Friday, April 16, 2004

Why are the brothers in arms?- A long post about Trade Unions

Since coming to power Tony Blair has issued no "In place of Strife", nor forced wage restraint on reluctant workers. On the contrary, this 'right wing' leader has massively expanded union rights, given unions new recruiting opportunities and introduced a whole range of worker protection programmes that Trade Unionists have been calling for.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Union leaders might be pleased with this set of progressive reforms. You might think that Trade Unions would be pleased with the massive falls in unemployment, the increased recruitment in the public sector and the increased spending on public services. You might think that Trade Unions might be pleased by the first increases in Union membership in two decades.

You would be wrong. To quote Quentin Tarantino, Unions are far from fxxxing OK.

Yet there seems to be little interest in why the Unions are so frustrated, and to ask what this tells us as much about the state of modern British Trade Unionism. I would like to suggest that many commentators are ignoring the structural and internal factors that underlie current Union discontent.

I'm sure you don't need reminding how bad things were for the Unions under the Tories. Although the bulk of the decline was in the 80's, The Union decline continued under John Major with Union membership declining heavily right up to 1997. Since 1997, Trade Union membership has steadily, if slowly, increased to the point where there are around 250,000 more union members today compared to 1997.

The problem now for the Trade Unions is that their membership is, post Thatcher, disproportionately made up of Public Sector workers. 64% of Public sector workers are trade union members, while only 21% of private sector workers have joined a union. Effectively, the NHS, teaching, the civil service, local authorities and the emergency services are the last bastions of trade union membership.

This trend has turned Unison into the largest Union in Britain and means that on my rough estimate, almost half of the members represented by the Trades Union Congress are working in the public sector (I make it 2.4 million public vs 2.6 million private, with 800k in the GMB and prospect, which represent both public and private sector workers; though admittedly I included Post and Rail workers in public sector figures, because they still operate as public sector trade unions in approach).

The size of public sector is increasing and it is far easier for unions to recruit new public sector employees than their private sector equivalents (which involves the laborious work of recruiting, and then gaining recognition in the workplace). The private sector growth rate in union membership has been miniscule in absolute terms, and actually shows a decline as a proportion of the work force. We're losing manufacturing and gaining service industry jobs, which means less unionisation in the private sector.

This membership profile means the Trade Unions have a huge focus on Public Sector employment standards- far more than justified by the importance of the Public sector in employment. For example, you may remember that under John Edmonds, the GMB ran a highly aggressive campaign against corporate fat cats and pro-nurses in order to oppose the Private Finance initiative. The GMB doesn't have many Nursing members, and relatively few in the NHS as a whole. It was suggested by some cynics that the real reason for the aggressive campaign was an attempt to gain a greater market share amongst public sector workers. I don't think it was that bad, just clever marketing to represent the GMB's 200,000 plus public service member's interests. These are mostly Local Authority workers, who are just as exposed to PFI and PPP and enjoy far less public sympathy.

So the protection of the rights and privileges of Public Sector workers has effectively become the reason for existence of half of the British Trade union movement. It's not hard to grasp the difference this makes in attitudes to change. The attitude in the Public Sector is predominantly what we have, we hold. Talk to a private sector trade unionist about job losses, pay cuts, redundancies and change and they treat it as an inevitable, if often unpleasant part of life – their job is to deal with it. Talk to a Unison staffer about changes to contracts, and it is either a threat to the public services ethos, creeping privatisation or something worse.

Secondly, many Public Sector union officials seem to equate the transfer of services to the private sector as a death sentence for unionism itself. To return to the GMB, there is a huge dissonance for a union with a majority of private sector members to focus its public campaigning efforts on ensuring public sector workers remain within the public sector.

Now, there are real issues with private sector involvement in public services that any union would be concerned with but the public good, private bad dialectic some unions have got into is ludicrous (after all, Public Sector unions are always complaining about how badly they're paid compared to private sector workers).

It's hard not to reach the conclusion that many unionists have effectively given up on successfully unionising the private sector, and are therefore engaged in a desperate bid to hold onto the security of the public sector. With honourable exceptions, the growth in unionism is not amongst the low paid, the part tiem and the blue collar, it is amongst white collar public sector workers.

These pressures conspire to make the issue of Public sector reform as big a powderkeg for the modern trade union movement as wage restraint and differential protection was for the labour movement of two decades back. Psychologically and ideologically, keeping out of the Private sector and keeping Public sector employment along the same lines as before is vital for their survival. I think they're wrong, but it's a rational response to the pressures the Unions face.

There is no question in the Unions minds that fewer employees on water-tight public sector contracts is preferable to more employees on more flexible, private sector style contracts. Try and argue that the alternative to reform is not the status quo, but a more savage reform later and you get a funny look. After all, who really expects a Tory government to come in and rip out the Union protections Labour has built in to the reform process? I do, but it's hard to get people worried about it.

