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Tuesday 29 November 2011

What have the unions ever done for us?

WHEN Britain was told to down tools for the day last April to celebrate the wedding of two rich young people we were told that it would do no harm to the struggling economy.

Prime Minister Dishface said: "Bring out the bunting and let's make it a day to remember!

It didn't matter that 29m people who would normally be at work weren't, that the economy would lose about £3bn and make only a third back in sales of food, booze and flags. He didn't mind that the event cost £10m to stage, that thousands of police officers who were on double-time, and security costs went through the roof.

No, it was fine. Because it gave Dishface a chance to wrap himself in the flag and all Press coverage of what he was up to would be knocked off the front pages for a good fortnight or so.

Yet apparently when a few million people go on strike tomorrow it will bring Britain to its knees.

There are around 7m people involved in trade unions in this country, and not all of them will be manning the braziers, but we're told their not going to work is more deleterious to the economic fortunes of Britannia than everyone stopping to watch a posh bird with too much eyeliner join the Royal family (again).

I don't entirely back the trade union members who are fighting over their pensions. They will have to work longer to be paid less after they retire, but with increased life expectancy it's not that bad. The public sector pension pot is in such a complete state it simply must be overhauled if any of them are to get anything at all. A bit of realism tells you something has to change.

Yet amid the scaremongering about how the country will grind to a halt is the oft-held belief that the union movement is bad for business and bad for people.

Except without that same union movement we would not have:
  • Two-day weekends
  • Eight-hour working days
  • Maternity leave
  • Retirement ages
  • Occupational health and safety
  • Workplace pensions
  • Paid holidays
  • Equality laws
  • The right not to be sacked because you got married, had a baby, or became ill (strange how they're seen as similar things)
  • Pay increases
  • The minimum wage
  • Collective bargaining
  • The right for the working classes to organise themselves
  • A standard of living above that of 1850s Britain
Oh, and children would still be going up chimneys.

The trades union movement was backed by the pope in 1891, philosophised by Engels and Marx, led to the creation of the Labour Party which itself has had a lot of valuable achievements not least the National Health Service, and is generally considered an essential part of a successful democracy and method of promoting economic development around the world.

Countries that outlaw trades unions are not nice places. It's generally a method of oppressing the masses, Hitler did it in 1933, and it's A Very Bad Thing.

Yet unions have also contributed massively to naffing things up for themselves and the rest of us. The General Strike of 1926 brought half the nation out in support until it was ruled illegal after nine days and led to the unions having their funds confiscated. The 1978-79 Winter of Discontent was a public health nightmare and led directly to millions of people turfing out the Labour government and voting in Margaret Thatcher, who herself went on to strip the unions of many powers as vainglorious Arthur Scargill led the miners into a strike which was futile, ill-judged and caused years of misery to his members while making him a rich man.

Good causes have repeatedly been hijacked by idiots and charlatans for their own ends, got lost in political bitchery, and in so doing have given people like our sainted Education Secretary Michael Gove the ability to blame "militants itching for a fight".

But just because a few bad people have caused trouble for others does not mean those others are bad as well. They still have the right to speak collectively, to be heard, and to act as one to make their point.

Over time the union movement has lost its way, not just because of the egos involved but as society has changed. These days people join unions not to help one another, but to protect their own interests.

And that's why many are striking - it's they who will feel the pinch in their pension pots. And it's why our government wants to restrict the right to strike even further - they think it will win them votes and donations from a few hundred businessmen, and the only thing they rely on a union for is to act as a convenient bogeyman.

Never mind that if they want votes from the 29m people who are trying to hold on to their jobs as we head into a new recession they need to make the economy grow. Never mind that many other countries in Europe are recovering better from the crash than us. Never mind that our youth unemployment is three times as high as other nations' and never mind that spending £5bn filling up potholes in the roads is going to make bugger all difference to a single mum in Manchester juggling two part-time jobs and barely keeping her head above water.

Because that stuff is tricky, and blaming the unions is easy.

And besides, what have they ever done for us?

 Militants itching for a fight - including a bespectacled Michael Gove - in 1989.