What should good trade unions do?

With the ALP and trade unions suffering a bit of an image problem, someone asked on a thread somewhere, what should responsible trade unions be doing?  

Associations of workers had (and have) many useful functions in addition to acting as friendly societies for health and welfare provision. They could help their members to improve their qualifications and locate the best paid work, and they could provide legal advice and other assistance to members subjected to unfair treatment by management.

Even supporters of the centralized Australian system such as Keith Hancock know that the only way to improve the position of the workers at large is by way of increased productivity. This means that responsible unions will work  with management to lift productivity by implementing improved work practices and new technologies. That is likely to reduce the need for personnel on site for the time being and that has prompted the unions to protect jobs in the short term rather than implement improved practices. Where unions succeed in that aim there is a cost in job creation both upstream and downstream from overmanned and inefficient sites. Progress occurs through the creation AND destruction of jobs and the main game is to make both of those processes as painless as possible without cramping productivity and efficiency.

 That is lifted from a paper on the mythology of the trade union movement that is used to justify what William H Hutt called “the strike threat system” that evolved in Britain to protect the privileges of unions, by force and intimidation if it helped.

The alternative is the “friendly society” system whereby the unions provided health and welfare services for their members, in advance of the welfare state which probably drove them out of existence in that form, the way the “free” public schools drove out the private “penny schools”.

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15 Responses to What should good trade unions do?

  1. daddy dave

    There’s nothing wrong in unions in principle. They have a role as advocates and as professional negotiators. In the past, they’ve been responsible for the 40 hour week and improved workplace safety.

    But any institution that survives due to government protection and regulation will grow flabby, inefficient and corrupt. Unions aren’t exempt from this.

  2. m0nty

    So you’re saying “responsible trade unions” should be conspiring with management to get their workers laid off?

    I can only assume you will also call on chambers of commerce to conspire with government to get negligent employers and market speculators put in jail.

    BTW I do like, Rafe, how you fail to mention that you are quoting your own paper. As a great man once said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” 😉

  3. Sean

    dd

    Competition for labour has a big impact on working conditions.

  4. ken n

    So you’re saying “responsible trade unions” should be conspiring with management to get their workers laid off?

    m0nty – When an organisation has more people than it needs it should shed the excess. To refuse to do that – as many business managements and public service administrators do – jeopardises the survival of the organisation and the jobs of the rest.
    Good union managements understand this and concentrate on getting the best deal for those being laid off.
    Have you ever worked in a job where you really don’t have anything to do? Not a satisfying experience..

  5. JC

    So you’re saying “responsible trade unions” should be conspiring with management to get their workers laid off?

    What a miserable fucking view you seem to have of the world, montY.

    Firms don’t want to fire their people unless they have to as a last least preferred option. How the fuck are they going to make money otherwise, you moron.

    I can only assume you will also call on chambers of commerce to conspire with government to get negligent employers and market speculators put in jail.

    You idiot.

  6. Fisky

    Firms don’t want to fire their people unless they have to as a last least preferred option.

    Firing people is always a last resort. It costs money and tends to demoralise the workforce. Don’t listen to m0nty, he has no idea what he is talking about.

  7. daddy dave

    Competition for labour has a big impact on working conditions.

    Sure, but even in a free market with high demand for labour it’s possible to screw people over and treat them badly.

  8. Jim Rose

    In the past, they’ve been responsible for the 40 hour week and improved workplace safety.

    dd, a case of basking in reflected glory?

    compare the emergence of the 40 hour week and improved workplace safety in countries with high rates of unionisation with the USA where unions were always less and minor before the new deal.

    the USA is a good laboratory in itself because unionisation rates and safety records vary across states.

  9. Jim Rose

    DD,
    The length of the workweek is determined by the supply and demand for labour.

    • Employers would like employees to work long hours because this means that they can utilize their equipment more fully and to offset any fixed costs from hiring each worker.

    • Long hours can reduce productivity due to fatigue and can bring worker demands for higher hourly wages to compensate for putting in long hours.

    • If the workweek is too high, workers may quit and few workers will be recuited at a competitive wage.

    • Workers choose among a variety of jobs – some offer shorter hours and lower earnings while others offer longer hours and higher earnings per hour.

    The long decline in the length of the workweek has due to increased economic productivity, which has yielded higher wages for workers.

    Workers responded to this rise in potential income by buying more leisure time, as well as by buying more goods and services.

    An important standard of evidence for some, because of their views of other topics of public dispute, is over eighty percent of economic historians accepted the proposition that “the reduction in the length of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was primarily due to economic growth and the increased wages it brought”. You cannot pick and chose your scientfic consensus!?

    For example, roughly two-thirds of economic historians surveyed rejected the proposition that the efforts of labor unions were the primary cause of the drop in work hours before the Great Depression.

    Economic growth was the key to reduced work hours per day and per week.

    Increased unionization explains small reductions; and federal and state legislation and policies that mandated reduced workweeks also had a noticeable role.

    HT: http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/whaples.work.hours.us

  10. wreckage

    So you’re saying “responsible trade unions” should be conspiring with management to get their workers laid off?

    That’s what you got from that piece? No wonder people call you a blockhead.

  11. michaelc58

    I note in an earlier blog that unions are registered monopolies.

    Is monopolistic, and especially in some industries practically compulsory unionism, are they not guaranteed to be abused and be bad value for money sooner or later, despite elections, which seem to only reshuffle the chairs.

    Why can’t we have a choice? Why are we not allowing the registration of several unions per industry. I guess not too many, else they each become too weak. Competition for efficiency, lowest fees, work conditions and flexibility and political orientation would be great.

    The down sides probably are you would probably need the army to keep the peace, you would waste money advertising, the employer could play one against the other and the employer would have to deal with even more entities.

    Perhaps back to the drawing board. Maybe we just need a much stronger regulator to keep the union scene squeaky clean and democratic.

  12. Skuter

    Michaelc58, I’m with you. I reckon a bit of healthy competition between unions would work wonders. They should be transformed into businesses themselves, rather than being accorded special regulatory status. The industrial/occupational structure is archaic…

  13. JC

    Who cares about unions. Don’t give those fuckers any special privileges and treat them like any firm requiring audits and compliance. If they break the law throw the turds in jail as you would a crooked CEO or director.

    Never ever let them get away with anything.

    If people stupidly wish to organize under a union, well that’s fine, but negotiating en masse shouldn’t offer any special privileges.

  14. Sleetmute

    I agree with JC. Unions can do the sort of good things Rafe mentions without any legal protections or exemptions. The dirt coming out now about how the HSU has operated indicates that, at present, unions are a sanctioned form of corruption.

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