Page 4, 19th February 1971

19th February 1971
Page 4
Page 4, 19th February 1971 — Reforming Labour Relations —1

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Organisations: Donovan Commission
Locations: Oxford


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Reforming Labour Relations —1

A Bill that was fathered by puny political pamphlet

by Father Rodger Charles, S.J.

IN the barren pre-Donovan days, to suggest that the industrial relations system in this country was defective was to run the risk of being told to let well alone. We have a system, it works, don't disturb it seemed to be the motto. Mr. Carr's Bill unfortunately neither leaves well alone nor improves it. It runs every risk of making the situation very much worse.

One senses the apathy on the matter in the country at large and the outrage that afflicts some when the Government's efforts are criticised. One plods on in the hope of trying to make people understand what is at stake. The general public can be forgiven for their failure to see what it is all about. Understanding the British System requires a knowledge of economic, historical, sociological and organisational fact which few have the patience or the opportunity to acquire.

It is not, however, too much to hope that a Government which sets out to reform the system should do its homework. This one certainly has not. The Bill it put before us is fathered by a puny political pamphlet which predates Donovan and which is in fact unsupported by any research in depth into the system.

It is not only that it contains important points of difference from Fair Deal at Work or that it has nothing to say on the most pressing issue of the moment which is that of wage adjustment. Even within the narrow Emits it has set itself it is based on wrong principles and runs the risk of doing positive damage.

There are nine sections to the Bill but it is in the second and the third, concerned with the "Rights of Workers" and "Collective Bargaining" that the really important ideas are contained.

Of the other seven sections, the first is introductory, the rest either deal with matters which are not in principle in dispute though the manner with which they are dealt with here is matters like the registration of unions and the setting up of the C.I.R.—or else they take the logic of the sections in question to their legalistic conclusion with the lists of "unfair practices", ballots, tribunals, courts, fines, restrictions of unofficial action and the rest.

To get the flavour of the Bill all that is necessary is to understand the principles underlying the second and third sections and to judge their relevance or their positive dangers. Against them and their implications the incidental benefits the 13ill may bring to unions, industry or nation are small indeed.

Underlying the "Rights of Workers" is what Mr. Carr has called a "High" principle no less. The reasoning behind this is as fascinating as it is confused and it is a pity that restrictions on space prevent me quoting at length from Hansard (Vol. 810, 71. Col. 667-8, 27th January, 1971). What it comes to is that the unions once were weak and now are strong and the time has come to reassert the right of the _nonconformist, the nonunionist, against for example union power in the closed shop. High or not, Mr. Carr will hope forgive me if I say that his ,principle is half-baked, misleading and contradiotory of the Bill's own admittedly weak

It is contradictory of that logic in that we arc given to understand in Clause One that the Bill is intended to improve industrial relations and collective bargaining. Since there is no other way of improving the latter without the help of strong well organised unions, the Bill should be out to strengthen not Ito weaken them. It us misleading because it is based on the unproven and in fact erroneous assumption that the trouble with our industrial relations system is that the unions are too strong.

It is half-baked because it pretends that all personal rights are of equal value socially and personally and that they are absolute. They clearly are not. In war we allow a man the right to be a conscientious ob

jector but we place restrictions on the way he may use it.

If his needs clashed with those of the serving soldier we would have no hesitation in seeing him suffer inconvenience rather than the soldier, provided that his rights as an objector were maintained.

Now between the right of a man to join a union and the right of a man not to join, both of which are to he safeguarded, there is, in the closed shop situation, a clash. We are not considering here the rare case of a man who objects to unionism on grounds akin to those that we accept for conscientious objection in war — religion or comparable reasons. The unions can and do make allowance for him. We are considering the case where nonunionism has a political or anti-union flavour.

It is an issue on which there can be no half way as the Prince of arbitrators, Sir George Askwith, once noted. The rights of either the unionist or the non-unionist must prevail. In view of the greater social value of the con tribution of the trade unionist whose efforts are the basis of our industrial relations system, it would appear that he should have preference.

There is no evidence that the closed shop is essentially undesirable in theory or practice and what needs correcting can be done without abolishing it. Properly used it can greatly help to ordered industrial relations. It is a fact of our system and it affects nearly 4 million people.

Yet it is to be undermined by the Bill and the possibility exists that there will be reintroduced into our industrial relations system another source of bitterness. And all this because of the blind attachment to a party dogma.

Further, the need to repair the damage done by this blind dogmatism leads Mr. Carr into str7"er: world of the agency shop. No one has the slightest idea how this will work out. All that need be known is that it is only there because the closed shop is unacceptable in principle and that principle cannot

be justified logically or in terms of present need — indeed these tell against it.

The agency shop is typical of the Bill's fascination with bringing the law into industrial relations in totally new and unnecessary ways. it is in the section on "Collective Bargaining" that this becomes most evident. The underlying principle here is that the way to get voluntary agreements observed more effectively is to make them legally enforceable as far as possible.

The principle is not demonstrated. Nor could it be. It has no more foundation in fact, logic or need than the high principle itself. The truth is that the only way to improve collective agreements and their observance is to make sure that the organisation for making them is strong and supple and that the procedures for dealing with difficulties are effective.

Where this is done the force of moral obligation ensures their observance. Where it is not, no amount of legislation will ensure it. There is no mystery to all this. The In

dustrial Council's Report on Agreements, published over fifty years ago said it; the experience of dozens of British industries confirms it and the Donovan Commission knew it. Only Mr. Carr and his supporters seem to be unaware of it.

Searching for reasons to explain how this strange document ever came to be put before Parliament, one is lead to the conclusion that it is really aimed at the engineering industry. The main provisions seem to suit a particular theory of what is needed to put industrial relations here right. The agency shop, the obsession with procedures and the ignorance of substantive issues, the legislation to enforce agreements if possible, the attack on the unofficial strike whether it is justified or not — they all "put the unions in their place."

Ignoring for the moment the fact that the E.E.F. have agreed not to make the latest agreement legally enforceable, this approach anyway has no relevance to the real problems of the industry. The only way to improve industrial relations in any industry is by strong organisation for collective bargaining based on mutual trust and extending to all matters about which the parties wish to negotiate.

The engineering industry has never had such an integrated and well-founded system. Mutual trust has always been limited, the scope of_agreements narrow, the procedures defi client. The historical roots of this unfortunate situation are deep and they can be traced ukimately to defects in the traditional aTtittudes of employers, defects which the unions found no difficulty in reciprocating.

The situation is chaneing for the better but slowly. The first need is for that mutual trust and for a Government policy of positive voluntarism aiding its development The final condemnation of the Bill is that it will discourage the development of that mutual 'trust and that it holds voluntarism in contempt.

The best we can hope for is that the employers and the unions give it as wide a berth as they possibly can. Better ways must be found of solving our industrial relations problems. T will try to outline next week what lines they might follow.

Fr. Rodger Charles, S.J., has published "Man, Industry and Society (1964) and "The Christian Social Conscience (Theology Today series) 1970. "Studies in the development of Industrial Relations in 20th century Britain, based on work he did for his Oxford doctorate, will appear later this year.

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