words used to describe unions misrepresent the truth about how they work

Public discussions about pickets, politics and even profile pictures have been a daily occurrence this week for Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). As England, Scotland and Wales face serious transport disruptions as a result of RMT industrial action, Lynch has appeared on multiple news programs and has been quoted in the newspapers. As general secretary – or “union boss” – his job is to represent members by explaining that the strikes relate to a dispute over pay, conditions and proposed layoffs on the rail network.

However, many of these media mentions discuss the “union barons” who are “behind the strike” action. Such language not only denies railroad workers their agency, it is an inaccurate characterization of how strikes work in practice. It reflects a lack of knowledge about unions in the media, perhaps due to the sharp decline of industry and labor correspondents since the 1970s.

Let’s start with the words commonly used to describe union secretaries. A baronet is a recognized rank of the British peerage system and has historical connotations of nobility. Describing union secretaries as barons might suggest that they belong to a separate stratum of society with a different social and economic status from their members or the general public.

This is true in a sense. The salaries of union officials are often smaller than those of the workers they represent. There are some notable exceptions: the deputy secretary-general of the union for public and commercial services, for example, announced on his election that he would be returning almost £25,000 of his £70,000 annual salary to the union’s strike fund.

What is important, however, is the democratic accountability behind these salaries. Members who attend their union’s annual general meeting vote on the financial report, which includes employee pay packages. RMT members voted to cut the salaries of their officials, including the general secretary, at the union’s 2021 AGM – a motion Lynch himself had proposed. This level of accountability is very different from the compensation committees and shareholder meetings that often swing triple-digit bonuses in private sector companies.

And while union secretaries are “bosses” in the sense that they are the head of the organization, they are elected to their positions by the workers they represent. Do service users of train companies or railway staff vote for the boss of the train operator? If they are not satisfied with their performance, are there democratic mechanisms to ensure that they do not serve another term in office?

Union democracy is certainly a contentious term and there is a wealth of research on the dynamics between union leadership and grassroots, including specifically about the RMT. But the model of democratic accountability practiced within trade unions is not typically seen in the private sector.

Man on the phone walks behind RMT national strike sign
Transport union strikes were declared in England, Wales and Scotland in June, and more sectors are expected to strike in the coming months.
Tolga Akmen/ EPA-EFE

Understanding Union Actions

Descriptions of the actions of secretaries-general, both in the coverage and in the public debate about union action, are often equally inaccurate. Secretaries-general cannot “incite” their members to strike action, as Grant Shapps suggested last week. They host an independent vote by post, as required by the Trade Union Act passed by David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2016. Members are questioned as to whether they are willing to strike if all other bargaining methods have been tried, refused or failed.

In the most recent example of RMT action, the workers involved decided overwhelmingly that they would be willing to go on strike. Any other description of this process denies the employees expressing their grievances and choosing to act collectively in an effort to find a solution.

Recent research by the Equality Trust shows strong public support for action on executive pay and for more equitable pay distribution within companies. But while the government is urging the public sector to practice wage moderation, it also plans to lift restrictions on executive compensation packages. The Network Rail CEO earns £593,000, compared to the Office of National Statistics average of £33,310 for a train attendant or station staff member. So where’s the coverage of the ‘railroad barons’?

Strike coverage improvement

Research has also shown that the language used to discuss strike action in the public sphere is likely to have a significant impact on the course of a strike, and that even metaphors shape and influence public opinion. During the mining strikes of the 1980s, the Sun newspaper attempted to run a front page comparing Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, to Hitler. Printers of the National Union of Journalists refused to print the contents.

Fortunately, press coverage of the current transport strikes has not plumbed those depths. But portraying the current dispute as “driven” by union barons fails to recognize how unions work and which body should decide their members to take action.

Understanding of trade unions and industrial relations has declined in the media, academia and the general public. With the likelihood of continued union action this summer as teachers, criminal lawyers and other workers are voted to strike, developing a better understanding of how unions work and of labor relations in general could help people gain a more balanced and informed picture.

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