The cliches from Unite, Soften the blow, Doing everything we can, Dismayed, which accompanied the announcement of redundancies at the Rolls Royce plant in Inchinnan earlier this year, were perhaps designed to assuage the union’s feelings of its own uselessness as much as to express concern for those losing their jobs. The defeat to senior management who, masking a perhaps understandable attempt to secure a foothold in the Indian market behind claims of financial necessity was, as both sides knew before the outset, unavoidable. In post-industrial Scotland, the prophetic phrase maintain our competitive edge inevitability translates into job losses to a developing nation.
But yet, despite their futility, the charade of talks must go on. Heaven forbid the reality of unions’ current position becomes apparent to the West End wordsmiths with working class ideals fashioned not on shop floor realities, but champagne tinctured fantasies of Karl Marx and miners’ strikes. The loss of a job is a horrible experience, and its effects are far more than financial, yet equally so, the admittedly not insignificant benefits secured by Unite over previous years aided matters for both management and tradesman in this loss. The generous redundancy packages, shares, relocation, and early retirement offered to two hundred full time staff would make even the bitterest pill a little easier to swallow.
To the one hundred or so contractors who suffered the same fate over the previous six months, however, none of these sweeteners were on offer. Their plight received no news coverage, and, perhaps to prevent adding insult to injury, no pretence from Unite that they would be fighting to defend their jobs. The weakest sector of the workforce were, as always, cannon fodder.
An oft-maligned crowd of rogues, contractors are utilized, as they are in many sectors, as stop-gap cover during temporary increases in production, or as is becoming more regular, to allow employers the freedom to hire and fire without dealing with unions. For many a freewheeling cut-throat, this deal has long been acceptable: take a higher wage with less security, work every hour under the sun, roll out when the contract ends. With job offers from Germany to California, there’s certainly a romantic appeal to contracting, particularly to those with the wanderlust sentiment who view full-time work as a first step towards pacification and entrapment within the inescapable suburban nightmare.
On the other side of the coin are those for whom the inherent lack of job stability and constant fear of unemployment can have extremely detrimental, life-changing consequences. The banks’ recently appropriated image of starch-collared financial responsibility, something was sadly lacking ten years ago, can mean contractors employed for a decade or more are refused mortgages and loans. Company benefits such as shares, paid sick leave and statutory holidays, and most importantly, redundancy and pensions, are circumnavigated by management who cash in on the desperation of those willing to take anything on offer. More significantly, they’re aware unions and full time staff are often doing well enough for themselves not to care for the contractors’ plight. As a long gone manual turner, fashioned during the Garnock Valley’s steel industry heyday, told me as an apprentice, Davie boiy, ye’re socialist tae ye’ve somehin tae conserve.
Many of the previously assumed benefits of contracting, namely financial, have gone the same way as the Garnock Valley’s industry. Contractors are often prevented from working self employed, over and above being blocked from registering as their own employment agency and thus taking out the expensive middle man in the deal, such as is permitted in Australia. The pension of a skilled tradesmen, then, goes into the pocket of an often talentless employment agent with no understanding of the role – though it must be stressed there are exceptions to this case.
Although from the outside it may seem immoral and divisive that someone doing the same job receives a larger salary by avoiding PAYE payments, this was regularly seen as part of the deal to entice contractors to a role and, ultimately, to give a financial cushion when the inevitable spectre of unemployment came knocking.
Over and above the loss of financial incentives, a previous Unite stipulation that Rolls Royce were permitted to employ an individual as a contractor for a maximum of one year before offering them a full-time position has been scrapped, no doubt a concession for a better share package or wage increase for its members. Contractors who worked overtime in Rolls Royce were also blocked by Unite from doing so, some of the more unsavoury members happy to hurt a man in the pocket who was simply making up for pay he’d lose over the statutory holidays at Christmas. Not only were Unite failing to help contractors, they were actively punishing them with a descent into petty, childish, us-and-them tribalism that bears more than a whiff of a me first attitude.
To many a union man, the negatives to the weakening of a workforce’s collective position is offset by the buffer zone provided by contractors in a redundancy situation. An expendable card in negotiations, often contractors must lose their jobs before those taking voluntary redundancy or early retirement, meaning someone can find themselves out of work one week, only to be re-employed the following when full-time staff leave – hardly conducive to the mental health and family stability of an individual. Although, as was the case in Inchinnan, the overwhelming feeling of full-time staff in these situations was one of pity, it was no doubt comforting to many that there were a hundred men who would lose their jobs before their own positions were reviewed.
Naturally, then, most contractors are happy to cross the picket line of a union which doesn’t defend their jobs and sees their rights eroded. Some contractors further admit – in private at least – to being willing to undercut an existing workforce to keep their own jobs or to secure a full-time position, something which, if it was a possible scenario, would obviously play further into the hands of higher management and, in the long run, a Westminster government which would gladly see that entire workforces regressed to contractor status.
It is the greatest of ironies that via their neglect of contractors and their subsequent desperation, unions like Unite directly contribute to the spread of the Tory values, which at a shop-floor level at least, they claim to despise. If they are to stop the rot, then they must make up their minds just who, and exactly what, they are trying to defend. They must embrace contractors, push employers to offer them full-time positions, or at the very least pay and conditions which match them. Informing them, frankly and openly, of their future prospects within a company would also go a way towards reducing the animosity some contractors feel towards them.
Current union attitudes to contractors not only undermine their own power, but contradict the very philosophies upon which they are founded. Failing to reform them will lead not only to the continual degradation of workforce unity and morals until they do not exist, but to the unions themselves becoming nothing more than associations for the advancement of their members. Of course, change would require sacrifice, and that is something those with the most to lose are the least fond of.