The British Government’s Hopes for Partnership with the Unions

The end of the self-defeating miners’ strike in 1985 led to the somewhat fundamentalist right wing government imposing severe restrictions on the unions’ rights to engage in industrial action. Despite the 13 years of Labour rule, those restrictions were never undone. So it remains extremely difficult, within the law, for the union movement to mount any general industrial action. However, the wholesale nature of the current government’s expenditure cuts, presents a once in a life time opportunity for the unions to mount a hundred or more individual legitimate trade disputes, which could, to all intents and purposes, look very much like a general strike. The unions hope this will be the appearance of their London demonstration at the end of March, which they expect to attract a million supporters.

The unions know, as does everyone else, that the real impact of strike action, in terms of money and jobs for their members, will be wholly counter-productive. Even if they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, brought the government down and replaced it with one of their own choosing, the problems would remain. The essential solutions would be only marginal variations on the current plans. The conflict approach to industrial relation in UK, has very little positive to show and has done a huge amount of damage.

But strike action would serve to lance the boil of hatred, fury and contempt (to use the words of the late management guru, Peter Drucker). When this government came in the hatred, fury and contempt was focused largely on the bankers and bosses who got us all into this mess, paid themselves such obscenely large amounts that it seemed like the rest of the population was being treated with contempt, and avoided paying taxes in ways that were not open to others. Now the hatred and fury is focused on the government itself, for its support for those same bankers and bosses. Far from dealing with them, they are even appointing them as government advisors.

Now, in response to the unions aggressive sounding expressions of frustration, not to mention hatred and fury, the government claims to want their partnership. A government spokesman told the BBC’s Today programme on 28th January, “We’d like to see the unions move … to a position more like on the Continent where the unions see themselves as partners working together with government.” He then went on to reveal his lack of understanding of custom and practice ‘on the Continent’.

The coalition government, despite its moderation by the Lib-Dem presence, remains in thrall to neo-classical orthodoxy. They support the maximising of short term shareholder wealth above the interests of everything else including employees, communities and the planet. That simplistic dogma, to which this government clings, is the other side of the conflict approach, which has wrecked many British industries, coal, with 100 years of unused resource and leadership in clean technology, being just one example.

Meanwhile, ‘on the Continent’ employees occupy 50% of the seats on company supervisory boards of directors and can effectively veto mergers and acquisitions as well as executive pay. That is partnership. Is that what this government is hoping for?

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