Your trades union needs you!

Today, Vince Cable has addressed the GMB and delivered a thinly-veiled threat to all of us who are active in our unions: he stated that while he is trying terribly hard to control coalition right wingers like Boris Johnson in their demands to stamp down on union rights, he can only really sustain this if we don’t actually use these rights and strike. 

Cable argues that union activity is at an historic low in the UK (thanks for that Maggie) and if this continues then he sees no need for the demands of the right to be met. However, this support depends on us retaining our rights in principle rather than practice.

“Should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.”

He is trying to set himself up as some sort of middle position between Johnson and his fellow right-wingers on one side and “usual suspect” militant unionists on the other. Except the right to action so long as it is never actually taken isn’t really a middle position, and if he truly is liberal then somewhere deep down he must know this. We already have some of the most stringent union laws in Western Europe so a move to the right is not the balanced fair viewpoint he wants to see himself as having.

I’m sick of Cable and his colleagues justifying pandering to the tories by bleating on about the last government. The cuts are inevitable. The last government have left us with no alternative. I was no fan of Blair and Brown myself (I have always voted Labour in the face of the alternative) but to keep trotting out this tired old line is downright deceitful – we are in a global recession. We need to look to what we can do now for the good of our society, stop reinforcing the blame message and look to protecting the poor, the sick, the elderly, the workforce, instead of trying to score political points. Stop presenting ideological cuts as inevitable, look long and hard at how they are affecting the people least able to do anything about them, and use morals instead of ego.

I’ve been a member of my trades union since I qualified as a teacher, but I’ve only been an active rep and committee member since the coalition got in. It is probably fair to say conflict with the status quo is in my blood – I am a third generation union rep on my dad’s side, while on my mum’s side my grandfather was imprisoned during World War II as a CO while my Mamgu drove ambulances through the blitz. I am not some mindless banner waver inspite of how I may be viewed – I don’t believe in closed shops, but I do believe unions need their rights preserved as a check against the excesses of corporate greed. I am not an aggressive person,  and I don’t seek any kind of gain in going on strike – nobody wants to strike; there is comraderie on the picket line for sure and I would recommend it as a good place to meet some of the most passionate and interesting people in your workforce but at the end of the day I am still a mother to a young family whose partner is in full time education. The hit to my pay-packet has an effect. Am I one of the usual suspects?

So, if I don’t stand to benefit personally, why take industrial action? Two reasons. Firstly, what have trades unions ever done for me? Well, the weekend, equal pay, holiday pay, sick pay, the right to tribunal, to name but a few. Even when you are not in a union you benefit from the laws unions have pushed through, as we found to our relief when my husband, working in the un-unionised sector of recruitment, was treated appallingly by his employers. He got some excellent advice, via family, from someone working in personnel, and it turned out it is illegal to dismiss someone without either making them redundant or sacking them. Thanks unions! Collective action achieves what we cannot achieve alone.

Second reason? Now more than ever we need to stand together as a society to oppose the attacks being made on us by our government. Unions are the voice of the workforce, and we are angry about an economic policy that sacrifices mass-employment in favour of ideological attacks on the public sector. This government is making education the privilege of the wealthy. This government is trying to subcontract healthcare regardless of the evidence that greed will always rot the system from the inside:  hospitals crawling with superbugs in the wake of privatised cleaning and the most vulnerable tortured in democratically unaccountable institutions. This government is rounding up the mentally ill in front of interrogation panels of quacks (I keep thinking about a woman told she was fit for work because she had gone out for christmas dinner, and Dorries using tweets as evidence of being workshy. It doesn’t take someone with a degree in psychology to tell these people that social isolation is a breeding ground for mental illness, beyond almost anything else, but apparently any attempt to socialise is evidence of some secret life of riley at the taxpayers expense). When else in our lifetime have our disabled taken to the street en masse to protest cuts to their services which are being found unlawful left right and centre? Unions must speak for the most vulnerable, for our students, patients, clients, friends, because it is a crying shame that they, along with the public sector workforce, are being sacrificed to this terrible ideological cause.

Let’s try Cable’s sentence with one different word, and we come to the crux of why his government faces a summer of discontent:

“Should government impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.”

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