Cutting ties will free trade unions to fight real enemy

Reports of the demise of class war on these islands were clearly premature.  The biggest walk-out of public sector workers – since the last one – takes place on 30 June.  And it’s clear that everyone has been rehearsing their roles.

On one side, the trade unions, dusting down their donkey jackets and cliches of battles past to defend the public sector against cuts in services, jobs and pensions.  On t’other, the Tories, indulging in rhetoric Thatcher would have been proud of and brandishing threats to rein in the unions’ worst excesses.  Ah, the old woman taught these boys well.

Somewhere in the middle, Labour, trying not to upset them what pay their wages and provide the only real source of donated income, wringing its hands, calling impotently for everyone to play nicely.

But actually, this time it is serious.  No more crying wolf – we really could be in for the worst episode of industrial unrest and government clampdown since the 1980s.  And that’s because the stakes and the cause are as high as they have ever been.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coaltion’s dogged adherence to economic Plan A means that all being in this together actually translates into those at the bottom taking the hardest hits.

Regular Burdzeyeview readers will know that this blogger is no apologist for the public sector.  If Plan A is all that is on offer – and it is, currently, – then there is an awful lot of sucking and seeing to be done.  If pay freezes mean protecting services for the most vulnerable in our society, then so be it.  The issue of pensions is much more complex and needs a blogpost of its own.

But of course, the most vulnerable in our society are not being protected. They too are in the firing line, thanks to the efforts of teflon-coated middle managers deflecting the impact of cuts straight into the frontline.  To date, no political party has come up with more than platitudes on public sector reform.  Bureaucracies once in place are notoriously hard to shift.  Worse – for the low paid in the public sector – is the political unwillingness to take on the worst excesses in the financial sector.  They are absolutely entitled to feel aggrieved at them being expected to play the biggest role in saving our economy.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – the public sector needs reform, it needs to be re-imagined so that it is much more nimble and focused on the needs and interests of those it purports to serve.  There is a better way but it doesn’t involve going back to the 70s – sorry, no donkey jackets required – nor does it mean dismantling the rights of workers to be represented by trade unions. And most importantly of all, denying workers the right to withdraw their labour.

I might not be an apologist for the left but I sure as heck ain’t one for the right.

Apparently, there is concern about the legitimacy of unions’ strike mandate.  With no minimum turnout for strike ballots, turn-outs as low as 20 and 30% can lead to strike action being taken, so long as a majority of those voting say yes.  Conservative sensibilities have been upset, causing some to suggest a floor is required anything from 40% (the CBI position) to an actual majority of members (Boris Johnson’s view).

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.  Such a floor, of course, doesn’t apply to representative politics and in the last twenty years we have seen turn-out in elections slide.  So, if a floor is to be applied, let us at least be consistent.   Shouldn’t our politicians lead by example (though Scotland might be in trouble if the London Mayor’s preferred hurdle was adopted).

Electoral reformers maintain that the way to increase turnouts is to reform voting methods.  One of the reasons the unions cite for low ballot returns is because of a change brought in during the Thatcher years.  All union members have to be sent a postal ballot to their home address and then return it.  It is fraught with difficulty – people move, ballots get put on mantelpieces and forgotten about.  If we want to ensure that strikes are democratically mandated, then we need reform of the method, which is not to suggest a return to the bad old days of collective arm-raising in canteens.  As well as postal ballots, individuals should be able to vote online or in person in their workplace.

But of course, the Tories don’t really want to improve the credibility of trade unions.  All they are interested in is further constraining their rights to represent their members. Which is why they are also suggesting that trade union leaders should not be employed through taxpayer monies. Just like them then huh?

In fact, this idea might have some currency.  Why should the taxpayer pay for central parliamentary offices and the like for parties – shouldn’t they fund this themselves?  And if trade unions are to be denuded of publicly funded support, the same should apply to the likes of Chambers of Commerce and the CBI.  Now we’re talking….

No doubt there will be some who are party-politically motivated that think the trade unions deserve all they get, payback if you like for a century and more of loyalty to the Labour party.  But that would be wrong.  As we enter the maelstrom of unprecedented cuts, pressures on families, job losses and pension squeezes, we have never needed strong unions more.

But it is time for them to cut their ties to the Labour party.  Trade unions should have only one master – their members.  They should be freed from the shackles of political dogma to defend their members’ interests without fear or favour.  Trade unions are rightly proud of their role in founding a political party – and movement – to defend the rights of working people.  But when the leader of that party refuses to back their right to withdraw their members’ labour, then the game is up.   There is nothing to be gained from the political allegiance – and the funding – continuing to flow Labour-wards.  Indeed, political neturality might see their views and experiences being given much greater credence by all parties, Labour included.


6 thoughts on “Cutting ties will free trade unions to fight real enemy

  1. One look at their faces and you can see they’re loving it. Like some 80’s retro homage to their idols on either side they will run through the same old lines again until Economic Plan A rips it’s mask off like a Scooby-Doo baddie and reveals stagflation. Then the game’s up for all concerned.

    Me? I voted for a strike but took the day off as it’s my birthday and I try and avoid working on my birthday.

    I would also like to avoid paying money to a political party just because I think Trade Unions are broadly a good idea.

  2. Hmm you could be right but I am holding to an optimistic line here and that unions do have a relevance these days. Apparently unions have built £30m fighting fund for these strikes – this is only the start!

  3. Kate,

    Thanks for this post.

    There is an awful lot in it and i don’t think I can cope with commentng on it all 🙂 but I broadly agree with the thrust of your views here and think theer is an important debate to be had here in Scotland about this in particular.

    I thought your most important passage was this:
    “I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – the public sector needs reform, it needs to be re-imagined so that it is much more nimble and focused on the needs and interests of those it purports to serve. There is a better way but
    it doesn’t involve going back to the 70s – sorry, no donkey jackets required – nor does it mean dismantling the rights of workers to be represented by trade unions. And most importantly of all, denying workers the right to withdraw their labour.”

    I think this is spot on – the left right thing by two conservative parties hides some issues. We need to reform public services and make them modern and effective. We probaly rely too much on the public sector than is healthy for our economy in Scotland. And, as you say, the pensions issue is complex – and that too is not just a left right argument with the usual suspects taking the usual predictable positions.

    I look forward to that post.


    • Thanks Gavin – for once we agree! With no sign of real substance of public service reform, folk are getting desperate and taking desperate measures.

      Down south they are in year two of savage cuts – we have been largely protected from those so far. Our cuts still to come really so here’s hoping we get summat meaningful that makes sense of the cuts. Otherwise we too will be in slash and burn territory

  4. Kate Unions, should be indepentent of a any politcal party for integrity, that never happened and legislation which could have been challenged was not.
    That was about politics and position not people and workers. Challenging tories on tory policy while for 13 years not challenging labour on tory policy sums it up.
    I think public sector have overplayed their hand, and should be careful of strikes because I dont think anyone will notice a difference, and the union might even be doing the tories bidding. ( I am not talking about an insitue unpaid union steward).

    Separating the worker, from the unions, the worker will lose a couple of days pay but not enough for union compensation pay to kick in.

    These strikes are about the irrelavance of unions and nothing about the worker, nor are unions at this moment in time anything to do with workers, more to do with self-sustaining paid union officals and top level union relevance.

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