Monday, 14 April 2014
Congress 2014: Collective Bargaining
On the first morning of STUC Congress 2014, the following speech was delivered by STUC Vice-President June Minnery (GMB) in moving a composite motion on collective bargaining:
Congress, collective bargaining is about more than obtaining a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, protecting terms and conditions and safeguarding our members’ health and safety.
It is about equality. It is about building and sustaining workplace democracy. It is about the development of a society which is fairer, more equal and democratic - and where economic power is more evenly distributed.
The sorry truth is that for far too long now, successive governments have refused to acknowledge any kind of positive role for collective bargaining. It has been considered an unwelcome rigidity which prevents the otherwise flexible labour market from adjusting to meet changes in demand for labour. The wider benefits of collective bargaining have been deliberately obscured and diminished. For flexible labour market read low wage, low regulation, and low valuation of a disposable workforce.
But if politicians do indeed want to tackle economic insecurity and income inequality – and, yes, that is a big ‘if’! - then government at all levels must urgently reassess the benefits of collective bargaining.
During the referendum campaign we have heard an awful lot about the superior economic and social performance of the Nordic nations. But this rarely includes reference to the high levels of trade union membership and very wide collective bargaining coverage which are at the very centre of their models:
In Norway 72% of workers are covered by collective agreements. This rises to 82% in Demark and to 90% in Finland. In Sweden the pay, terms and conditions and pension rights of 92% of all workers are safeguarded by collective agreements. It is no accident that womens’ participation in the labour market is higher in these countries and that the gender pay gap is lower.
The income distribution in these countries is – hardly surprisingly – much more fairly distributed than in Scotland and the UK. Indeed, across all the developed nations, higher collective bargaining coverage is positively correlated with lower income inequality. More workers covered by a collective agreement leads to a fairer distribution of income; end of story.
As with the Nordic nations, few of the politicians currently in thrall to the German industrial model have talked about the collective bargaining which helps drive a long term ethos throughout the system. It appears that when studying the experiences of other countries people often see only what they want to see.
It’s also revealing to track over time how the decline in union membership and collective bargaining coverage is accompanied with the top 1% grasping an even bigger slice of the cake for themselves.
In 1970 with trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage at an all-time high in the UK, the income share of the top 1% was only 5%. As bargaining coverage declined over the following three decades the income share of the top 1% tripled. The less workers are covered by collective agreements the greater the ability of those at the top to loot the gains produced by all.
Congress, this composite includes a range of proposals which if implemented would go a long way to ensuring more people benefit from the higher pay and greater security provided by a collective agreement. The benefits of collective bargaining are confirmed by a large and accumulating body of research. Politicians, who tell us they want policy to be evidence based, should really start acting on it. The Scottish Government now has an opportunity to do exactly that through the Mather Commission in which the STUC is heavily involved.
And Congress it is essential that free, independent trade unions are at the core of any new efforts to extend and improve collective bargaining across the economy. The last thing Scottish workers need is for their pay, terms and conditions to be negotiated by ‘employee representatives’ who haven’t been democratically elected and are usually captured by management. Scotland doesn’t need ostensibly progressive but practically weak models of workplace relations imported from elsewhere.
This composite is a litmus test for Government at all levels: seek to support an agenda for collective bargaining or cease with platitudes about inequality, low wages and decent work.
But let me make clear that the STUC General Council knows that increasing the number of people in Scotland covered by a collective agreement ultimately depends on the effectiveness of trade union organising agendas. We’re not looking for anyone else to do this for us. All the measures outlined in this composite seek to achieve is the creation of a level playing field for union organisers to do what they do.
It is right that Scotland’s trade unions are at the forefront of the living wage campaign. The national minimum wage which has done so much to help the very lowest paid was also one of our great successes. However, in supporting fair wages across the economy, protecting hard won terms and conditions and underpinning a better society it is collective bargaining which really matters.
Congress, I ask you to support this composite.