35. People Defending Themselves

“Conservatives have done their utmost to portray trade unions and their members as ‘the enemy within’, introducing regressive anti-worker laws to stop people defending themselves,” said Len McCluskey, general-secretary of Unite. “That is not progress; it’s giving bad bosses a free ride.”

The comment was promoted by a press article that stated,

Strike levels were close to an all-time low last year as industrial relations between workers and bosses experience a new level of understanding, well according to a report in The Daily Telegraph. [Why changes to how we work mean the ‘bad old days’ of strikes may be gone by Alan Tovey, Industry Editor. Daily Telegraph 30 May 2017]

Official data from the Office for National Statistics [ONS] show that in 2016 a total of 322,000 working days were lost because of stoppages – the eighth-lowest figure since records began in 1891.

A strike is a last resort and work place militancy reflects a weakness of the organisations that claim to represent workers. Union Unite echoed the view that to get to a stage where staff walk out, it effectively means that there has been a breakdown in communications, and also that pay remains the most common cause of industrial action.

The number of strikes was record at 101 last year. However, ONS analysis of the data reveals that instead of a large number of small scale strikes, “large-scale stoppages have become more common” like the workplace dispute of junior doctors’ grievances over changes to their contracts.

Since 2008 the impact of financial crisis and redundancy laid the ground for a long-term decline in willingness among staff to walk out over pay. Wider economic uncertainty meant workers felt they have less bargaining power and simply put up with what they saw as poor pay.

“Strikes are far less common these days and tend to be short, with going on strike always a last resort when bosses refuse to negotiate or compromise,” said Frances O’Grady, TUC general-secretary.

In the last decade, 2011 proved the worst year for labour disputes, when public sector workers staged a number of stoppages over controversial pension changes – some 1.39 million working days calculated as lost. And regardless of the demand, whenever there is a national dispute, from fringe Trotskyist groups for the TUC to get off its kneels and call a General Strike, that possibility is but a pipe dream. There is a misplaced nostalgia for we are unlikely to see a sudden surge in workers picking up placards and standing around blazing braziers as was a frequent sight in the 1970s and 1980s. Unions have seen a steady reduction in their membership for decades

Employees in professional occupations were more likely to be trade union members than other employees. Employees in the professional occupations account for 37.3% of union members, a cavet to that is new classification to compile the statistics , among other changes, moved nurses and midwives, and therapy professionals, both relatively highly unionised occupations, into the professional group.

However, the changing profile of a trade unionists is reflected in the observation that the proportion of employees who were trade union members was greater for people with a higher qualification, such as a degree, compared with those with lower level qualifications, or no qualifications. Nearly a third of university graduates would be union members such as teachers in the education sector.

In 2015, 3.80 million public sector employees belonged to a union in the UK, In the private sector, there were 2.7 million members. Current membership levels are well below the peak of over 13 million in 1979. The proportion of employees who were trade union members was at 24.7% in 2015. This is the lowest rate of trade union membership recorded since 1995.

Trade unions, like British society, has an aging membership profile with about 39% of trade union member employees aged over 50 in 2015, while only 28% of employees are in this age group. The proportion of trade union members aged below 50 has fallen since 1995, whilst the proportion aged above 50 has increased.

[Trade Union Membership 2015: Statistical Bulletin]


The Decline in Unionisation

Heavy industry, which was heavily unionised, has virtually disappeared with the switch into services. The rate of union membership in manufacturing, which has traditionally been seen as a high union membership industry, has fallen substantially in recent years to 16.8% in 2015.

The long-term trend for a much lower proportion of private sector employees who are trade union members, relative to the public sector, continues.

Many services companies are smaller businesses where employee relations tend to be informal and staff are more amenable to the company’s ethos and control and smaller businesses are more likely to strike individual pay deals than implement the corporate-union negotiated settlements. Services jobs can also be seen as more transitory, with a threat that there is a ready supply of people lining up to take positions and other jobs are available, meaning staff would rather put up with a difficult situation or simply go find a better job than go to the trouble of striking. Accommodation and food services had the lowest union membership at 3.5%.

