Collective Voice in a post Brexit UK?
Becky Wright, Executive Director Unions 21 / 7 February 2019
Regardless of the final Brexit outcome, the UK needs to begin to determine what kind of economy and labour market it wants in the future. We need an honest conversation on how we can address stagnant wages, long hours and low productivity.
How do countries which are higher performing than the UK deliver decent wages and good working conditions? While we may be leaving Europe, it is in that direction we should be looking, as this is where strong social dialogue and collective bargaining ensure a high skilled, high productive labour market; addressing the widening gap in wages and inequality.
It will not be enough to protect worker rights, we need public policy and an environment which brings a revival of dialogue to create long-lasting careers and prosperity, raise wages and offer protection to low skill workers. We need future-proofed agreements between workers and employers to become the norm, and the economy can outlive boom and bust, whichever government is in power.
How can we do that?
Firstly, we need to move the public discourse away from the fall of unions for being the only reason for increased inequality. The concerted effort to dismantle union presence in the UK has also resulted in the widespread fall in employer organisations.
Without employers organisations bargaining on behalf of their sectors, unions must bargain employer by employer. This resource-intensive approach cannot be as productive as scheduled, focused negotiations at a higher level, where wages and conditions can be raised across the board, with good working relations leading to other positive outcomes on pensions, learning and development, even joint policy positions.
Secondly, while employer organisations should be revived as much as the unions, we must respond to the different needs and challenges for micro-businesses, where most people in the UK work.
Higher performing systems, such as the Nordic countries, allow for firm-level adjustments from sector agreements to meet these different needs and challenges. Industries set arrangements themselves.
In the UK, we can see such arrangements in health and theatre. Both industries have over-arching sectoral agreements but operate in local ways which meet the needs of the workforce and organisation.
Thirdly, we need politicians to create a level playing field and then to leave the game. They need to build consensus between employers and unions that effective negotiations are mutually beneficial, then walk away to allow them to work together.
If unions and employers are not reliant on the state to provide bargaining methods, they are less likely to be reactive to the whims of changing governments. They can build longer term, effective industrial strategies and relations which support a flourishing economy and labour market.