Trade Unions and the right to manage


                Occasionally I hear old rhetoric aimed against the Trade Unions. In the private sector that is a battle fought and decided years ago. There is no need for friends of management to demand tougher laws or to pursue an anti Union vendetta.

              Trade Unions can be a good way for some  employees to organise their representation to management. They work best where there are large groups of employees doing the same or similar work with a graded pay structure. Modern well informed Trade Unions are not a soft touch,  nor are they business wreckers. They recognise the need for managers to manage, and recognise the need to generate revenues and  profits before discussing how to share them out.  They see the need to raise quality and efficiency if British companies are to survive and compete successfully in a very competitive world. There are fewer jobs from loss making or near bankrupt companies.

           For their part, sensible modern managements keep their workforces well informed, argue the case for any change, and provide career progression and incentive for their staff. Great companies are as conscious of their image and achievement as a good employer as they are conscious of their brand or product image for their customers. They regard workplace safety, flexible working patterns, decent pay and conditions and team operation as the basics in creating and developing a good positive workplace atmosphere. The business has to be customer focused, but to be so it also needs to treat its employees with respect and give them sufficient scope to use their skills and improve their performance.

                 Recently we have seen two possible strikes averted. BA’s new CEO has done a deal with the new leadership of the Union which should put behind the company the difficult labour relations that have disrupted it over the past year or so. On the tube, a series of strikes was averted by talking and finding a solution to the underlying dispute. Passengers, British business and the employees should be the winners from this.

                  The public sector remains more prone today to labour disputes and Union difficulties than the private  sector. It is both more heavily unionised, and has more trouble in generating good positive employee relations.  The Coalition government needs to have a strategy to lift the public sector’s achievement as an employer, whilst pushing through agreed changes to working practises that boost quality and output for any given level of resource put in. To do this the more militant employees where they exist need to know that the government employer is no soft touch, whilst the sensible majorities need to know that the government wants to improve the public sector’s performance as an employer and is prepared to listen to good ideas.

            I have found when I have been resposnbile for workforces that most employees like a strong and positive lead from the top management, as long as it is explained, as long as they have a chance to influence it, and it is fair in its demands. In the public sector one of the first tasks  is to  improve morale so that absence rates fall. If a department has a high rate of absence compared to the average private sector experience it should be a warning to its managers that there is need to lift standards and motivate staff more.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. lifelogic
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    You say employers need to “provide career progression” indeed and now thanks to the anti-business Cameron and Cable. They need to consider this even from 65 upwards to 110 perhaps. With the the employment, disability, health and safety and other discrimination laws too and high “green” energy costs over taxation any poorly functioning bank lending. How exactly are they expected to do this while still being profitable in a competitive world market.

    In effect the government and laws prevent the operation of most industries in the UK, save for ones not affected very much world competition.

    • lifelogic
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      I still do not see any problem is with people (who pay over the going rate) going to University providing they can cope with the courses. Yet everyone from the Tories to the left and nearly all media seem to think it should be banned in deference to the “fairness equality” & “social mobility” gods.

      The University can clearly just use the fees and profits to make more places and expand and improve their services for all students. What purpose is served by the ban, other than limiting our universities scope for expansion and attracting money and customers.

      Is it just that a generation of lefty BBC mood music and our education system has created a nation of people who can only “think” in left wing equality, emotion mode? Do they want to take this further and prevent the dimmer rich children buying books, having tutors, piano lessons or indeed any other educational lessons.

      Please could someone explain what the actual problem is with it?

      • Bazman
        Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Should a pet monkey be allowed to take a physics degree and pass with honours if the owner offered to put a new wing on the university? Ask yourself that.

        Reply: Of course not, and no-one ever suggested otherwise. All sensible politicians believe that Universities should decide who to admit based on their ability and suitability for the course.

        • forthurst
          Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          To Bazman

          What evidence have you that those seeking to pay full fees from abroad are more intelligent on average than the scions of those that might wish to pay from here?

          Why do you think that using our tertiary resources to educate aliens is preferable to educating British people here?

