3 April 2010

Unions are not the cause of current crisis

By Trevor Phillips

A tabloid journalist recently described the UNITE union as "the terrorist wing of the trades union movement". It was an insult to workers, to journalism, to victims of terrorism and to our intelligence. Thankfully, millions of ordinary people are able to distinguish between the inconvenience of delayed journeys and the loss of a limb in a bomb attack.

Some media accuse unions of "bully boy tactics". But millions of UK workers choose to belong to unions because they know that bullying is most likely to come from unrestrained managers, driven by performance target pressures.

Yes, it has been open season on unions again recently, with familiar clich├ęs employed in an attempt to discredit people who, worried about paying bills if they lose their job or their wages are reduced, find themselves with no option but to take strike action.

We are told unions are "holding the country to ransom" when in fact the country has been held to ransom not by unions or pickets with placards but by casino banks and City speculators with Porsches. The ransom is about to be paid by us, the community.

Banks are already extracting vast profits from the publicly funded recovery, and still pay huge bonuses. The ransom to fund this will be public service cuts, wage freezes and devalued pensions. We could see closure of community facilities, cuts in health services, reduced support for the vulnerable, higher public transport fares and a diminishing quality of life. Many workers in the public sector may pay the highest ransom: losing their jobs or pensions, while tabloid bile vilifies their resistance and seeks to create a myth of "70s style union militancy". In fact, working days lost this year through industrial action are not even a fiftieth of 1979 levels.

In the private sector, the economic crisis intensifies competition and employers seek to cut labour costs. Competing employers then cut even deeper, in a race to the bottom: a low-wage, low-employment economy of diminished rights, pay and services. But BA cabin staff, on a basic of only £15,000 pa after five years service, can expect more howls of 'terrorist' from media jackals who tell them to accept unnegociated job changes and work for the pittance paid by some other airlines.

Having worked in trade unions for the last decade I have witnessed unions trying to promote fairness and justice: assisting disabled workers, increasing learning opportunities for low paid staff and combating discrimination. As a press officer I also saw anti-union media constantly reject positive news of unions' ideas and contributions. There was no space for stories of worker sacrifice and achievement. But there was always space for distorted coverage of disputes.

The work of unions is a valuable part of our democracy. For example, trade unionists, climate activists and academics recently produced A Million Climate Jobs Now, a report commissioned by unions CWU, PCS, TSSA and UCU. This is a well researched, costed plan for an immediate programme to lead the UK out of recession and towards sustainability. It would greatly benefit us all. This forward looking work offers realistic alternatives to the job cuts and slashing of public services which the major parties tell us are inevitable.

While creating a sustainable economy, we cannot ditch millions into unemployment or waged poverty, creating suffering and social upheaval. There must be a 'Just Transition' to the new economy with new, quality jobs for old. The many advantages of a low carbon economy must be shared by all and the costs of change must be borne fairly, not just by the unemployed or vulnerable workers. Unions are certainly not the cause of the current crisis but they are contributing ideas for solutions. We should be listening to them. And when their jobs and our community's services are threatened - we should be backing them.

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