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The Workers, United, Will Never be Inconvenienced by Mario Laghos

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The Workers, United, Will Never be Inconvenienced

Photo: UCU Yorkshire and Humberside

For those of us who believe in organised labour, Britain’s trade unions are testing our faith. Many of the current crop of union bosses seem more content wielding their power as a great woke cudgel, more concerned with LGBTQ, affirmative action, and trans rights than the solidarity and advancement of their membership at large. These hyper-liberal partisans bear little resemblance to their not-too-distant antecedents.

One of the best examples of the good that well-led unions can do is found in the Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. In 1971 when the UCS went into receivership, the late and great Jimmy Reid led the effort to send the workers to the shipyards, tools in hand, in order to complete all the outstanding orders on the shipbuilder’s books. The work-in provoked an outpouring of public support, not just in sentiment but in cold hard cash which sustained the men until the government could see what Reid and his men could—that the yards were viable. The legacy of the heroic efforts of the workers and their union leaders can be witnessed on the Clyde today, where shipyards continue to employ thousands of highly skilled and well-paid workers.  Such a feat could never be dreamt of—let alone actually attempted or achieved—by the deracinated unions with which we are saddled today. 

Our unions ought to embody the spirit of the work-in but, to our detriment, many defile that legacy. At present, the border control union, the PCS, is launching a judicial review against the government to prevent the implementation of the policy of pushing illegal boats back across the English Channel. Rather than redouble their efforts, they’re doing their utmost to renounce any need for their labour. Hand in hand with a charity, Care4Calais, the PCS is spearheading efforts to exacerbate the four-million-pound-a-day cost of housing illegal immigrants—a tab picked up by their own members in their capacity as taxpayers. 77% of Brits agree that illegal migration is a problem, and yet the border force union stands for the few, and not the many. 

Amidst a chronic NHS backlog, the Royal College of Nursing is threatening to take nurses out on strike. The RCN wants a 12.5% rise, and has set aside a 35-million-pound strike fund to achieve that end. The spectre of strike action, at the tail end of a pandemic and in the face of an unprecedented NHS logjam, is both morally and strategically indefensible. If an iota of Jimmy Reid’s spirit could be mustered by the RCN’s bosses, they’d be encouraging their members to focus their efforts in preventing further delays to operations and crucial cancer screenings. Not only would that be the right thing to do, but it would go a long way to generating the kind of public good will needed for a decent pay rise. 

In academia, 68 universities are set to see strike action in the coming weeks, following strike action at 58 universities just a month ago. Unions feel university workers are overworked and underpaid, and, it would seem, that students are getting too good a deal: they could do with less tutoring. The University and College Union is set to disrupt one million students’ learning by taking fifty thousand workers out on strike, in a dispute over pensions—which have been described as “one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country.” And to top it off, they want a 2,500 pound pay rise for all staff, and a lighter workload. If the College Union is in need of a slogan, they can have this one for free: ‘the workers united will never be inconvenienced.’ 

At the grassroots level, there are inspiring examples of solidarity from union workers. Last year the Batley binmen made a brave stand with the Batley Grammar School teacher, who had been forced into hiding by extremists. Unsurprisingly, union bosses were conspicuous only by their absence at this great demonstration of solidarity. Brian Bamford, secretary of the Bury branch of Unite in the Northwest, introduced an emergency motion on behalf of the binmen—only to come under pressure from a National Education Union official into rescinding it. Our workers, it seems, truly are lions led by donkeys. Is it any wonder that union membership is in terminal decline, when those in charge stay silent on the stated will of the majority of members—or, in the case of major issues such as Brexit or free speech, directly oppose that majority? Who would want to pay their dues to the border force union, knowing they’d be spent on vexatious litigation? 

While workers are facing soaring energy bills, one can only wonder where the unions are, and why they are not lobbying for a repeal of the fracking moratorium that would cut consumer costs and create tens of thousands of well-paid jobs. Even though British Steel wants it, they say nothing on the fight for the approval of coking coal mines that are being held up by eco fanatics. While Nestlé shutters profit-making British factories, union bosses are more preoccupied with giving navel-gazing interviews to the Morning Star and manoeuvring around Labour’s National Executive Committee than they are tackling the bread-and-butter issues that matter to most of their members. Trade unions serve a vital function in a democratic society: when standing in solidarity, workers can get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  But increasingly, at a senior level, unions are neglecting their core membership, public opinion, and the reality on the ground in favour of prawn sandwiches at the cricket club for the BAME members’ committees. If unions continue to privilege the concerns of the hyper-liberal intelligentsia over the issues that matter, then membership will continue to decline terminally: such an outcome would be a disaster for society.

Mario Laghos is a political analyst, author, and the editor of Just Debate.