What Have The Unions Ever Done For Us

March 22, 2021

When I was a ward councillor for Monument – Newcastle City Centre – our police liaison officers showed exemplary sensitivity and emotional intelligence when dealing with challenging members of the public. We know, though, that any organisation can have bad individuals in it – serving police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard.

That’s the age-old question, asked by the Roman satirist Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – roughly translated as “who will police the police?”

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response is that she shall police herself. The Crime Bill going through Parliament gives her the power to make new laws without new acts of Parliament, and decide what should constitute illegal protest.

The legislation will make “serious annoyance” illegal. A judge will be able to jail a person for up to 10 years. A police officer will be given powers to take “such conditions as appear necessary” to that officer “to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation.

”Did you notice the word “impact” snuck in there? What the hell is the point of a protest that has no impact? “Down with this sort of thing,” and “Careful now” will be the only actions allowed. The legislation should be renamed the Father Ted Bill.

It took until 2012 for the Hillsborough families to get justice for the 1989 tragedy. For years, senior police officers and the sitting government covered up the facts, lied, and shifted the blame. Just seven miles down the road is Orgreave,a site of another police cover up blamed on the victims, with the collusion of hostile elements of the media. I bet many people reading are still influenced by the early media propaganda – that somehow Liverpool fans were to blame for Hillsborough, or miners for the injuries at Orgreave.

In their 2019 campaign, the Conservatives included a plan to outlaw people withdrawing their labour in protest over their pay or working conditions. It used the example of transport, because it’s a key service. There are around 1.5 million transport workers in the UK’s 32 million strong workforce. But most workers could be categorised essential under such a law. Health workers, education employees, refuse workers, retail workers, delivery staff, postal and telecomms. The right to withdraw your labour – to strike – is a foundation stone of a free society. There’s a name for that, it’s called forced labour.

Trade unions were only decriminalised in 1875. They were tied up with reforms to voting rights. For centuries, working people who didn’t own land could not vote. Because you didn’t own part of the country, ran the argument, you got no say in its future. Today most people don’t get a vote on how their workplace is run – because they don’t own part of it. Despite the fact that it’s their skill, time and energy that make the organisation function. Enlightened employers know that engaging their workers benefits everyone – staff, owners and customers. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, said the anti-trade union laws had lowered workers wages across the economy.

The real trick that’s been played on the British people is this idea that Trade Unions are separate from working people. To paraphrase Monty Python, “what have trade unions ever done for us?”

For a start, unions stopped child labour. Unionised workplaces are safer, with 50% fewer accidents. Every year unions train 10,000 safety reps. Union members earn, on average, 12.5 per cent more than non-members. They have better job security, and stay in their jobs for an average of five years longer than non-members. Unionised workplaces have higher productivity and fewer industrial tribunals.

Apart from that, though, trade unions have only gained us paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, equal pay legislation, pensions, and workplace anti-discrimination laws. Oh, and the weekend. It was unions that fought for a five day working week.

And, of course, furlough was a result of unions negotiating with the government. We’ve all benefited by keeping the economy afloat.

The good news is that trade union membership is rising – with a net increase of 200,000 over the past three years. Why not join them?

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.3.21