T10 – Up With The Unions – Responses

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T10 responses – audio transcript.

What has been gratifying about this week’s responses has been how they have built on my thoughts about the unions, driving further into their potential as builders of a human rights culture.  But at the same time, you have not allowed me to drift into some kind of romantic nostalgia for a long lost unionised ‘Golden Age.’

Global Solutions

Richard Buck was first off with the push for multinational unions as a response to the fact (as he so eloquently expressed it) that ‘the most precious asset in the world economy, people, seems to have the least value.’

Richard is right to revive that wonderful old slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite!’  These days we need a truly universal human rights movement to make this possible – as long as we are determined to see ‘human rights’ as a term that absolutely necessitates recognition of the right of workers to organise.  Its amazing how many human rights people have a blind spot on this –  a part of their liberal (selective) mind set I suppose.  But Lee in his post on South America in general and Columbia in particular reminds us, if we needed reminding, of simply how much has to be done here.


  • ‘hats off’ to the wonderful International Labour Organisation which as Alice Donald reminds us is already doing valuable work on extending union rights and which has long been in the forefront of innovation in the rights’ field
  • Congrats too to those interest groups fighting deunionisation around the world: we need to recognise these as front line human rights workers (and fighting bad faith unions as well, as Duygu reminds us is often necessary as well)
  • And Bob Crow is right too when he points Guardian readers to the International Transport Workers’ Federation as his industry’s way of fighting management shifts to cheaper, more vulnerable labour.

Christina reminds us of the difficulty of all this – ‘the minute you have effective unions the rules are changed’.  Sure the struggle is hard, and there is no guarantee of success.  But one thing human rights activists need is gleefully to re-engage with the idealism of the past…. And this ‘visionary ideal for the role of unions’ (Duygu) is something I think we should fight hard for.

Duygu’s ‘attractive and alluring’ past and Christina’s ‘long time ago’ can also be tomorrow!

Winning Back Trust

Paul Bernal asks a key question: ‘how can the image of trade unions be rehabilitated in the eyes of the public?’ Craig Valters shares this concern as well, as do others of you to varying degrees. (Lee: ‘It is seen as one greed (shareholders) against another greed (workers)’.)

Let’s not deny there is a massive issue here.  The trade unions have been rightly sectional; it is not their job to govern (as track ten made clear). But maybe this sectionalism has in the past gone too far – or become too threatening to power.  Either way – whatever the reason – the unions have a job to do in re-engaging the public.

What is against them is rampant deunionisation and casualisation.  In this rush to the bottom, travellers resent those not forced to join the same escalator down into penury and exploitation – instead of saying to unionised labour ‘we want to be like you’ (strong; powerful, prosperous) they say ‘why can’t you be more like us’ (weak, vulnerable, insecure).  I talked about this feeling in my common track on asylum and foundations and it applies equally here.  A society that does not respect its own people will never make social progress.

So how to counter this problem:

  • fight hard to subvert the way in which we have become used to the market as a kind of entrenched common sense.  Say and say again that profit and exploitation are not as normal as breathing: Craig is very good on this.  I’ll come back to it when I get on to religion.  (Its because faith leaders like Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI so unequivocally refuse to accept this common sense that I have such a lot of time for them.)
  • rediscover the virtues of solidarity, both within and also across industries.  And solidarity too between the worker and the consumer, at least to the extent of engaging with the consequences for non-strikers of actions taken — there is something to what Lee says when he castigates the unions for making so little effort to reach out beyond ‘the converted’.
  • challenge media ownership rules fighting to ensure fair play.  Big business has too often been able to rely on free speech rights to protect from public view their calculated anti-union actions, both within their own industry (Wapping and all that) and outside.
  • Work hard on the ‘smaller day-to-day work of assistance’ (Lee) building the trust that will make the large scale action not seem ‘less fundamental and more opportunistic’ (Lee again).
  • And finally, deserving of its own headline,

Use New Technology Creatively

Plenty from you of great interest here.  Paul is a fan and a proponent of imaginative deployment of these new resources, working to ensure that ‘freedom of association and assembly … [are] …. translated into the UK internet context’.  Richard recalls the successful use of new media techniques by Barack Obama  and (before him) Howard Dean.

Yes,  Craig is right to warn us against the risks of transience, of the sheer fluidity of the web.

We all agree, I think, that it has to be part – a big part – of any reforging of union identity – as do old-fashioned physical engagement (Alice) and also connections ‘with social movements and other civil society formations’ (Alice again).

This is where the big point about human rights comes in, indeed where the whole rationale of this project comes back into play.  What other narrative thread can bind such disparate progressive elements of our culture together?  Give them solidarity, a sense of mutual respect, a broad message?

Not religion, for sure.

Not even traditional social democracy these days, much less socialism.

Its because I think human rights properly understood as progressive politics and shorn of its addiction to law is best placed to pull this off that I have become an advocate of this (particular) (progressive) (I say authentic)  human rights story.

And Bob Crow?

