Union bashing and devil supping

BASHING unions is natural territory for this government, as easy as chasing a fox or poisoning a badger. The funny thing is that what we are witnessing is the fighting of old battles for a new purpose.

Back in the 1970s, the heyday of union militancy, nearly 13 million days a year were lost on average due to strike action. In the year to last April, the figure was reported as 704,000 days. Memories of something which was once a very big problem are being revived to excuse the trade union bill. Why should this be? Oh, naked opportunism and wanting to look tough in the political playground, at a guess.

Among those who have objected to the proposals is the Tory MP David Davis, who says that sections of the bill were reminiscent of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Davis supports most of what is in the bill, but believes that requiring picketers to give their names to police is draconian.

“What is this?” he said on Sky News on Sunday. “This isn’t Franco’s Britain, this is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain.” Davis described such proposals as ‘OTT’, joining other critics numbering Liberty, Amnesty International, the British Institute of Human Rights and former MP Vince Cable.

According to Cable – like Mr Davis, born in York – the measures are “vindictive, counterproductive and ideologically driven”.

Now that he has stopped supping with the devil, Cable feels free to reveal that under the coalition the Tories were always pressing for more aggressive trade union legislation. “They see the trade unions and the Labour party as the enemy. The question then is how do you weaken them? That is their starting point.”

Well, thank you, Vince – and look where all that long-spoon supping got you and the rest of us.

In the 1970s unions were powerful and sometimes out of control. Now they are nothing of the sort. My own union days are both behind me and still present. Behind because I no longer work on the newspaper, but present in the sense that I still pay the dues. I am not fully sure why, although habit and bruised loyalty may have something to do with it.

And there isn’t a union specifically for people who used to be journalists (perhaps there should be, there are a lot of us around) or for people who are journalists only when they sell a feature. I do have another one coming up, so that will leave me feeling like a journalist again for a day or two.

There are a couple of dusty ironies blowing around my ankles here. Since leaving the newspaper three months ago, I have written far more words than ever before. More than 50,000 to date in this daily blog, and far more than that again on a thriller/crime novel. So a union for churning out words could represent me still.

And the other irony? Well, sometimes I felt conflicted about the union. My union was and is the National Union of Journalists. I sat through the meetings and stood on a picket line or two.

Here, without betraying any confidences, is a typical chapel meeting. A group of people sit in the pub at lunchtime discussing the latest union concerns. Some are the usual firebrands who want to strike about everything and anything. Others talk moderately enough in the office, but turn radical once the meeting starts, as if dripped on from an unseen barrel of militancy. Others stay quiet and look worried.

And the balding man with glasses says, as he usually does, that going on strike should always be the last resort, etc.

My reluctance to strike was well known. I suspected this made me a fairly useless union member, or someone who perhaps shouldn’t be in the union. Did being in the union hold me back (possibly) or keep me going (possibly too)? There is companionship in a union.

My fellow members were kind enough to say in a farewell meeting that they respected me for speaking up against industrial action but joining in when the day came. I found this genuinely touching, especially as I’d always wondered if cowardice had had something to do with it. Cowardice and bills to pay with not much in the bank.

As someone who no longer has to attend union meetings, I don’t miss the fretfulness and the sinking feeling when a strike was looming, but I do miss the comradeship.

If new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would like some advice, perhaps he should strive to show unions in a positive light, as bodies prepared to collaborate rather than obstruct. This, after all, is how unions have operated in Germany for many years, and successfully too.

Incidentally, the saying played with above is thought to come from the 14th century and has it that “he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon”. The meaning is clear enough, isn’t it, Vince: be cautious when dealing with dangerous people.


  1. I believe Corbyn sees the unions in a completely different way to most ‘mainstream’ (ie centre-right) politicians of blue or red hue, which is why he gained their support and respect through the leadership process. Interesting post – thanks for sharing.

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