Why lawyers should join a real trade union

I apologise in advance for this post. This is meant to be a legal blog, even if only in the very loosest sense of the word, but I’ve struggled to find an obvious legal link (or even a not-very-obvious one) with today’s national public sector strike. I could have given you a blow-by-blow account of the history of industrial action and it’s legality or otherwise, but then you would probably stop reading about here. You may stop reading anyway, but if you are at all intrigued about the link I’ve come up with, keep going.

Like the vast majority of people in this country, I have never been on strike.  I have been a union member since I started working in 1996 but there has never been a need, thank goodness, in any place I’ve worked.  Not that I've only worked for wonderful employers, but nothing has ever come up that’s been as fundamental to my terms and conditions as my pension rights.

Despite the government’s posturing and the predictable negative coverage in the right wing press, at least one opinion poll suggested that 61% of people believe public sector workers are justified in going on strike over pension changes.  More women and young people have sympathy for the industrial action than men, probably because they are the ones bearing the brunt of the economic cuts.

It’s depressing that we’ve got here, but it’s heartening that people recognise the wider implications of the government’s plans for public sector pensions.  And just to clarify, we are not talking about the ‘gold plated’ pensions of top civil servants here, although for the first time ever the ‘top people’s union’, the FDA, is also on strike.  We are talking, in the main, about teachers, nurses, care workers and refuse collectors, who have every right to withdraw their labour to protect their huge, average £5,000 a year pensions.

Heartening because maybe, through its complete disregard for the effect of its austerity regime on public sector workers, the government is causing people to move away from the selfish individualism we’ve been wallowing in for the last 30 years.  I’m not naïve enough to think everyone will suddenly rush off to join a union (although obviously you should) but the level of support for the strike does suggest a more collective consciousness is taking hold.

I’m always dismayed by people who condemn industrial action because it makes it inconvenient for them to go about their daily business.  Aside from the fact that strikes are legal (and I am not sure I would want to live anywhere it was illegal, even if I don’t particularly ever want to have to go on strike), this is a pretty shortsighted attitude.

As an example, I was struck by the headteacher who refused to go on strike in June but who was planning to walk out today.  She said: ‘My concern is that they are not going to attract the best people into the teaching profession’.  You don't have to be a policy guru to realise that decent, if not spectacular, terms and conditions are essential to attract the brightest graduates to any job.  When my daughter goes to school I want her taught by the best teachers, which she won’t be if they’ve all gone off to be lawyers, doctors, investment bankers and management accountants.

It is also totally illogical to suggest that mucking around with public sector pensions is going to do anything to help the workers on worse or non-existent pensions in the private sector.  We should be aspiring for everyone to have a decent pension, not racing to the bottom, even, in fact especially, if that has to be paid for by the highest earners.

Which brings me back to lawyers.  Of course, not all of them are high earners, probably most of them aren’t.  In particular, the legal aid lawyers whom justice secretary Ken Clarke has described as ‘an army of lawyers advancing behind a front row of women and children - vulnerable claimants who say they would not be represented if they are not paid as much as they are now’.

I won’t expand on the reasons why Clarke is being disingenuous and, frankly, wrong because the Pink Tape blog has already done this far better than I could.  But it’s shocking that he feels it’s acceptable to say this.  Other professions do not automatically get accused of self-interest when they question government policy: it is accepted that doctors have a concern about patients, and teachers for pupils.

People like me probably don’t help, writing about how terrible lawyers are all the time.  However, the problem, it seems to me, is that the Law Society doesn’t do a particularly good job at representing its members.  I know it doesn’t like to be called a trade union, and in many ways it isn’t as it doesn’t negotiate terms and conditions (if it were, it might even be illegal by operating a sort of quasi closed shop).  But I have spoken to lawyers who think it should be.

And if it were, perhaps the legal aid lawyers who are bearing the brunt of the cuts to the justice budget might at least be starting out with decent pay and conditions, even pensions.  Maybe if the Society had spent more time worrying about legal aid in the past, both the beneficiaries and the practitioners, people would be more prepared to listen to the Sound off for Justice campaign now?

It’s just a thought, but you know, unions have done a lot of good (including for lawyers and others who can’t or don’t want to join one).  Without them we would not have two-day weekends, eight-hour working days, maternity leave, retirement ages, occupational health and safety, workplace pensions, paid holidays, equality laws, pay increases, the minimum wage, collective bargaining and the right not to be sacked because you got married or had a baby.

If you are on strike, or even if you are just supporting it by tweeting, honking your horn, waving at the picket line or wearing a badge, good for you.  If you don’t support it, is it just because it’s a bit inconvenient for you?  Because it’s more inconvenient for those workers to lose a day’s pay or see their pension decimated.  And if you’re a lawyer, I suggest you go out and join a real trade union.

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