Bob Crow – Doing the trade union movement a favour?

The Guardian has the story surrounding this hugely controversial trade union Barron and his recent troubles.

As a long-time trade unionist who worked for PCS Trade Union for many years as a lay official I think I understand what true socialists are all about but I must say Mr Crow makes me scratch my head.

Yes he lives in a house that belongs to a social landlord so that fits with his beliefs, I assume, about common ownership of property. But he earns an arm and a leg as a trade union leader which puts him in an income category that his embers can only dream of. Yes, but hang on, surely a socialist, representing the working classes, should not be earning such huge wages – £145,000 (according to the Guardian newspaper)? How can you truly represent the interests of the workers if you can afford a lifestyle very different from theirs?

Grangemouth refinery – A real worry that Unite nearly lost its own member’s jobs.

The BBC web site has a detailed report on the ‘saving’ of the refinery today.

As a former trade union officer I really do worry that the crisis at Grangemouth was one that was brought on by oil/gas market circumstances, a long-running internal industrial relations dispute and probably Unite, in trying not to blink first, almost ensuring that its own members lost their jobs.

Falkirk and Unite ring a bell as well over the huge Miliband/Unite dispute over the section of Labour’s parliamentary candidate recently so a heady brew of trouble was inevitable.

We British don’t do industrial relations well; it seems to be in our make up to do all we can to ensure that we don’t do industrial harmony! Of course, it is our ‘us and them approach’ that is fundamental to this industrial relations dysfunction.

But what if Unite was in effect making things worse? What I mean is were the Unite leaders more concerned with beating the Grangemouth management than they were about preserving as many jobs as possible? Sadly, this has to be a worry because British trade unions are more than capable of not seeing or ignoring the big issues in a dispute especially if they are being driven by socialist idealism.

Independent analysts seem to be pointing to the non-viable nature of the refinery in its present form and that fundamental restructuring of the oil refining business is required not only at Grangemouth but across the whole industry. On that basis were Unite simply unwilling to negotiate on the reality of that situation? If they were they were very wrong and they seem to have had to climb down a long way. They must have lost a lot of credibility with their own members but will they learn from this damaging dispute?

I do despair at times with the trade union movement as it can often be its own worst enemy.

PCS and UNITE to merge?

As a PCS member and former Branch Secretary of some 22 years service, this question both concerns and interests me and it features in Private Eye edition 1344.

The Eye seems to think that the trade union barons in both of these huge unions will want to merge to create more political muscle and that this could well be outside of shovelling more money into the Labour Party.

PCS has helped sponsor trade union candidates for UK elections and did so at the recent Eastleigh Parliamentary by-election. Clearly, it was PCS (and other unions) waving two fingers at Labour; trouble is their candidate got so few votes (62 in fact which was 0.15% of the votes cast) the move was pointless and merely cost PCS members and others a few bob in a lost deposit and other election costs.

PCS and indeed its predecessor unions were all basically been non-politically aligned i.e. their members being mostly public servants have not paid a political levy to the Labour Party. Personally, I have always thought that stance correct as public servants have to serve the Government of the day no matter who they are and to do so whilst paying a party political levy would hardly make public servants look impartial.

But UNITE is presently Labour’s biggest financial supporter (and problem?) and its members are affiliated to Labour. So how can two unions merge that are fundamentally split on supporting Labour? UNITE backs Labour and PCS backs trade union candidates who stand against Labour!

PCS is certainly playing down the merger and simply talking about forms of co-operation with UNITE.

An odd situation all together but I think PCS would be well advised to stop wasting PCS member’s money in local or Parliamentary elections. But underneath this process the real problem is the inability of the trade union movement to effectively find a way forward during our present economic down-turn.

Trade Unions – Withering on the vine? I hope not

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.