Bury Free Press, 13th February 2015
On this day in 1975, the National Union of Mineworkers finished negotiations with their industry paymasters and accepted a pay rise of 35% for miners in the UK. It was the result of months of dispute between the boards, and part of the escalation of union power which would lead to the famed ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1988-89.
But looking at the Conservative manifesto of 2015, one would think union bosses were set to send us into another season of power cuts, street protests and piles of uncollected rubbish. Proposed changes to the rights of public sector workers to protest will mean 40% of eligible voters must vote to strike, with a minimum 50% turnout. That could mean an 80% majority is needed at the union ballot for the workers to take to the streets.
Yet quite what Cameron’s government thinks it might achieve with such controls is open to interpretation. Wage suppression, not inflation, is now the issue, with zero-hours contracts and employers not offering living wages to their workers. Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that public sector workers in unions earn around 20% more than their non-unionised counterparts. Workers now, more than ever, need the bargaining power that union action offers them.
In the case of a Tory-majority government next term, Osborne’s budget will slash another £50bn from the private sector. At the same time, these union changes would protect those at top of the system from workers whose livelihoods have been destroyed.
And while the police officer, teacher and nurse are working tirelessly to support the state, the pendulum of power is being ratcheted ever closer to those who can cut their wages in the name of austerity. We must protect our unions, so they can protect us.