Joseph Ward, chair of Norwich Young Labour, argues for the importance of trade unions and the vital role they play in the United Kingdom.
I found it rather ironic that the attempt of Conservative MP Jake Berry to embarrass Labour MPs on the day of the Trade Union Bill’s second reading, by reminding them to declare their interests, backfired in such a colossal way. The spiteful attempt to attack Labour’s donor record ended up riling up the opposition, bringing them together in solidarity, declaring their passion for trade unionism and loyalty to their unions. The day after Corbyn’s election, when Labour was supposed to be at its most divided, the mistimed bill rallied the factions and showed what a fierce opposition Labour can be over the next five years.
The importance of trade unions, goes largely unnoticed as they represent much more than worker security but the vitality of democracy. People who see Labour and the unions as joined at the hip and pocket are wrong; they’re innately joined at the heart. In Ed Miliband’s infamous interview with Russell Brand, Miliband brought up a nuanced point where he said that “it’s a combination of politics and people” that make change happen. Ed spoke about how it is the demand for progress that drives people politics and creates meaningful change, like the late Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act or the foundation of the NHS. Democracy is all about the power of people and trade unions represent the collection of voices demanding the amelioration of working people. It is the ever constant demands of the people that unbalance the equation of ideological governance.
People rarely understand their own power. It was the public’s compassionate opinion that changed government policy on refugees from seeing them as “swarms” to accepting 20,000 over the next five years. It was public opinion that challenged Cameron on Syria in 2013. It was public opinion that shaped the journey and success of the LGBT movement, the civil rights movement and the numerous waves of feminism which have completely changed our culture today. Unions represent the very best of this. By shackling the unions with unnecessary legislation and attacking them with pernicious propaganda, we have seen a decline in union membership which has started to affect public policy. Between 1982 and 2012, trade union membership halved. Along with this, we have seen our public sector shrink and fragment which has changed the contemporary political zeitgeist beyond recognition.
My union, Community, recently faced the loss of over 1,700 jobs as our prominent steel industry has been closed. Despite importance of SSI in Redcar, the government has decided not to intercede. While I don’t want to get into the specifics of the project, the unions are there fighting for compensation and the betterment of these people’s lives. Sajid Javid gave the community £80m worth of compensation but ultimately this is not just a matter of industry and employment but of lifestyle and the future of Redcar. While the government is focused on the statistics and the national picture of work, it is the unions who humanise the issue, who add the extra factor into these people’s lives. It is the teacher’s unions: the NUT and Nasuwt, who are fighting for teacher’s rights when it has been revealed that 53 per cent of teachers are thinking of leaving the profession in the next two years and that the average teacher spends 25 per cent of their time working unpaid at home to satisfy the statistical bureaucracy of the government.
My plea to you today is to remember the importance of trade unions. Unions are the grinding force behind the labour movement and so in a time when the Labour Party seems so unsettled and determined on dismantling itself, any leftist must realise the importance of unions and hope that they are the catalyst which will create the social movement which Corbyn prophesied and will lead Labour back to glory.