        • lifelogic
          Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          Then again the University gets a new wing and pet monkey is, after all, unlikely to get a job designing aircraft or something just because of its degree – it is after all clearly a monkey. (Also it might have had a fun time and met a lovely suitable monkey mate while studying.)

          But I did say people who could “cope with the course” and clearly the university need to ensure its degrees & brand are not devalued significantly.

          The dimmer rich students are unlikely to choose Physics anyway I would have thought.

      • lifelogic
        Posted May 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        Also the marginal costs of an extra student for many existing courses can be very low indeed – just a bigger lecture theatre, a few more tutorials and a few more markers for the exam papers. The lectures and exams have already been done and covered.

        So attracting 10 more full price student might well give enough funds to provide perhaps 10 more “cheap” places for poorer students.

    • lifelogic
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      One problem with Unions (Also often with employers trade organisations groups) even good ones is that they become a pressure group for more laws and regulation and complexity which benefits the union/trade group in getting more members (as they need helping with complex systems, disputes and similar).

      However this rarely benefits businesses, new job creation or workers in the end it just diverts efforts to pointless side activities, legal matters etc. due to the complexity of the new regulations.

      Politicians then pass laws to benefit these groups at the expense of business and actually productive workers.

      • Bazman
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Is this supposed to mean anything?

        • lifelogic
          Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

          Yes it is perhaps I have not made it clear:

          Often trade organisation and unions make their income or promote themselves by providing advice services, insurance, training courses and similar – so they have a vested interest in legislative complexity and both become a pressure group to that effect.

          Legislative complexity is however usually against the interest of employers and workers alike. So workers join the union and employers the trade group yet both act often against the interest of both by demanding more regulations.

  2. Mike Stallard
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    When I first started off teaching in the 1960s it was anathema for a professional teacher like me to belong to a Union. Then in the 1970s, it sort of became good sense and I joined the Men in the National Association of Schoolmasters. Women teachers had their own Union – the UWT, as was only right and proper. Lesser mortals had the NUT. In the 1990s, I discovered, to my horror, that being in a Union was necessary when working for a stupid Head. Today I would advise each and every teacher to be in a Union.
    Isn’t a lot of the trouble that the bureaucracy has nothing to do? There is nothing more demoralising than feeling you aren’t necessary but are there to make someone above you feel important. The word that comes to mind is, actually, “lackey”.
    The trouble, of course, is that if the whole lot went on strike, nobody would really notice. Back to the 1970s!

  3. Alte Fritz
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Absence rates are often connected to a belief that sickness provisons are disguised holidays. In SMEs, which generally cannot offer generous sickness benefit, absence rates are strikingly low.

    A large public sector is here to stay, so it needs to work on the same rules as everyone else.

    • StevenL
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      I once worked in an LA where people who had been there since the early 80’s had 12 extra holidays a year called ‘free days’. I later found out these had been converted from their ‘sick leave rotas’ under agreement with management before they had been abolished.

  4. Damien
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    JR if people know they can take off time from work without impunity then human nature dictates they will. The civil service and councils are a good example where this culture of malingering and unjustified absenteeism is rife, closely followed by the police forces, particularly in London. The country can no longer afford to pay for this abuse of the system.

    Reply: I agree, and absence rates are a good measure of management ability and morale in an organisation.

    • lifelogic
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      A friend of mine who joined the civil service was shock to be told on the first day’s introduction you get X days holiday and up to Y days sick PA. As if these were extra allowed days off. No doubt some MP’s were told a similar thing with regard to the pay and their back door tax free “expenses” & allowances.

      Reply: No, I was not.

      • lifelogic
        Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        Glad to hear that – but other MPs have rather implied that they were in their defence to the over claiming.

  5. English Pensioner
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I had the impression that the Underground management has given in to blackmail in order to avoid strikes during the Olympic Games. I welcome your belief that this was not so. Time will tell.

    Reply: I did not assess the relative gains and losses of the two sides, and agree that matters to taxpayers in a public sector case.

