Clocking Off

Workers’ rights, eh? Sounds historic, like boilersuits and clocking-on, mass meetings and sit-ins. When researchers investigated Labour’s election failure they found people associated them with that same past. Even the TUC sounds like a committee of boilermakers and wheel-tappers, all white bread sandwiches and bottled beer.

The latest round of anti-union legislation will curtail further the rights of organised labour to strike and fund the Labour Party. Are the people marching yet? All police overtime cancelled? Troops at the ready?

Hardly. Britain may have been the anvil on which workers’ rights were hammered into a social tool, starting as far back as the 18th century, but around the arrival of Thatcher’s Tories the power was blunted and workers’ strongest weapon was cast aside. It became unfashionable to be identified with standing up to bosses as it meant standing in the way of progress itself. An unspoken social compact was broken and Britain went about its business thinking public ownership was passé and market forces corrected all misalignments.

We didn’t learn from advanced states where there was less of an embedded social order topped by the Entitled Class. While Germans and Scandinavians moulded unions into the structure of work and valued their worth, Britain’s leaders and doting media demonised and discredited them. The painful inability to reform itself and present a modern face for a new age was, to many, proof of the TUC’s rear-facing fetish.

Thatcher’s aim was the creation of a large and mobile disposable workforce operating like a reservoir to meet the needs of business when it needed extra bodies and to which it could consign them painlessly when budgets tightened. Stability and security were sacrificed to business needs and market movement.

I suppose it’s called moving with the times. Someone I know is moving too. She’s a woman who was called into work early last week to be told she was sacked. She’d get a week’s pay (minimum wage) and holiday entitlement. Don’t come back. The reason, she was told, was a letter of complaint (unseen) from a parent (unknown) at the nursery workplace which claimed witness to an incident (unconfirmed). No one had been interviewed. No staff questioned. No admission of guilt was sought. No evidence led. Just a letter received. You’re oot. (I should say this is in what we like to term the Caring Sector.)

The claim was she’d mishandled a child, an act she categorically denies. She did, though see one of the two bosses who fired her mishandling a child. Coincidence?

It is unfair dismissal and badly handled at that. She was even denied union representation at the ‘hearing’. It won’t come to justice though. To qualify for taking a case to a tribunal you must have two years qualifying service. She hasn’t – so no rights. In many industries today this leads to the turnover of staff guaranteeing demoralised workers with no loyalty and no desire to do other than pick up a cheque. That’s how it works in Britain. Second rate treatment of people begets second rate service and we all suffer. Thatcher’s pool of disposable workers without rights who can be plucked when needed and dropped at will is now reality.

Those of you with the foresight gene will be thinking: Doesn’t that just add to the welfare bill if people aren’t working? Yes, and what are the Tories doing to welfare? Cutting it, of course because we can’t afford it.

You can imagine how this woman feels about Cameron bragging about ditching European Human Rights…and doing sweetheart deals with corporations over their tax dodging…stifling union activities further…and how pleased she is to see Labour grandees like Brown and Darling managing not to be unemployed. To be fair, Labour did take the qualifying period for unfair dismissal down to one year – it started at six months in the seventies. But it may be the real damage was distancing themselves from what should be a source of popular social change by perpetuating the idea that unions were irrelevant and an obstacle to progress. Labour retained Thatcher’s ‘trade union reforms.’ It was a conscious decision to hold the unions at arm’s length. Blair even struck a deal with a businessman to plug a £1m gap if Unite funds didn’t materialise for last year’s election. I’ve been in my union since 1968 and have life membership. The thing to realise is that nobody bothers with membership or meetings until they’re threatened. Then the rush is on. And it’s only popular demand that will stay the hand of an uncaring government that is the puppet of business. Yet we’ve fallen out of love with the unions.

I like the increasingly co-operative relationship forged between the STUC and Scottish Government. But I wonder if a wider dialogue about the role of unions in society wouldn’t yield lasting benefits and return them to a central role in national life. We have to do better than kangaroo courts and on-the-spot dismissal in the modern age.

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