Dave Prentis, the current general secretary of Unison, is being faced with a threat to his leadership by three candidates – all of them well to the left of him politically. Although the coverage of this has been minimal in the national press (The Guardian covered it, that’s about it), it is major news – because it tells us a lot about the future of trade unionism.
Dave is a pretty left-wing guy. He was one of the more vocal backers of Corbyn during the Labour leadership contest, and he has a good history in sabre ratting anti-austerity speeches. So the idea that he is suddenly too moderate to lead Unison should be a worry for those who value trade unions and their contribution to society.
Let’s take a step back and remember what trade unions are actually for. The whole point of them is to protect their representatives rights and to try and get the best deal for them collectively. The point is, the workers have more bargaining power as a collective than each individual does in trying to get the best deal from the corporation in question. The problem is that most trade unions still act like it’s 1910 and we have children working eighteen hour days down a pit. They should have “professionalised” a long time ago; a trade union boss should come across as more of a lawyer than anything else. It should be all about business and nothing to do with politics.
The fact that trade union bosses are still agitating for socialism is weird, a relic that has never been able to die in this country. This is how we get into a situation where Dave Prentis is considered too left-wing to lead Unison: the concern around who leads the union becomes strictly the concern of a die-hard minority within it. For now, the workers can see the benefit of collectivised labour still, but there will be a tipping point at which it is possible to see union membership go even further into decline as the leadership loses touch with the members’ main concerns completely.
Here’s what I think: we should ban trade unions from being directly involved in politics. All they should be concerned with are the rights and terms of employment of their members. I say this not because I want unions to get weaker – but because I think this is the only way they will survive and remain relevant in the 21st century. If the unions started being less about strikes and Marxism and focused more on getting workers a better deal, membership of these organisations would reverse their decline and begin to grow again. There is still a place for trade unionism in 2015. The problem is, the unions aren’t really filling it at present. To balance the ban, I would give them more actual power directly, such as they have in Sweden.
Truth is, the trade unions haven’t been about protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society since at least the war; by definition, these people wouldn’t be involved in organised labour. This has shown itself to be brutally so at times, such as when the unions were against a minimum wage in the 1970s. But here’s the thing: that’s okay. Unions don’t exist to right all of the wrongs of the world. They exist to do just one thing. They should concentrate on doing that one thing as well as possible.