Tuesday, February 17, 2009

With A Union Like This, Who Needs Management?

In an age of instant globalised communication which big business exhorts us all to appreciate & utilise, it was, perhaps, appropriate that the moment when 850 agency staff at BMW's Mini plant at Cowley, Oxfordshire, were told that they were being sacked at one hour's notice (yes, you read that correctly) was captured through the grainy lens of a worker's mobile phone (http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/business_money/mini+workers+turn+on+union+bosses/2956157 ).
What was striking about the images contained in Darshna Soni's report was that the news was broken to all 850 staff at a 5.30am meeting not by the bosses themselves, but by representatives from the main union at the plant, Unite. The Unite rep at Cowley declined to be interviewed on camera, but told Soni over the phone that the union knew about management's intentions before Christmas.
I suppose, being cynical, one shouldn't be shocked by the news that people can be dismissed at just an hour's notice (thus are the vagaries of life as a temp), after all, it is perfectly legal under this New Labour government for workers to be sacked by text message, as happened a year or so back.
Nor am I unduly shocked that it concerns Unite, whose joint General Secretary, Tony Woodley, continues to live at his London address for a peppercorn rent with an option to purchase, the terms of which must make him think, "Credit crunch? What credit crunch?" (http://condensedthoughts.blogspot.com/2008/12/solidarity-im-all-right-jack.html ).
Woodley popped up for a couple of soundbites on the news bulletins, suggesting it was entirely the responsibility of BMW & that Brown should intervene. The term "disingenuous" sprang to mind.
Some active trade unionists reading this blog may well raise the objection that the role of agency staff throughout the 90s was deeply damaging to trade union organisation & welfare. They'd be right. Most agency staff at the time were antithetical to notions of solidarity; many were old enough to remember Thatcher fondly. However, the situation has changed with regard to the composition of temporary workers in the 21st century. Most of them are the sons & daughters of parents who were or still are trade union members. In that context, viewing their plight as delayed comeuppance is deluded & stupid.
Moreover, it should be noted that the agency staff at Cowley are Unite members; unions adopted a policy in the last decade of trying to unionise such staff. In short, Unite shat on a section of its own membership.
Reaction in the rest of the media to the decision has been predictable (kudos to the Guardian for allowing comments on the story from its usual CiF posters: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/feb/16/bmw-mini-job-cuts ), but this was really a chance for what's left of the Left in the blogosphere to shine. It didn't. You may not be surprised to learn that there's no mention of the story & the issues it throws up on LabourList (http://www.labourlist.org ), although it does link to Unite's website helpfully (http://www.unitetheunion.org.uk/ ). Unite the union, indeed. Ha, do me a favour!

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