Saturday, 28 January 2017

Unions are there for workers, not as the playthings of their Barons - my Catholic Universe column

Back in the summer of 1997 I was working for a council in the East Midlands.

It was a time very different to now, a time when seemingly the whole country thought that Tony Blair and his New Labour government were ‘like us’, a time when ‘cool britannia’ was the phrase on everyone’s lips and time when we thought that, yes, ‘things could only get better.’

It was also when for the very first time I found myself ‘properly’ becoming involved in politics. I agreed to do the job that no one else would do, I agreed to become the union steward.

I soon discovered that being a union steward was great. I got an afternoon off work, paid of course, every other week to attend the ‘executive committee’ and listen to veteran officials decry the new government for not rolling back all of Thatchers anti-union laws within the first few weeks of taking office.

One really lucky one amongst us, a friend in a neighbouring department, was elected branch secretary. He was paid not to do his job for three days a week and given an office just down the corridor from the Chief Executive for use during his facility time.

When I used to visit him for a chat and a coffee, which was frequent – my boss would never challenge me if I was on ‘union business’ – all my friend was ever seemingly doing was reading the latest missive from union HQ or that weeks copy of The Socialist Worker, a publication which he would attempt to sell around our building in the hope of converting more of the proletariat to his way of thinking.

I wanted to be him: righteous and untouchable.

One day, probably around mid June just four or five weeks after Labour had come to power, I went for my cup of ethically sourced coffee with my friend but he was behaving slightly differently. Rather than his normal,laid back self he was looking stressed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, “Is someone’s job at risk?”

“No, it’s more important than that” was his reply “I’ve been told I’ve got to organise a coach trip to Brighton to protest at the Labour Party Conference.”

Yes, you’ve read it correctly. Just four weeks after a Labour Government had taken office for the first time in nearly twenty years the union movement was organising a mass demonstration at their first party conference, a demonstration which in part at least was being funded by the taxpayers of the area in which I was working.

If this was union life I wanted some. An all expenses paid trip to the seaside with a couple of hours chanting to no one in particular followed by an afternoon wandering the Lanes and a few beers in a local pub.

At such a young age it seemed entirely right. As an idealistic union official I was there to fight for a socialist utopia and the people who paid my wages would be proud to know that I was demonstrating for them.

Now all of the above is completely true, I even had a Socialist Worker Badge at one stage although I never did join up, and I write it to highlight some of the ridiculous things that happen in the union movement.

It’s also true that I am a strong believer in that movement for very different reasons.

Another friend was at work when a colleague made a malicious allegation about them, an allegation which if upheld could have jeopardised their entire career.

My friend contacted their union rep who, over a period of four or five months, provided support and advocacy to them, who represented them at a disciplinary hearing and who won them complete exoneration.

Without the support of a dedicated, professional union advocate my friend may well have been alone at sea without a life jacket.

And that is the point. Like a great many organisations there are some amazing strengths to our trade unions, whilst at the same time there is – or at least was – ridiculous waste and mission creep which stretches way, way into a realm which is no longer the purview of being in the interests of most members but of the personal aims and agendas of a few people at the top of the organisation.

Over the past few weeks debate has been raging in the pages of this newspaper as to whether the government should introduce yet more laws to deter workers, particular those in jobs which are vital to our public services and infrastructure, from striking.

And I must admit when one considers the proportionality of strikes on our train network, strikes which unions maintain are about the safety issue of driver operated doors – an argument  which independent regulators stress are largely invalid - it is very difficult to argue against those calling for greater intervention.

It is even more difficult when leaders of those unions, such as ASLEF boss Tosh MacDonald, are on record as saying their aim is nothing less than bringing down the government. How is that helping the rank file members of his union?

With all my heart I believe in the role of unions, I believe in the solidarity of workers who when facing real injustice band together to fight it.

But there is a vast difference between that role, the role which I believe most union members support, and that of political agitators seeking to remove a democratically elected government.

Of course, one contributing factor to the current rise of unions as agitators and provocateurs was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Leader of the Labour Party.
The unions, particularly UNITE under the leadership of Len McCluskey, were instrumental in putting Mr Corbyn into office and the subsequent leftward shift of the party.

Unions hold twelve seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee. To put that into some kind of perspective the Parliamentary Labour Party hold just three and Labour Councillors only two.

It is difficult to overstate the power of unions in the Labour Party, but change is afoot.

Going on relatively unseen to the wider public a crucial election battle is taking place right now in the UNITE union.

General secretary McCluskey has voluntarily stood down from his role early in an attempt to seek reelection which would see him all but guaranteeing the leadership of Corbyn through to the anticipated date of the next General Election in 2020.

What, a few months ago, seemed like a stroll for Red Len however has suddenly got a whole lot more difficult. He is being challenged for the post by boss of Unite in the West Midlands, Gerard Coyne.

Mr Coyne has stepped into the role of challenger with a clear promise to stop ‘playing Westminster power games’ in order to get on with the job of protecting and improving what he, and I, believe really matter to union members: their pay and conditions, their safety and security at work.

It seems quite novel in this day and age that a union boss is purposely trying to be moderate, to be detaching themselves quite intentionally from the professional agitators but it is an approach that might just pay off.

There is very little doubt that the machine politics and powers of patronage are very much in the hands of the incumbent but the scrappy underdog seems to be gaining traction, at least with ordinary members.

The question has to be, given the usually low turnout in this type of election, whether those members are motivated enough by their dislike of a high profile, union baron leader to get out and vote for Coyne? Only time will tell.

I’m no longer a member of a trade union. They became too politically myopic for me in their hatred of all things Tory.

It seems to me though that if Coyne can pull off a shock victory we may just be one step closer to unions reclaiming their role as champion of workers  and not as arch-villains seeking to effect regime-change.

Given my recent record of endorsements however it’s likely to be business as normal for machine politics in our trade unions.

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