  6. acorn
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Not exactly the Willie Walsh approach JR. That guy has got everything his shareholders wanted. He has knocked £60 million out of the cost of his Heathrow cart tarts bill. New crew will earn ten grand a year less than BA legacy crew; an ongoing cost reduction. The Heathrow based strikers, may get their perks back if they keep their noses clean. He has destroyed the BASSA union.

    At the same time; he merged BA and Iberia into IAG; and now the worlds favourite airline is Spanish! Someone should offer him a shed load of money to takeover the NHS. TUPE and TULRA employment Acts, are no problem for this guy.

    Reply: Mr Walsh did not resolve the dispute. The new boss did.

    • John B
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Walsh did win it: he did the one thing he knew would hurt the most and give management the upper hand – he too away travel perks.

      People outside BA do not realise just how important these are because they extend beyond actual employees to families, partners, friends (gives lots of kudos) and are vital for those crew members who live away from their base and use concessions to commute.

      Of course Walsh knew these would be given back and Cabin Crew knew they would get them back, and would agree to almost any face-saving compromise to get them back.

      Getting rid of hate-figure Walsh from the negotiations was the open door to allowing Cabin Crew to concede what they had to with the appearance of some grace.

  7. RCW
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    One reason for the larger number of strikes in the public sector is because the management is not as good as that in the private sector.
    As you point out good management heads off issues by talking and fair negotiation.
    Thus businesses (private or public) get the Trade Unions they deserve.
    Perhaps the ministers and mayors with oversight of areas prone to strikes to clear out the managers as well as talking tough with the unions.

    • StevenL
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      Public sector management works to the incentives it has been provided. These tend to to be:

      a) Tick boxes and collect stats for Whitehall
      b) Increase turnover (by begging for more money from Whitehall)
      c) Establish networks, have working group meetings, produce beefy policy documents and re-organise departmental structures regularly (this is needed for career progression in order to satisfy the person specification on the next rung of the ladder)
      d) Increase the size of ones department (the more underlings you manage the easier it is to justify moving up the payscales by comparison to other managers).

      To until the incentives are changed, the management will not.

  8. Akvavitix
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I take issue with your comment that the Tube Strike was averted due to negotiation. It was not. It was a complete capitulation by management and was for the simple aversion of a strike during the Olympics. This is political and nothing else. As usual a taxpayer somewhere will have to pick up the bill.

    Reply: I did not judge the wisdom or the fairness of the terms of settlement.

  9. Bazman
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Unions are dislikes by employers for the main reason that they make them pay and lets face it, by what other reason can you get a pay rise out of many companies. Negotiate your own? Have a pay cut for asking. At 58 you will not find another job etc. No matter how much they make they will not share any profits with the workforce. They also make the workplace safer and improve working conditions often at little or no more cost. Many employers run a top down management structure with a revolving door recruitment policy and easier hire and fire laws will just increase this with no increase in the number of jobs. When the pay has been slashed to the legal minimum then the working conditions are lowered until the person leaves and is replaced again and again from a pool of desperate people. A common business strategy. A race to the bottom.

    • forthurst
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      I suggest you post your tendentious rant in the grauniad: I’m sure you will get a lot votes.

      • Bazman
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        I’ll take that you find it to be true.

        • forthurst
          Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          not really. I find it typical expression of the guardian mindset. as that mindset is impervious to argument, there seems very little point in challenging it, especially as you will have made few converts on this site. .

        • lifelogic
          Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          No it is not true: it is just the appeal to basic envy, chip on the shoulder selfishness and emotion – over the logic of the true position and the logic of what actually would produce the best outcome for the majority.

    • lifelogic
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      It is your strategy that is a race to the bottom rendering business uncompetitive and putting them out of business so not jobs at all for anyone. A vision of a sort of enslavement by the state.

      Ours is an uplifting vision where people keep most of their own money and forge their own futures as they wish.

