Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unions: a clarification

Some commenters have been astonished—nay, horrified—at my call to destroy the unions. Long-time readers will not have been so surprised, for a rampant dislike of the unions as they currently exist has been a theme at The Kitchen ever since its inception.

However, for those who are rather more recent visitors, I feel that a slight clarification is in order—and the key to it is contained in the sentence above, i.e. the unions as they currently exist.

The trades unions were formed to solve a specific problem...
Originating in Europe, Labour unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform the jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid.

... and they were a good balance in these circumstances. This balance of power is, of course, entirely A Good Thing—as a libertarian, your humble Devil is against the use of force or fraud against people and it is usually when one particular group has far more power than another that this can happen.

Further, of course, I do believe in free association, etc. and would therefore not ban trade unions. Not to mention the fact that many trade unions also acted as Friendly Societies
which, as you will know, I am heartily in favour of.

However, the trade unions of today bear very little resemblance to those of the Industrial Revolution. The exploitation that they then sought to redress has largely been resolved, e.g.
  • The development of the British economy has largely switched from a dependence on unskilled jobs to highly skilled ones (compared to screwing on the same nut onto the same mudguard 83,000,000 times a day, even a call-centre job requires more aptitude—if only an ability to read and write.

  • This trend has led to a shift in the balance of power from the eeeeevil exploitative boss to the worker.

  • Workers' rights are now enshrined in law, especially (and I hate to say it) as regards to health and safety, etc.

As such, the formerly minor political ambitions of trade unions shifted into overdrive and, in the Seventies, brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Worse than that, however, in many cases the trade unions essentially ceased to be voluntary organisations. In many companies, the unions ran a "closed shop": in other words, if you refused to become a member of the union, then you lost your job, e.g. Reuters (and many other journalistic organisations) in the Seventies and early Eighties. Indeed, you could lose your job for belonging to the wrong union.

At that point, as far as I am concerned, the unions stopped being a voluntary organisation and also lost their legitimacy from a libertarian point of view.

Further, in the same way that I heartily loathe the attempts by corporations to bribe or bully democratic governments for advantage, I also despise the unions who do the same. Why, for instance, has the Labour government handed over more than £10 million of our money to the unions for "restructuring"?

As far as I am concerned, if the unions can afford to pay their bosses salaries of the order of £100,000 per year, then they can bloody well pay for their own "restructuring". Instead, they steal money off the taxpayer—which is also very far from being a voluntary exchange.

Perhaps I was a little harsh in my post: after all, no one denies that unions fundamentally exist to serve their members—although one can argue that, in many points throughout history, the actions of the union leaders have served their members very badly. I think, particularly, of the miners' strikes which destroyed the livelihoods of their members in the short term, i.e. they weren't getting paid whilst on strike, and in the long term, e.g. the unions had not only jacked up the wage bills to a point at which British mining was unprofitable, but also the constant striking ensured that no one would take on such an unpredictable workforce.

But it is the fact that the unions try to pretend that they are, in some way, working for us—the general public and general consumers—that so enrages me. They. Do. Not.

If you care about the education of your child, then the union will not fight for better teaching: they will fight for more money from the taxpayer but not for school books, or better teaching or better schools—they will fight for that money to pay their members higher salaries.

Which is why this particular pronouncement from Mrs Chris Keates...
"We put teachers first so we can get the terms and conditions that allow us to do the best for the children."

... so absolutely pissed me off. This is just an outright fucking lie.

As regular readers will know, education is one of your humble Devil's bug-bears: screw up a child's education and you screw up their life. Education is absolutely fucking crucial to individuals being able to realise their potential and it really annoys the hell out of me that so many people in this country (about 50%) still leave school with incredibly low levels of literacy.

There is a reason, of course, that the state services are still so riddled with trade unions—because they are basically monopolies. Since the education service is an effective monopoly, it is very difficult to face down any concerted action from trade unions and, as such, they perpetuate in such industries when, in more nimble modern companies, trade unions are all but extinct.

The unions now largely exist to extort more money from you and me, on behalf of their members, through our taxes—subs that you and I must pay involuntarily. These subs are then used to enforce collective bargaining so that you and I, despite suffering from a massive recession, must pay out ever more to a public sector that delivers less and less.

Furthermore, of course, such collective bargaining diminishes the quality of the workers in that industry—it doesn't matter whether you are good or bad at your job, you will still get the same pay. It is a system that rewards mediocrity at the expense of skill and dedication—thus calling into question whether the unions actually serve the best interests of their members. After all, if a bad teacher must get the same pay rise as a good one, then the good teacher's pay rise is less than it might have been.

