Beware of politicised unions, says Tony Blair

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town on Tuesday. (Photo: Matthew le Cordeur)
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town on Tuesday. (Photo: Matthew le Cordeur)

Cape Town - Companies involved in the mining industry needed to “pay a lot of attention” to the broader social responsibility of the interests of the communities in which they mined, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Mining Indaba on Tuesday.

He however, recognised that there were responsible trade unions and irresponsible ones. He first recognised that while they did have a conflictual relationship with management and capital they also had an interest in the company for which they worked succeeding and being able to look after the workforce "and their (union) members".

The second form of trade union was one that was politicised. This he said could result in problems although Blair – the keynote speaker at the four-day indaba in Cape Town – did not spell out exactly what those problems were.

Blair, whose Labour Party was allied to key trade unions in the United Kingdom, was asked specifically what advice he would give  companies and governments in handling trade unions.

“One of the problems when you stop being prime minister is you… you occasionally lapse into total frankness,” he quipped.

“My experience of trade unions is as follows. You have two types.” One was one that represented the workforce and recognised there was a conflict between labour and capital “but at a higher level there is a higher enterprise… the better the company does the better their members do”. They were genuine service driven unions.

Fin24's Matthew le Cordeur filed this video report:

Problematic politicised unions - Blair

Then there was a “more politicised form of union” which could often be "problematic".

While it was absolutely right that workers were properly and appropriately represented, his advice was “to give a genuine sense of partnership in the enterprise”.

“In the end ... of course, there will be a different role between management, capital and labour … at the highest level all three have a combined interest in the enterprise succeeding.”

READ Fin24's live coverage of Blair's keynote address: Investors must help improve African infrastructure - as it happened

Asked about local benefit to mining communities – some of whom felt alienated from the nearby mines, the former prime minister said: “It is a big problem. I would advise any company to pay a lot of attention to the broader social responsibility and to what happens in the community. Governments also have to facilitate that … realistically.”

Companies made profits for their shareholders, Blair acknowledged, “but the advice I would give… you are going into a community for a significant time. You do need an echo from government. Over time industries change and communities changed.”

Noting that his Sedgefield constituency in the United Kingdom had been a mining town, Blair said by the time he took the seat the mines had closed. “We had a huge debate about the mining industry as it was employing fewer people obviously… the Japanese asked to set up a Nissan plant just outside my constituency. A lot of people said… what do we want the Japanese for?”

A different future

Blair said he never forgot a man who had lived through the 1926 strikes – at that point leader of the local council – who had also worked 30 years down the mines telling the audience that “we have to look to a different future”. The car plant had helped ultimately to transform the UK car industry, the former prime minister reported.

Blair, who acts as an adviser for mining investment in Africa, said that while the mining industry was enormously important on the African continent – although other economic sectors were beginning to surpass it, it was enormously essential in a mining community to look at the long term and begin diversifying the local economy.

A mining investment was not just simply a transaction “but the building of a relationship”. Governments needed to reduce red tape and be more transparent, while companies needed to be more responsible to the needs of mining communities and former a partnership with workers.

Workers, in turn, also needed to recognise that they had an interest in the company they worked for succeeding.

* Read more on the Mining Indaba.

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