Why do we defer from 9 to 5? The “master-servant relationship” is a feudal phantom that still haunts today’s workplaces, thanks to English common law. Peter Hall-Jones argues that it’s time to exorcise the old ghoul. The workplace democracy movement aims to do just that, but where do unions fit in? The way they respond to this agenda might well determine their relevance in the workplace of the future.

O2Great_Chain_of_BeingNCE upon a time there was a great chain of being. Up the top was God; down at the bottom were all the inanimate objects[1]. Actually, somewhere beneath all this, below the rocks and lost socks and broken toasters in a kind of hidden underground lair, were the Devil and his minions. As for you and I, we were stationed at different points along the way depending upon our status. Kings were below angels; vassals below lords; apprentices below craftsmen; and wives below husbands. And there wasn’t much point in grizzling about it; all this was divinely ordained so we just had to lump it.

What we now call ‘English common law’ developed out of this medieval compost. Over the centuries, hallowed principles were codified into exacting social rules. Detailed treatises and regulations were drawn up to determine how people on different levels should relate to each other. Some of the central planks that emerged from this work of ages were the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and (our subject here) the master-servant relationship.

All of this ought to be the stuff of historical footnotes. However, English common law still underpins the legal systems in a large number of countries. The list includes the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. To make matters worse, through the process we now call colonialism, several of these feudal relationships leached across cultures and have become a kind of ‘default setting’. In particular, the master-servant relationship sets the general tenor for industrial relations worldwide. Trade arrangements reinforce it further, and it has been quietly hard-wired into international labour law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but our life at work is still very much configured around this medieval template. (more…)

chain2Following on from discussions with network members last year, we’ve been talking with the good folk at LabourStart about the creation of a new organisation: provisionally named The Fair Work Foundation. This body would aim to address the problem of weak or fraudulent labour standards. It would do so in two ways:

1) Fair Work Certified Standards
The Foundation would evaluate the labour standards conditions and auditing practices of private standards organizations. This would be done with an aim to certifying those that represent effective, good faith attempts to positively encourage and facilitate independent worker organization and collective bargaining.

2) Fair Work: Union Made
The Foundation would establish a new social label to certify that the workers who produce a labelled product or service do so in a unionized workplace where wages and conditions of employment are set via collective bargaining.

While these two initiatives cannot substitute for robust labour law, we believe they could be important as a means of promoting collective industrial relations. We invite all members of the Network to read of this proposal, drafted by member Dr Conor Cradden, and let us know what you think. Better still, let us know if you’d like to be involved in making it happen.

(more…)

1The usual story begins sometime in the late ’70s. Cue violins. “The rise of neoliberalism — as personified by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — signalled the beginning of the end for trade unionism. Since then, unions have experienced rapid and relentless decline…”  Right?  As a despairing friend put it, a while back: “Unions have spent the last forty years trying to turn a rout into a retreat”.

The trouble with this dominant narrative is that, according to the best data we have available, it is wrong. For most countries, at least. In this paper Peter Hall-Jones looks at how our perspective has been skewed by the experience of a relatively small number of post-industrial nations. The real story is far more interesting. It also suggests a positive way forward. Rather than running trade unions as ailing small businesses, we should be building cooperation along supply chains. (more…)

New Unionism says: In the UK the issue of the blacklisting of workers with union links, particularly in the construction sector, has been in the news on and off for most of the last twenty years. In 2009, public data protection agency the Information Commissioner’s Office closed down a group called The Consulting Association on the grounds that it was illegally collecting and selling information about construction workers. The Consulting Association was founded and run by a group of major construction companies and it was these companies that were paying for its ‘employee vetting’ services – services which in reality were about ensuring that workers with a history of union involvement or whistleblowing on health and safety breaches were not taken on at any construction site. Although these companies have apologised for their involvement with the Consulting Association, they have not admitted any liability and remain eligible for public contracts. Despite a recent parliamentary report calling for further action to be taken against businesses involved in blacklisting, the government is resisting calls for a public enquiry. Now the Chartered Institue of Personnel and Development, the professional association representing human resource and personnel managers, appears to be attempting to minimise the damage that blacklisting causes, prompting a robust response from the chair of the UK’s respected public industrial arbitration and conciliation service ACAS. Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group reports. (more…)

The Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), currently meeting in Geneva, appears to heading towards asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle the row sparked by the ILO employers’ representatives claim that the right to strike is not protected by existing ILO conventions. (This previous post explains the background to the argument.) At this stage the Governing Body has still to make its final decision, but the publication last week of a ‘revised draft decision‘ that proposes to ask the ICJ to intervene suggests that workers’ representatives are winning the argument. The workers have been pressing for the referral of the question to the Court rather than the alternative solution, the establishment of a new internal dispute resolution tribunal. If the GB finally confirms the reference of the matter to the ICJ — and given the publication of the revised draft decision it looks almost certain — it would be a first for the ILO. While international bureaucracy nerds, especially those who have read this background document, might point out that the ILO referred 6 cases to the ICJ’s pre-second world war predecessor court, the last time this happened was in 1932 and in any case only one of those six references was on the interpretation of an ILO convention. While there’s no guarantee that the ICJ’s decision will be what workers’ representatives want, according to the ITUC the legal arguments that the right to strike is indeed enshrined in international law are pretty strong. Watch this space.

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The global union database project – UNIONWIKI – was launched today (25/5/14). In true Wiki tradition, the project has soaked up thousands of hours of collaborative work from volunteers within the New Unionism Network, with practical support from the ITF. Next step, if all goes to plan, is to create national union directories and then a facility for free wikis for individual unions. Along the way we also want to find out where our true strengths and weaknesses lie — with graphs showing the data by country, region, sector, confidence level and national income. If you’d like to know more about the project and future plans, please email unionwiki@newunionism.net.

volunteersWe’re looking for TWELVE volunteers to spend a month each as a Guest Editor. The job involves anything from about five hours per week to… well… you set the upper limit. We need your ideas, your energies, your perspectives and your networks. And hey – we need to shake things up a bit! It’s not just about running the Blog and FaceBook pages. We’re happy to see change… love the stuff… so you’re welcome to propose new projects, or conduct provocative interviews, or organize Meet-Ups, or launch a YouTube channel, or create a Prezi, or design a smartphone app… Play to your strengths!

There’s no particular job description for our 12 Guest Editors, just like there’s no wages (sorry – we should have mentioned that earlier!). This is not because we’re tight with money, just because we don’t have any. We get by on volunteer work and a budget south of shoestrings. (so hey – if fund-raising is a strengths of yours, we also need to talk!) In short, this is a great chance to make contacts and work alongside some inspiring strugglers and thinkers. The only restriction is that your work and approach must be in keeping with our principles (here) and our content guidelines (here).

Please contact communications@newunionism.net if you think you can help.

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