Unions have a future….but not in the ‘Big Society’….
Labour will lose seats at the next election (whether that will be enough to lose the reins of government or not is another question) and following from that there will invariably be soul-searching and an inquest. Many voices will doubtless be raised and amoung them it is to be hoped that the newly mewing one of Labour Review will be ignored.
It’s most recent piece on the ‘Future of Trade Unions’ is an example of why this should be the case. It starts by saying that;
While unionised employees have every right to strike for better pay and working conditions, it strikes me that the Trade Union movement is coming to the point of irrelevence.
It then goes onto see strikes as futile which is a logically self-defeating point for what is the relevance of trade unions if they are not allowed or censured for defending the pay and conditions of their members? Comparisons with the Thatcher-era do little to illuminate matters; the unions had consistently been losing ground in public opinion for at least a decade leading-up to Thatcher’s election but they had done so because the public perceived their actions as illegitimate. However, the modern mood music is completely different; now it is the actions of financial institutions and bankers that are perceived as ‘illegitmate’ and they are perceived as the ‘wreckers’. This is doubtless why the most recent poll on attitudes to the Pre-Budget Report found that the freeze on public sector wages did not command a majority of public support.
In other words comparing the two situations is a completely false comparison. Similarly, charting the decline of ‘blue collar’ occupations as a reason for the unions decline expresses a truth but it fails to recognise that ‘service sector’ occupations are far from ‘middle-class’ and it’s success and the success of ‘Anglo’ capitalism is notoriously built on such wonders as long-hours and high incidences of depression. So, the presence of strong trade unions would be beneficial though this will only occur if they are seen as successful in improving the lot of their members.
An opportunity exists for the unions to be dynamic in the climate mentioned above where increasingly they are less stigmatised (although this maybe due to perceived impotence it still nonetheless presents an opportunity). Part of realising this will be to extend their functions to care more for the needs of their members though the notion that this should be in the place of the state as part of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is entirely wrong. Maybe this is what the Conservatives have in mind for their proposed concordance with the unions when they enter power but it is not something worth entertaining by the unions if they are serious about regrowth. Historically, they made the mistake of chewing off their own political arm but to acquiesce to Conservative plans to fundamentally undermine state provision would be fatal; instead, they should find their relevance in the needs of their members and as champions of wider social interests against a Conservative government ideologically committed to attacking state provision.
A good example of how this would be possible is in the case of Royal Mail where the Communication Workers Union would find itself gaining much more social credit if it didn’t just retroactively strike to protect pay and conditions but was prepared to lead from the front in protecting the Post Offices that people cherish. It would be very foolish indeed to write the unions off indeed….