Media portrayal of the Labour Party debate shows little understanding of unions

Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager at the Society of Radiographers

A week is a long time in politics as they say. Well the last couple of weeks have been very long for the Labour Party and its relationship with the trade union movement. It began with the problems of selecting a prospective parliamentary candidate in Falkirk and ended at the Durham miners’ gala with the RMT General Secretary Bob Crow calling for the creation of a new “party of Labour” presumably with the ultimate aim of replacing the Labour Party as the natural home for some trade unionists.


Others will no doubt comment on this at length on the rights and wrongs of another attempt to set up a new party of the left, but my concern throughout the last couple of weeks has been the narrowness of the media coverage of the debate. Throughout the discussion there has been an absolute assumption that all trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and that the large multi-industry, multi-occupational union model is the only one in town.


Many of those offering an opinion on Falkirk ignore the fact that the Labour Party was created by the Union movement and therefore ignore the crucial fact that the relationship between unions who affiliate to the Labour Party and the party itself is fundamentally different to that between business and the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. Although almost always presented as a discussion about “how unions buy influence” in the Labour Party the debate is essentially about how trade unions and trade unionists are integrated into the democratic structure of the party. A difficult relationship and one that needs to reflect the times but a debate that simply does not apply to the way other parties are financed.


So what has all of this to do with my own union, the Society of Radiographers? On one level very little.  As a Union that has never sought affiliation to the Labour Party, but strong enough to be prepared to debate the issue at this year’s delegate conference, it could be argued that the debate is for others and not us.


Nevertheless the narrowness of the debate and the implicit assumptions about what a trade union is, and what a trade unionist is, is of concern.  Many of our members, listening to this debate, could be forgiven for thinking that all trade unions are the same and that the term trade unionist applies to a very narrow group of people. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.


We are very different from the stereotypical media description. For a start, like the majority of unions affiliated to the TUC, we are not affiliated to the Labour Party. Instead we have a very clear policy, also reviewed and reinforced at this year’s delegate conference, of political independence. A policy that means we engage robustly in the political arena with the aim of influencing decisions but that we do so purely from the position of what is in the best interests of our members, not what best suits a particular party. A stance that has a proven track record over the years and certainly works for us.


We are also a lot smaller than the stereotype portrayed in the media. If the latest round of merger talks that Unite is involved in happens then we will be a little over 1/100th of the size of Unite. The Labour Party debate conjures up images of large union “barons” wielding huge influence as a result of the size of their union. There is an implicit assumption that size equals power. Well we can never be much bigger than we are now but that does not mean we are not strong and that we are not influential.


Our strength however comes in a different way and lies in the fact that the vast majority of those who can join do. With a density rate of over 80% we are able to speak with authority on behalf of members working at all levels within radiography. And we achieve this density rate by combining the work of a trade union with that of a professional body and recognising that terms and conditions and job security are best protected and enhanced by ensuring our members skill levels and professionalism are also protected and enhanced. 


The most frustrating thing about the media portrayal of the Labour Party debate is that we are not the only ones who are different. In fact most of the trade union movement is different. The large Labour Party affiliated unions represent just one model of trade unionism working under the TUC umbrella. Like us, Equity, the Professional Footballers Association, the Musicians Union, the British Dietetic Association, the British Airline Pilots Association and Prospect, to name only a few, all offer alternative models that concentrate on high density levels, rather than Labour Party affiliation, to be influential. And this is not to mention many unions that have yet to affiliate to the TUC.


Perhaps it is time for the TUC to promote some of the alternative models within its family and in so doing promote the full depth and breadth of the movement, qualities that ultimately deliver a resilience that this year, against all the odds has seen overall union membership increase slightly.


What’s your view? Contribute to the debate by writing for this blog

One Nation Trade Unionism?

Joe Dromey photo

Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA

At Labour conference last year, Ed Miliband borrowed from the Tory lexicon and set out his vision for One Nation. A key part of this would be building an economy in which success would be ‘made by the many, not just a few at the top’. But six months on from his Ed’s conference speech, there remains a significant gap in the vision for a One Nation economy. What about Trade Unions?

The Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna recently acknowledged their role as ‘wealth creators for this country’. But what role could unions play in a One Nation economy? And what would a One Nation model of trade unionism look like? With 2015 fast approaching, it’s time for Labour to address these questions.

Unions will obviously continue with their essential work both of representing employees who are mistreated, and pushing for fair pay and good terms and conditions. But in addition to this, a One Nation model of trade unionism might include a greater focus on skills development, on community campaigning and on partnership working.

