Amid threat of Lothian Buses strike, we need new ways to resolve industrial disputes – Helen Martin

We can’t go back to the days of powerful, successful trades unions, says Helen Martin, but we do need some more effective legal measures to safeguard employees

Monday, 5th August 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 5th August 2019, 7:00 am
Workers march along Princes Street during the miners strike in January 1972
Workers march along Princes Street during the miners strike in January 1972

IT wasn’t at all surprising that Lothian Buses drivers and engineers called off their proposed strike last week. If agreements aren’t reached now, the second ballot this Friday may lead to a down-tools and walk-out, but that would be especially brave of them.

When I started work in the early 1970s, strikes were a common occurrence. Employment and business management were both very, very different.

Trades unions had power and employees therefore had rights and strength. Profits were calculated after all overheads, including wage rise negotiations, were complete.

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Margaret Thatcher managed to kill off or massively reduce the effect of trades unions and in some ways she was right. Cheating and corruption had crept in at that end just as it had in management, banking, politics and anything else with power.

So, employees’ rights were diminished and no reformed alternatives to ‘naughty’ trades unions were offered. But when the economy was booming most workers kept their jobs, were sufficiently or reasonably well paid, and life moved on despite ups and downs in various industries.

The biggest change and most damaging effect to the majority of employees in the UK and the rest of the world came with financial disasters and austerity.

When businesses were, for whatever reason, under pressure one of the first things to disappear were annual wage rises. The cost of living rose but salaries shrank. Loans and shareholders benefits came before wages. Staff couldn’t and wouldn’t ­complain or revolt because redundancies were a perpetual, overhanging threat.

That’s still the case today. Now we have zero contracts, very limited redundancy payments and employers, like Lothian Buses, have the right to bring in substitute workers to cover any strike action.

Once upon a time when there was a shortage of workers, the basics of supply and demand meant wage levels rose to attract more employees. That doesn’t happen now, certainly for lower paid but vital staff such as care home workers, fruit pickers or supermarket shelf-stackers.

Nurses, doctors and other public sector staff see some improvements but for many ‘ordinary’ workers life still gets tougher. Bankers, big business executives (and politicians, of course) see their incomes regularly increase while frontliners see little reward. For the average person, taxation is automatic. For the rich, taxation is constantly avoidable thanks to clever accountants and tax havens (the EU increasing its blacklist of havens is one of the ­reasons the exceedingly rich people in the UK want a no-deal Brexit).

There are more strikes in the EU than in the UK. In the UK, because of reduced trades union membership, more restrictive government legislation and several other factors, strikes are rarely effective.

It’s impossible to go back in time to the days of powerful, successful, trades unions with almost 100 per cent membership, but we do need some more effective legal measures for employees to report bullying, bad management, unfair treatment, excessive hours, unpaid overtime, illegally low wages or anything else immoral and wrong.

A prompt and compulsory method of solving bad employment issues would be better for both bosses and workers than ignoring staff complaints until it drags on to a frequently useless and chaotic strike.

Fed-up Capital residents are being fleeced by the fly-by-night Fringe

THE Counterminers, rehearsing a Fringe show in their tenement flat for weeks, posted a note for their neighbours saying the plot, involving a monster in the wardrobe, would involve a lot of shouting, therefore asking fellow inhabitants: “Please don’t call the police!”

Well who wouldn’t? Or complain to the council? What if a neighbour was sleeping between shift work? Or a neighbour was ill? Or little children were woken up?

Why on earth would the Fringe organisers demand city hotels offer free or discounted hotel rooms to performers when August is their high-priced season?

Why is the council using residential ratepayers’ money to more than double the amount of street cleaners for August, because of the rubbish and debris which is left by the Fringe and tourists?

Why not, as I said last week, set up wardens and patrolling marshals to impose on-the-spot fines for littering which cover their own wages and the extra 40 ‘scaffies’?

If we don’t hurry up and impose a tourist tax, why should residents have to pay for the Fleecing Fringe?

Begging the question

Authorities including Nottingham and Dundee have declared many beggars who claim to be homeless are con merchants who have a house, pose as vagrants with scribbled cardboard cards and a sleeping bag, and can make up to £45,000 a year.

At the height of summer it’s logical to assume more than usual take to the crowded streets of Edinburgh. The problem of course, is that many kind-hearted people want to help the genuinely homeless rather than giving cash to those making a career out of pretence. How can they tell the difference?

Would it be possible for beggars to be licensed, perhaps by homeless charities? The only alternatives are banning all beggars from the streets (impossible) or keeping purses and wallets zipped up and donating to the charities instead.

Council put out to grass

THREE cheers to the Pilton community spending seven hours cutting communal grass for children to play on after the council abandoned their promise to maintain it for two years or provide mowing equipment. The grass is greener, the council is shamed.