We need to strengthen, not break, the union link

by Ian Stewart

On the twentieth of November Mark Ferguson over at Labour List published a good article in support of the 150 workers on strike in Swindon in the Carillion/Great Western hospital dispute. It was posted on the same day that saw these workers and their elected GMB union representatives demonstrating and lobbying in London. It was a fine piece, arguing the case of a group of mainly women, mainly Goan employees who have been subjected to bullying, blacklisting and attempts to buy them off over a period of time going back to at least 2007.

The trouble was that the strike is now in its eleventh month. So where were the posts on Labour List, Left Foot Forward, Labour Uncut or any other mainstream site over the past year? Those of us who write and contribute to left wing political blogs can be accused of many things – hypocrisy, hair-splitting, hyperbole – but one thing which many of us need to own up to is all too often ignoring the trades union struggle, that is until conference time.

Aah yes, conference season, when we can all rely the usual suspects to explain to us lesser mortals exactly why unions are a bad thing, and being linked to them will lose us the next election. I am sure that the posts are already written for 2013, with “insert union leaders’ name here” blank – hey, it never gets old does it?

Only it does, it gets very, very old very, very quickly, especially if we are trying to broaden and strengthen our support across the country. Especially as we are trying to turn away from doing things in the old stale ways. For example, consider Arnie Graf and his report – you know the one that was so good, so visionary that I am not allowed to see it. Now one of his main ideas is that we as party members need to be much more firmly rooted within our communities, and to be fostering leaders, rather than sheep for central office to order about. All well and good, but amongst the church groups and community associations, can we please consider those mass membership organisations that foster leadership and self-confidence amongst working class people? If you have forgotten what they are called the name is TRADES UNIONS.

Since Labour’s founding, there has always been a debate between those who see our trade union link as an organic strength and those who would rather it didn’t exist. Over time, those who have complained about “union interference” have switched from the left of the thirties to the purple bookers of today.

Much more disturbing is the way that so many commentators on the left ignore what goes on in day-to-day fights over pay and conditions. With the rise of “awkward” leaders in the main unions, the right wingers have become ever more brazen in their disregard towards organised labour. This really has to stop now. Or you can leave, comrades, the choice is yours. The complaint that the unions are now a bastion of unrepresentative left wingers is a half-truth. Yes, some people who hold views far to the left of the mainstream have a little power within the unions, but ask yourself why this is?

It is because for decades the New Labour types have steadily done all in their power to ignore the unions’ legitimate demands, yet relied upon their cash to fund elections.

It is because we, as bloggers, as a party, get so caught up with the minutiae of the Westminster village that we do not pay enough attention, nor give enough support to trades unionist fight for decent working conditions. This really has to change.

In a union, as in life, we will only get out what we put in.

Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/

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3 Responses to “We need to strengthen, not break, the union link”

  1. John Ellison says:

    I agree with everything said about unions, and that they are they to support members, but I’m beginning to question if they need to be linked to the Labour Party, is the Labour Party representative of the people who support, and are members of a trade union.

    I know we need a credible alternative to this shocking shambles of a govt. but long term, is Labour the right political party of the unions??

  2. Jonny Morris says:

    It’s not just Westminster. It is very easy to get so involved with the mini-Westminster of our Council Chambers that the gossip of politics blinds us to the fact that we are all part of a labour movement, of which the Party is a part.

  3. Ian Stewart says:

    @John Ellison – well an increasing number of Trades Unionist have been looking towards alternatives since Tony Blair – The Greens, Respect, TUSC, even pre 2010 Lib Dems. However I still cannot see a viable national alternative to Labour out there. Some Unions have disaffiliated, but some of those are increasingly looking to possibly rejoin/mend fences.
    Over the past century, when in concert, the two major wings of our movement have made an enormous positive impact on the lives of working people. I still think that both sides of this marriage are “best when wer’e Labour”…

    @ Jonny Morris – agreed. Which is why we must devote just a little more space to what goes on in the workplace, rather than waiting until TUC Conference to notice our brothers and sisters.

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