First, in a One Nation economy, unions could play a vital role in skills development and utilisation. Where they are present in the workforce, unions already do sterling work here, supporting over 170,000 learners each year (1).  As a result, the majority of unionised workplaces are ‘high trainers’, compared to just one in three non-unionised workforces.(2)

An incoming Labour government should put unions at the centre of their skills strategy. Working alongside employers, they can help both to identify and remedy skills gaps, and to improve skills utilisation. Giving unions a prominent role here could also bolster their presence in the private sector where, after a sustained period of decline, just one employee in seven is a union member.

Second, trade unions must retain a focus on the community where their members live and work. After all, unions grew out of the community in the early 19th century and they functioned as major providers of welfare services until the state began to take over. Membership helped define working people’s identities and build a sense of community and solidarity at work. Yet the movement has lost some of its community focus in recent years, with some unions concentrating only on industrial issues.

A One Nation model of trade unionism must continue to focus on the wider community. TSSA in their Together for Transport campaign have been using community organising approaches to great effect. They are building coalitions of support including railway workers, passengers, and the wider community to fight for common causes such as protecting ticket offices and lowering fares. The strength of the Living Wage campaign owes much to the union movement. Labour’s strategy for a living wage (and indeed for enforcing the minimum wage) must have the unions front and centre, leading the drive for decent pay in local communities.

Finally, One Nation trade unionism must have workplace partnership at its core. Employers and employees have an obvious shared interest in the sustainability, stability and success of their organisation. There will be differences of emphasis and sometimes of interests, but the key is how these are resolved for the benefit of the workforce and the organisation alike.

Despite talk of a general strike (that would be both unworkable and counterproductive), unions on the ground are recognising the need to work together with employers and compromise in order to protect jobs. Far from a new winter of discontent, strikes remain a fraction of the level seen in previous recessions.
Members want to see their representatives play a positive role; yes standing up for their rights, but also contributing towards the organisation’s success.


Working in partnership with employers, unions could help drive up employee engagement. After all, workplaces with an engagement culture are safer; employees are less stressed and have higher levels of wellbeing; they are better managed; they are listened to and know their voice counts.

There are numerous recent examples of where strong trade unions – through pursuing partnership with employers – have really made a difference to members. Take the mothballed former Corus steel plant at Redcar where Community found new buyers, bringing back thousands of good quality jobs to the local area.  Or the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port where Unite were instrumental in winning the contract for the new Astra, securing the future for years to come.

Obviously it takes two to tango; there has to be will on the part of employers to work together. And there are things the government could do to encourage partnership; by legislating to ensure an employee voice on boards or by re-examining the information and consultation regulations. Labour might also consider a new fund along the lines of the Union Modernisation Fund – scrapped by the Coalition – to encourage partnership working and a focus on the community.

However, it is clear that the tone and approach of unions matters too. They need to preach and practice partnership.

Obviously it’s not for the Labour Party to dictate how democratically governed unions should behave. But if Labour is serious about building a One Nation economy, it needs to set out its vision for, and provoke discussion on, the role of trade unions within it. A trade unionism focused on skills and training, on campaigning in the community, and on working in partnership with employers could help deliver the One Nation vision, and really make a difference for working people.

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From Collective Bargaining to Mutual Action

‘Where there is discord, we will bring harmony.’ Yes, this was St Francis of Assisi! On 4 May 1979, Margaret Hilda Thatcher had the audacity to regurgitate this quotation at the beginning of dividing the nation in a way that had not been seen since the overthrow of Charles I.


Speaking for the nation as a whole entails understanding and feeling the pain, as well as understanding the aspiration of the different cultural, social and political make-up of the nation. That is Labour’s challenge today.


At the heart of our politics and as an expression of our values, rests an all-embracing yet simple philosophy of our humanity. Namely, that we have a mutual interdependence which springs from a bond of parent to child, and is writ large in different ways and through various cultures, from extended family and physical community to nation state and the desire for protection and security.


Reciprocity helps us balance the need for self-determination and creative individuality with mutual hope, and therefore what might be described as ‘solidarity’.


As we say, ‘we can achieve so much more together than we can divided’. Balancing the common good with the freedom and liberty to exercise that individuality has been and remains a challenge for those committed to democracy, while understanding that the Polis ensures our participation and therefore our citizenship.


At its crudest we need to understand where power lies, how it is exercised and by whom, and what can be achieved through coming together and working collectively to protect ourselves from exploitation, to promote the best interests of what has come to be known as ‘society’. The existence of which was bizarrely denied in that famous Woman’s Own interview with Margaret Thatcher!

