Monday, June 30, 2008

Brown and the unions

Are they really starting to believe it? Last week, a union official is reported to have said: "We own Labour". Such a brag, if it was uttered, is staggeringly misplaced. This was in the context of an investigation of trade union power and militancy, although in fact the union leaders interviewed did everything they could to avoid the appearance of militancy. It may be the case that employers are genuinely worried about a revival in working class militancy over pay, but it certainly isn't because the bulk of union leaders are asserting a vice-like grip on the party of government. Today, in a similar spirit, it is reported that unions are pushing for a wave of reforms to be included in the 2009/10 manifesto. This is presented as if the unions have the party over a barrell due to its weak financial position and are really taking it for a ride. In fact, the current round of negotiations is no different from those preceding previous election deals, and the policies so far proposed are in fact extremely moderate, probably more so than the late Warwick Agreement. So far there is nothing on pay, nothing on privatization, nothing on trade union rights. And anything they do try to 'force' on Labour as part of a manifesto is sure to go down with the government come the election (and all the while, the Tories will be babbling about how the Labour Party is beholden to the dinosaurs of trade unionism etc). In reality, the position of the unions vis-a-vis the Labour Party remains weak to the extent that they refuse to confront the government in a sustained way through industrial action. It seems obvious to me that the union leaders don't want to do that, by and large. They would probably prefer to see any strike action as a limited sequence of brief stoppages, the basis for enhanced bargaining power in negotiations rather than the basis for resisting the government's austerity policies wholesale. But then, they don't get to dictate the pace at which workers develop and express militancy. And that will have a far more significant impact on the attitude of New Labour than the current spate of negotiations.