Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 2/12/2004I've always felt in two minds about unions. On the one hand, capitalism hates its workers.

Thursday 2/12/2004

I've always felt in two minds about unions. On the one hand, capitalism hates its workers. It wants to pay them as little as possible for as much work as possible -- beyond that, they're a problem. To have a chance at a decent crack at the whip, the people have to get together and get their hands around the business' windpipe from time to time. At least, that used to be the case. After a good few decades of -- often union-led -- legislation and a degree of social change, there are plenty of companies which do behave as well as they can towards their people, and there are plenty more rights that come with a job now.

On the other hand, unions can be destructive, personality-led and self-defeating. My few experiences with them have not been good, such as a notably cack-handed strike in the 80s that caused no end of trouble and achieved nothing.

So it's good to see that there are other ways to shake up a company. One seems to be working at games company Electronic Arts, which is currently quaking under an onslaught of criticism due to its working practices -- which, complainants say, ask 80+ hour working weeks with no overtime payments for the entire duration of a project. Did the company care? Hell, no. The HR policy, insiders report, was "Like it, or shut up and leave," based on the idea that there are always more keen kids desperate to get into the business than there are burned-out shells leaving it. But a series of anonymous -- and not so anonymous -- open letters, blogs and class actions gelled online, and now the company is suddenly aware that its attracting a lot of attention. There's already a leaked memo saying that they know things are wrong and they'll set out to change them.

Another interesting affair is going on at Ryanair, which is run by notoriously union-unfriendly Michael O'Leary. Recently, what with one thing and another, the pilots have been considering joining a union: M O'L's been reacting to this idea very badly indeed. Once again, online forums -- at first, the PPRuNe (Professional Pilots Rumour Network, if you must know) Web site, and now a new Ryanair European Pilots Association site -- have formed the focus for dissent, ensuring that any attempts to divide and rule are reported to all within minutes.

Now, if we can only apply the same fire to the feet of our beloved political masters, we might be onto something…