Public dialogue of pickets, politics and even profile photos, have been a every day prevalence this week for Mick Lynch, the final secretary of the Nationwide Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Employees (RMT). As England, Scotland and Wales face extreme transport disruption as a result of industrial motion by the RMT, Lynch has appeared on a number of information programmes and has been quoted throughout the papers. As normal secretary – or “union boss” – a part of his job is to signify members by explaining that the strikes relate to a dispute over pay, situations and proposed redundancies on the railway community.
Many of those media mentions talk about the “union barons” which can be “behind the strike” motion, nonetheless. Such language not solely denies railway staff their company, it’s an inaccurate characterisation of how strikes work in observe. It exhibits a lack of know-how about commerce unions inside the media, maybe because of the marked decline in industrial and labour correspondents for the reason that Seventies.
Let’s begin with the phrases generally used to explain commerce union normal secretaries. A baron is a recognised grade of the British peerage system and has historic connotations of the Aristocracy. Describing commerce union normal secretaries as barons may insinuate that they belong to a separate strata of society with a special social and financial standing than their members or most of the people.
That is true in a way. The salaries of union officers typically dwarf these of the employees they signify. There are some notable exceptions – the assistant normal secretary of the Public and Business Providers commerce union, for instance, introduced on his election that he would donate practically £25,000 of his £70,000 annual wage again into the union’s strike fund.
You will need to word the democratic accountability behind these salaries, nonetheless. Members attending their union’s annual normal assembly vote on the monetary report, which incorporates workers wage packages. RMT members voted to chop the wage of their officers, together with the final secretary, on the union’s 2021 AGM – a movement proposed by Lynch himself. This degree of accountability is sort of totally different to the pay committees and shareholder conferences that always wave by means of three-figure bonuses in personal sector companies.
And whereas commerce union normal secretaries are “bosses” within the sense that they’re the pinnacle of the organisation, they’re elected to their function by the employees they signify. Do service customers of practice firms or railway workers vote for the boss of the practice working firm? If they’re sad with their efficiency, are there democratic mechanisms in place to have the ability to guarantee they don’t perform one other time period?
Commerce union democracy is definitely a contested time period and there’s a wealth of analysis on the dynamics between union management and the rank and file, together with on the RMT particularly. However the mannequin of democratic accountability practised inside commerce unions just isn’t usually seen within the personal sector.
Understanding union motion
Descriptions of normal secretaries’ actions, each in reporting and normal public discourse on industrial motion, are sometimes equally inaccurate. Common secretaries can not “drive” their members to take strike motion, as Grant Shapps urged final week. They organise an independently performed postal poll, as required by the Commerce Union Act handed by David Cameron’s Conservative authorities in 2016. Members are polled on whether or not they’re keen to strike if all different technique of negotiation have been tried, refused or failed.
In the newest instance of RMT motion, the employees concerned determined overwhelmingly that they might be keen to strike. Another description of this course of denies staff company in expressing their grievances and selecting to behave collectively in an try to discover a decision.
Latest analysis by the Equality Belief exhibits vital public help for motion on government pay and for extra equitable pay distribution inside firms. However on the identical time, as the federal government is urging the general public sector to show pay restraint, it is usually planning to take away restrictions on remuneration packages for firm administrators. The CEO of Community Rail earns £593,000, in comparison with the Workplace of Nationwide Statistics common of £33,310 for a practice guard or station workers member. So the place is the press protection of the “railway barons”?
Bettering protection of strikes
Analysis has additionally proven that the language used to debate strike motion within the public sphere is more likely to have a big impression on the course of a strike, and that even metaphors form and affect public opinion. Throughout the miners’ strikes of the Nineteen Eighties, the Solar newspaper tried to print a entrance web page that in contrast Arthur Scargill, chief of the Nationwide Union of Mineworkers, to Hitler. Print staff within the Nationwide Union of Journalists refused to print the content material.
Fortunately, press protection of the present transport strikes hasn’t plumbed these depths. However framing the present dispute as being “pushed” by union “barons” fails to recognise how unions work and the company their members need to resolve to take motion.
Understanding of commerce unions and industrial relations has declined within the media, inside academia and among the many normal public. With the chance of continued industrial motion this summer season if lecturers, legal barristers and different staff are balloted for strike motion, creating a better understanding of how unions work and of employment relations extra broadly may assist individuals get a extra balanced and knowledgeable view.
Holly Smith is a member of the British Universities Industrial Relations Affiliation (BUIRA), a member of the UCU commerce union, and labored on the railway and was a member of the RMT earlier than coming into academia.