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STATE OF THE UNION

12-04-2008

After a couple of less than inspiring experiences, Lynn Hawthorne ponders the state of British Trades Unions.

 I have been a staunch supporter of the trades union movement for years, but  lately, I’m beginning to wonder just exactly what I am getting from my monthly subscription.

It’s very easy to romanticise the unionisation of Britain: the noble working poor against the might of the evil mill/factory/mine-owners. Novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South remind us of the principle of the dignity of labour. But we know that not every working person is noble, honest and diligent and that not every employer is evil, corrupt and uncaring.

Depending upon your point of view about paternalism, the 19th century Quaker Cadbury family can be seen as model employers, providing housing, education, leisure facilities, even outings and holidays. You were wedded to the company, but the benefits were marked.

But post-Thatcher, the British worker is a different animal. The ‘Me First’  generation is about loyalty to the self and hang the consequences. We want-it-all and want-it-now and generally seem to have little fellow feeling in our employment make up.

The unions seem to reflect this. Yes, their backs were broken by Thatcher and many of their powers rescinded, but they seem to have few teeth these days and even less desire to use them.

To me, our trades unions seem to have gone the way of all our other service industries and are hard to contact, hard to motivate and hard to engage on our side.

Recent recounted experience of trying to contact a public service sector union and a teaching union is depressing.

A colleague of mine waited a week for a returned call and someone else I know spent two days on the ‘phone trying to track down their union, leaving messages, e-mails and answerphone messages at both branch and region, before kicking up a stink at national level.

Ok, so representatives are busy, but there should always be access to advice and guidance. And local branch reps should not ignore messages and fail to return calls. Members only call their unions when they need help and it’s usually urgent or pressing, so the service needs a review and fast.

Why this apparent disinterest? Is it falling membership applying financial constraints? (Have you ever seen a national conference held in some dive? No, swanky halls and hotels is always the order of the day) Is it that the old fire-in-the-belly socialist is dead and buried? Or is it simply that all these mergers have led to unions which are too big to be specialised and too cumbersome to be efficient?

UNISON, for example, is Britain’s biggest union with 1.3 million members. When it was NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers) and NUPE (National Union of Public Employees), it dealt with totally different issues and used different approaches. Now the union represents employees and management and, inevitably, there will be conflicts of interest.

I am not advocating a return to the bad old days of ‘Everybody out!’ every five minutes where Britain became a laughing stock and jokes like this became commonplace:

          Two British Leyland workers were on a tea break. “I see the daffodils are out,” said Fred. “Will that affect us, do you think?” asked Bill.

What I am asking for is for workers to remember the debt we owe to trades unionists of the past who fought for our rights and privileges that we now take for granted and realise exactly why we joined a union in the first place.

And I want those who are employed by our unions to remember the people they represent – the ones who pay their wages – and start being more loyal to them and not just to veiled political preferences, because surely modern trades unions need to be in a bargaining position with any party that may be elected to power. That way they can remain unbiased and active on behalf of its membership.

Are you in a union?  How relevant are they in 2008?  Leave a comment on The Stirrer Forum.

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