The clash between capital and labour, between those seeking to maximise profit and those with only their toil to sell, was of course the driving force for the creation of the trade unions in the 19th century. Coupled as it was with the crusade to increase the franchise and enable people to have a political voice, we saw the development of an understanding of how people united together in a particular cause could give themselves some chance of being empowered, no matter how modestly.


The reshaping of Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Britain’ is an endeavour to articulate that belief, that what we do to others engineers the circumstances which benefit or damage ourselves and our family.


The ill-educated child is a drain on our economic prosperity, productivity and competitiveness, as well as a waste of talent and an immoral denial of the nurturing of every child.


At its crudest the ill-health of others is a drain on our taxes, even if, as a minority, people decide to buy themselves out of that service.


Few people can escape from the wider environment in which they live and work. Again, most crudely, unsafe, ill-lit and filthy streets can be avoided by the very rich for most of the time but for the majority of people only part of the time.


But ‘One Nation’ cannot and should never be simply the avoidance of the most obvious injustice or collective suicide. It has to be about a great deal more than politics built on grievance and the unhappiness of a resentful and selfish public sphere. More than putting right the playing-off of public sector workers against those in private enterprise. The retired versus the young, the migrant versus the resentful and excluded. Or, the badly housed versus the homeless.


In other words, replacing the politics of Conservative division with a morally more superior and a politically more cohesive engagement.


For if we are to pull the nations of Britain together, the inner city with the rural hinterland, the more affluent south-east with the once-powerful and prosperous economic engine room of the north, it is involvement and that mutual sense of purpose which will be so vital.


Bringing people together, for their own benefit but also to counterweight global economic forces and powerful vested interests, will not only bring material gain, it will also be educative, informative and empowering.


One simple example (which, ironically, the present government are assisting) is what has become known as the Big Switch. Bringing people together to use the power of collective bargaining to reduce energy bills. This example can be seen as an essential part of the purpose of modern local government, as well as reinforcing civil society.


What, therefore, if a radical incoming Labour government offered the opportunity of both influence and affluence by engaging the power of people in underpinning the macro action in the economic and social policy of the government. Government and people together.


To fail to pay even minimal taxes in major developed countries is a scandal, but one that does not have to be tolerated. Yes, of course government has to act (sensibly) in cooperation with like-minded representative democracies elsewhere. But it has also a common-sense duty to mobilise and support its own electorate.


Boycotts have been used effectively over the decades in different parts of the world to combat injustice. The ‘strike’ of the consumer can and should be effective. Governments cannot and should not do this for people, but there is no reason at all why they should not facilitate and support such action.


Equally, changing the way in which we deliver our public services (as opposed to simply slashing and burning) offers common cause as much in Berkshire or Bedfordshire as it does in Bury or Bolton.


Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal enterprise was the driving force for innovation and enterprise in creating not only availability of clean water, but gas and electricity. The Goose and Burial Clubs of EP Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was followed by the creation of the embryo welfare state – bottom up, not top down.


So ‘earned entitlement’, the balancing of rights and duties, an understanding of mutual responsibility based on self-reliance, are ingrained in the values of those who count themselves to be social democrats.


Above all, in a rapidly changing world where global forces determine so much of our lives, from the elbow room of our elected representatives even to the survival of our planet, rooting what we stand for in the sense of belonging, wellbeing of the people we call our ‘fellow citizens’ and the liberation of talent has to be both common sense and good politics.


Turning this into practical reality that touches the day-to-day lives of those people is the challenge for the politics of the moment.


Our Treasurer Chris Weavers is chairing a policy discussion with Rt Hon David Blunkett MP in Parliament tomorrow, to attend click here.

Where are we in Labour’s policy review?

We’re currently in the first phase of Labour’s policy review. Jon Cruddas, who is co-ordinating the review, spoke at the Unions21 conference earlier this month and said that there is a stronger framework for joint policy work between Labour and the unions than in many years.


He said it is significant for unions that the review is putting front and centre issues of economic and industrial democracy, vocational skills and apprenticeships and the notion of a modern industrial policy. Read More…

Government Shares for Rights proposal is Beecroft by the back door

Surprise, surprise. Yet again, this Tory -led Government have brought forward legislation which seeks to water down your rights at work, this time through their “shares for rights” proposals. The Government just don’t get it. As Justin King, Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s said of the scheme: “The population at large don’t trust business. What do you think the population at large will think of businesses that want to trade employment rights for money?”


