No-one can deny that collective bargaining has brought ordinary people very real rights that they could never have acquired through other means. Every employee in the country has a lot to be grateful to the Labour Movement.
But there comes a point where the disadvantages of the hive mind approach starts to outweigh the advantages. Arguably, that point was reached in the 1970s when the Unions began to behave as if they could order governments around, whether Labour or Conservative, which inevitably resulted in a backlash and thus their nemesis, the very much
undead alive Mrs T.
I would argue that another example of its limitations is going on right now. For the last ten years, local authorities have been obliged to pay female workers on the same rates as male workers. Yet, fearful of job cuts, trade unions have been negotiating pay deals which undermine affected women workers, to the point that they have been frequently shown to be illegal.
In this case, collective bargaining has meant that unions have compromised womens’ rights, many of whom were never even consulted. Now, you might argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but the law’s the law, and the union-brokered deals have relied on these women, some of the most vulnerable in society, being ignorant of their rights.
Women have had no recourse but to get solicitors to fight their corner, and there are plenty of solicitors willing to take these cases on on a no-win no-fee basis (not least of all because they have pretty cast iron cases).
This is, in fact, a classic example of capitalism working to empower and protect people’s rights. A cause for celebration? Well, according to trade unionists, the lawyers who are helping these women are, to quote Chris Mullin, “parasites”. This view was echoed by Phil Woolas on the Today programme on Tuesday. That vanguard of socialism Nick Cohen says much the same thing.
Some of us happen to think that rights are indivisible; if there is a genuine tension as in this case, then local authorities should consult with the whole workforce, not leave it to their buddies in the unions to stitch it up for them. If Labour truly believe that women’s rights can be negotiated away by (predominently male) trade unionists, they should simply put their money where their mouths are and scrap the Equal Opportunities Act. After all, we know they only consider their much vaunted all women shortlists a priority if one of Gordon Brown’s pals doesn’t want the seat.
The most grimly ironic thing about all this though is that it was Labour who introduced pro bono in the UK as a first step to their dismantlement of legal aid. Overall, I’m sure they will be comforted in the knowledge that where trade union incompetence hasn’t left them so open to legal action, vulnerable people will have much less recourse now.