The likelihood of belonging to a trade union varies substantially by sector. Employees in industries with higher proportions of public sector workers are more likely to belong to trade unions, including the ‘public administration and defence’ and ‘education’ industries.

Rather than huge workplaces, modern business can also tend to be more dispersed – such as a large retailer with lots of outlets each employing only a handful of staff – making it less likely for issues to spread to large portions of the workforce, taking it to a point where there is anger on such a scale to drive a ballot for industrial action. Union membership is more likely to be an insurance premium than a commitment to the collectivist solidarity philosophy. Unions are defence mechanism not vehicles for social advancement other than in the realm of pay and conditions at the workplace. It is about “People Defending Themselves”.

Employee Engagement

Grievances are also going underground . Rather than strike, workers just disengage, doing their job but without any motivation apart from getting paid.

This raises another worry: Britain’s low productivity rate:

“The persistent weakness in productivity has puzzled economists and there are many alternative theories to explain it, including: weakness in investment that has reduced the quality of equipment employees are working with; the banking crisis leading to a lack of lending to more productive firms; employees within firms being moved to less productive roles; and slowing rates of innovation and discovery. None is sufficient on its own to explain entirely what has happened, making it difficult to predict when and if productivity growth will return to pre-crisis rates of growth.”

[Daniel Harari, Productivity in the UK. House of Commons Briefing Paper. Number 06492, 27 April 2017]

It is important to note that changes in labour productivity may be driven by a number of other factors, many of which have little to do with the innate qualities or efforts of employees.


Perhaps it is personal: “People Defending Themselves”. New technology in the office environment allows for plenty of diversion from the task at hand, a victim to click-bait interests, browsing before shopping, online bookings and the ubiquitous addiction to social media – all eat into company time.

Elsewhere, work remains social – talking about the weather, the telly, spouting recycled sport trivial – the coffee break, the paralysing drama of the printer paper jam, awaiting deliveries – all see the clock tick by and work does get done but the intensity, the rhythm of work diluted, slowed to manageable proportions. Monetary reward – pay, bonuses, etc – is the advertised currency of reward for work (supposedly as a company’s failings are seldom reflected in cuts to directors rewards) then a pay cut – albeit freeze or inflation induced – should be matched by a decline in output per hour worked as being paid less to do more has little appeal.

Understand that we should take pride that

“International comparisons of labour productivity show that the UK was ranked fifth of the G7 countries, with Germany top and Japan bottom. In 2015, UK productivity was 19 percentage points below the rest of the G7 average, the same as in 2014 and the widest productivity gap since at least 1995 (when the data series began).” Harari 2017

Read it another way: labour exploitation is less effective. Resistance to Labour being used simply as labour more successful: “People Defending Themselves”. In the ‘Command and control’ structure that employees operate – not those over-priced artisans servicing the luxury market of people with money and little taste nor those professions of creative freedom with its glided caged illusions – but in the work place where social relations are dictated by assigned roles, there the human conflict is borne – not to let the bastards grind you down. Refusing to work overtime, applying health & Safety requirements , working to contract without goodwill all impacts upon the work environment because employers need willingness and people missing legitimate work breaks, a shorter lunch, that ten minutes to finish a task. There is the resilience of resistance expressed in small acts of defiance, shaving away the working minutes in non-productive activity. The alienation from the workplace, not to let the workplace dictate who you are – me, I’m a model/ a lawyer/ a train driver/ student – not to identify with the means or mechanisms you use to acquire social substance. The company uniform is something you discard at the end of the shift. Charge your phone at work and no thought of quilt crosses your mind. It’s just one of those things, of no little consequences or another mental brick in the wall?

And, yes this was written at work.