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What's the point of the unions?
Following the highest-profile TUC conference in almost a generation, the Dispatches programme: What's the point of the unions? promised to shine a light on trade unionism in 2010.
Greg Maughan, Leytonstone Socialist Party
The first section concentrated on RMT general secretary Bob Crow, who the tabloids are desperately trying to make into a demon figure. And the programme was designed to repeat this.
But for many workers fighting cuts, footage of Bob speaking is extremely positive. The solid strike action of RMT and TSSA members last month was given as an example of how the trade unions can have a massive impact when they take action.
The documentary points to the RMT tactic of balloting for action early, to have a mandate in negotiations. A representative from Transport for London criticises this, but the narrator is forced to admit: "Bob Crow's approach was highly effective in delivering results for his members."
Ex-Tory MP and rail operator Steve Norris commented on Bob Crow: "This is a guy who believes in this mission to destroy capitalism. If he thought he could, he'd bring the government down tomorrow." A lot of workers would agree with that.
Then the documentary went into the wages of some of the trade union general secretaries. Derek Simpson of Unite earns £200,000 a year. One TUC delegate expressed the opinion of many trade unionists when she said: "It's bad. It's the same as the greedy bankers. Sorry, but it is."
When the tabloids and the establishment media attack trade union representatives for the wages they're paid, it is done from the point of view of opposing collective action and supporting the current economic system.
But in the Socialist Party we believe that trade union members should have control over the election and pay of their representatives and fulltime officials. We stand for representatives to be on the same average pay as their members.
As well as making sure that people stay in touch with the workers they represent, this also closes down a common line of attack for the establishment.
Lastly, the documentary detailed how Unison failed its members on the 'equal pay' Single Status agreement and how 'no-win, no-fee' lawyers have taken up cases that the union rejected and won women workers thousands of pounds in compensation. The implication is that the trade unions have abandoned their members and that workers are better off taking individual action.
But the root of all this is the Unison leadership's acceptance of Single Status without mounting a campaign for extra funding from central government to raise women workers' wages.
The trade union movement is not one homogeneous body; there are many different facets to it. But the basic idea of collective action to defend our interests will come to the fore as workers feel the bite of the cuts. Through personal experience, many will draw the conclusion that the type of trade unionism outlined in the first third of this documentary is what we need.
The programme is interesting and worth a watch with a critical eye.
- Dispatches: What's the point of the unions? 27 September, 8pm. Available on the Channel 4 website.
In The Socialist 29 September 2010:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party feature