There is power in a union
Jim Rogers of ARC Committee wants a word in your ear.
I shall start by making my position clear. I have been a lifelong member of a union. My dad said, “It doesn’t matter what you think, you’re a kid and an idiot. You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said to you since before you could understand. But listen to this. When you get a job, join the union. Don’t wait to find out if it is a good idea, you can find that out later. Just join.”
He was, of course, right in every sense. I trusted him more than he knew and I have always been a member. If this opening, or something like it, resonates with you, or if the idea of not being in a union just seems a bit silly, this article is not aimed at you, so stop reading.
This article is for people who are wavering, thinking of leaving, aren’t activists any more, don’t come to meetings or simply struggle to articulate to a non-member why they have got it spectacularly wrong.
Tony, your president, says that we shouldn’t start with a negative when explaining the union story, but I will anyway. I must dispel some of the myths. There has been a war waged on the trade union movement over the past 30 years. When you talk to non-members, particularly of the younger generation, you can see that it has started to poison the way the public think of trade unionism. This is a war of media control and slick sound bites fought out in the court of public opinion. This is not a political diatribe. From this perspective, I am unconcerned by your political views. Whether you are a screaming Liberal, a land owning Conservative or a Corbynista, you’re welcome (other brands of political leaning are available). Just join.
If you want to take a look at where the war on trade unionism leads you, you merely need to hop across the pond to the United States. Stateside, trade unionism has become a synonym for organised crime. The idea of workers’ rights is laughable. The idea that they don’t get annual leave is almost entirely not true. They simply don’t take it for fear of not having a job when they return. They work preposterously long hours, with a macho sense that work/life balance is something for the hippies. Employees there are living in fear of losing their job to someone who won’t stand up for themselves, so none of them do. This isn’t an accident. The US Government, in hand with big business, has systematically undermined trade unions through the legislative weakening of powers; belittling and misrepresentative media coverage. Ringing any bells?
That is why trade unions exist. Because no one employee can say, “Hold on, that seems unreasonable,” and expect to be heard. If we all stand together we can. Not always with absolute success but with more success than without it. Trade unions help address the imbalance of power.
Let’s turn to the UK. The history of the attack on trade unionism really started with Margaret Thatcher but you would be a fool not to have noticed it. The attacks continue unabated; there is a Trade Union Bill going through Parliament as we speak. I don’t need to explain the media attack; quite a few of you probably believe it is true. It is not. It is inaccurate, one-sided spin-mongering of the very worst order. It is morally reprehensible and it is deliberate.
If you believe in the maxim, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” then join. The union is on the side of the employee, the employer is not. I don’t mind which union you join but if you are unsure then ARC or Keystone are the unions for you. If you need an example, then look at PMR, the single silliest thing the Department has ever done. It is institutionalised bullying and is adversely affecting the health of employees. ARC has continued to object in principle and has tried to ameliorate the very worst of it. Leaving aside how well you think we’ve done that, trust me it would be even worse without ARC and the activities, lobbying, negotiation and haranguing by ARC and our sister union, PCS.
Just ask yourself why Government, at the behest of big business, is waging this war. Because staff welfare, proper pay and terms and conditions eat into profits. They want to minimise costs across the board, irrespective of some sense of the greater good. Look at their behaviour around tax avoidance and profit shifting. They want to keep down the cost of what you cost them. ARC is a speed bump on that road to profitability and they want rid.Trade unionism is about sacrifice for the greater good. Some of that sacrifice has to come from the public. That sacrifice, or inconvenience as the press would call it, is where our power comes from.
So next time you read an article in the press about a trade union, just assume the opposite is true. I know it is annoying when you get inconvenienced. Who amongst us hasn’t muttered a word under their breath when you’ve not been able to get to work because the tube workers are on strike, had to take the day off because the school where your kid goes is closed or had to wait an extra three weeks for a postcard because the posties were out. Don’t mutter under your breath – cheer and honk your horn in support. Trade unionism is about sacrifice for the greater good. Some of that sacrifice has to come from the public. That sacrifice, or inconvenience as the press would call it, is where our power comes from. You should applaud it. Remember that people on strike are all losing a day’s pay; they are more inconvenienced than we are. No one goes on strike over nothing. They have been forced into it by the intransigence of their employer. It could be doctors next. Who thinks they are overpaid and under-worked?
People sometimes say that tube workers are already well paid so what are they moaning about. Well the ‘fact’ that they are well paid will have come from the slick narrative machine within Boris’s office. Even if we take it as read, the only reason that it could be true is because they have a strong union voice and a membership that is willing to stand together and be heard. We should be inspired not annoyed. Whatever changes are being proposed they won’t leave tube workers working less hours for better pay in ever-increasing safety. They have concerns for all three.
Management often introduce change in a salami-slice manner so that people think, “Oh well it’s not as bad as it could be.” But it also makes the union that opposes a ‘small change’ seem unreasonable. It is part of the narrative and it is misrepresentative. Tube workers should be applauded for standing up for themselves.
Let’s come onto the money. People are increasingly under the squeeze. We haven’t had a pay rise for years and the cost of living hasn’t gone down. It is easy to draw the conclusion that ARC can’t be doing a very good job, and that if I can’t get a pay rise, I can save myself X pounds a month by leaving the union, which I have already determined isn’t very good.
I refute both those statements. Firstly, I think ARC does do a good job but why would you believe me if you’ve read this far and still don’t agree. Even if ARC is useless; it is impossible for me to imagine that we are better off without their negotiation than with. We can only possibly be arguing about the degree. Even if they aren’t currently doing any good at all; the solution is to join and get everyone you know to join. You are ARC, so unless you think you are rubbish how can you think ARC is?
I resort to another maxim: in times of recession you should increase your spend on advertising not decrease it. Well that is probably just the advertising industry demonstrating that they are good at their job; but the point stands. Things at the moment are the worst they have been since I’ve been in HMRC and the Inland Revenue before that. The worse things are, the more we need to stand together. With BoF entering its delivery phase, we need to be more united than ever. The only way to do that is to join ARC and mean it.
Some people say, “OK, I would join but it is too much money.” Hogwash. There are plenty of benefits which I won’t go into at length here. FDA Portfolio can, if you are a clever coupon clipping type, pay your fees for you. There’s a calculator on the FDA site. Check it out for yourselves. FDA Learn can help you develop your skills and progress your career. That is not my rebuttal – the insurance policy in case something goes wrong is. As with all insurance policies, you pay and hope to never use it. ARC is excellent at casework – ask your colleagues. You won’t have to go far to find an example of how good we are. That is enough. Watch the video on the FDA website about Emma Knox. It is shocking, horrific and uplifting in equal measure. This on its own gives you value for money. If someone says that you can get better and cheaper cover for this, then tell them to prove it. It isn’t true. Ask them if they have taken it out. They haven’t – it doesn’t exist.
Other people say, “Well any addition to terms or pay that ARC negotiates, I get anyway.” But see the paragraph above. You have missed one of the main benefits. Even if we set aside everything but collective bargaining, if you genuinely believe this isolationist view of the world then there is no point joining any union because you are morally repugnant. The natural culmination to this view is no unions, vested interest wins and employees just become a bottom line cost control commodity. It will be worse without ARC – see America and China.
When trade unionism got underway at the start of the industrial revolution, the vested interests could see the potential harm to their investments. They were so convinced and so concerned that they made unions illegal and punishable by death. Eventually trade unionism won out but the vested interests are back, this time hidden behind a respectable corporate veneer. They think we have forgotten. I hope they’re not right.