Saturday, June 18, 2011

Union daze

Is the Coalition doing too much, too soon, with too many potential enemies?

During his time in power, Tony Blair made himself unpopular with the Unions with his attempts to lead public sector reform (and this was a bloke who was at the bottom of the Christmas Card list from the first time he became Labour leader). Blair wanted to be a Labour leader who rewrote the relationship between the Party and their former Union comrades. He was not a typical Labour politician, and New Labour was not a typical labour party.

I've never had a problem with the right to strike, my problem has always been towards Union Leaders themselves, the self-appointed 'awkward squad' who parade themselves across the media like visiting Presidents from far-flung Socialist islands somewhere. Anyone who grew up from the 1960s onwards could testify to any passing psychotherapist that their childhood was ruined by the constant droning of leftwing firebrands as an audio backdrop.

It's doubtful that the wider population have fully attached themselves to the causes at hand. Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, never knowingly caught smiling in public, are full of incendiary threats and caustic promises towards the Coalition. It's one thing (and a good thing) to campaign for the best wages and working practices for the people your Union represents. It's not quite so laudable to play politics with those workers, to act as activists for a de-facto political campaign. It's a lot harder to justify strike action to people who are not members of a Union on the same wage as a public sector worker.

Labour's spending spree, record breaking as it was, has left the country with a massive economic hangover. Not just a lager hangover, this one has Jager bombs, Southern Comfort and a 1996 vintage Cava thrown in too.

There has to be consequences to Labour's economic chaos. Including the bank bailouts, the national debt is £2.3 trillion; this cloud touches every aspect of our lives, public and private sectors, food prices, the amount Governments can spend, the amount people can save. What the Coalition is trying to do is not ideological blindness; it's the consequence of facing the balance sheets in such a state that there is no other option. The national credit-card is maxed out.

Of course Unions must ensure their workers are not buffeted too hard by the work required, though that is not what some Union Leaders are doing or saying. In truth, Prentis' threat of strikes 'worse than the 1920s' is the kind of unprofessional hubris you'd expect from the Students Union. The agenda of all three mainstream parties is ultimately the same - reduce government borrowing, make public spending fairer, more affordable and targeted where it's most needed, and reduce the national debt. Union Leaders are living in an alternative universe if they believe the national debt can be allowed to grow much deeper, or if they believe public spending was sustainable without guaranteed results locked in.

Everybody wants to protect those services - especially the NHS - which we are incredibly lucky to have in this country, and having seen the NHS close-up during my mum's time in hospital, I want not one word of criticism to go towards nurses and doctors, whose workrate and compassion impressed me from the first moment I saw them. Protecting those services does not mean preserving them in aspic.

On a politics forum I visit, a poster who works within the NHS wrote this :

We've got authorities who now require a panel meeting to justify any expenditure over £100. So you've got 4 middle managers sat down reviewing a case to see whether they can justify buying a £100 commode.

Palpable nonsense, I'm sure you agree. Examples of a similar nature abound in the public sector - and I know we can list in the thousands examples from within private companies where there's virtually no check against money spent on such situations. The NHS is a wonderful service, one which I would defend to the death, but at what cost do we wrap cling-film around these institutions? Could private companies provide hospital food at a budget higher than £1.51 per patient, per day, as was the case at Preston Royal?

As someone on a low wage, I understand the pain of getting the money to behave itself. I know how it feels to walk to work to avoid train-fares, the necessity to buy cheap food close to its sell by date from discount stores; I have punched many walls in anger at every time a payrise is denied. These realities are not reserved for just employees of private firms; Union Leaders should stop trying to wrap their workers in bubble-wrap. Sometimes we all need to accept that we can't get the improvements to our working lives to which we feel entitled. How much somebody earns, and how much they can expect from a pension at retirement, is the most hot of all current political topics. As someone who works for a private company, I have had no pay-rise in 3 years, and have not put anything away for a pension. I earn just under £15,000 for a 40-hour week, suffering just as anyone would trying to make the money stretch the month.

In time, I suspect the reforms and changes this year - the natural extension of Blairite reforms started 13 years ago - will be seen for what they always were intended to be. Keeping Britain's enviable public services as amongst the best in the world for far less waste and far more affordable overall cost.

Strikes and the right-to-strike are vital parts of any vibrant, functioning democracy. Unions which bargain hard have produced brilliant results for the good of workers running throughout history. Union Leaders who replace responsibility for recklessness are authors of their own misfortune. Governments must always be in fear of their people, Unions are the check to ensure that maxim is never positioned the wrong way round. When Governments take the piss, Unions are one element of the fightback against them. It works both ways, however, something the more militant members of the Union movement have struggled to accept. It's interesting observing Ed Miliband accept his role as an untypical Labour leader, as John Smith and Tony Blair before him realised very early on.

Whatever happens after the first wave of strikes this week, you can't say we don't live in interesting times....