The first post on this blog in 2011 predicted that this would be “the toughest year for UNISON activists since the formation of the Union in 1993” and that “our best chance of effective unified action forcing a climbdown from the Government would be to fight to defend our pensions. The sooner we mobilise our strength as a unified national trade union movement the better our chance of forcing the Government back.”
The next post applauded the joint New Year statement made by the General Secretaries of the “big three” unions, which spelt out the opposition of our movement to the Coalition Government. Overall, I started 2011 with plenty of optimism of the will.
And 2011 was the year in which the trade union movement fought back against that Government as never before, with the largest trade union demonstration in the history of the country, and the biggest strike for a generation (at least!) My optimism of the will seems to have been well placed.
However, 2011 also saw a continuing pay freeze in the public sector, hundreds of thousands of job losses and – so far – no positive outcome of the pensions strike. A certain amount of pessimism of the intellect would appear to be called for also.
The trade union movement is not an end in itself. Workers do not join trade unions primarily out of altruism or for reasons of political belief (although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the minority whose commitment does spring from that source!)
Workers join, and are active in, trade unions for instrumental reasons – and if we wish to continue to be relevant to our members we need to deliver outcomes which protect the interests of those same members.
It is important that we are seen to fight for our members, but that alone is not enough. We need to deliver results. We need to do this with every tool to hand, including industrial, legal and political action.
To do this (and on this point I agree with the anonymous blogger at UNISON Active) we need to develop the political campaigning of our trade union. A century ago, trade unionists were prevented by law from supporting a political party. Today our problem is more one of finding a justification to support the only political party we have. More to the point, we have to work with our natural allies.
It is thirty years since the high water mark of the Labour Left, when Tony Benn was narrowly denied the Deputy Leadership of the Party with the votes of MPs who had already determined to leave for the SDP. The socialist policies which reflect the views of our trade union have been in retreat ever since.
As this political retreat has taken place, the membership of trade unions has declined. The 12.3 Million members we had in 1981 were already fewer the peak of 1979, but it was twice the number we have now. Nevertheless that much stronger labour movement comprehensively failed to resist the Thatcher Government. From a weaker position we now have to do better.
No cavalry is coming over the hill. No other struggle will arise to turn the tables on the Cabinet of millionaires. All we have is ourselves. This is the moment of the trade unions. We can reverse a generation of decline, or we can continue to accommodate to it, believing that the pinnacle of our aspiration is damage limitation (we could call that “new realism” perhaps…)
As the New Year’s editorial in today’s Morning Star put it; “the only possibility of a happy 2012 for working people will depend on the readiness of the labour movement to unite in determined resistance to the coalition and to do everything to make its existence as brief as possible.”
When I predicted that 2011 would be UNISON’s hardest year to date, I wasn’t wrong. Now I predict that 2012 will be worse and I doubt that I’ll be wrong about that either. That’s the pessimism of the intellect I mentioned earlier.
But from Barnet to Southampton (and in so many places beside) we see the potential of our movement.
Happy New Year.
Eat, drink and make merry for tomorrow we face a harder struggle than ever.
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