On top of this the internal structure of trade Unions, combining grassroots democracy with extremely low levels of activism makes it perfect for dragging the leadership to the left. Union leaders can easily be accused by radicals of selling out to Government, or being too cosy with ministers. Small groups of motivated, organised activists can have a huge impact on a trade Union and its policy. Just look at the NUT and the PCS. To head off the radicals, Union leaders have decided, after stepping over the corpse of Sir Ken Jackson, that the only way to win is to concede ground to the left, so they ratchet up the anti-government rhetoric. For example, Dave Prentis was the moderate candidate for Unison General Secretary. Now, his rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from that of his original opponent.

This is the greatest strategic error of the Union leadership. Properly organised, the radical left can be beaten on the ground. Look at Aslef- where Shaun Brady threw out Mick Rix. The problem is that under a Labour government, it is just easier to take a step to the left and reach an accommodation internally. It's harder to fight what looks like an unpopular battle on something as esoteric as PFI and even harder to argue that it is better to accept managed pain now to prevent a savage beating later. What really concerns me though, is that I can't thin of even a heretic voice in the Public Sector Unions prepared to voice a thought like this.

So both structurally and internally forces are pushing the Trade Unions to the left, towards more entrenched positions on the Public Sector, well apart from whatever mistakes the Government is making. When you hear the next reports about the stresses of the Labour/Union relationship, bear these in mind to lie alongside the sell out rhetoric which lazy journalists will swallow whole.

<< Home

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Open Borders and Libertarianism?

A question occured to me while reading Peter Cuthbertson and Andrew Dodge talk about libertarianism in the comments thread of this post. Peter asked a while back how libertarians could support open borders and Andrew responded by talking about how as immigrants wouldn't be able to claim benefits, the resentment caused by immigration would lessen (possibly an inaccurate summary, but read the point yourself).

Anyway, the point occurred to me that the problem with open borders under libertarianism would more likeyl be people trying to get out, rather than get in. Say you're a low wage or unemployed worker in a "no state" country. Where would you rather live? A society with no unemployment support, no welfare support, no pension support, no education support, or a society with all those things. Quite frankly, I think the masses would be queing up to join the nearest social-democracy they could find. (and before you start telling me how come no-one goes to Sweden then, Sweden has more immigrants per head than any other EU country).

Brad Delong did a marvellous post on this some time ago, which I link to in explanation of why quite a few people would want to leave a libertarian state as fast as their legs would carry them.

But then I think minimal state theorists are headbangers*, not least because they think that a minimal state will somehow be able to protect property rights, when most people think that humanity developed powerful states to find a way to protect property rights, amongst other things (Not much State theft on the tropical islands of the south seas, was there?).

*For Mr Dodge this should be no insult at all.

<< Home

The spring and summer of discontent

It's the last major recess before the June elections and all around the country, marginal seat Labour MP's are meeting local councillors, going out on street stalls and sitting in draughty shopping centres listening to the vox populii.

Sounds like a pleasant few days away from the Westminster village? Hardly. The local councillors will be saying that they'll lose the council in June. Their activists will be harder to rouse than ever and that annoying guy from the opposition is looking very, very smug. Put that together with the fact that for the first time ever the MP's will be getting real abuse on the doorsteps from their swing wards and you come to conclusion that they're going to be scared witless when they get back to parliament. (Work for an MP? perhaps you can test this theory yourselves with a "how grumpy is my MP after recess?" poll)

Imagine how well the Israel and Iraq news is going down with isolated MP's out of range of the whips tander caresses. On top of that, many will be getting a rather uncomfortable message on crime and immigration. This will be no good thing for the whips, for the government or for the leadership.

So I'm going to predict a very rough few months for the party leadership. First there will be rows about the local and European election campaign as everyone tries to anticipate a drubbing. Then there will be fall out from the drubbing itself, then Union conferences (which are just getting nastier and nastier for the leadership) and then finally the Party Conference itself.

Behind all this will be the peaks and troughs of Iraq coverage- with a peak definitely pencilled in for late June/July.

If it gets really bad, we might even have another bout of leadership speculation in September as Trade union after Trade union condemns Blair.

Then after weeks of this, Blair will turn it all around at Party Conference as the Party realises it is less than a year away from a likely general election and rallies around the leader.

Your read it here first.

<< Home

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Guardian comment page really confused me today.

It consists of an article calling Isaiah Berlin a CIA mouthpiece or stooge. Perhaps Chris Brooke or the crowd at Crooked Timber, (who are presumably berlinophiliacs) can decode for me why the Guardian chose to publish a 1000 word assault on a dead philosopher for dictating his books. (Full disclosure- Berlin's Vico and Herder is one of my all time favourite books.)

