Neil Pearce: How the unions continue to misunderstand their members (who include Tories like me)
In the last two weeks I have dealt with many employment cases as an active trade unionist. One was a dismissal hearing in front of a panel of councillors. Another was a probation review of a new worker. There was an investigation into an employee who had been underpaid by £7,000; a job assimilation which had been reneged upon; a tribunal prep for a discrimination matter and a complaint about the quality of advice from some shop stewards.
This is my voluntary pursuit, working for trade union members needing support, advice and reassurance on a daily basis.
So that is why last month I was bothered by the allegedly moderate TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, speaking in our name about walk outs, strikes and manning the barricades to take on "ConDem cuts". This is despite the fact the unions still have deficiencies in member training and the quality of advice they give to employees in genuine workplace grievances.
I am under no illusion that my view of apolitical modern trade unionism is not one shared by the majority of paid union representatives, but it is one shared by a significant tranche of members. It was telling last week at work when a poster on the Unite board declaring "Tory Cuts – RIP" and depicting David Cameron as a monster dripping with blood dancing on public services was defaced with the comment "Cameron: Getting us out of the brown stuff AGAIN". Union leaders continue to misjudge the mood of their members.
As I have argued before, trade unionism today needs to reflect the modernity. Members showed in a poll in March that 71% were not interested in the politics of the union and wanted ties with Labour cut. The fact that only 8% of eligible union members bothered to participate in the Labour leadership election speaks volumes. Even the record low level of turn-out in both strikes and strike ballots is a demonstrable indicator that aggressive ‘everybody out’ tactics are viewed as marginalising the argument. What union leaders wilfully fail to appreciate is that members are not red in tooth and claw. Employees join the unions not for the legacy of the Tolpuddle Martyrs or because of solidarity with Cuba, but because they see the unions as a protective and advisory movement. This view continues to proliferate.
The Labour Party was forced to change in 1994. The Tories followed suit in 2005. So that is why the unions’ bellicose language of 1979 illustrates both an unreformed message and hankering for the past. The nation has consistently come to agree that deficit reduction is essential, that schemes which were agreed on the basis of the national credit card by Labour need to be reigned in. What the nation isn’t in the mood for is union leaders salivating at strike action and open ideological defiance of the Government. Her Majesty’s Opposition is there to challenge the Government on the national finances not the trade unions.
My message to the union leaders, as they toast installing their man as Labour leader is simple; your members have never given you a mandate to take on the Government for political volley. They do, however, pay for a service which is in many parts of the movement still woefully inadequate.
Grandstanding on national policy isn’t in our name and should be left to those chosen to govern. Union leaders should start modernising the movement to reflect the pragmatism, moderation and apolitical nature of its membership. It’s long overdue.