We still need the unions
Posted on April 28, 2010
I’m cheating a bit here because this post is actually the text of a speech (with added links) which I gave the other night when I was invited to introduce the film “Comrades” at Cinema City in Norwich.
But anyway, here’s the speech.
“As you know, the film we’re about to watch tells the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of 19th century agricultural labourers who were punished for organising themselves into a trade union to protest against the paltry wages they were being paid.
Now obviously that kind of thing wouldn’t happen today. Trade unions are allowed to organise, and trade unionists enjoy certain legal protections aimed at preventing them from being discriminated against in the workplace on the grounds of their trade union activity.
In fact we’ve reached a point in time, we’re so far removed from the depredations suffered by the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their contemporaries, that a lot of people now are beginning to question the relevance of trade unions to our society.
We’ve got the minimum wage, we’ve got a fixed working week, so to many people the question is: why do we still need unions?
Well, to me the answer’s quite simple. We’ve got all of those things, and more, precisely because we’ve got trade unions. We’ve got maternity pay; we’ve got anti-discrimination laws; we’ve got protection against harassment; we’ve got health and safety laws; we’ve got relatively decent working conditions; we’ve got equal pay, well okay, we haven’t quite, but thanks to women sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant, who went on strike in 1968 over a re-grading demand, we’ve got the equal pay act, and a means by which we can now challenge gender based pay discrimination. We’ve got a long long list of things that the Tolpuddle Martyrs could only have dreamed about, precisely because men and women like them fought hard to achieve them, and in some cases lost their lives to the cause.
But while we’ve achieved a great deal since the Tolpuddle days, there’s still a lot more to do. And more importantly, now that we have achieved so much, what we have to do is ensure that all of those hard fought for rights are maintained. And if we sit back and let our trade unions disappear, if we let them decline into obscurity because we think we’ve got it all now, those rights, all those things that unions have fought for over the centuries, will disappear too.
Because have no doubt, even now in the 21st century, there are plenty of Squire Framptons ready and eager to sell workers out, to deny us our rights, in the interests of increasing their profits and keeping their shareholders sweet.
Of course it’s not just in the workplace that unions have made an impact. Trade unions have a long history of campaigning for social justice, including health, education, trade, gender discrimination, the environment, and of being part of a wider labour movement that encompasses fighting against inequality and oppression in society at large.
And they’re not just fighting against inequality and oppression in the UK. Trade unions are part of an international workers movement, standing up for and alongside our brothers and sisters, our comrades, across the globe.
But we’ve got some tough times ahead.
Whoever wins next week’s election, we know things are going to get harder for the unions. In fact during 13 years of government the Labour Party did nothing to repeal Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws, and it’s looking likely that an even less union-friendly party will be taking over the reigns of power.
In an interview in the Spectator last month for instance, Nick Clegg, the new golden boy of politics, said he has come to view Thatcher’s victory over the unions as “immensely significant.” “I’m 43 now” he said “I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant.”
All the parties have made clear that once in, they’re going to be looking at swingeing public sector cuts, and there’s already been talk of finding ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for public sector workers to strike. It’s already illegal for police or prison officers to strike, and there are some politicians, Vince Cable in particular, who’ve made it clear that they want to see a curb on the ability of workers in other key services to take strike action.
They want to cut our jobs, cut our pensions, and remove our right to take legitimate industrial action to protest against those cuts.
But in some ways, that’s already happening now. You only have to look at the legal challenges there have been in the past few months to union ballots for proposed strike action, and the ease with which the courts capitulated to the bosses and the business interests, to see how difficult it’s now becoming for workers to withdraw their labour when pay and other negotiations break down.
Now I’m not trying to pretend that conditions are anything like they were for the brave workers we’re about to see in the film, or that our new government, whichever party or coalition of parties that turns out to be, is going to be taking us back to those times. Although having said that, I note that Digby Jones has been reported today telling some of the unemployed: “we should cut all your benefits and starve you into going back to work.” But the film should serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made to get us where we are today, and remind us of the debt we owe to those who came before. We owe it to them to stand up for our unions, and we owe it to them to continue the fight for working people’s rights.”