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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
CBI boss blasts 'outdated' unions
Digby Jones
Digby Jones claims trade unions inhibit personal choice
The leader of the CBI has launched his strongest attack on trade unions to date, claiming they are becoming "increasingly irrelevant".

Workers had lost interest due to unions' outdated notions of work, Digby Jones told a CBI dinner in Glasgow.

Fewer workers needed union membership because rising skill levels were making them less vulnerable, he said.

The TUC said it was "disappointing" to see Mr Jones returning to "the rhetoric of the Thatcher years".

Speaking ahead of the TUC Congress, which starts on 13 September, Mr Jones said: "When there were millions of unskilled workers, vulnerable to exploitation, unions were essential to fight their corner.

Without unions to stand up for people at work, Britain would be a much less fair society
TUC spokesman

"But when the labour market is stuffed full of people with a skill, even if not that advanced, unions stuck in the mindset of yesterday's ideology become less relevant.

"The only protection people need in a tight labour market with skills shortages is to be so adaptable, trained and valuable that no employer would dare let them go or treat them badly.

"With unions representing just 19% of the private sector workforce, they become increasingly irrelevant every day."

He also accused unions of trying to inhibit personal choice, destroy flexibility in the workplace and discourage overseas investment.

A TUC spokesman said without unions to stand up for people Britain would be a "less fair society.

Would Jones seriously tell a victim of sex discrimination that all they need to do to avoid exploitation is to be 'adaptable'?
Tony Woodley, TGWU leader

"Pensions would be on their way out - except in the boardroom - and many more people would be injured or die at work every year."

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, invited Mr Jones to "come and join to real world, where we are all working harder for longer".

He added: "Modern workers need union representation more than ever and any worker in Britain can tell you they face a stack of workplace issues.

"Would Jones seriously tell a victim of sex discrimination that all they need to do to avoid exploitation is to be 'adaptable'?

"If trade unions were irrelevant I doubt the director of the CBI would be devoting half his speech to attacking us.


"Jones cannot grasp the fact that unions want a strong economy with better opportunities for workers, which is why we argue for more support for industry and why we have initiated union learning schemes in thousands of workplaces.

"The CBI should concentrate on building British industry rather than attacking an integral part of it."

Bill Speirs, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, said he was "astonished" by the remarks.

"It is sad to hear Digby use the rhetoric of the 1970s when in Scotland we are using constructive dialogue on how to meet the challenges of the 21st century, " he said.

"Trade unionists, business leaders and the Government will be equally baffled by this latest rant and frankly Digby doesn't know when to stop digging."

Your comments:

I agree entirely. I worked for 5 years in a major UK bank and the union was completely irrelevant. You wouldn't know it existed. I refused to join as I simply couldn't see what my monthly fee was going to be used for. All the staff union reps simply did it as it got them a few days out of the office. I didn't understand what the union could do that even a semi intelligent person can't do for themselves anyway. There have been moves at my current employer to gain the majority needed to force union recognition, I think they are currently nearing the 10% mark! The younger people in particular are simply not interested.
Andy B, Newcastle Upon Tyne

I disagree with Mr. Jones. I work in a sector that has seen the unions effectively eradicated (TV production). Since then our pay has been gradually eroded, there is no such thing as a cost-of-living increase, the hours have increased considerably and "holiday pay" is, in reality, deducted from our wages. None of this would have happened if the industy's unions were still effective.
Graeme Stringfellow, Southampton, England

The need for a trade union is as relevant today as it was when they first were set up. Mrs Thatcher said exactly the same just before the Great Miners' Strike broke out and I hope this time it will be not only successful but will result in a better and fairer world for everyone. Digby Jones is right in only one sense and that is that the TUC and Tony Woodley need to take their orders from the membership and not from the CBI and the current government leadership.
madamd, london

When business joins together to fix prices it is called a cartel and is jumped on. When labour joins together to fix prices it somehow becomes laudable. Can anyone explain it?
Charles Guerin, Chesham Bucks

