Trade unions have had a rough time in the last thirty years.
I have grown up amongst a generation reluctant to join trade unions. I know many people who are afraid of being perceived as a troublemaker or being against their employer.
Anita, a friend from my primary school in Rhiwbina, worked for an IT company in Cardiff. After she had a baby she asked her employer if she could work part time. It was only under the last Labour government that workers won the right to ask if they could work part time. The employer said ‘no’ which they are entitled to do.
She had no choice but to leave her job.
A few weeks later, a colleague of hers, a male colleague, asked to go part time. He was a semi-professional rugby player and wanted to spend more time training.
The employer said ‘yes’.
She was not a member of a trade union and chose not to fight the decision.
Her story still makes me angry.
There are almost 6 million women working part time in Britain compared with 2 million men. Thankfully a European directive means that since the year 2000 companies cannot treat part time workers less favourably than a full time worker; but it is trade unions who make sure this happens. The cynic in me wonders if weakening employment rights is the reason why so many in the Tory party are anti-Europe.
There are signs of change with more high profile part time appointments like Belinda Earl hired two days a week by Marks and Spencer to boost sales. However it cannot be just those at the top who change the culture. It has to be right for all workers to have frank and fair dialogue with their employer without fear of reprisal – on an individual and collective basis.
I strongly believe in the importance of trade unions and the union link. I have always joined the union most active in my workplace with the most active union rep. In my first school Andy Brown was not only an amazing hard working history teacher but also the NUT rep who spoke up when others were afraid. Union reps are the unsung heroes of the Labour movement. These are the people who put the fair treatment of their colleagues first.
Sally is one such union rep in Llanishen. She negotiated a part time trial for one of her members. Not only was it a huge success but she also recruited someone else to do the job for the other two days – a great example of unions working with business for the benefit of everyone.
The Conservatives are already taking away many of the rights established by the last Labour government. For example workers can now only make a case of unfair dismissal if they have been working for a company for 2 years, not one.
We do not have to choose between treating people fairly and successful business. You only have to look to Germany, Europe’s most successful economy to know that work place representation can go hand in hand with business success.
Labour needs to be proud of our link with the trade unions and make the case that work place representation makes both moral and business sense.