Today I am on strike.
The details of why I’m on strike are not particularly important but since I am sure you will be curious: I am on strike because the company I work for is closing the final salary pensions scheme to which I belong and moving me to a career average scheme – I anticipate losing 13% of my pension. You can see us in the news (here on the BBC, here in Motley Fool which I think gives the best detail and here in Professional Pensions – plenty of other reporting elsewhere).
I prefer to think of myself as a research scientist but my company describes me as a “manager”, and in fact one of my roles is “line manager” so I am a little unusual for a union member: I have dealt with the union from the “other side” – I appreciate the local union representatives and the contribution they make to the smooth running of the business.
For me union membership is a question of equality: equality of representation. Should I ever be in dispute with my employer I will be faced by the pointy end of an organisation containing roughly 150,000 employees. Under these circumstances I will need some support and in the UK this support comes from membership of a trade union.
I am a member of Unite, to be honest, I remain a member largely by ignoring their national pronouncements; as a Liberal Democrat I’m fairly sure they will have organised marches outside my party’s conference where they used the word “scum” to describe my colleagues.
Which raises for me the question of whether unions must be political and politically left-wing. Historically the unions founded the Labour party, and the stance of the major unions is now firmly to the left of the majority of the Labour party and therefore most likely to the left of most of the UK workforce. Companies make a fair crack at good relations with governments of any stripe. Unions, on the other hand, seem determined that the only governments they will deal with are Labour governments and that a Tory government (or a coalition containing Tories) is its sworn enemy. Surely this is not a good thing for a unionised workforce.
I grew up in rural Dorset near to the unlikely birthplace of the union movement in Tolpuddle. Somewhat entertainingly it seems Adam Smith (18th century economist and freemarket idol) was not unsympathetic to the union movement:
It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.
There is a bit more on the history of the trade union movement in the UK here.
I have form in striking, I was a lecturer at UMIST during the merging with the University of Manchester. Although we were never in dispute over the merger, during the process there was a pay dispute. At one point an e-mail came from management asking me to tell them whether or not I was on strike, rapidly followed by an e-mail from the union rep saying “Don’t tell ‘em, Pike”!
The worrying thing is the number of my colleagues who have said how “brave” I am for striking this time round.