Getting Warmer, but Not Hot Yet for the Bosses

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Socialist Review was right to say last month that confidence is beginning to return to the rank and file. Inevitably there is an unevenness about this renewed confidence, but to say that the 'heat is on the bosses' somewhat overstates the general picture.

The statistics on union membership show we are not yet in an upturn.

The disputes at Heathrow and in the Post reflect that workers now have more 'fire in their belly'.

We are all expected to work harder than before. The pay deals that are secured usually involve some productivity gain for the bosses and there is a greater sense of being 'put upon'.

This creates resentment. Added to this there is an increasing cynicism towards people in power, whether at work or politicians. Copying the spin of New Labour, bosses now use their David Brent-type spin in the workplace to justify attacks. This creates a general mood of distrust, resentment and anger.

The economic situation also adds to this. The price of housing is making workers feel the pinch even though wages generally match inflation.

But surely the most significant feature which helps workers gain a new sense of confidence is the tightness within the labour market. The fear of unemployment does not affect workers the way it did in the 1980s. Although many young workers are on temporary contracts, there is a general mood of bosses needing to take extra measures to retain skilled and experienced staff.

Recently I was in a negotiating meeting where the bosses were offering £1.50 extra per hour to ensure workers continued to undertake their current duties. Yet the workers politely declined the offer. The mood of the meeting wasn't of anger and confrontation. The 'heat' was not on the boss, but there was certainly pressure for him to make a further concession to keep this group of workers happy.

The tightness within the labour market has existed now for a few years. As a council worker there have been a number of issues that threatened to turn into disputes, but concessions have been made by employers to avoid them.

Around two years ago our council bosses were talking about introducing a 'late night' till 8pm, working Saturday morning and scrapping bank holiday Tuesdays. After the Unison AGM voted for an industrial action ballot the employer dropped the late night and Saturday morning proposals. Union members were prepared to have three days leave instead of three bank holiday Tuesdays - so a fight was avoided.

Likewise around the transfer of housing workers to an Almo (Arms Length Management Organisation). Unison and TGWU union leaders were able to convince large meetings of members of the need to take action against the threat to terms and conditions. The response from the council was to make concessions that, on paper, gave the unions the necessary guarantees not to call industrial action.

To use a boxing analogy, the last few years workers and bosses have been throwing the odd jab at each other. The employer has so far been unwilling to land a punch for the fear of receiving one back. Workers have often been willing to threaten or deliver a jab against attacks but have not been keen to pre-empt a fight. The fact that this sparring has resulted in some concessions for union members is helping to create a bit of confidence. When there is a full blown fight who can throw the hardest punches will be incredibly important in whether this new confidence gathers pace or the stench of defeat returns.

Tony Barnsley
Joint Assistant Branch Secretary, Sandwell Unison general branch (personal capacity)