We must make sure the country is with us on the union fightback, says Ruth Smeeth

For the 18 years of the last Tory government, the trade union movement faced attacks on its legitimacy, relevance and role in society.  Most of these attacks were based either on ignorance of the role that unions play, or outright hostility to the position of organised labour in the UK.  So when we finally beat the Tories in 1997, we faced a mixture of hope and optimism as activists in the labour movement.

From 1997  unions had a clear role in both the British political establishment and the workplace.  Amongst other things, they secured the adoption of the European Social Chapter, re-instatement of the GCHQ workers, legal rights to join trade unions, the adoption of a maximum working week and new legislation for agency & temporary workers.  These incredible achievements were hard fought and necessary for the development of the kind of society that all in the labour movement both want and require.

The 13 years since 1997 should, however, have been about more than just securing changes to employment and health and safety laws in the UK.  They should have also been a period of reflection for the trade union movement.  Our leaders should have been working together to ensure that whilst the going was good under a Labour government, they prepared for the future should the situation change.

In order to secure twenty-first century trade unionism we needed to recruit members from non-traditional trades and sectors. We should have fought for and with local communities, and put pressure on the Labour party to achieve change in the interests of the wider movement.  Instead we saw a series of aggressive mergers, internal naval gazing and public fights with the Labour government.  It is now time to set those issues aside and put the interests of members first.  Those who do will be best placed to lead the fight as we see an unprecedented attack on public services specifically, on the British workforce generally and on the broader economy.

Society has changed and moved on since the eighties and nineties.  Many people now view their relationship with both their employer and their union as a very personal thing, neither permanent nor for the greater good.    This means that we need to carefully consider the way in which we as the labour movement fight the coming cuts, ensuring that we take our supporters with us and that we are leading campaigns in a way that inspires hope, aspiration and change as well as defending our vital public services.

Yesterday we saw our unions come together for the most important trade union gathering of my generation.  It is providing the opportunity for the TUC not just to join the fight against the cuts and mounting attacks on our society, but to lead the coalition of opposition; coming together to attack cuts, to defend our public services and fight for investment in our economy.  So many fights – so little time.

And whilst the rhetoric was positive – the first time in many years that events at congress have led the news agenda – we are still being outmanoeuvred by the political right.  It was journalists, not just Tory-Lib Dem government, who questioned the relevance of the debate, the determination of the leadership, the ability of the unions to strike and then, in time honoured tradition, a ‘new winter of discontent’ designed to scare the already-vulnerable.

To strike or not to strike – that became the question.  But this is much more complex and serious than the current debate implies; we only have to look at the appalling actions of Birmingham city council.  There are and must be more options available to us as a movement than solely industrial action and if we want to be taken seriously as a political force then we must change and change quickly.  We must also remember that many people have never been on strike and are scared about the ramifications and the reality of industrial action.  So it is mobilisation of our six-million strong movement not just industrial action which must be at the heart of the campaign.

The next five years are going to be dominated by cuts, demos and fights.  Our priority must be to ensure that we not only spearhead the fightback, but take the country with us.  This is a fight for our future; for the future of communities across the country and a fight for a type of society that is fair to all and ensures that the most vulnerable within it are protected.

In other words, we need to send an unequivocal message to all the delegates who are at TUC that this year’s congress can’t be just a talking shop; it can’t just be a week-long attack on the government and their ruthless cuts. Instead, it must be seen as the first week of the campaign that demonstrates that we don’t need these savage cuts, that there is an alternative strategy and that by more not less public investment our economy will grow and prosper.  It is time to mobilise.

Ruth Smeeth was the Labour PPC for Burton at the 2010 GE.

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4 Responses to “We must make sure the country is with us on the union fightback, says Ruth Smeeth”

  1. GMB steward says:

    Vague , virtually meaningless hogwash

  2. epictrader says:

    I don’t like some of the rhetoric coming from union leaders at the moment. The Government has said that they want to negotiate with the unions. Shouldn’t that be one of the first and smartest couses of action; if only to be seen to be doing so by the general public and union members?

    Many people will be sceptical of strike action and will be expecting to see the unions acting constructively – acting combatively only when all other courses of action have ended without success – in my opinion those people would be right to expect nothing less.

    Talk of fights, demos and cuts is not just worrying for new members who have never been through it before, it is the same for all union members who ever go through it. I went through it last year with the PCS, it’s not pleasant, it hits you hard in the pocket in an already tough economic climate. Cool heads, calculating minds a well thought out plan and plenty of patience is required; don’t make our workers cannon-fodder for a union leadership preparing for war but that may not have the concensus for it just yet.

  3. Pav Alam says:

    Strikes are always after consultation and negotiation with an employer. However that implies the employers want to negotiate with the unions. The new government haven’t met the five unions on the Civil Service compensation scheme but are using the Money Act and Parliament to change the terms, because New labour acted illegally and lost in the high court.
    Yes we need cool heads, a well thought out plan and patience – PCS is working to build the broadest coalition possible since the Poll tax. No one voted for massive cuts in jobs and services.

  4. ANiN says:

    Agree with GMB Steward

    As an NHS UNION Rep Labours 13 yrs were characterised by
    Temporary Contracts,
    Light,Light Touch regulation
    attacks on Pay, Pensions and conditions
    FoundationTrusts busting up the NHS
    Bullying Mangers
    Constant stupid reporganisation
    Less and less Democratic accountability
    More and more Consultants
    Crappy Computer schemes wasting 10s of Billions
    Crappy Spin like the NHS constitution as useless a piece of paper as any Labour has ever produced
    Finaly Labour did its best to create a two tier NHS workforce one with some limited rights the others with temporary contracts, lesser pensions and conditions.
    They pitched these groups at each other.

    On top of this Labours Thatcherite internal NHS markets and the Foundations Trusts were designed to undermine and open up the NHS to the free market and privatisation. Labours left the NHS ready for more privatisation by their pals in the Corporations care of the ConDems

    The NHS was once a co-operative and public service organisation with national planning and some democratic accountability. Now after Labour, it is fragmented into competing business units that are involved in massive cuts in services and staff in order to be within some arbitarily devised market and budget. It is involved in a massive competition for lowest cost,low wages,low quality and low, low morale.

    Labour introduced and supported the most Thatcheritew management regimes in the NHS and backed their attacks and victimisation of anyone, often Trade Union Reps who had the temerity to speak out.Thats how the Staffs Hospital debacle flourished under a Labour Government because it had introduced light touch regulation not just in the Banks but in the NHS and the Foundation Trust
    oversight Monitor.

    The Unions are we are constantly told are not the Labour Party, but a part of it, yes an Independent and autonomous part that pays the bills whilst Labour privatises our jobs and ex Labour Ministers join the Corporations doing the privatisation

    In my opinion after long membership of Union and Labour it is time to cut the ties with Labour and go back to defending Trade Unionists against the Thatcherite Tories of Labour or Con Dem

    Labour is now a right wing, Neo Liberal, Thatcherite Party which has privatised,undermined and attacked public services at every opportunity.

    You may or may not be surprised to hear that the ConDem plans to put little business GPs in charge of NHS Comissioning were first piloted by Labour under Andy Burnham

    The ConDems have done nothing so far that Labour would not do, apart from scrapping ID cards and Detention of asylum seekers kids that is.

    Its time the UNIONS pulled out of Labour and helped to build a real Dempcratic Left Party that acts for the many and the poor instead of Labours crawling to Murdoch, the Bankers and the wealthy few.

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