Trouble is brewing…

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I worry that we’re going to see a lot more strikes over the next year or so as the full impact of brexit works its way through the economy. Already, there’s been a number of strikes, southern rail for example, multiple ones at Heathrow, the London underground, etc. But I worry that is just the start.

I’m not usually the one to get too involved in Union politics, but I happened to go along to a recent meeting and I think it highlights many of the problems. No doubt the Tories will try to spin any strikes as some sort of leftist plot to get Corbyn elected. Well his name, nor did the labour party come up once in the meeting. The only time I’ve heard any union member mention his name it was as the butt of a joke afterwards.

What the union did discuss was the hypocrisy of lay-offs of some research staff while on the teaching side we’re massively overloaded, largely because brexit has made it so much harder to recruit. At the same time the unions worry that the drop in the value of sterling and rising inflation means we’ll effectively be swallowing a 20% pay cut over the next few years. And deducting inflation from any pay rises since the start of the financial crisis means we’ve already had to take a 9% pay cut since then, which is better than the defacto 10.4% average pay cut across the UK. And this cut in wages in real terms at the same time as inflation rises is also a factor in why a third of UK families are living in a defacto state of poverty.

So naturally, the unions are less than pleased and the likelihood of industrial action is increasingly strong. And across the public sector, the NHS for example, this picture of workers stretched and overworked while being forced to swallow a defacto pay cut is replicated. And in the private sector too, it is inevitable once people start to notice how their pay packet seems to get that bit lighter every month that they too will start to demand a higher salary.

One feature of strikes that I think people don’t get is that they often don’t start for the reasons they are really about. Take the Southern rail strike, officially its over who gets to close the doors on a train, the driver or the conductor. This sounds silly yes, but then again many marriages collapse usually for some very silly reason, such as the colour of a IKEA futon (IKEA is Swedish for “arguments” I assume, I’m sometimes surprised they don’t have marriage counsellors and divorce lawyers in their stores). Its all about trust and a break down in the relationship between workers and their bosses.

For example, another issue that came up in our union was some changes to the employee evaluation process. To cut a long story short, management told the union one version of why they wanted certain changes, which I have to say I thought seemed pretty reasonable. However, when one or two union members, who are also line managers of staff, went on a training course they were told a completely different version of why the management wanted these changes (to promote a more commercial style rank and yank system). Naturally they fed this back to the union who has now rejected these proposed changes.

And I’ve seen this happen in more than a few other occasions, both in the public sector and private. Management come across as two faced, they say one thing to the unions, then another thing to senior staff or the media, failing to understand that word will get back to the unions one way or another (such as by them reading a newspaper!). So you can see how, after being promised that they won’t be put out of a job, the conductors on southern rail assumed the worst when they learnt Southern was buying a load of driver only trains. And so they pushed the panic button.

If you go behind someone’s back and lie to them, they will generally assume the worst. Honesty is the best policy. If management really do want to bring about certain changes, then you need to get buy in from staff first. Trying to steam roller any opposition will just lead to the sort of chaos we’ve been seeing in Southern rail. In fact its worth noting that strikes in Scandinavia and Germany are less common, in part because there’s a much closer working relationship between unions and management, with union rep’s often sitting on company boards.

So a lot of the strikes we’ll be seeing may well start for seemingly silly or trivial reasons, but in many cases they’ll represent the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And like I said, the bulk of that pile of straw represents the usual “we’re overworked and underpaid”. Pay staff more, hire more staff to take the load off and they’ll put up with a lot more hassle. That’s a big problem for the government (and the private sector) because it would mean them having to push up public sector pay (or hiring more staff). Whatever it costs to fund a hospital or university today, it could be 20% more expensive in five years time. And with falling tax revenue post-brexit those are bills the government can’t pay, nor can those in the private sector, so some union militancy is very likely.

Now the Tory reaction to all of this will no doubt be to look at ways of preventing strikes. For example, they might well ban public sector or workers in industries like power and transport from going on strike. Well let me head off that one, it won’t work. Other countries have similar laws and all that happens is you end up with more wild cat strikes. Keep in mind that all workers need to do is pull a bunch of sickie’s all at once. If management insist on sending in doctors, well its very easy to make yourself unfit for work, just don’t sleep or eat enough. In some safety critical jobs its actually illegal for a worker to attempt to work without getting a certain number of hours sleep first. If you work in the food and beverage industry you are supposed to avoid your place of work if you’ve been exposed to a food borne disease (so just visit a relative with a wee nipper with a tummy bug and you’re off work for 48 hrs!).

Also there’s the option of work to rules. We’ve got one of those running right now in our place and I think long term its probably going to be what forces a compromise from management far more effectively than any strike can. Work to rules can, over a long enough time period be crippling, as often there’s all sorts of things workers are expected to do on a daily basis, which their contract doesn’t even mention. For example a couple of years ago the Irish public transport workers noticed that there was nothing in their contracts that obliged them to collect fares, so rather than going on strike they simply refused to collect fares for a day, meaning the company had to pay for the whole system to run without any revenue coming in!

But perhaps the biggest danger for management is what if staff start leaving, either taking early retirement or immigrating to Europe. If I’m honest, the pay rates in Ireland look awfully tempting right now (thanks to the falls in the value of sterling). If I hadn’t bought a house recently, I’d probably be applying for jobs back home right now. And I’m guessing there’s plenty of junior doctors (who may not have mortgages) thinking the same thing, particularly given how horribly they are being treated by the government recently. The UK risks a brain drain post-brexit as workers move overseas. A situation that would not be helped if immigration is restricted. And this doesn’t just apply to highly skilled labour like doctors or lecturers. Keep in mind that even when it comes to say, train or bus drivers, its not as if a boss can wander down to the job’s centre and recruit a few dozen fully trained and qualified drivers right then and there. It takes time to teach such people and for them to build up enough experience to do their job effectively.

So I think the message is buckle up and get used to the fact we will see more in the way of strikes, work to rules and public serviced stretched. There is a way out (aside from the obvious, halt brexit), but it means management being willing to pay up, hire more staff to relief staffing shortages and increasing pay to match inflation. But that in itself will have a knock effect by making a lot of things much more expensive.

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