      • Bazman
        Posted May 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        The gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. The haves and have nots are now on par Victorian times. This is not about childish envy, but social justice. The large corporations profits are in no way reflected in the wages. An elite few are giving themselves massive and disproportionate rewards whist the workforce get the crumbs. Even the state in not benefiting as much of the wealth is syphoned of abroad. Your view belief in the trickle down effect is false as all evidence points to a ‘trickle up’ effect. A transfer of wealth from the average and poorest sections of society to the wealthiest. No good will ever come of making the poorest sections of society more poor. Which is what is happening. Do you think they will take this laying down? Why should they? Tax cuts are good if you have a job, meaningless if you do not. It is laughable that you believe cuts to the least wealthy will somehow make them better off. Noone can argue with self betterment, but for many the cards are marked and stacked against them.
        I myself are wondering should I become a surgeon or take to the stage as the metal trade wages are stagnant and have been for years Hmmm..?

        Reply: Many of us want to see people better off. We have just had thirteen years of a government which thought you did that by spending more public money, and the gap between rich and poor got bigger on their watch.

  10. John B
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    The problem is where pay scales are graded and according to length of service not merit or productivity, and where the institution is merely a cost not a profit centre working to a budget decided by bureaucrats and political expedience, there is no efficiency/productivity motive either among the workers or within the culture of the organisation as whole.

    It does not have to succeed because it will never be allowed to fail.

    This of course describes any State or Local Authority run (collective) Public Service which has a monopoly and inevitably becomes provider led rather than consumer led.

    Thus the reasoning you deploy for good labour relations in the private sector do not apply.

    For example one often hears, “Why should a nurse in Liverpool earn more/less than a nurse in Hull since they are doing the same job?”

    But the same could be asked of a factory worker in those two cities. In the latter case market forces apply: availability of labour; local conditions; productivity and skill level of individual workers.

    It is however the case that a nurse with 12 months plus one day’s experience will earn more than a nurse with 12 months less one day’s experience for no other reason than they have been in post for an extra two days and doing exactly the same job. It may also be that the higher paid nurse is less diligent and hard working than the other.

    You say that Trades Unions are not business wreckers, but the point is it is impossible to wreck a State/Local run collective since they can never go bankrupt thanks to the taxpayer, and since they have a monopoly the user must use it, no private alternative organisation can compete with its poor service or replace it altogether and since they fulfil a strategic purpose it is a political matter not a free market matter.

    And of course when we apply this to that quasi-State religion the NHS, the workers therein and their Unions/Professional bodies know they have any Government over the barrel of public sentiment and political cat-fighting and there never will be any meaningful reform to the NHS as long as it is a State run monopoly.

    The ‘modern’ Trades Unions and militant staff know they will always win as long as they are not too outrageous.

    The answer is the privatisation of ALL State/local Authority public services.

    Reply: I said good Unions do not wreck businesses. We have in the past experienced some stupid conduct b y both sides leading to big job losses and failures.

  11. Javelin
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    One of the basic rules of management us that staff become what you expect of them. If you don’t trust them they will cone untrustworthy etc, etc. So what do we expect from the public sector – we expect them to be lazy, negligent rule breakers. Because we make them follow hundreds of petty rules, we don’t sack them and we allow then to work less hours. Raise the game. When was the last time you heard the words “world class service”, when did you hear management tell their staff to stop following rules and do their jobs.

  12. electro-kevin
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Your experience matches my own, Mr Redwood. Though the railway seems to fall between public and private sector.

    As an Aslef Health and Safety rep I have never viewed our managers as adversaries – it’s more a case of resolving issues to mutual benefit. I suppose that no-win-no-fee litigation has had a unifying effect on everyone in that we all think that the lawyers are out to get us – we tend to cover each other’s backs.

    It isn’t ‘elf and safety gone mad. It’s lawyers gone mad and they really need putting back in their box.

    In negotiations, grievances and disciplinaries over the years I have yet to see a table thumped or hear a raised voice. Branch meetings are ordered and conducted quietly and intelligently with a variety of views and considerations given. For the most part only a minority of members attend – possibly due to shift work but most likely through lack of interest. Bearing this in mind we try our best to be representative of the work force.

