Storm warning: trade unions and the third sector

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​Third sector workers have been patient - but for how long? Graham Martin looks at charities relationships with trade unions.

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4th January 2019 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

Scotland’s third sector isn’t what you’d think of as a natural cradle of class war.

Powered by a highly motivated and hard grafting work force, who often see the social mission of their job as being as important as their terms and conditions, there has been relative industrial peace in the sector.

Partially, this is a reflection of the special nature of third sector work, but it’s also a reflection of the low level of trade union struggle in society as a whole. Levels of dispute are historically low, the generational defeats of the 80s still being felt and the shackles of Thatcherite anti-union legislation still holding.

But things are changing. Recently we have seen a movement growing in the public sector straining against wage restraints which have been accepted – willingly or mostly unwillingly – over the past austerity-damned decade.

Now, this is spilling over into the third sector as well. When the tide rises, all ships rise with it.

When it comes to the relationship of the employed and the employer, the third sector is not a special case

In the weeks before Christmas we saw Shelter staff commit to three days of strike action. And we had the extraordinary developments at Cornerstone.

Both of these disputes have their own special characteristics, of course. But they are not happening in isolation.

Similar moves are taking place across the public sector, and as charities become increasingly involved in public sector delivery, workers in the third sector can only be expected to look on, draw conclusions – and act.

And as workers go into their cycle of negotiating yearly rises there is the real possibility of contagion – the unions at both Shelter and Cornerstone, for example, are asking for roughly similar, and modest, wage uplifts.

At heart, while third sector work might be special in terms of funding, outcomes and those it serves, when it comes to the relationship of the employed and the employer, it is not a special case. The third sector worker sells his or her labour at an hourly rate, the same way a worker in a factory or a call centre does.

The collective product of this labour may be social capital rather than profit, but frankly, when you are earning five times less than your chief executive, it can seem academic at the end of the month whether your employer is paying shareholders, building up reserves or investing in a new social care paradigm.

This might seem brutal but it is simply the reality of the third sector’s existence in the capitalist system. What is different, though, is intent. Most third sector bosses, you'd hope, want the same for their charities’ missions as their staff.

But staff also want decent wages and conditions, and have been very patient. Until now. Union sources have said they are fed up with “excuses” coming from charities over wage rises which barely touch the cost of living.

It is a question of the utmost urgency therefore that charities get their industrial relations on a sound footing – as there could be big storms ahead, which will have implications for everyone, not least service users.

What are the chances of a spring of discontent?

Graham Martin is news editor at Third Force News.