminal messages

3 July 2006 at 21:39  

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