Sunday, 26 June 2011

Time To Stop Bullying The Unions

Growing up in London didn’t adequately enable my mind to fully comprehend the various dimensions of industrial disputes.  A long running saga involving signalmen meant that a Religious Education teacher regularly failed to make it to work during the mid 1990s.  This of course led to the unavoidable introduction of a substitute teacher during these spells which were always memorable occasions, though sadly not because we were accomplishing educational achievements. 

By the time I was 18 I had a very peculiar understanding of Unions and how they were relevant to modern life.  I look back and cringe now with embarrassment as I reflect on my comments which dismissed the existence of Unions as a “militant group that is ready to strike, ready to bring the country into anarchy at the drop of a hat.”

Yes I am sorry to say I was something of a Blairite in those days.

Moving to the Midlands did alter my mindset greatly, although in truth my ideological fascination with New Labour had reached the end of the road long before I packed up for Derby in the same week as 9/11.  Arriving in Nottingham less than a year later, I was a little wiser, but events like the Miners dispute of the 1980s had still largely passed me by. 

Coming from a London background, it was inevitable that my mind would have been corrupted by a poisonous right-wing dominated media, irrespective of my own personal political leanings.  As irony would have it, I spent a lot of time living in the very North of Nottingham, not far from the old Newstead pit which was the source of so much focus during the dispute.  Having lived here before and after the 20th anniversary of the strike, I was able to attain a far more comprehensive understanding as the local media heavily reflected on the divisions that not only existed at the time between the NUM and UDM, but continued to enflame tensions two decades on.

When I started visiting London regularly again in 2008, I had a very different outlook on industrial relations, irrespective of the sector it affected.  I was cautious as to the true intentions of the media.  I always made a point by default of supporting a period of industrial action unless the case they had put forward was in my view overwhelmingly weak. 

This was a total reversal of my position earlier in life, which had been very much a case of the opposite viewpoint.  In another twist of fate, this period coincided with a certain Boris Johnson becoming Mayor of London, and directly on collision course with the RMT on the London Underground.

I have followed the dispute closely and cannot find a single episode of industrial action in the last three years where a compelling case for a strike was not made.  This doesn’t necessarily ring true with protestations from London Underground bosses or the Mayor of London, who have regularly sought to whip up hysteria amongst the public against the RMT with rhetoric such as “holding London to ransom”.

Media coverage from the recent years has gone a long way to reinforcing the myth that the RMT resembled my view of Unions from 1998, but upon closer inspection we see that time and time again there has been a credible case for the Union to sanction industrial action.  

In June 2009 the traditional right-wing elements of the media continually projected the idea that the industrial action was about pay, perpetuating an all too familiar image of selfish tube workers in a climate of economic uncertainty.  No mention then of the compulsory redundancies being mooted, with 1000 jobs at risk.

By 2010 the volume had been increased as it became personal with both RMT leader Bob Crow and his Union labelled as “bullies”.   Regular reference was made to his generous salary of £150,000 per year.  A great deal of money by anybody’s estimation, but Boris Johnson himself regards a figure of £250,000 a year as “chicken feed” (in addition to his £143,911 remuneration package as Mayor of London) so its perhaps somewhat relative really.  Interestingly the issue at the heart of this spell of industrial action was once again the prospect of compulsory redundancies including front line staff which would have had an impact on passenger safetyparticularly late at night.

So here we are, the final days of June 2011 and awaiting one of the most monumental days in recent industrial relations history.  June 30th has been selected as a day of co-ordinated strikes.  Public Sector workers have effectively been left with the bill for the economic mess the country finds itself in and are being asked to delay retirement to pay for it.  Fair enough you might think for those in the public sector who are young enough to prepare for the change, but this is affecting people who are 56 and 57.  Women who were anticipating retirement in a few years are now being asked to contribute more to their pensions, receive less and work longer in order to tackle the national debt.

On the 30th June, workers from across the public sector spectrum, including Civil Servants and Teachers will join the walk out.  Is this selfish?  If you were in their shoes would you regard this as fair?

The RMT were originally scheduled to be joining them, this time fighting for the reinstatement of a tube driver, who had been vindicated by an employment tribunal and should never have been dismissed.  Last Thursday London Underground finally reinstated the driver and the RMT subsequently cancelled their intention to strike on June 30th.  Interestingly despite this The Mail has decided to run with its story anyway, presumably as part of a wider agenda to reiterate the propaganda of Unions being managed by “fat cats” and thus undermine public confidence in the strike at the end of June.

In response the Coalition Government are proposing to introduce new laws for industrial action, a threshold of a minimum turnout in order to enable any strike to proceed.  The notion being that industrial action should only proceed where 50% of the employees actually endorse one. 

The concept has potential I must admit, but very unfair considering such rules do not apply to elections of far greater importance such as those of local authorities or General Elections.  Last years election which was widely considered to be the closest for almost 2 decades had a turnout of just 65%. 

Brighton & Hove City Council elected their local authority with as little as 41% of registered voters actually participating.  The No to AV victory dismissed the prospect of electoral reform anytime soon on a far lower turnout for example: just 42%.   If Cameron had set such a threshold for General Elections then even the electoral landslides of 1983 and 1997 for the Tories and Labour respectably would have ended very differently since less than 50% of approval from the electorate was achieved in either election. 

The RMT are proposing to pass a resolution next week at their AGM which will support the right of return for the Chagossian community to the Chagos Islands, a cause I take a great deal of interest in.  I hope the proposal succeeds.  But even if they don’t I will still continue to support their industrial actions by default, unless they one day make the case otherwise. 

I have wasted far too much of my life believing the opposite.

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