Six myths about how the unions are ruining Britain

The Daily Mail front page caught my eye yesterday: it announced that trade unions were now paying their members to go on strike. I confess to being almost impressed at that infernal organ's ability to alchemise scandals out of the prosaic, and it got me thinking about the other myths that are commonly peddled about trade unions. Let's have a look at six regulars, and give them a good old busting.

Trade unions pay their members to go on strike

Mail splash

This is a new one on me, but given it made the headlines yesterday we may as well kick off with it. Union members get their pay docked when they go on strike. They are exercising a right to withdraw labour, not a right to get paid for taking a day off work. It's why the miners' strike ended – the miners just couldn't live without a wage any more. The Daily Mail is referring to a union's strike fund, which is used to try to prevent members getting into financial difficulties as a result of losing pay when they go on strike. Going on strike is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and unions are entitled to use funds to make up for the lost earnings that striking members face. It's rather different to the Mail implying that teachers face some kind of cash bonanza from taking industrial action. Incidentally, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, Mark Serwotka, donated £80,000 of his own money to his union's strike fund after the executive voted against his offer to take a lower salary. Those bloody union barons, eh?

Unions are free to strike at the drop of a hat

Believe it or not, this country has the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world. When strikes do happen, they're the result of a failure of negotiations, not commie militants looking for a conflict. Remember the oil tanker drivers' strike in 2012? That was called after 18 months of intransigence from the employer – not that you would know that from the papers.

Unions are destroying the economy

This particular myth comes in two forms: the first is that unions hold the country to ransom by threatening to strike. Remember Francis Maude's stupid advice to fill up a jerry can when it looked like oil tanker drivers would go on strike? The government, flanked by the press, like to stir up panic whenever a strike looks like it's on the cards. But the truth is that unions are legally compelled to give seven days' notice to an employer before they ballot their members over a strike. Unions are not "threatening" anything when they tell employers they're going to find out how their members feel about striking; they're just following trade union law. There may be circumstances where it is better for unions to ballot members confidentially (like if negotiations are under way and the possibility of a strike might cause tensions) but we'll never know, because the law doesn't allow it.

The second form of this myth is the idea that, for some unknowable reason, unions are inherently bad for the economy. Given that over the last four years, unions have been making the restrained demand for jobs and economic growth, I'm not sure why so many media commentators are convinced they're out to destroy society. Nevertheless, as many publications show, there is a strong correlation between strong trade unions, low inequality and thriving economies. Strong collective bargaining agreements can also reduce the gender pay gap.

Unions just organise strikes

Unions do lots of other things too. For example, the TUC has an impressive Union Learn programme which trains people in workplaces. In 2012, TUC Education provided education and training for more than 52,000 union reps. Unite the Union helps domestic workers, often living in very difficult circumstances, to learn English and IT so that they can communicate with their families in their home countries and live a better life in the UK. All the major unions support social justice causes internationally. In fact, it was thanks to the union movement that I started writing about Latin America, after I attended a trade union conference where I learned that more than 2,000 human rights defenders and activists had been assassinated in Colombia since the 1980s.

The government is subsidising trade union activity

It was unsurprising to many working in the trade union movement that the moment the Tories came to power in 2010, this particular myth started doing the rounds. In 2011, the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) published research stating that taxpayers paid £113m to trade unions.

The myth refers to "facility time", the time given to union reps to do certain activities on behalf of their union, without having their pay docked. These include negotiating with employers over pay and conditions, representing workers in grievance and disciplinary procedures, providing training, doing health and safety work and attending training sessions themselves. As many union reps work in the public sector, the TPA categorised this as "unions being subsidised by the government".

Actually I'm not going to dispute the TPA's research, I'm just going to add some extra information. Research by the Labour party shows that when you include the private sector, facility time costs £431m annually. But it also showed that facility time saves anything from £476m to £1.1bn. That's a reflection of savings made from fewer tribunals, sick days, accidents and dismissals, as well as higher productivity. And perhaps that is why no employers have made any serious calls for an end to facility time, even though David Cameron promised to "put a stop to it".

The unions do nothing for ordinary people

Actually this one's true. Except for paid holidays, the eight-hour day, paid sick leave, bringing an end to child labour, fighting for equal pay, better health and safety regulation, fighting workplace discrimination, the unions have done absolutely nothing.

I suspect the biggest myth of all is that the public hate unions. Anyone who has interacted with a union in their workplace can see the benefits. Perhaps that's why a 2011 poll showed that trade union leaders were more trusted by the public than bankers, business leaders, politicians and – lamentably for the Daily Mail – journalists. Well now, isn't that the funniest thing.

Source: The Guardian

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  • commented 2014-11-27 21:43:50 +0000
    You are bang on. The usual Daily Mail bullshit, The only thing I would say in favour of The Daily Mail. is that they do campaign on behalf of ex military people who have financial and social problems in coping with issues when they leave the military. Also talking about ex military people dealing with emotional problems. The paper does point out that these people do not get the support from the MOD that they deserve. On another issue there are some things that Richard Littlejohn comments about that I do agree on. Even though I have a left of centre view when it comes to politics.

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