In the 1980s, Maggie Thatcher emasculated the unions (that’s fancy talk for “She ripped their balls off”). Bans on flying pickets and secondary striking, stringent requirements for ballots on industrial action, the abolition of the right to strike so employers could sack workers for striking for better conditions – and of course, once the unions had been reduced to toothless pussy cats, she set about wrecking employees’ rights to fair working conditions. By the time she was carted off, the British workforce was the hardest-pressed, poorest paid in Western Europe.
When the Labour party came to power in 1997, they made a show of “righting wrongs” but didn’t really do too much to change the status quo. Tony Blair introduced a minimum wage to Britain, but it was a paltry amount that couldn’t support a family – it was barely enough for a single person to live on! Blair had done as much as he could to cut the ties between the Labour party and the unions.
But he couldn’t finish the job to his satisfaction thanks to the fact that his party depended on the unions for funding. And now, here they come again! Thank the Lord!
There’s a big Labour policy forum coming up, and, as the Guardian reported yesterday, the trades unions are taking advantage of the current economic crisis and Gordon Brown’s unpopularity to force through a number of demands.
But they are not the awful socialistic demands that right-wing commentators would have you believe. What the unions want to do is restore some of the social justice that existed in the UK before Thatcher waged her war on the working class. Here are a few of their terrible demands:
The right to take supportive strike action; scrapping NHS prescription charges (bringing England into line with the rest of the UK); bringing all hospital cleaning back in-house to combat the rise in “super-bugs” that came with the privatisation of NHS sanitation; extending the adult minimum wage to cover workers aged 18-21 and apprentices; a change in the law so that councils will be able to demand that companies tendering for their contracts will have to treat their employees fairly; free school meals for all primary school children (an important issue when record numbers of British children are obese and healthy eating is a priority).
As rail franchises start to expire, the unions want the “not for profit model” to be extended across the rail network, so the trains are run for the benefit of the passengers not the shareholders; they want to break up the monopoly held by the six major power companies so household fuel can become affordable again; and they want to place a duty on company directors to take all reasonable steps to ensure health and safety in the workplace – so workers won’t have to worry about being killed on the job.
On union rights, they want the right to strike, internet balloting, tax deductions for union membership subscriptions, and an extension of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to construction. The right-wing press and the government will bleat about this, but it’s only a small step towarsd rectifying the damage Thatcher inflicted on the working man.
On equality, the unions propose extending a duty to promote equality to the voluntary and private sectors, reducing the lower earnings threshold to £30 a week to allow low-paid workers access to sick pay, a tightening of the equal pay laws, and a new right for unions to collectively bargain on equality issues. On parental leave, they want an extension of the child’s age limit from six to 16. All fair, measured and sane proposals.
Gordon Brown is going to fight each and every one of these proposals. He has already tried to say that they are a throwback to “the worst of the militant 70s”. But the unions are organized to fight this battle. They are believed to already have ministerial support for many of their suggestions. And they command enough voting power in the upcoming policy meetings to ensure that there will be a democratic vote on their proposals by rank-and-file Labour party members.
So it’s time for Gordon to accept that in the 21st century, British workers and the people of Britain in general will have the right to decent working conditions and a reasonable standard of living. And it’s time for us to accept that the unions are not the monsters they were portrayed as for so long – they are for us, and of us… hell, they are us. So let’s support the unions. Let’s stand up for ourselves.