    • electro-kevin
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink


      Your party needs to keep impressing upon upon us the extent of Labour debt and the fact that your party is here for decent and hard working people. Labour still enjoys much undeserved tribal loyalty among Union members for reasons which I cannot fathom.

  13. waramess
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Breath of fresh air. A very refreshing read.

  14. Iain Gill
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that many employers operating in this country are not “sensible modern managements” indeed we import abusive management practises with the Indian outsourcing movement we are so happy to hand out confetti like ICT visas to

    i realise you don’t want to hear this but current policy does not protect the hard working British workforces who genuinely innovate and generate new intellectual property either it is readily sold off by the multi nationals to be used in other countries to undercut this country

    We need some new unions i think, of a radically different kind, who will protect workforces without
    The failed labour party dogma, i am surprised it has not happened so far

    So many people have given up its ridiculous, or turned against society even if only in minor ways. I’ve sat listening to some of the country’s most entrepreneurial people can you guess what they are doing? Importing

  15. Iain Gill
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    importing tax free tobacco…

    • StevenL
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      The black market in the UK is huge and getting bigger by the day. It’s not just cigarettes either. The arbitrage opportunity created by duty on spirits and the added value of having the right brand on the bottle has led to a splurge of counterfeit and non-duty paid vodka everywhere. Consumers have a very relaxed attitude to IP theft and enforcement is at best patchy.

      In fact counterfeiting must be the major growth industry in Europe.

  16. StevenL
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I work in an LA and have no interest in joining the union. It’s been completely taken over by Trotskyist communists as far as I can see.

    It would be nice if front line staff had a union to prevent spendthift managers wasting all the money on poor procurement, pfi deals, vanity projects, pointless CV building re-organisations and swelling their ranks.

    They are more interested in scaremongering and winding everyone up though. Most of them seem to want to organise a ‘general strike’, overthrow the government, take over control of the UK and turn it into a socialist utopia.

  17. Bazman
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    When many employers have nothing to threaten there workforce with then how would they run their company? Often it’s a one way street with the only thing understood being financial threats.
    Many of the contributors to this site have very little to say about banks wrecking businesses and the union of bankers wrecking the economy as a whole and avoiding tax whist at the same time begging from the state and threatening to leave the country. Fantasists who believes that the average worker should have nothing and be happy with it. Cheers Gov. Cough! Hack! (doffs cap) Anything is good enough for the likes of us. If we had more money we would only waste it on holidays and drink. You should show how to manage or money better rather than giving us more. I know that in many parts of the world there are people much worse off than us and I do my bit for charity too.
    Of course none of this applies to the fantasists and their invaluable jobs without which the country would sink. As I have no debts here’s a strike you will understand. Bye! Maybe I would not be so bolshy if I had to pay for healthcare and other state benefits. It’s interesting why the fantasists are often so against immigration. If the NHS was privatised and the state cut to the bone the immigrants would work for nothing at little cost to the country.

  18. Ruth
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I’d really like to meet these “modern” trade unions you talk about, because so far I haven’t come across any. What you might call “modernisers” in trade unions are a very, very small minority, so few that they get drowned out by the dinosaurs. In the words of George Bernard Shaw they are “Trade Union Capitalists” whose sole reason for existence seems to be to enrich themselves. In many meetings with trade unions, I have found only once a representative who understood the need for business to improve and make changes.

    And in all the businesses/public sector organisations I worked in, without exception every unionised workplace was overstaffed by at least 40%, the staff overpaid due to the fact they had title without responsibility.

  19. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The strike weapon should only be a last resort, given the dreadful effects. Yes, people have a right to withdraw their labour. Tell me, do doctors have a right to withdraw their labour and refuse to treat a sick trade unionist on strike? Or is that somehow different? Is it worse than teachers who go on strike just before their pupils are due to sit exams?

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

  • John’s Books

  • Email Alerts

    You can sign up to receive John's blog posts by e-mail by entering your e-mail address in the box below.

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

    The e-mail service is powered by Google's FeedBurner service. Your information is not shared.

  • Map of Visitors

    Locations of visitors to this page