Friday, 20 March 2015

‘Trade unions sometimes need to break the law’

Last week, the governing body of British trade union Unite proposed to amend its rule book. No longer will it state that the union must always operate within the law. In an opinion article in the Guardian, general secretary Len McCluskey explains why this amendment is necessary. Don’t worry, he assures, we’re no anarchists and we’re not suddenly planning a bank robbery. But we have to ask ourselves whether it’s still possible to always operate within the law.

As an example, he points out that under Thatcher, it was illegal for staff of British intelligence service GCHQ to be a union member. Does that make workers who retained their membership criminals?
He argues that this is not an isolated example. Employers can easily get an injunction against a contemplated strike, even a fully balloted and mandated one. And Conservatives are even planning to make it legal to use agency workers as strike breakers.

McCluskey: “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

‘German unions grow, gain political clout’

According to a research institute ‘close to the employers’, German unions have become more influential. A new study to be published on Wednesday speaks of a ‘comeback of the unions’, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports.

One aspect of this comeback is union membership. Nine years ago 18 percent of workers were union members; by 2012 this had risen to 20.6 percent. Six out of eight DGB-affiliated unions have seen their membership grow: IG Metall, Verdi, IG Bergbau-Chemie-Energie (IG BCE), Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), Gewerkschaft der Polizei (GdP) and Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten (NGG).

According to the study, the unions have gained political clout as a result of the financial crisis. One outcome is the introduction of the minimum wage.

Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, via Kurt Vandaele

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Are workers with flexible contracts willing to go on strike

A recent study by Giedo Jansen a.o. used a survey among over 1,000 Dutch citizens to explore the relationship between labour contracts and willingness to strike. The study found that workers with flexible contracts are only slightly less inclined to go on strike than workers with permanent contracts (of course, as the authors note, willingness to go on strike is not the same as actually going on strike).

In their discussion of the findings, Jansen a.o. mention the crucial role union organisers may play in mobilizing non-standard workers. They point to a paper by Melanie Simms and Deborah Dean, who analysed successful mobilisations of teachers and performing artists with atypical contracts in the UK.

One of the respondents in their study emphasised the role of actors’ union Equity: “Equity made that very clear - we had to stick together as a team. That Equity couldn’t do anything, it was up to us.”

Dean and Simms discuss the role of organisers:
Part of this role involved redirecting employer arguments that reduncancies were inevitable due to external factors (reductions in funding, decline in box office receipts) to an argument that managerial choices were central.
In conclusion, they note that workers with insecure contracts may face specific barriers but that the means to overcome these barriers - through mobilisation and collectivisation - are not so different from what works in other situations.

Giedo Jansen, Agnes Akkerman and Kurt Vandaele (2014). Undermining mobilisation? The effect of job flexibility and job instability on the willingness to strike. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 1–19.
Melanie Simms and Deborah Dean, Mobilising contingent workers: An analysis of two successful cases. Accepted for publication in Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The political effect of general strikes

On Monday 15 December, a national strike will be held in Belgium, against the government’s austerity plans and for social justice. The action is consistent with a European trend: as the number of ‘normal’ strikes declines, the number of general strikes is growing. Since 1980, 130 general strikes (including 13 credible strike threats) have taken place in Europe, including as many as 36 in the period 2010–2012.

And those general strikes appear to be successful, researchers Kerstin Hamann, Alison Johnston and John Kelly (via Kurt Vandaele) conclude. Not only can general strikes force governments to change their policies; in addition, government parties that are confronted with a general strike tend to get fewer votes in the next election. After a general strike, voters punish not only left parties; centre and right governments suffer the same fate.

With this type of correlations it’s difficult to demonstrate causality, although the authors have of course corrected for a number of relevant variables. In any case, government parties that are confronted with a general strike should be worried about the next election.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Dutch unions approve merger on 1 January

Today, the Congress of FNV Bondgenoten voted overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to merge with other FNV-affiliated unions. The merger, which will take effect on 1 January 2015, involves the following organisations: Abvakabo FNV (public sector), FNV Bondgenoten (private sector), FNV Bouw (construction), FNV Sport and the former FNV Federation.

The merger was supported by over 90% of the union’s elected industry representatives (the proposal narrowly failed to get the required two-thirds majority at a previous congress in October). Members of the other unions involved in the merger had already approved the plan. FNV Kiem, representing artists and workers in the printing industry, will decide on 20 December on joining the new union, while a number of smaller unions have decided to remain affiliated to the FNV without participating in the merger. Currently, all FNV-affiliated unions have 1.1m members

Chairman Ton Heerts said the merger will strengthen the FNV in its fight against employers who exploit workers and against the austerity policies of the government.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

As trade unions consider merger, the Dutch want their unions to take a much tougher stance

A plan to create a new Dutch union with over 1 million members was put on hold in October, when the plan just failed to get a two-thirds majority at the convention of FNV Bondgenoten, one of the unions involved in the merger plans. A new vote will take place on 26 November.

Representatives of employers’ organisations expressed disappointment at the initial rejection of the merger. They had been hoping the merger would result in a stable trade union that will play a constructive role in the elaborate social dialogue institutions of the Dutch «polder model».

In fact, that’s exactly what Dutch unions have been doing over the past decades, as evidenced by their low strike rates. But with growing inequality and an erosion of the welfare state going on, doubts arise whether social dialogue is enough. Some groups of workers, like cleaners and health care workers, have successfully resorted to more assertive campaign methods to fight for decent pay and better working conditions.

Since 2007, researchers of the University of Tilburg have been asking a panel of about 6,000 respondents what they expect of unions. More specifically, they have asked respondents whether they agree that «Trade unions should take a much tougher political stance, if they wish to promote the workers’ interests». In the latest edition of the study, 44% (strongly) agree and only 13% (strongly) disagree.

If anything, support for tougher unions seems to have grown over the past years. Surprisingly, even among the self-employed and among people who voted for neoliberal parties like VVD and D66 in 2012, more respondents agree than disagree that unions should take a much tougher stance. High-income respondents are among the few groups that are not so keen on tougher unions.

Last weekend, chairman Ton Heerts explained the position of the FNV to the Telegraaf newspaper: “I think we’ve proven over the past year that it’s quite possible to combine substance, dialogue and action. With the current wave of right-wing policies, the emphasis will be more on actions. That’s fine.”

An earlier version of this analysis was published here

LA: Map shows which neighbourhoods will benefit from hotel workers’ pay rise

Steven Greenhouse of the NYT has written an extensive analysis of the campaign that resulted in a $15.37 minimum wage for hotel workers in Los Angeles. As part of the campaign, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (Laane), a pioneering coalition that campaigns for social justice, has created a map of LA that shows where hotel workers live and how much they would benefit from a $15.37 minimum wage in the sector. The map also shows the total economic benefit the measure would bring to these neighbourhoods.

While the Chamber of Commerce opposed the minimum wage rise, Laane demonstrated that many business owners disagreed. Volunteers knocked on the doors of small businesses to seek their support. 750 small-business owners signed a petition for the higher wage and hundreds placed “Raise L.A.” stickers in their windows.