In a near-monopoly such as the education system—especially since education is compulsory—all of this means that the general public have no option but to pay the higher (and often undeserved) wages, and reward failure; not only this, but their children's education is then screwed up and these young people's lives irreparably harmed.

It's a disgrace.

There are a number of other reasons that I could throw into the mix, but the upshot of all of this is that I heartily dislike the trade unions as they currently exist—which is, more or less, where we came in.

So, yes, I would like to see these dinosaurs destroyed. But I am not advocating banning them, or using the law against them in any way. No.

What I do advocate is opening up the industries in which they have a stranglehold: the prospect of the eradication of unions within education is just one reason why I support a voucher system and Swedish-style "free schools" (the main reason that I support them, of course, is that the educational outcomes are so much better).

And yes, I also excoriate teachers who—like their medical counterparts—are often painted as veritable angels, noble public servants whose primary aim is the education of the nation's children not their own narrow self-interest. This, too, is a lie.

Or, if it is not a lie, these teachers can leave the union—a body that doesn't give two shits about the kiddies, for all of Mrs Chris Keates' weasel words—and thus destroy it. No subs: no union (except, of course, for the constant stream of stolen money provided by the Labour government—also due to stop soon).

So yes, I would like to see the unions die: they serve both their members and the general public very badly.


DavidNcl said...

I have no beef with voluntary union activities. You can join a union if you want. You can stand outside of my business and try and persuade others not to work for me or trade with me. I don't mind if there's millions of you. So long as your peaceful. And you never are.

That's fine.

But the law forbids me firing your ass if go on strike or don't like you organising against my interests. Not to mention that the socialist state funds the unions to a quite remarkable extent.

Oh yeah. If you murder David Wilkie taking workers to work then you'll swing – well. in a just world not this world.

john in cheshire said...

All Unions should be stringently curtailed;the beloved Margaret did her best, but like any beast, it continues to rise from the dead. Any job with the word 'social' in it should be abolished. Socialists are the enemy of everyone. Their thought processes are evil, their actions are wicked. These people are not fit to live amongst us. They have the same genetic aberration that afflicts muslims; that can be the only explanation for their herding together in cliques of hatred. They make me so fearful, I dread having to come into contact with any of them.

DavidNcl said...

And I thought I was funny in the head.

the a&e charge nurse said...

"These people are not fit to live amongst us. They have the same genetic aberration that afflicts muslims; that can be the only explanation for their herding together in cliques of hatred".

This sound likes an exciting, and very original line of thought, John (from Broadmoor) - can you elaborate further on your theory concerning the 'genetic aberration' that somehow afflicts both 'muslims' and trades unionists?

I always thought trades unions were formed to improve the bargaining position of individuals who would otherwise have had little power in the market place?

Until this moment I had no idea faulty genes and 'muslims' played such a vital role - silly me.

LH said...

Fuck unions. I come from a working class background (so what) and I know what type of people they attract: lazy lower middle class romantic/socialists. At one time the unions addressed the need to rectify and restore a huge swathe of the populations rightful holdings. Since that time the unions have gone on to be little more than providers of sinecures for the professional working class. Fuck 'em

Anonymous said...

What makes me most angry?

Left wing types decrying the 80's and Margaret Thatcher.

The 70's were far, far worse.

My dad lost two jobs thanks to the lunatic labour movement of the 70's which destroyed my family. In last year's socialist induced recession I lost my job after 25 years.

I have not and will not ever vote for a socialist political party because of the 70's. Last year just amplifies my hatred.

This from a man whose grandfathers were both union activists in the Liverpool docks at a time when there was need for unions. I remember being given a very expensive copy of the Tolpuddle Martyrs at an early age.

There is no need anymore in this country for unions. I wholeheartedly endorse the right to free association, but note that, under this socialist, nay marxist, government, the right to freedom of association unless you belong to a favoured minority group is severely curtailed.

Brown's Britain

Martin said...

The sight of an Old Etonian calling for the destruction of the unions is unedifying enough - but when it is extended over not one but two separate car wrecks of posts, it's just embarrassing.

Oh, it's the usual cabaret, for sure, choc full of 'fucks' and 'cunts'; but the anomie displayed by Man towards Man on these pages is so extreme, it's unsettling. It's almost feral. I thought I'd be used to it by now - but you continue to surprise.

Let's kill a few myths, shall we?