The Government have already altered the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from 1 to 2 years and with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which has now concluded its passage through the House of Commons, introduces changes which will make it easier for rogue employers to exploit people in work. All of these changes combined can be described as an ideological attack on employee rights that delivers by the back door the measures in the widely-criticised Beecroft Report which they claim not to be taking forward. These changes, brought forward without a shred of evidence, have the potential to spawn a new industry of litigation. We opposed these measures not just because they were bad for workers but because they are bad for business too. Read More…

Banking reform – time to stop privatising the profits and socialising the losses

FOR the past four months I have been serving on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It was set up in July in response to the Libor and other scandals and at first tasked with looking at culture and behaviour. However in recent weeks it has concentrated more on the issue of structure – whether investment banking and retail banking should be split. Sir John Vickers reported on this question last year arguing that there should be a ring fence placed around retail banking, but against a full split. The Commission has been asked to do the job of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill to implement the Vickers Report.


Amid this focus on the structure of banking, there is a danger that another question gets overlooked – who should bear the losses in the event of another banking crisis? One of the things that most angered the public about the recent crisis was that when times were good, the profits were private (and huge) but that when the crisis came, the losses (also huge) were borne not by those who had lent money to the banks but by taxpayers.


All across Europe, austerity measures have been imposed on electorates to pay for the cost of bailing out banks. And the banks were bailed out because the social and economic cost of allowing them to collapse was deemed too great. Yet, apart from some exceptions in Greece, for the most part the bondholders who lent to the banks have not had to take haircuts on their investments. They have been paid while the taxpayer swallows job losses, pension cuts and cuts to services. No wonder people are angry. Read More…

Predistribution and ‘One Nation society’ unions

THIS week has been ‘One Nation week’ on the blog site LabourList and it is just over a month since Ed made that feted conference speech. There can be little doubt now that it galvanised the troops and stimulated thinking. With one little phrase Ed was able to offer a critique of the existing social order under the Tories, whilst simultaneously offering the hope of a better one under Labour.


Such duality of purpose is the sweet-spot sought by practically all political neologisms – which probably explains the perennial popularity of a phrase first conjured up by the 19th century Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Yet the ‘One Nation’ concept is perhaps best understood as putting into poetry the prose of Ed’s previous three big interventions.


The ‘Squeezed Middle’ described the problem; that living standards are in decline and have been for some time. Between 2003 and 2008 disposable income fell in every UK region outside of London as the proceeds of growth simply did not reach the pockets of ordinary working people.


‘Responsible Capitalism’ provided the aspiration, outlining a vision of the fairer, more equal society we wish to build.


Finally, ‘predistribution’ outlined Ed’s political methodology, his process of creating change in a tough economic climate.


Despite the derision with which it was greeted in some quarters of our movement, it is this last point, ‘predistribution’, that is most significant for Trade Unions. Read More…

New law would help protect shopworkers the 50 day count-down to Christmas approaches the shopworkers’ union Usdaw has welcomed a new Bill to reduce incidents of violence, threats and abuse against workers whose job brings them into face-to-face contact with members of the public.


The Bill, introduced by Graeme Morrice, Labour MP for Livingston, would create a new offence relating to assaults on public facing workers, one that would carry a maximum sentence of 12 months and a £10,000 fine. Read More…

Grass-roots policies can get this country moving again

Winning policy pitcher Cllr Phil McCauley with Iain Wright MP. Unions21 sponsored an earlier PragRad event at Labour Party Conference

THIS month saw two Pragmatic Radicalism Top of the Policies events, drawing a lively crowd to their policy in the pub fringe in Manchester during Labour Party conference, while in Westminster ‘invigorating’ policies were pitched during the industry Top of the Policies event, according to shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise Iain Wright MP, a compelling Chair.


Looking at how to get this country moving again, the industry event was sponsored by EEF the manufacturers’ organisation, Labour’s Finance and Industry Group (LFIG) and Community, bringing together members and supporters of the Labour Party and trades unions, with the winning policy being Pay Where You Earn (PWYE) coming from Equity and LFIG executive member and Labour Councillor Phil McCauley. McCauley quotes revenue of £80 Bn being possible from a PWYE scheme.

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Blunkett: Politics and politicians must change

In his new pamphlet, Rt Hon David Blunkett MP says by joining unions people can be part of the counterweight to global capital: “This is surely the moment for the modern Trade Union movement to reflect on how new ways of representing members can hold to the values which created Trades Unions in the first place, whilst shaping activity for the decades ahead.”


In the article below for Unions21, he sets out the wider argument for a strategic change in politics. 

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