Well maybe we need more not fewer Bob Crows, causing chaos on the way to a fairer future, one in which the common sense of today (casualisation; exploitation; insecurity) are viewed as quixotically barbaric as the child labour and slavery of old.

‘What A Week!’

That’s how Christina put it and how right she was: not only the Irish case, but Wikileaks, the students and much else besides.  I start this week’s track with the Irish case, and I’ll need to come back to Wikileaks.  Also f you haven’t yet read  Johann Hari’s scary story it’s a reminder of how strongly the state can resist protest when it threatens to be effective.

Human rights are rarely out of the news; in this project we are all working together to try to make overarching sense of them.

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2 Responses to T10 – Up With The Unions – Responses

  1. Halsbury's says:

    I agree that we have to rediscover the concept of solidarity. From my own experience of union activity in a private company (a publishing company) the main thing preventing membership was an understanding of trade unionism as peculiarly “left-wing”, a problem for the majority who didn’t identify as so. This is reinforced by the leadership of both workplace unions and unions nationally, and perhaps financial support for the Labour party.
    We won new members when we showed them we worked hard for the interests of the workers in the company, and didn’t get distracted by international or overly ‘political’ causes.

  2. Lee says:

    It is a shame that the unions thread didn’t coincide with the ASLEF Boxing Day strike. It is difficult to obtain unbiased or detailed information on the argument but ASLEF states in their press release that “the dispute centres around a ‘bizarre’ management claim that Boxing Day is ‘an ordinary working day’. The union argues that this is nonsense and insisted on generous premium rates for working on the day following Christmas Day.” Other media reports mention a 1996 agreement between ASLEF and London Underground which designated Boxing Day a normal working day in return for higher pay and longer holidays. Perhaps not so ‘bizarre’. The ASLEF press releases do not deal with the point, though the BBC notes that ASLEF “said increased Tube services on bank holidays meant drivers now had to work more public holidays than was the case when the agreement was signed”.

    Opportunism? Why hasn’t ASLEF worked to block the bank holiday service increases as they have happened if this is their concern? Changes in service and working expectations must be within the remit of ASLEF to take on as they arise.

    Double claiming? If ASLEF want a Boxing Day Sunday to have special treatment then I’d like to know what their position is on the bank holiday of Tuesday 28th. The Tuesday bank holiday arises because the standard worker doesn’t work on a Sunday: the benefit of the bank holiday is transferred to the working week. If, however, Sunday is a working day for you then there should be two possibilities: (1) the Sunday service becomes a bank holiday service with the appropriate benefits and Tuesday is a usual Tuesday service; or (2) the Sunday is a standard Sunday and the Tuesday operates on a bank holiday service. Are ASLEF conceding that a full Tuesday, not bank holiday, service should be run on Tuesday 28th and with no additional pay benefits?

    Greed? The demand is that members working this Boxing Day should receive triple pay plus time off in lieu. If anyone could tell me how “triple” was arrived at or what paid carers, doctors, paramedics, fire and police staff get for today I’d be grateful.

    Laziness? You strike because of unfairness. You accompany that strike with pickets to raise awareness, show your solidarity for the cause and attempt to talk-down the workers still going to work. But this is not the case. An ASLEF spokesman is reported on the BBC as saying: “it seems other unions’ members have supported our action without any picket lines at all”. Why no pickets? Surely this whole thing isn’t just a use of union laws plus a greedy claim to get everyone a day off? Oh.

    Democracy? Dave Hill in the Guardian discusses how things would be different under Ken Livingstone and how Ken’s campaign for the Labour nomination was funded and backed by ASLEF and TSSA. But he concludes:

    “If London’s voters want to see fewer strikes on the Underground in future, they should pay less attention to Ken Livingstone’s relationship with Tube unions now and more to the possible benefits of it should he be returned to City Hall. Would there be fewer Tube strikes under a Ken mayoralty or a Boris one post-2012?”

    What? Really? So the Guardian’s position on democracy is that I should be blackmailed out of my vote by people who will refuse to provide key services unless I vote for the man they’re funding. And that instead of worrying about this relationship and blackmail I should simply be a pragmatist and vote on whether or not there will be fewer strikes. Astonishing. Dave Hill says that it’s no surprise that unions back Ken and that “Boris’s mayoral campaign will doubtless be funded by individuals from London’s financial sector for equivalent reasons, just as it was in 2008”. He seeks to find equivalence here but he fails. The difference is this: if Boris loses the next election, the City’s financial institutions won’t stop their services periodically to swing the following election. I wonder what Dave Hill’s response would be if all City institutions refused to allow us to access our bank accounts or make payments occasionally unless Ken met their fresh demands, or until Boris was voted back in. Would Dave Hill’s response be so laissez-faire?

    Whatever the answers to the numerous questions I’ve asked above, I can’t conceive of this as an issue of fundamental social rights being upheld by those lacking power, or people in any way doing good. From the operations room at Crisis At Christmas this afternoon I’m going to watch thousands of volunteers get themselves to and from their shifts, some of them walking for hours to get home due to reduced transport. I’m glad I’m with them at Christmas and not the ASLEF committee.

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