'Workers' rights are now enshrined in law, especially (and I hate to say it) as regards to health and safety, etc.' -

I am, as you know, a solicitor by training, and, as you know, also suffer from an incurable, untreatable brain illness - possibly aggravated by reading bad blogs. This renders me unfit to practice law - and I don't think I've ever mentioned anywhere that, by my calculations, it's cost me £3,000,000 in lost lifetime career earnings. That's the unfunny side of having Tourette Syndrome. Now, it is only through the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act that I can actually go out to earn the £16,500 gross p.a. that my call-centre job pays me. It's not much, is it? Now, I'm quite sure that some of the freaks, misanthropes and carpetchewers who infest your comboxes will post something along the lines of 'Fuck off and die, you Scotch spastic' in response, but I would ask them to consider this; if anyone suggests reversing this legislation, they'll get a hearty 'Up yours!' in the manner of Randy Quaid in 'Independence Day' from me, because they either do not know about the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who continue to live their lives in desperate want, or, more probably, couldn't care less about them. The choice is simple. You can either have DDA helping to keep people like me off Incapacity Benefit pro loco et tempore, or you can have us on Incap for lifelong periods of eight weeks at a time - but this is a democracy, I've paid taxes since the age of 21, and I'm not being left without any safety net by ultrarightwing ideologue OE's - no way, Pedro. Having me around is going to cost somebody money - get over it, get used to it, and live with it because, at least until this nation's elites vote themselves the right to shoot or gas people like me without penalty, we're going nowhere. That's how the real world works - the really real one, and not the imagined one of self-interest evoked by the radical rich. That's life; real life as I hope you never have to know it.

"This trend has led to a shift in the balance of power from the eeeeevil exploitative boss to the worker"

This sentence is such bullshit that I'm typing this with Andrex round my hands. To quote Renton (Ewen McGregor) - 'What the fuck are you boys on?' You really, really need to spend some time working in a big company. You will very soon learn that what you have written is steaming nonsense.

This whole article could have been written in 1974 - and it would probably have been just as wrong then. The very reactionary nature of modern global capitalism sometimes makes me wonder whether a wormhole has opened and we've fallen back to the extremely reactionary days of unregulated laissez-faire capitalism of the early 19th Century. However, Chris, you've actually achieved something of a first - you've come out swinging against the Factories Acts. This should not really be surprising, given that you've endorsed the Combination Acts. Yes indeed, 1810 promises to be a year of great prosperity.

The King of Wrong said...

When I read "We put teachers first so we can get the terms and conditions that allow us to do the best for the children", the first thing that sprang to mind was a George Carlin quote (re: behaviour in the event of a plane crash):

I say, "Let's see... I'll go around the fat fuck... step on the widows head... push those children out of the way... knock down the paralyzed midget, and get out of the plane where I can help others."

After all, I can be of no help to anyone if I'm lying unconscious in the aisle with some big cocksucker standing on my head. I must get out of the plane, go to a nearby farmhouse, have a Dr. Pepper, and call the police.

You're sadly missed, George.

Pat said...

Surely the unions started at a time and in places where there was only one employer, or a cartel- so workers could either take what they were given or form a union. I doubt that skill levels had much to do with it.
Of course with vastly increased physical mobility, and the decline of the massively staffed industries the need for unions have greatly declined- and their present strongholds are artificially large employers- schools, and hospitals.
That is of course the reason that the unions will fight the education voucher scheme to the end.

Devil's Kitchen said...


I'm so terribly sorry: I didn't realise that the unions brought in the DDA, or even campaigned for it.

Oh, wait, they didn't.


Thatsnews said...

If you are a journalist and want to carry an official press card you either have to be an employee of a large organisation (BBC ITN, etc) or an employee of a publication that is a member of the NPA.

If you work for a small publisher or are freelance, then the only way to get a press card is to join a trade union.

It's not fair, nor is it right.

Chris Edwards said...

Unions stink as they are self serving corruptions maybe the idea would be to limit subs to 1% of wages, that would loose the fancy cars and flashy offices, it would also loose the gold diggers. I harte unions but knew someone who helped set a sort of one for the builders of Earls Court because wvery week there in the 30s they lost a worker to death or broken back because of the single plank scaffold, as you say their use is run.

chris edwards said...

Martin, as an ex employer, I would have employed you if you had the skills to do the job, in fact (the past tense is because I gave up employing in a socialist utopia) as you seem smart and as good smart staff are very rare, I would have taught you, good workers are gold dust. Unions are obsolete evil parasites, they stifle everything essential for good business and they only get good pay for the useless.
As it happens john in cheshire seems quite aware to me, not PC for sure but one day his words will seem prophetic.

Gareth said...


Perhaps by mistake you have proven DK's case for him. The Government has nationalised terms of employment - maternity leave, working hours, minimum wage, sick leave, holiday time and even the DDA plus more besides. Statutory minimums enacted by Parliament. Not actually for the benefit of you you understand, but for corporations and Unions - it saves both sides from having to do much negotiatiing when it comes to employing low paid workers.