Mr Jones, indeed, as suggested, needs to go into some of the workplaces that exist, that have not moved into the 21st century. There are still factories, and places of work, that still use almost Victorian plant, or out of date ideas that need actioned. This can only be done by the unions and their members. Also, the lack of experience of junior managers lead some employees into dangerous circumstances, and that can be halted by strong union criticism of these actions. On the other hand there are some union officials that do work to the 'old' rules, where there seems to be a duty to attack management at all costs. All new legislation needs to be monitored, health and safety needs maintained, working conditions improved. Some companies fall short on these matters and need constant reminders of them.
Paul Butler, London,UK

Digby Jones is a disgrace. Once again, he is putting industrial relations back by a silly and unwarranted attack on the trade union movement. I certanly don't recognise the utopia he is describing. Most of us are working longer hours than ever, and we need strong, forward-looking trade unions to defend high standards of safety. If Britain wants to compete the global economy, we need to do a lot better than anything this relic from the seventies has to offer.
Tim Hiscock, Crewe, UK

Working for a manufacturing business I can totally agree with Digby Jones. The union representation here is stuck 20 years in the past. I know that people in this company would be better paid, better trained and more respected by management but it is the union holding the workforce back. Examples include people refusing to do the job above their pay grade for 10 minutes just to cut a piece of cable to satisfy a customer order. The company has been through a rough couple of years and why can't the union see that their union mentality and inflexibility instead of protecting the rights of the members is in fact risking the jobs of everyone in the company.
Name withheld, UK, North

Unions ARE stuck in the last century. They are run by ideologists with a chip on their shoulders who are still disappointed the masses didn't rise up and overthrow the imperialists. There is still a place for unions, but they need to modernise and find their niche, rather than trying to control the workplace.
Richard Corbishley, Wakefield, England

Workers are more vulnerable in today's climate than they were before. Jobs are being outsourced, companies are downsizing, hours are longer. We are reaping what we sowed when we decided we could do without trade unions in the 1980s. We need them now more than ever.
Brian, Edinburgh, Scotland

I attended a Union event this summer and there was a marked difference between the "old guard" unionists and the new wave of members straight from universities. Some union activists are stuck in the past - they live in mortal fear of another Thatcherite cull to society. But modern union members aren't like that - we join unions to have someone who is on our side. In an era where boardroom pay has run amuck - we need someone to stand up for the little guy. Modern unions aren't about strikes and militancy - they're about negotiating for a better deal for workers.
Terry Eden, Newbury, UK

It is obvious to anyone who looks that employers exploit the skilled workers as much as they did the unskilled. The loss of pension schemes for working people (not of course the board) surely is proof enough.
Maurice, Oxford

I remember reading one of Digby Jones' speeches where he described himself as "not being born with a silver spoon in my mouth". After reading this article I would say not either - more like a size 10 boot! Rising skill levels actually make workers more vulnerable because when companies choose to make redundancies they always look to cut the jobs of the high earners first! Unions encourage personal choice, work with companies in a flexible manner, and encourage the support of UK manufacturing.
Rachelle Wilkins, CEC Member GMB Union, Grimsby, England

There is all the more need for strong unions in the face of Digby Jones' anti-union sentiments. I did respect him but he seems out of touch with the working conditions of many Britons. I also wonder what he means when he says unions 'discourage overseas investment'. Does he mean I wonder the question of outsourcing whereby businesses move operations abroad for cheaper labour thus making British-based workers redundant? How does that benefit the economy exactly? Corporations used to use employment as a measurement of their contribution to the economy and society. Not anymore. Unfortunately, Jones appears to be doing nothing to urge industry to re-adopt this benchmark.
Garth, Hull, U.K.

I wonder if dear old Digby has ever been made redundant?
Alan Reid, London

Where I work, I've been a member of the GMB union for 7 years since I started. I'm glad to have stayed in the Union as in the last few years they've managed to save our (final salary) pension scheme as well as secure some contractual improvements. So I would not be inclined to say they were no longer relavant.
paul phillips, Birmingham uk

I work for a global IT firm and do confess to being a member of a union. In my experience the unions carry no weight in this modern hire em and fire em world. Although I partially agree with the CBI leader's words I do question his comment of "The only protection people need in a tight labour market with skills shortages is to be so adaptable, trained and valuable that no employer would dare let them go or treat them badly." I work with a bunch of highly educated, trained and flexible people but it still isn't stopping their jobs from being sent over to India in what can only be seen as a cost cutting scheme.
David, Notts

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