Shirley Williams on Economic Disruption by Trade Unions and Big Business

Shirley Williams, the former Labour MP, who then went off to form the SDP in the 1980s, also discusses the alleged damage for which the trade unions were allegedly responsible to the economy, in her 1981 book, Politics Is For People (Harmondsworth: Penguin). She concedes that some industrial problems were due to inflationary wage demands by the unions, but also believed that big business was also guilty of the same policies themselves. She also argued that the unions’ pay policy also had a beneficial effect, and that where strikes broke out, it was because the workers were poorly treated, and not given sufficient information on their predicament by the management. She wrote:

Trade unions are held responsible for many of Britain’s economic weaknesses, but criticism of unions is by no means restricted to Britain.

The power of unions and their irresponsibility, so one would have to conclude from the pronouncements of neoclassical economics, business representatives and conservative parties, is the one single factor (apart, perhaps, from the greed of the OPEC countries) which explains most of what is presently wrong with western economies. By raising the price of unskilled labour beyond its market value, union wages are said to be the major cause of unemployment, and by exploiting the scarcity value of skilled labour, they are said to be directly responsible for wage-push inflation.

Thus writes Fritz Scharpf, Direct of the Wissenschaftszentrum, Berlin, in a paper entitled Capitalism of Yesteryear – and of Tomorrow?

Apart from their effect on wages, trade unions are alleged to disrupt production schedules and delivery dates by strikes, both official and unofficial. The growth and prosperity of industry are damaged by restrictive practices such as overmanning, fragmentation of jobs by craft unions, limits on the output of individual workers or of equipment, and burdensome conditions before agreement can be reached on installing new machinery or introducing new processes. ‘Productivity is now importantly hampered by overmanning and restrictive practices which, if they could be reduced or removed, would allow rapid increases in productivity,’ concludes the OECD’s 1980 Economic Survey of the United Kingdom.

But restrictive practices are by no means limited to the labour market, as the last chapter demonstrates. Much more than the United States, Western Europe has relied on cartels, pricing agreements, market-sharing arrangements and monopolies to limit and restrict competition. what has been true of labour has also been true of business. The strength of organised labour grew relative to that of business in the decades of full employment after the war, so that some trade unions were able to insist upon conditions for recruitment and particular qualifications for skill. In Britain, the folk memory of mass unemployment between the wars has been very slow to fade, perhaps because of the persistence of the class system, perhaps because of relatively low geographic mobility. Restrictive practices have often been adopted as a means of protecting jobs, which in the short run they may do. In some firms the workload during normal working hours has been limited so that workpeople have been able to work long hours of overtime as well. Overtime has become endemic in some industries and is quite often guaranteed.

Wages and Inflation

But trade union’s resistance to wage cuts during recessions, far from damaging industrial economies, has been an important stabilising factor. Wages and salaries constitute a very large part, usually about three fifths, of the national income. They are therefore the main element in domestic demand. Wage cuts, complemented by cuts in unemployment pay (the ‘dole’), helped to precipate the slump of the 1920s and 1930s. To quote Fritz Scharpf again:

Perhaps the most important [of the stabilizing factors] is the ‘downward stickiness’ of wage which are determined by collective bargaining. They have stabilised the income, and thus the demand, of the great majority of wage earners even in recession periods, and they have so far helped to avoid the vicious cycle of downward spiralling demand that caused the great depression. (Pp. 128-9).

Discussing the differences between trade union structure and membership in Britain and Germany, Williams states

The job of German trade unions is also eased by the amount of information on the state of the economy and of each individual company available to their members through the system of works councils. German workers know the effect that inflationary settlements will have on employment prospects and on prices because the facts are available to them. They also know when they are getting paid too little. This basis of consultation underpins West Germany’s bargaining system. In Britain, a heavy price is paid in suspicion and antagonism because so little information is revealed and so few companies consult their workers. (p. 131).

In other words, if you involve the workers in the management of their industries and economies, they will defend their own interests, of course, but in an informed and responsible manner. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what the Neoliberals, the CBI and the Tories have been claiming.

The argument that wages should not be cut, nor should unemployment benefit, because these actually stimulate the economy, whereas the money raised through the tax cuts given to the super-rich does nothing but lie in their bank accounts, has been time and again by economists and bloggers like the Angry Yorkshireman and Mike at Vox Political. Ha-Joon Chang makes the point that the tax cuts don’t work in his book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, in an entire chapter devoted to destroying the trickled-down argument. But such policies are popular, because they satisfy the greed and venomous contempt and fear the middle classes have for the poor.


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