I have touched on this before but what is really behind the seemingly low level of response to the cuts in public services from the nation’s public sector trade unions? Indeed, this is a question I have heard being rehearsed recently by folks both inside and outside of the trade union movement.
Let me be clear here, I am not talking about big speeches from trade union leaders threatening all kinds of retributions, of which we have all probably heard many, but on what the trade union movement has actually been doing.
Over the past couple of years as the austerity cuts have bitten hard into the services delivered by councils and the wider public sector and as a consequence into the jobs of public sector workers I have heard a number of informed people commenting on what they perceive as the lack of an effective trade union response.
Now you could say that because I was a public sector trade union officer for 30 odd years that I would be expected to have an antenna for such matters and that is obviously true but none the less the trade union movement’s response to the cuts has been below the radar and quite noticeably so.
I have previously commented on Sefton Council’s budget meeting of a few weeks ago where the protesters were either Library campaign groups (fighting Labour’s Library closure plans) or folks fighting the so called Bedroom Tax (which Sefton Council has no influence over). By the way if the Bedroom Tax concerns you have a look at my colleague Iain Brodie-Browne’s Birkdale Focus Blog posting as he has a fascinating insight into it dated 15th April.
But what I failed to see at that budget meeting was real protest from Sefton’s trade unions about the cuts in Council services and jobs. To be honest I have been expecting local government trade unions to have been heavily into industrial action across the UK because of the cuts in jobs and services and that expectation goes back to late 2010, but it has not materialised.
I am not advocating industrial action but am genuinely surprised not to have seen much of any significance. The cuts, horrendous as they are, hit every part of the public sector and they follow world and indeed British financial mismanagement on a scale we have hardly seen before. But what troubles me, as a trade unionist, is that the trade union movement has not found an effective way for its voice to have much relevance throughout this now 6 years and counting of financial meltdown.
In Sefton there was a short-lived Labour/trade union-led protest surrounding the first round of significant savings that the Council had to make in early 2011. Indeed, there was a march around Maghull which was led by the Labour Party and trade unions. But then it all fizzled out, with union activity seemingly at a low level, and this despite harder and deeper cuts in the Council’s staffing and the services it delivers year on year.
Of course Labour are now running that Council and voting through all the slashing and burning, but jobs and services are still being lost. You would think this would be a call to arms for local government trade unions but that has not been the case to date.
Oddly, this may at least partly explain the taunts aimed at Labour at Sefton’s budget meeting from the Bedroom Tax campaigners some of whom will also have been active trade unionists. In effect what they were doing was reminding Labour that when the Council was balanced with no party in control Labour backed the anti-austerity protesters but now they are in control they are voting for the cuts.
Could it be that public sector trade unions don’t want to take on Labour Councils in the way they may say Tory run ones? Having said that there does not seem to be much in the way of evidence to show that unions are giving Tory run Councils much grief either. Could that, again at least partly, explain the trade union movement’s inability to find its voice? Or could it just be that the trade union movement is lost for effective words and responses to the financial disaster that has hit us?
My concern is very much that the trade union movement is not responding well to the times we find ourselves in and it may be becoming less relevant to the wider world of work each day that it continues with this struggle.
The fact is that many of the freedoms and safeguards that we all enjoy today are with us because of trade unions and the work that they did to fight appalling working and social conditions in generations past. For me to see unions becoming less relevant, which sadly is what I do see, is no cause for celebration as it may be to some. But if the trade union movement can’t find a way forward it will indeed wither on the vine.