Once upon a time the Trade Union movement was a powerful beast indeed. Just the utterance of the words ‘I’ll be talking to the Union about this’ was enough to strike terror into management – whether public or private sector. Union leaders were regular visitors at Number 10 and had media profiles similar to that of senior cabinet ministers. Whether you loved or hated them, you could not deny Unions mattered.
It is now over 30 years since their hey-day. Union membership is stagnant at approximately 6.5million, half that of 30 years ago. More worryingly private-sector membership is almost extinct in a number of industries. For many younger workers Unions are an irrelevance, something their parents talk about, or stops them getting to work occasionally. Although Labour did some good things in government for Unions and their members (Minimum Wage, Trade Union Recognition, Equality Legislation to name but three) it was always on the quiet. Scared of a media and middle-class backlash. Labour in power never actively championed the role of Unions, preferring instead to be seen as neutral. This, coupled with a generally positive economic and social era left Unions scrabbling to find a niche in post-industrial Britain. The TUCs Organising Academy helped with this – helping to build union activism by bringing together workers at the most local of levels. But this only stemmed the tide rather than really build the movement.
All this has now changed – A Coalition government proposing budget cuts greater than that of even the austerity years following the 2nd world war has handed them an opportunity to fight once again. Depending on what they do with it, this could either be a watershed moment for a new type of Unionism to appear, or it could be the final fight of the Union Movement as we know it.
As Congress meets this week it is the time of new Union leaders to take the stage and delivering their vision of what a future Union movement might look like. To bastardise a phrase from John Prescott – this is about delivering traditional Union values in a modern setting. People don’t want to hear old fashioned class warfare of the Bob Crow era anymore, but they will listen to somebody willing to make an alternative case for public spending. Somebody who will champion the public sector, not just because of their responsibility to the workers, but because of a wider responsibility to society.
If they can get the message right Unions have the opportunity to be at the forefront of a mass popular campaign against swingeing cuts – redefining themselves and becoming relevant to a new generation of potential members. Get it wrong, and we could be watching the deathroes of once proud movement – it is a huge responsibility for all those people in Manchester this week, and one I hope they can live up to.