This Tory government is the most vindictive in living memory – but trade unionists can crush it if they adopt a true collective spirit, insists MARK McHUGH
IN A time when trade union membership is falling, I find it astonishing that many unions feel compelled to battle each other for the scraps from the tables of recognition.
Unscrupulous employers up and down the country must be taking great delight in the trade union movement becoming hell-bent on eating itself alive.
It certainly begs the question: are we really a band of brothers and sisters with common beliefs or are we nothing more than a band of mercenaries?
A trade union cannot be the personal fiefdom of a national president and/or general secretary. Clinging on to past successes and outdated methods will not grow union membership one iota.
Without members, unions can’t exist. It’s as simple as that. However, we often lose sight of this and don’t help ourselves or our cause by failing to adapt to political changes and shifting demographics within a modern society.
We waste time stepping on one another’s toes, stealing each other’s members, while engaging in our own territorial parochialism, rather than rising to the challenge of nurturing the next generation of activists to take the movement forward together.
We can achieve this through the education of young students, such as the excellent unions into schools programme, securing presentations at colleges and universities and making sure that where possible, we are involved at inductions for new staff at existing, recognised sites.
We need to educate young people in terms of what trade unions stand for and their relevance in the 21st century, while shaking off the stigmas of donkey-jacket clad militants, gathered around braziers and sausage-fingered union “barons.”
The current Conservative government is arguably the most uncaring and vindictive in living memory.
Since 2010 (with some honourable exceptions), employers nationwide have rubbed their hands with glee while giving working people a good kicking on an almost daily basis, knowing full well that the Tories will not only enable them but cheer them on.
There isn’t much that a union can do if a site or business closes as a result of poor demand and sales. However, that we have struggled to significantly recruit, organise and retain union members in this climate could well end up being to our eternal shame unless we come together, use our brains, support each other’s campaigns and start showing some good, old-fashioned solidarity.
If there’s one thing that scares the life out of employers and indeed Conservatives, it’s collectivism.
A “kick one of us and we’ll all cry” mentality can go a long way, which is why the Tories and many employers always use the tried and tested formula of divide and rule. We know the game by now and we should stop falling for it.
The labour movement can often be slow to mobilise but once it starts to shift en masse, it is near impossible to stop.
With that sense of solidarity and collectivism, along with a new approach in terms of engaging with our communities and the members and activists of tomorrow, we could quite easily topple and crush this vile and corrupt government.
We need to get our message out properly. Catchy slogans, soundbites and regular marches/protests in major towns and cities simply aren’t enough. They often provide a lively and satisfying day out, but the followup is non-existent.
Unions need to keep the pressure on when it comes to governmental decisions that have a detrimental effect on the people they represent, not just organise a rally with some great guest speakers before putting them on the back-burner. We should be every bit as relentless as the government is.
Campaigns in relation to workplace heat, abolishing zero-hours contracts, pay equality and a minimum wage of £10 an hour are fair and realistic aims that are worth getting behind, but for some reason, the message doesn’t get out there on the scale we’d like.
This may be due to unions often trying to steal the limelight from one another or launching similar campaigns to such a degree that the message gets lost in the “noise.”
Either way, there are countless reasons for people to join a union besides the obvious political ones.
Be it legal cover, competitive insurance rates, financial advice, credit union savings schemes, education or just the reassurance of some representation should you end up in a disciplinary or grievance situation at work, there is plenty on offer with trade union membership with which to recruit members.
In many cases, simply advertising your organisation as a “fighting union” that will sock it to the boss can often scare people away, especially if they fear for their job security. Sometimes a more gentle, information-based approach can win the day.
These challenges are not new to trade unions; from the dockers queueing for work and the realism of the Boys From The Blackstuff to today’s junior doctors via the bad old days of Thatcherism, the one thing that always binds us together is our strength, our unity and, most important of all, our solidarity.
Mark McHugh is north-east England and Scotland regional secretary of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union.