Dylan Williams On Politics: In Defence Of Trade Unions

When David Miliband visited Nottingham last Wednesday our News Editor, Emily Tripp, asked him if he would support the general strike which is being called for by some trade unionists – among them PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. Miliband replied:

‘No I don’t support a general strike. This is misguided. It will not help the country, it will not help Trades Unions, and it betrays terrible lack of imagination. If every time there is something you don’t like you call for a general strike, the public will think you’re living on another planet. There is a political debate to be had, but it’s not in the form of the general strike.’

Miliband is seeking to dismiss trade unions by describing them as ‘misguided’ and as external to political debate. This is not the case, but it does tap into a wider misrepresentation of trade unions in politics and the media – one which Labour should be attempting to dispel.

UK labour law demands that any strike action must first pass a ballot of union members. If a general strike does ultimately happen it will be the will of the workers – potentially numbering over 6 million – that form the membership of the striking unions. Any failure by Labour to support a general strike would irrevocably reveal to the British public that it does not represent or champion the citizen vulnerable to exploitation.

Miliband’s disregard for the union voice reveals that it is Labour’s ambition to control an economy that leaves privilege and poverty unaltered. Ed Miliband’s speech to protesters at the ‘A Future That Works’ rally in Hyde Park last month reveals that ‘One Nation’ is to be nothing more than the rhetorical justification for a society that demands sacrifice from those too vulnerable to be able to give it.

The general secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny, recently asserted that it is Labour that is ‘unrepresentative’ of working class people. When you consider the widening of income inequality under New Labour, its failure to tackle the institutional privilege of the House of Lords and the fact that the Living Wage was not adopted in any of its years in power, you cannot disagree.

Labour retains a core working class vote. If politics had been installed on the curriculum under New Labour– something Miliband told Impact he would have preferred if he had the power – this vote would have deteriorated rapidly. Progressive legislation such as the Living Wage, whilst offering tangible improvement, is often the exception. The offer proffers Labour as the best of a very poor field of mainstream options, while comprehensive reform is deemed an unnecessary risk.

If Labour want to properly represent its working class support it should:

Engage with trade unions

Labour needs to acknowledge the legitimacy of trade unions and establish a constructive dialogue with them. Essentially, the Labour Party and trade unions should work together in politics, with Labour drawing from the voices of trade union members and officials to develop an economy that emphasises the rights of the employee over the employer. The myth that unions were to blame for the economic crisis of the 1970s, and all of the resultant assumptions regarding the level of power to be allowed trade unions, should be challenged at every turn.

Repeal anti-union legislation

Richard Hyman, Emeritus Professor at LSE’s Department of Management, argues that the laws regulating British strike action are ‘among the most restrictive in the world’. Secondary strike action – striking in solidarity with other workers – is illegal in Britain. This prevents workers from any attempt at aiding one another. Unions are required to provide seven days’ notice to employers before going on strike. This restricts the ability of workers to react quickly to grievances, and allows employers time to search for a replacement workforce. Unions can be sued for damages by companies if a strike is called – which can deter fearful unions from properly defending the interests of their members. In 13 years in power Labour did nothing to reinstate the powers of the unions, realising, correctly, that the unions’ concerns, for defending the rights of the worker, were not their own. Labour needs to break with its recent past and realise that workers have the right to organise to protect their livelihoods.

Assist the modernisation of worker representation

The ways, and industries, in which employees work have changed over the last 40 years. Large, industry-centred unions, while still relevant, cannot represent a large proportion of Britain’s workforce. Employees in the service sector, in supermarkets, retail, business and finance are severely underrepresented – while still vulnerable to exploitation. A joined-up approach to broadening the representation of workers through all sectors of the economy should be championed and aided by Labour. This broadening enfranchisement should be flexible to the different ways in which certain types of employees work. Part-time workers, such as students and young people, need help in realising the benefits of unionisation.

The creation of a fair economy can only be achieved by following these steps. David Miliband’s attempt at swatting away the relevance of the trade union voice should suggest to us that Labour is uninterested in the radical change that British workers desperately need.

Dylan Williams


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