Staff need support, not just a spectator’s role

Rumour has it the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) starts work on 6 June.
Unions all over the country are making lists, arranging meetings and printing
booklets.

Yet the voluntary traditions of British industrial relations die hard. How
many of us who have been to endless seminars with lawyers about the ins and
outs of the CAC can remember a single word of the legal advice before we click
our briefcases shut?

There are dozens of large companies which had decided not to involve trade
unions in their HR strategy which are discussing the possibility of
recognition. What is interesting is the variety of questions emerging. Some
companies don’t want anyone to know they are thinking this through. The motel
on the edge of your town is overflowing with Secret Squirrels.

Others wheel in staff consultative committees and ask the union to dance to
the tunes of partnership.

The challenge from the union point of view is to see how far we can go with
a joint agenda. Can we produce a trade union culture, trade union activity and
trade union services that give confidence to workers, iron out manifestations
of bullying and add value?

If union work can engage managerial respect, we are more likely to persuade
managers they can treat our submissions with the seriousness we think they
deserve. My Trotskyist enemies still believe we will only win the workers their
just desserts out of the ashes of the destruction of capitalism. Unions are
finding the courage to shout from the rooftops that this is just not true.

But once oppositionist comfort blankets of this sort are removed, what is
left? Are unions doomed to be associated with conflict, disagreement and
failure? Is it impossible for us to organise workplace opinions in support of
profitability? Are we to stay for ever victims?

One company in the South Midlands provided an audience for me to describe
the benefits of partnership and recognition to a group of the local works
council. One man asked the $64,000 question, "This is a good company. What
can you do for me that it would not do anyway?"

Both he and the company need an independent body to organise opinion
professionally and without personal bias. Only then would the individual have
somewhere to go if his HR manager turned out to be more Cruella De Vil than
Snow White. The individual and the company need independent competence from the
union in things like safety, lifelong learning and flexibility issues.

He thought about that, smiled and said, "On that basis, I’ll support
the union, but only on that basis."

The whole exchange ought to remind us all that different people view their
employer in different ways. Trade unions know there are far more fellow
citizens who want professional support than a spectator’s role at work. Perhaps
the CAC will bear that in mind when it starts hearing recognition applications
next month.

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