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Never Waste a Crisis! Time for Unions to Play the Bosses at Their Own Game

Never Waste a Crisis! Time for Unions to Play the Bosses at Their Own Game

By Mike Hamilton

The cards have been thrown into the air and no one knows where they will eventually land. It’s time for unions to bag gains for workers before bosses take it all for themselves like they usually do.

Already we have had all sorts of companies from tech firms to high street banks stating that they are currently making plans to rationalise their real estate in favour of remote working. Why pay for large expensive city centre offices when you can make do with a small hub and convert accommodation costs into savings/profits.

You can see the appeal, which is why those that have already been forced into upgrading their IT infrastructure to keep staff busy working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown are now looking at ways to really capitalise on that investment in the long-term.

Unfortunately, the balance sheet always rules, which is why I suspect the world of work for many will be very different to before. Meetings have been replaced with Zoom calls and friendly chats with colleagues by the water cooler have been eliminated completely in favour of productivity and it’s probably here to stay.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it all has to be in the boss’s favour though. While trade unions have many challenges ahead such as protecting their members mental and physical health and safety while working at home and making sure no one is forced into isolation by their employer. There are also many who enjoy the benefits of their non-commute to work and the more flexible approach to fulfilling duties outside of the set 9 to 5 hours.

Now is the time for unions to fully consult, like never before, with their membership to find out exactly the range of opinions on new methods of working life to truly reshape working lives and bring in a new era of work-life balance. It will not suit everyone and that has to be respected in terms of giving workers a choice if they want to turn their home into an office or not. It will mean a raft of new DSE risk assessments, laptops, desks and chairs being provided but given the potential cost savings across both public and private sector, this element at least should be an easy win for unions.

Agile working in the scaled back offices that will remain presents its own unique issues with hygiene and individual reasonable adjustments to cater for. However, these are for management to provide solutions to and with the lucrative incentive on offer unions can really hold their feet to the fire.

The trick will really be in converting the potential millions of pounds currently spent in leased buildings and running costs into the pockets of workers. Low paid and under-valued staff are now proven to be essential and over a decade of austerity have taken their toll on wages. Through collectivisation workers have a real opportunity to deny any potential gains for their employer without also getting a slice of the pie for themselves.

Trade unions must now embrace this new world and negotiate sound terms and conditions for the future while recovering pay levels to where they should always have been. Inaction will see employers pushing through changes regardless of the detriment to staff. Some workers will even welcome changes wholeheartedly, allowing firms to sell cost savings purely as beneficial to their workforce, leaving behind anyone who disagrees.

There is a culture shift now occurring where both workers and employers are seeing the benefits. Estate agents are reporting a huge rise in enquiries from city dwellers looking to swap their small flats for houses in the countryside now they don’t have to go in to the office and are unlikely to again. There is even talk of introducing four-day weeks without loss of pay, helping both mental health and domestic tourism. It’s all up for grabs with only imagination constraining the ask.

It won’t be easy though, it will be a fight. Ruthless employers will always seek ways to further exploit workers and won’t automatically share savings. Any changes to working life needs to be made conditional on financial reward or cutting of hours. Transparency is key to this, trade unions must demand that employers open up their books on any cost/benefit analysis they are undertaking and provide solutions as to how management will ensure that unions can operate effectively with large numbers of their members now working in isolation. The responsibility for reviewing both operating and organising models will lie with the union leaderships with members no longer all being based in one building, unions must think carefully on how best to serve their members interests in a completely new way.

Unions now have a duty to recognise the ace that fate has dealt them and play their hand to make sure the benefits are truly distributed equally. While workers also have a duty to join and support their union by making their voice heard and not let a once in a generation opportunity to make gains go to waste. In this uncertain new world, one thing is for sure, capital certainly won’t let any crisis go to waste.

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