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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11 thoughts on “Clocking Off

  1. I know people who are terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, it means they put up with crap…we’re going backwards.

  2. First paragraph you missed out “& shunters club”,to go with the Wheel-tappers!
    Thatcher was not so smart,how can you have settled folk owning their own home,paying a mortgage,and being mobile,its a contradiction,get a mortgage and after a few months move to another area where the work now is.You have to buy another house while selling your old one in a place where there is no work ergo nobody can get a mortgage to buy that house.

  3. Charles P. Kearney

    This Middle Class sneering at the ‘White Bread Sandwich,’ is something up with which I will not put!

    Fore bye that you say, “I like the increasingly co-operative relationship forged between the STUC and Scottish Government?”

    I beg to differ, the ‘cooperation’ appears more honoured in the breach than the observance, when they shamelessly Back the Conspiracy of Combined Labour Local Authorities against the SNP when they play fast and loose with Funds earmarked for specific Purposes like the provision of Teachers! And now we have Fife Council declaring a ‘Black Hole’ in their Funds of £50Million—which is exactly the amount they have committed to Pay the ‘Equal Pay Claims’ that were entirely their own Fault!

    When the Scottish Government committed to fighting the new Trade Union Laws, I fitted the STUC,s purposes, but they do not play the game, it is no longer in their Nature!!!

  4. It should be mentioned at every chance that at the Smith Commission talks Lab said they would walk if Employment law and Health and Safety law were devolved why anyone in the STUC who lobbied for those powers sticks with the Lab party is beyond me
    Lab left it’s brother’s and Sisters in Tory hands rather than the Scottish Government as always party before people

  5. Agree with most of what you say and would like to believe there was a co-operative situation between government and unions but I tend to feel Mr Kearney’s assessment is closer to the case. There’s still too many Labour supporters in positions of power to stop being tribal.

    Ideally the Scotland I want to see emerge is one in which we all try to work together, as much as we can, for the common goal of creating a better country. Bosses and workers, government and electorate, teachers and pupils, each trying to better themselves and improve their country and in doing so improve the lives of all – idealists eh? Would be nice though.

  6. Eh sorry Derek, you must be one of the more fortunate ones with your Union. When I needed mine, I was told , I’ll give you 15 minutes and when my union rep kept calling my manager by her first name , while he could hardly recall mine , I began to think there’s something not right here.
    I glazed over when he began to quote rules / section whatever to me as I stood wondering how the hell did it come to this ?
    You see the issue I raised should not have been raised by me. If Id had a half decent Union, they would have raised ( a very common concern ) and addressed it ( health and safety) before any worker had to raise a concern . The lack of a paper trail even acknowledging my concern by management appeared to be acceptable to my representative.
    I believe in strong unions, I believe their other roles of offering education courses are a good thing . In my case I would like to think my rep was a one off but anecdotally I know that’s not true.
    When I banged into that rep ( in the run up to the ref) I handed him back his leaflet to join his Union , shortly after I asked him what he thought about TTIP ? Still waiting for a reply.
    I now watch junior Doctors having to put forward their case on TV , I see the GMB using Trident as a job creation scheme and I see Len Mcluskey and wonder is he too scared to actually stand for election or is it all too good for him pulling the strings in the background.
    IMHO unions need to be proactive not just reactive and I wait with baited breath to see the official line from my lot, to see if they think we should stay in Europe and show solidarity with our brothers and sisters or leave our brothers and sisters .
    Sorry about what’s happened to that lady

  7. My recollection is that Thatcher engineered a confrontation with the miners in 1983 (they were the strongest union) in a plan to show “who runs Britain”. That plan included flying soldiers back from Germany, dressing them in police uniforms, and setting them on the miners. Many young Scottish soldiers bought themselves out of the army at the time because they were disgusted by Government tactics.

    The Thatcher Government defeated the Unions then defeated the Local Authorities thus removing any organised check to their ambition to turn the UK into a neo-con state.

    Labour had 13 years to repair the damage but only made things worse. If only we had developed the type of social democracy enjoyed in Scandinavia and Germany. Too late for the UK now. But Scotland may still break free.

  8. Steve Asaneilean

    As a trade union member I believe in the concept other trade unions.

    We will miss them if/when they disappear.

    But the trade unions and, in particular, the “barons” of old have to take a share of the blame.

    They took what should have been an essential protector and supporter of ordinary workers and turned it into a megalomaniacal ego trip serving nobody’s purpose but their own.

    Why couldn’t we have the effective trade union cooperation and involvement we see in Scandinavia or Germany?

    Answers on a postcard…

  9. Katrine Paterson.

    I’m wondering when Scots and Brits will see red and take a stand en mass against the onslaught of Tory rule, lies, and corruption.
    It seems most will just roll over and say nothing.
    Is there no spirit left in the population?
    Are they willing to just shrug shoulders and pretend there is nothing we can do to show the so called elite that they will not stand for any more of the Tory wrecking ball?
    Our ‘leaders’ need a good kicking. No more bull—t!

  10. The Care Inspectorate would be interested in this story.

  11. Our eldest a few years ago lost a good job in hospitality. The charge was she had been drinking at lunchtime. Her immediate supervisor had taken her out and bought her drinks. No union, there only a smidgeon under two years so no comeback. She has fallen on her feet since but there were some not nice periods afterwards. She and us are apparently barred from the premises in perpetuity.

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