A recession is a good time to start a business and a trade union…

Legal Eagle 

Image © Roger Blackwell

The recent comment by Lord Young, an adviser to the Prime Minister, is worth considering, especially if you happen to be looking for work at the moment. Although, his report written for the Prime Minister`s Cabinet of millionaires, may not be that useful to the average job seeker. However, just in case you’re interested, the current recession we are told, has an optimistic aspect, making it conducive to business and entrepreneurial activity. This is because of the prevalence of low wage levels and other factors. It seems, it`s an ill wind that doesn’t do someone some good at sometime. At last the Coalition of millionaires has a rationale for following its stringent austerity programme. Sadly, this gives working people few reasons to be cheerful. So, if you’re looking for a job with a living wage your quest may be a disappointing one. Not that anyone in David Cameron`s Cabinet need worry about this – although they may be looking for work soon enough.

Lord Young may have been stating what Downing Street described as a factual point and nothing else but it remains a highly contentious and hard faced commentary. The Coalition may not have noticed but many are struggling in this new economic Eldorado, where the only businesses booming are food charities dispensing essential items to increasing numbers. It seems rather bizarre to suggest that an enterprise culture (of merit) could be inspired in the current economic climate. As the Observer points out, some new business are emerging in London but even amongst this success there was a 10.4% “death rate”, which is the proportion of companies de-registering for VAT purposes in the year, according to the latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In comparison, the north-west has a 10.5% new business birth rate but a 10.7% death rate. Low pay doesn’t lead to economic revival, to infer otherwise looks desperate. What does appear to be beyond doubt is that for UK employees’ average hourly earnings have fallen by 8.5% since 2009 in real terms, adjusting for inflation, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

If your job search proves successful, then you might wisely decide that this is also a good time to belong to a trade union. During a slump, unions normally go into decline but this recession appears different. The Guardian reported yesterday that UK trade union membership rose last year, the first increase in membership in ten years. The paper cites the annual statistical report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), membership for 2012 was 59,000 higher at 6.455 million workers compared with 2011. However, we should be mindful of the caveat that this rise still means that union membership is below where it was prior to the beginning of the global financial crisis in 2007. Then it was 6.999 million and in 2002, a decade earlier, it stood at 7.020 million. As Gregor Gall explains, the current increase in trade union members is still significant given the prevailing economic climate. He outlines the reasons why trade union numbers have increased; illustrating that there has been a significant drive amongst many unions to recruit members and to train up its membership. Workers are aware that a trade union is the best institution to campaign against an employer’s redundancy drive. In particular Gregor Gall explains employers are enforcing severe contractual limitations on their workforce using so called Section 188 Redundancies. Trade unions are at last putting up a robust defence against this. This approach is paying dividends, in particular the counter measures taken by Unite and the Public Commercial Services Union`s. Trade Unions have also linked the fight for jobs with a campaign to protect services, while this is not rocket science it`s leading to public support and approval.

In highlighting this it`s also worth pointing out that the coalition government has mounted attacks in both central and local government on the hard won right of facility time for union reps. They have been aided and abetted in this by right wing pressure groups, such as the Taxpayers Alliance, and in Parliament by the Trade Union Reform Campaign, chaired by the Tory MP Aidan Burley. This attack has made it very difficult for trade union representatives to carry out their work on the shop floor. As the Labour Research Department illustrate Section 168 of the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act provides trade union activists with the right to time off in order to carry out union business. This legislation is also backed up by the 2010 Acas Code of Practice. The trade union movement is coming under attack but fighting back. This includes the broader trade union movement response to low pay and the prevalence of casualisation in many sectors of employment in the form of zero-hours contracts.

In February the LRD gave an excellent appraisal on the campaign against zero-hours contracts, highlighting the action various unions are taking to eradicate this employment blight. For example, Unions at the National Assembly for Wales, opposed a management proposal for zero hours working, which seems to have worked for the time being. And at Akcros Chemicals in Eccles the management has agreed to Unite’s demand that such casualisation will not take place on that site at all. The LRD also point out that a campaign to mitigate the worst aspects of zero-hours contracts has been undertaken in a variety of educational establishments notably University College London, Manchester University, Leeds City College and Hackney Community College. For example Leeds City College, has agreed in principle to use outside agency workers less and offer a “college contract” to such teachers/lecturers.  

Outside of the education sector (where zero-hour contracts are endemic) there has been union action to mitigate the impact of casualisation at Bassetlaw District Council undertaken by Unison and with the Welsh Ambulance NHS Trust, Essex County Fire and Rescue and with Michelin.  If you are in work at the moment but not in a union, make a decision to join one. It is the best way to protect your job and fight for a living wage. Remember a union is only as good as its membership so get involved and ORGANISE.

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