By Sam Murphy
The general election was a watershed moment. The Labour Party is now in an important period of change which will decide its fate: whether this is a one election blip or another decade outside of power. For the party to succeed the new leader, whoever it is, needs to welcome trade unions, working with them to achieve shared goals stemming from shared values.
Trade unions in recent years have had a bad press, due in part to their own reckless behaviour in the past and largely due to anti-union legislation alongside anti-union rhetoric in the popular right-wing media. With a significant decline in manufacturing industry and a population which has become apathetic and cynical of politics in general, unions have been sidelined. This does not mean, however, that unions are now pointless and outdated – proven by the fact that unionised workers earn an average of £1.40 extra per hour than non-unionised workers.
Unions also have an important role in protesting against the cuts agenda. At the TUC conference, Brendan Barber stated he wanted a coalition with the public. Unions need to be inclusive and expand in membership but also look to be the focal voice of a wider outrage against the cuts, not just members’ protest – we all use public services, we all need our post delivering and most of us use schools and police.
That is why a long and sustained strike action will be counter-productive, unpopular and not help the plight of union members or the wider public. Other forms of protest can be more successful, such as ‘work to rule’ or in the case of Jimmy Reid and the docks, turning up for work can be an effective resistance. For the anti-cuts campaign to really work we need to win the economic argument with the wider public, and get people on our side. The best campaigns and the most successful are those which chime with and reflect public opinion.
Unions need to use familiar campaign tools such as marches and demonstrations, but should also broaden the message and use new technology based on successful campaigns such as the Obama campaign. We need to make the cuts agenda move from where it is perceived now as a reasonable argument, accepted by the wider public, to the ridiculed economic claptrap it really is.
Although eventually the cuts agenda will only be stopped with a political solution through the Labour Party, trade unions have a role in protesting these cuts and bringing the wider public round to the alternative economic argument put forward at this week’s TUC conference. This can only be done with the support of the wider public; we can not be perceived as the deluded voice shouting from the sidelines.
That is why I believe sustained strike action would be premature and short sighted, playing into the hands of anti-union rhetoric and the coalition’s hands: we must not allow blame to be passed to us. Unions need the wider public to defeat this ‘demolition’ government and if they are not brought on board with exciting and innovative campaigns, they will fail.