Work for a shyster? You can dob them in to a myriad of Government organs from the HSE to HM Revenue and Customs. You don't need a Union as you've already been made a member of one by the Government whether you like it or not. Why pay twice?

DavidNcl said...

"it is only through the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act that I can actually go out to earn the £16,500 gross p.a. that my call-centre job pays me."

So your happy to let the state force people to employ you?

"but this is a democracy, I've paid taxes since the age of 21, and I'm not being left without any safety net by ultrarightwing ideologue OE's - no way"


Roue le Jour said...

Purely my opinion, of course, but it's the public sector unions that deserve your anger. Sure, private sector unions can be arseholes too, but the market will correct for them. Social services cannot go bust.

Once upon a time the US understood this and public sector workers were not allowed to be in a union. The unions have since got that changed, but the principle is a sound one. The public sector workers are not employed by silk hatted, moustache twirling Victorian mill owner, they are employed by the most generous, reasonable employer on the planet. Me.

Reducing public spending will bring the Conservatives into direct conflict with the public sector unions. It is Cameron's obvious inability to win such a fight that is the main reason for my despair at the future.

DavidNcl said...

I'll come out swinging against the factories act: The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century (Hutt)

Martin said...

Right, lost nearly two hours worth of work. Quick run through, back for more tomorrow AM if anyone else is up for it.

DK, do please re-read the post, and all the way to the end this time, particularly with regard to the Combination Acts. After all, we must be alert if we are to extinguish the Jacobin threat.


To be a journalist is to be able to influence public taste and opiion, and to wield unaccountable power. I don't feel too sorry if doing so comed with strings attached.

Chris Edwards,

Human beings are not 'parasites'. I'm sorry if your business model wasn't srong enough to be able to work within the parameters of British labour laws. However, all business does, or should, involve the operation of risk. The baby of two centuries' worth of employee protections is too big to be thrown out with the bathwater of union militancy.


If T's & C's have been nationalised, it's because the British business mindset can't be trusted to behave reasonably in pursuit of profit. And they still win, because rights are only worth something when they're exercised. An educated guess would be that many more abuses of employee protections occur than are ever redressed - after all, nobody wants to end up on a blacklist, do they?


Any person who describes another person exercising a legal right which they have been granted by Parliament as a 'looter' is deeply uncivic, and has little respect for the law; any law.

And to criticise the Factories Acts is to be in favour of the following by default - workplace injuries, including death, maiming and blinding, child labour, early and completely avoidable death, and the elimination of the concept of an employer's duties of care to their employees. This is deeply disturbing. I feel a bit dirty after such arguments; but if engaging with you by keeping you at the keyboard prevents you from putting your ideas into action, I suppose it's time well spent.

Gzoinker said...

> Or, if it is not a lie, these teachers can leave the union

Except it's not that easy...

My wee sister re-trained from Engineering management to teaching in her mid thirties.

She's as scornful as most about the teaching unions and says this is the case with most teachers, but the only way they can get the insurance they all need these days is through the union so they _have_ to join it.

Vicola said...

"I always thought trades unions were formed to improve the bargaining position of individuals who would otherwise have had little power in the market place?

They were, but when you see them pushing for the BA cabin crew, arguably the best paid in the industry with very good terms and conditions, to strike you realise that something has gone awry somewhere. I'm getting heartily bored of hearing the words "Unite are holding a ballot for (insert name as required) to strike", it's practically a weekly occurrence at the moment. BA is on the verge of going under, is Unite doing its members such a great service when the likely outcome of a massive strike is the bankrupcy of the company and everyone ending up unemployed? Sometimes in a downturn if a business is struggling the perks disappear. Get over it.

LH said...

Martin is almost the classic Moocher. If he really wanted a safety net he could always buy some insurance, voluntarily without being forced by compulsion of law to pay it to the government.

Martin said...

'Moocher'...'Looter'...'parasite'...hmm, and libertarians hate Communists, who used to call their opponents 'hyenas' and 'jackals'.

To the individual who described me as a 'looter''s a thought for you. If you try to drive down your staff's wages for no really good reason, you're looting from them. On the other hand, I am looting hee bloody haw; I have paid my share, and I want to collect - either financially in the form of benefits, or socially in the form of employment protections.

To LH,

Try buying insurance with an illness like mine - moron.

Really, I thought you boys could have put a very much more spirited defence of your beliefs than this. Was this your best shot?

Dagny Taggart said...

No Martin - no amount of wriggling changes the fact. You are a looter. You rely on The State to compel others to employ you under penalty of law. You think more of YOUR NEED than of what is right and fair exchange.

You are a looter.