The fight for trade union recognition agreements is a central issue to the Labour movement worldwide. This is why last July, the socialist leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, made it clear that the “best way to guarantee fair pay” to all workers “is through strengthening unions’ ability to bargain collectively”. This is also why he said “it should be mandatory for all large employers, with over 250 staff, to bargain collectively with recognised trade unions.”
These comments are particularly relevant today, as a secret ballot concerning trade union recognition at Samworth Brothers’ Kettleby site in Leicestershire is ongoing amidst much controversy. If you didn’t know already, Samworth Brothers are the largest private sector employer in the region, and are a family company (a Tory family) who are devoutly opposed to the idea of their workers being able to join together to benefit from collective bargaining arrangements.
During recent management briefings, Samworth workers were told how successful their company was, and then warned that this might not continue to be the case if they voted YES for a collective bargaining agreement. Apparently voting YES might mean that the company moved from the “circle of success” into what Samworth bosses like to refer to as a the “circle of risk.” In a twisted fashion, management implied that the current high-level of trust between workers and bosses would suffer if workers voted the wrong way in a secret ballot!? Surely management must be aware that trusting relationships cannot be built upon the undemocratic foundations of fear? Make sure you vote NO, management threatened, if you want to avoid conflict!
Needless to say voting YES to recognising the Bakers Union in a collective bargaining agreement would create some conflict about how Samworth Brothers handsome profits should be shared out amongst the workers, but that is hardly a bad thing, is it? Voting YES might also create conflict if management tried to repeat last year’s fiasco when they sacked a trade union rep (Kumaran Bose) because he dared to challenge their undemocratic restructuring process. But, then again, if the Bakers Union had been officially recognised by Samworth Brothers last year, then Samworth’s management would have been far less likely to sack successful union reps in the first place!
Unfortunately, due to such anti-democratic scaremongering on the part of Samworth’s management, and through the lure of one-off financial rewards to their workers, some Samworth employees may vote to oppose the recognition of the Bakers Union. This vote against their own best interests, however, would not only represent a set-back for Samworth workers, but also a set-back for the fight for workplace democracy as a whole across the East Midlands.
A vote against trade union recognition at Samworth’s Kettleby site would be all the more troubling due to the prevalence of sweatshop Labour in Leicester — as evidenced by reports carried on BBC Radio Leicester throughout this week, which noted how the majority of garment workers in Leicester’s factories earn just £3 an hour. Of course this disgustingly low and illegal rate of pay is far below that obtained by Samworth’s own employees, but we should recognise that the primary reason why low pay and exploitation continue to remain so common in Leicester, is because selfish factory owners feel passionately that they should be able to deny their workers from benefiting from having a collective trade union voice at work.
So if Samworth workers do choose to vote YES thereby choosing to support both trade union recognition and greater workplace democracy, it should not be discounted how such an action might embolden the organisation of workers in other workplaces too, especially those who don’t even earn the national minimum wage at present. All workers deserve a real living wage of at least £10 an hour; and all workers deserve the right to participate as equals with management via collective bargaining arrangements with their unions of choice; we do all live in a democracy after all!