Judging by the media and the politicians, you’d never know that the trade unions existed, even though they embrace 7 million members and are by far the largest voluntary organisations in Britain. Yet they’re treated like an unwelcome elderly relative, best seen and not heard, and largely ignored till they begin to demand that their due rights be respected. Then all hell breaks loose in order to force them back in their box so that life can continue normally again as though they weren’t there.
Previously the role of putting them down was done by strike-breakers, lurid media denunciations and the police. Now it’s done by the law, an institution of course that is crafted to serve the interests of the dominant groups in society, and since both the Tories and New Labour (two sides of very largely the same coin) combine in playing to the interests of the rich and powerful – the bankers, the top corporate executives, the media tycoons, and the upper echelons of ‘Middle England’ – the working class and their union representatives don’t get a look in.
That’s why the Unite spat with BA over the airline imposing job cuts to deal with the recession caused by the banks, and then the RMT fight with Network Rail over railway safety and again over job cuts under the specious cover of 21% ‘efficiency savings’, were both snuffed out by the deliberately almost impossibly difficult and complex compliance requirements laid down by Thatcherite law which New Labour has conspicuouly failed to modify. And notoriously again, in both cases the leadership in all three parties were in unison in condemning the unions’ action.
Nobody wants strikes, least of all trade union members since they suffer the hardship of loss of pay and the threat of job loss or other sanctions. Yet even the Guardian said that striking was not “the right way of ensuring that staff grievances are properly addressed”. So what is the right way if top management is implacable, gung-ho, impervious to argument and serious negotiation? The real sin of trade unions in today’s society is that they undermine the management prerogative and potentially threaten management’s sole right to rule. And as long as all three political parties are united in this unjust, discriminatory and untenable position of suppressing workers’ rights to protest their interests – and the public interest – whether by force or by arcane legalities, Britain will remain a deeply unjust and profoundly unequal society. Yet another reason for a fundamental re-alignment of the Left in the aftermath of this election.