Then we have Robin Cook's former special adviser David Clark, taking a break from telling Mr Tony to resign, calling left wing euroscepticism an infantile disorder. I presume the borrowing from Lenin is deliberate.

I don't think that David Clark is attacking Gaitskill and every leader of the Labour party up to Kinnock as infantile (all of them were to a greater or lesser extent "eurosceptic" by today's standards) or attacking the venerables of the anti-euro left- (Shore, Benn et al). Nor is he condemning those Trade Unions that oppose the introduction of the Euro (Unison, for example), Instead, he focuses his fire solely on those who oppose the new introduction of the new EU constitution.

Personally, I think this is the weakest ground possible for true euro enthusiasts to advance upon. The constitution may be a good deal, but as a fixed constitutional settlement it is, to be frank, a bit crap. This is a European constitution in that it has a life expectancy of around two decades. (cf France, Italy, Germany, etc etc) It is neither democratic, nor inclusive, it puts power in the hands of unelected elites and it satisfies neither leaders of nation states, the ineffectual European parliament nor national representatives. That's no sin, but it is also wrapped up in the language of permanent settlement.

In other words, I don't mind the deal, it's the rhetoric I worry about.

On one point David Clark left me speechless. He asserts

" Globalisation has robbed European nation states of the capacity to implement many of the policies traditionally favoured by the left, and although some of these could be revived at a pan-European level, the EU policy-making structures remain too cumbersome and unwieldy for it to fulfil that role"

Yet it was a conscious decision of the nation states of the European Union to deny themselves the capacity to implement many of the policies favoured by the left. It wasn't "globalisation" that did it, it was us!

I believe that the EU response was the only rational reaction to globalisation but the truth is that the only way an individual nation state could have held out against neo-liberalism in the eighties and nineties would be to have not joined the EU. Delors "Social Europe" was a fig leaf to cover the huge liberalising programme of the EU. We didn't notice this in the UK because we had Thatcher to blame for it all.

It's the EU that has enforced unlimited free trade, limits on state budgets, and limitations on State aid for industries. This is precisely why the old left hated the EU and the old right loved it. Now, under these conditions a market has been created which punishes any national government that provides social benefits and taxes business. The EU could, as Clark claims, enforce minimum standards of social welfare. Indeed, this seems to be the argument Clark advances for euro-enthusiasm. Yet if, as Clark says, it is "globalisation" which drives neo-liberal solutions, why would the EU be able to put up anything more than a slightly more sustained retreat from traditional social democratic positions? What would be the point? All it could do is create an island of social democracy protected that dams that were doomed to fail.

The challenge to the Left is neither European nor anti-European. It is how one builds a fairer society in a global market of extreme inequality and extreme capital mobility. Europe is fundamentally irrelevant.

<< Home

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Here we go again.

"I want to xxxxx your xxxx and then xxxx your xxxxxxxxx" I whispered to the good lady wife whose name temporarily escapes me as we lay in bed together last night. Her reaction was frosty to say the least. She has never been one for xxxxxxx, although she is prepared to put up with it as long as I xxxxxx for a long time beforehand, such is life. Perhaps the lady wife would feel differently if I could suggest xxxxxxxx her on a Ferrari F55 rather than on a used Ford Escort.

It's just too easy isn't it? Two unrelated points. First of all, look at the pictures in this Mirror story about the Beckham's fending off the allegations by driving Quadbikes. The first one is normal enough, if not quite a Ferrari F55. The visual trauma comes when we see that Brooklyn Beckham has a scale model Quadbike to ride. This disturbed me more than I can say.

Well that's enough fun. Seriousness pervades in Iraq. Now is not the time for me to write about it- I need to bring myself up to speed with the news in Iraq first. Right now I have no more idea than anyone who reads this about whether the Sadr rebellion is truly serious for the long term or a short term conflagration, whether the US reaction will makes things better or worse and how the combination of Shia and Sunni violence fits together.

Until then, all I want to say is this. Those who said that Iraq would be easy were wrong. It was always going to be hard work. That makes it even more important to get things right and to commit for the future. That changing your plans if things go wrong and doing what it takes to convert the populace, it means basing your decisions on the long term benefit or risk, not your own anger or frustration. It means recognising that there will be downs as well as ups and that positive changes will seem glacial while the bad news seems to come in torrents.

Those of us who believe in the benefits of regime change should always be aware that there is a human cost to the human benefit, and that in times of crisis, the costs will be stark, while the benefits will seem ethereal. nevertheless they are real, and will, if developed correctly be lasting and tangible.

<< Home