Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Response of Labour in the Economic Crisis


I have just returned from a fantastic few days with students and teaching staff of the Global Labour University (GLU). The GLU held its annual summer school in Berlin which was billed as:

Former GLU students (alumni) are cordially invited to participate in the third GLU Alumni Summer School, organised jointly by the University of Kassel and the Berlin School of Economics and Law. The GLU summer school will bring together GLU alumni and current GLU students, as well as professors and trade union experts from the GLU network. The summer school is intended to strengthen the network links between GLU alumni and to explore possibilities for future research collaboration. The main theme of presentations & discussions will be about the Current Financial and Economic Crisis and Labour Responses.

The GLU is a highly innovative concept (students pictured above) offering masters level educational opportunity (just as at Ruskin College) at four partner institutions in South Africa, Brazil, India and Germany.

There is more info on the GLU at

You can view the GLU summer conference programme at:

The summer conference offered a highly challenging, stimulating range of presentations all of which provided a perspective on labour and trade union responses to the financial and economic crises. Clearly the evidence to-date suggests a degree of both rationality, for example in the BALPA shares-for-pay deal with British Airways and innovation for example in the deal brokered by the Opel works council in Germany (part of the summer conference) to protect jobs by reducing hours.

A contentious point within all of the debate however, was the degree to which trade unions should be proposing significantly alternative economic models to capitalism or just defending their place within the current malaise. Naturally an issue here is the degree of trade union significance in proposing the former, but also the degree of bargaining influence potentially lost in accommodating the latter.

So, a question here is, to what degree should trade unions support, or not, attempts by the state, employers etc., to shore up their position within the global economic downturn or is now time to turn the screw?




Andrew Maybury said...

Hi Ian, I favour the view that unions need to be class rather than trade conscious. The capitalist system exploits all workers, albeit that some workers because of skills or social capital may be able to negotiate better terms for their exploitation. The paradox is though, in my opinion, that even with militant fighting unions there would have to be some bargaining with capitalist employers to get the best deal for their members, whilst those unions who just see their role as protecting the interests of a group of workers cannot be too compliant because there must be an element of fear on behalf of the employers.

PS Good capability course in Brum the other week.

Alan said...

Hello Andrew,

I favour your balanced view of the role of trade unions in capitalist societies, although I feel the greatest difficulty is finding the balance particuarly when you have a conservation (with a small c) membership.

Most of my members in UNITE do not join the union from (sadly) the perspective of their class consciousness but rather the a more selfish view of self interest should the worst happen to them - and indeed why not as this is how unions offer their membership - as insurance.

So a starting point for me is that we need to be more honest with new members and describe the overtly political role of unions and in particular drive up their conscious understanding of what unions are for.

In particular I want members to understand again that they are the union and that they need on occasion to stand with other members to resolve matters.

In looking at your statement again as I type this I want to come back and support your view that in achieving the balance we can't lose sight of the need to ensure that we maintain sufficient bargaining strength to attempt to improve terms and conditions with members.

Again, this is contingent on the strength of the membership however, and the degree to which they are prepared to support forms of action on issues they see as important.

I look forward to seeing other contributions from you in this blog.

Best wishes

Alan Chester

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Andrew (good to see you in Birmingham also) and Alan,

Many thanks for your contributions on this posted item.

The assessment overall of a trade union perspective on the economic crisis based on members' perceptions and values is obviously essential in determining a way forward.

Although Alan I tend to think that you are right when you point to an inherently conservative characteristic in a large proportion of members.

The trick Andrew as you suggest is finding the balance between a fighting, progressive form of unionism but one that accommodate a reasonably good relationship with the employer from a bargaining perspective.

Interestingly I am at Northern College this week with a group of UNISON H&S reps form the Yorks/Humber region and they are fairly critical of anything that smacks of partnership based on their experience of the significantly savage way that some public sector employers have approached privatisation processes and the current round of pay negotiations.

I tend to think from a purely personal perspective that most reps would like a positive relationship wth management representatives but find the unequal balance in the power relationship tends to lead to clashes over critically important areas of the relationship i.e. trust.

The period up to and after the next election are going to be very interesting in determining the future of the trade union movement over the next decade at least.

Let's hope it's good news.



Peter said...

I think much of what is being said here, and generally across the left and trade union movement is premature.

I don't believe we are coming out of the crisis. Far from it, we are inching toward the eye of the storm in terms of job losses and financial debt.

Because of this the best position unions can adapt is to retrench and sit tight - it's going to be a hard bargaining climate regardless of who wins the general election - lets not kid ourselves.

The deficit in public finances needs to be plugged and New Labour as much as the Tories want to beat public sector workers with the stick that they should have used on senior bods in the financial sector.

Peter Eden

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Peter,

Sorry, I disagree.

What you prescribe is the same type of union inaction in a time of crises that has essentially been a key factor in the demise of the trade union movement in developed economies since the 70s.

It's exactly because we know how difficult the next few years will be that we should be clear about our future, and the nature of the economic recovery, on a range of fronts.

For example, some unions have been clear that, in order to maintain competitive advantage in the current climate, investment in training should be a priority.

It's only a minor example but what it demonstrates is that through union support for training and development opportunities we can/may be able to safguard jobs now and for the forseeable future.

Your thoughts on what I've said?



Andrew Maybury said...

Hi Ian, I agree that inaction is not an option this time round. Whilst I agree that public sector workers will be attacked regardless of the general election result, there must be resistance to this. Sitting tight will, I believe, lead to further loss of membership as members ask what the point of being a union member is. Density is going to be crucial in the public sector, where derecognition could become a real threat. Hopefully collective resistance and solidarity may have the effect of encouraging union membership. Keeping our heads down will not stop attacks against us and is more likely to encourage them.