Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Trade Union Tantrums

As promised, but no doubt not eagerly awaited, I shall herein say a little more about trade unions. Before we get into the nitty gritty of modern day trade unions, we should glance back to their origins. Here you find the reasons behind their creation (naturally) which are crucial in assessing their place and behaviour in today's society.

The prevalence of low-skilled jobs in the industrial revolution meant that employers were able to hire pretty much anyone to do a job. So, a worker had little bargaining power as it was easier to fire them and hire someone else than accede to the employee's demands. Employment law was virtually non-existent, and certainly not biased in favour of the poor. There was normally no course of legal appeal. There was no access to widespread media (the court of public opinion) in which to shame the employer. Indeed, the general mores of the time would have meant any such complaint would likely fall on deaf ears. Losing one's job was worse than than it is today. There was no welfare state, coupled with lower living standards, meaning losing your income could well set you and your family on a rapid spiral to destitution. You get the idea - you've all read Oliver Twist I am sure. The point was that employers could do what they wanted and there was little the employee could do about it. Speak out and you lose your job, and with it in many cases your life.

Out of this imbalance grew the concept of trade unions; a collective voice to speak where lone employees were before drowned out. Sounds sensible enough, noble even. However, times have changed; There are better living standards and a safety net in shape of the welfare state. Losing a job does not generally cost a worker their life. Employment law has improved out of all recognition from the point of view of the employee. Most workers are unlikely to be illegally sacked and are able to appeal through the law courts if they feel they have been. There is certainly an argument that these changes in employment law have gone too far. Fair employment law should be fair equally to employer and employee alike and many more employers than employees probably now feel they get the rough end of these laws.

I witnessed a case in point a few years ago. An utterly underqualified and useless individual was in charge of a department where I worked. Her rather important department functioned terribly due to her maladministration. People pointed it out to her and tried to suggest ways to improve said department. She then signed off sick with stress. For 3 years. On full pay. How can you still be stressed by a job you no longer attend? She then tried to take the company to an employment tribunal for bullying - stating among other things that people telling her that she was bad at her job and that she should improve in areas x, y and z was bullying. Indeed, her boss ringing her up every few months to see if she was well enough to come back to work was also apparently bullying. What happened? Was she eventually sacked? Of course not, she was moved to another department and they settled out of court with her. Brilliant. Now we don't want a return to Mr Bumble's Dickensian-style employment but the scales have perhaps tipped the other way. That may be a topic for further discussion (with myself).

Now we have looked at the evolution of trade unions we can return to how they fit in in today's world. There are still 'small people' and 'big corporations'. Because of this, the concept of trade unions as a collective voice still makes a lot of sense. They work as an organisational tool, a forum for discourse, able to capture the mood of the trade and to canvass opinion. However, it seems to me today's trade unions are totally out of touch with reality. To them, strike action has become their first, not last resort, and their demands are ludicrously inapt. It appears they believe if they are striking, they must be right and everyone must be on their side. They could hardly be further from the truth. Listening to trade union spokesmen complaining at the moment is like watching a young child throwing a tantrum.

The tantrum metaphor works (though I say so myself) quite well: The child wants a new and very expensive toy for Christmas - let us say a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Unfortunately, its parents are not doing quite so well in the recession. Cutbacks have been made all over the household budget. Father had to accept lower pay at work to keep his job. Family holidays have had to be kept in Britain rather than abroad. Parents don't dine out anymore, and they shop at Aldi rather than Tesco. Regardless of this, the child still wants his Buzz Lightyear toy.

The point that I am approaching in a manner as subtle as a Frankie Boyle joke, is that even with a backdrop of national and international austerity, union after union has chosen to demand higher wages, better working conditions, more perks and definitely none of the savings that are vital for the country's economic survival.

Take BA for example. On the back of £500M losses in 2008/9, and a global economic crisis, BA reduced the cabin crew numbers from 15 to 14 (or about 6-7%) on long haul flights. They also froze their pay for two years; the pay incidentally which was already about double the industry average. The Civil Aviation Authority published data in 2009 showing an average BA cabin crew salary to be £29,000 compared with £20,200 at Easyjet or £14,400 at Virgin Atlantic. The same comparison for pilots showed £107,600, £71,400 and £89.500 respectively. The cabin crew managers aboard the long haul flights (who earned in excess of £50,000) would now have to push the odd trolley too in cost saving measures.

The company was in dire straits, and would go on to post £500M losses for 2009/10 also. The threat of budget airlines, the general economic crisis and the archaic civil service-esque structure of its company were sending BA under. What happened? Did the overpaid waiters and waitresses thank their lucky stars they still had lucrative jobs or did they throw their toys out of the pram and demand their Buzz Lightyear toy. Well, you already know, but as simplistic as it sounds I can think of no better comparison than the tantrum throwing child, either unaware of its surroundings or uncaring of them, its mind set solely on its own personal gain.

Equality in employment law is a welcome thing, but there is no place in today's society for selfish, socially-oblivious, militant trade unions. Speaking of militant, the armed forces took a 2 year pay freeze with CSR and will see larger reductions in personnel than BA over the coming years. Striking? I doubt they would even if it was legal. Perhaps trade unions should take a lesson out of their book.

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