ONE CURIOUS aspect of the political landscape in the lead up to the General Election was that despite the country being in economic turmoil, wage and job cuts happening left, right and centre - and the prospect of much more to come - the establishment unions remained surprisingly muted.
The re-run of the winter of discontent predicted by many commentators did not happen. Perhaps their leaders were all on a fact-finding mission with their spouses somewhere hot and thus did not have time to trouble themselves with such trivial matters? Or perhaps there was a bigger picture going on that illustrates the poisonous relationship between the establishment unions and Nu Labour?
Prior to the recent election, Solidarity drew attention to the lack of action by the establishment unions in the face of the massive jobs cuts.
National Executive member David Kerr pointed out the example of the abortive campaign by the Scottish TUC over the job cuts at the Johnny Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock and the Port Dundas distillery and cooperage in Glasgow.
In January, Mr Kerr said:
“The joint leaders of Unite – Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson – are desperate for a fourth Labour Term. They say that Labour must be re-elected and that Unite should work for a Labour victory in the next election. Has this desperation for a Labour victory affected the thinking – and actions – of the unions? The lack of any industrial action in the run up to the General Election will give Labour an easier ride……….This begs the question: are the unions now abandoning the fight for jobs for a longer-term political objective – another Labour victory at the polls?”.
In the case of the job losses in Kilmarnock and Glasgow, the campaign went from a magnificent start with a 20,000 strong rally against the plant’s closure and a 450,000 email petition to Diageo bosses and leading shareholders to zero. The Scottish TUC had found other things to do with its time such as handing out Palestinian flags before a match between Glasgow Celtic and Hapoel Tel Aviv, an action that most Scottish workers would find hard to equate with saving their jobs!
Whilst there was some sabre rattling in the early part of 2010, the fact is that there was virtually next to nothing in the way of industrial action despite the worst economic events in the memories of most living people happening. Why was this?
It might be illuminating to look at the relationship between Labour and the establishment unions.
Figures submitted to the Electoral Commission by Labour gave its membership as an historic low of 176,891 at the end of 2007, (as against 405,000 at its peak in 1997). During the Blair years in 2002 the financial contribution made by the unions amounted to 33% of its income; but the days of big-name donors are long-gone and with the collapse in membership fees income, the support of the unions almost certainly become critical to the debt-laden party.
Since 2007 Unite alone has donated £11 million to Labour’s coffers. There were as at March of this year 111 Labour MPs on the Unite Parliamentary Group. 100,000 Unite activists were involved in working for Labour in 90 marginal seats. When taken as a whole, given the efforts and money poured into the effort to get Nu Labour back into Number 10 by the establishment unions, it is not unreasonable to deduct that either they were expecting quid pro quo in the shape of an actual deal with the Nu Labour government once returned to power or that they would be in a position to name their price to an administration grateful for their assistance not in only in money and manpower for the campaign but for also not “rocking the boat” in the run-up to polling day.
Whatever the reasons for the unions’ muted behaviour prior to the General Election, the change of government has resulted in whatever deal they may have had or influence over government policy going south.
So what next for the establishment unions?
The Labour party leadership contest will definitely be worth watching. Which of the candidates has the strongest links with the unions? Will any of them do any backroom deals to get the unions’ support? If so, what will the deal be and what impact will it have on the ordinary British worker?
There is little doubt that the establishment unions will now wield more power over Labour than they have done in over a decade. What remains to be seen is if that influence will be used wisely to assist the working population of Britain or simply to further the political and personal ambitions of the union leaders.
Also worth watching is how the establishment unions act on the wider scene now that all constraints of propping up the Nu Labour government have been removed. Will they seek to become a thorn in the side of the Con-Dem coalition and try and bring it down? Or will they now start to take a stand in defence of people’s jobs and standards of living and only engage in genuine strikes?
One thing that is sure is that Solidarity will be keeping a close eye on events and continuing, as it has always done, to stand up for British workers without answering to vested interests!