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SINCE last March the Sunday Times and BBC2’s Newsnight have been running an “investigation” into Ian Lavery MP, the chair of the Labour Party.
The Murdoch press-led gang says Lavery got “a lot of dosh” (Newsnight) from his former job as a National Union of Mineworkers leader, and this is a “scandal.”
The media are combing through accounts to try to show how much Lavery was paid as a union leader, but say nothing about what the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) did under his leadership.
This is because they don’t want to talk about how Lavery was paid for helping win tens — possibly even hundreds — of millions of pounds for ex-miners.
The “scandal” involves adding up all that Lavery received from the NUM over the years, including housing and redundancy money, and saying it’s “a bob or two in anyone’s money” (Newsnight).
The Newsnight-Sunday Times stories prompted two official investigations by the parliamentary standards commissioner and the certification officer, the latter of whom regulates trade unions.
As Newsnight admitted: “The parliamentary watchdog cleared him” while the certification officer decided that “no further action” was necessary. That should have been the end of the story, except some sections of the media are obsessed with the salaries of miners’ leaders, just as they were with Arthur Scargill.
The Newsnight-Sunday Times story deliberately misses the very basic way all unions work. They all take money from their members, and use that cash to pay salaries to officials.
However, those officials are paid to help the members win more money. As long as the third part of the equation works, there is no problem.
British union officials are typically paid more than their members, and if union members wanted to debate that, well OK. But that is not what is happening here.
The press are really just repeating the message anti-union consultants always suggest as the first point to stop people joining unions: “They’ll just spend your union contributions on salaries for the leaders.” This argument only works if you deliberately ignore what unions actually do.
The NUM, for historic reasons, has a federal structure. Lavery was secretary of the Northumberland NUM from 1992-2010. From 2002 to 2010 he was also president of the national union.
These were difficult years for the pits, as the post-strike closure programme took away jobs. The last Northumberland pit, Ellington, closed in 2005.
Before that closure, the Northumberland NUM, under Lavery, was involved in tough but defensive fights over safety and keeping the pits open.
But it’s what the NUM did for ex-miners that deserves attention. The NUM won millions in compensation for ex-miners, which brought money into very hard-pressed homes and communities that would otherwise be in even tougher times.
In 2008 an NUM case won £2 million to share between the last 300 miners who worked at Ellington pit because, under Lavery, the union found their employer had broken the law on redundancy when they shut the mine.
This sum alone is more than any amount the Newsnight-Sunday Times team complains about going to all Northumberland NUM staff.
There were also much bigger sums. Thanks to a historic 1991 case brought by the NUM, ex-miners were able to win personal injury compensation for the emphysema and bronchitis they got from pit work.
In a 1997 test case, the NUM won the chance to get compensation for “industrial white finger” — that’s a mix of numbness and pain, a “dead man’s finger” you get from too much working with drills and other vibrating machinery.
Look back through the newspaper cuttings on miners’ compensation, and Lavery is usually there talking about the NUM’s role in winning these cases, pressing to have payments speeded up, to have the compensation scheme made less complex and so on.
Lavery, and the NUM, pressed hard for this money. Up to 10,000 former miners in Northumberland alone applied for compensation. However, the NUM faced a problem as it continued to press for better compensation deals.
As the pits were closing, the subs money from wages, which was used to run the union, dried up. Northumberland NUM decided to ask those members who got compensation with NUM to help donate a small proportion of their award back to the union so it could help other members get compensation.
This is how unions work — everyone pays in so the union can help members get more. The bulk of the subs goes on salaries — because that is a union’s main expense.
Northumberland NUM only asked for voluntary donations after compensation had been paid. From 2003-2010, the NUM received around £1.6m in donations from members who had received compensation with the union’s help.
The Newsnight-Sunday Times crew likes to claim this shows Lavery and other officials got their salaries from “sick miners.” What they don’t say is that this is a very small proportion of the tens of millions of pounds the union helped win for those miners, freely donated to the union. The money was then used to help more ex-miners win compensation.
This is the reason that, despite a press “investigation” running for years, no ex-Northumberland NUM members have rushed forward to complain about Lavery. Which, given there are always some discontented union members, is pretty remarkable.
Perhaps less remarkably, I checked the cuttings to see if any of the journalists obsessing over Lavery’s income had ever written about how miners had won compensation for industrial diseases. They hadn’t.
You might think that shows the press is only interested in trying to make a story, ignoring some very basic facts, because they don’t like unions and they don’t like union leaders who become Labour MPs who support Jeremy Corbyn.
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