It’s an uncomfortable truth for those who oppose what trade unionism stands for, and who have been at the vanguard of introducing anti-trade union legislation over many decades, that our movement is more vibrant today than at any point in our recent past.
Today, up and down the country, vast swathes of the NHS are being sold off, from the £1.2bn pound sell-off of cancer care in Staffordshire to here in Yorkshire where the local NHS are selling off bowel cancer screening. At the same time hospital services are closing down and A&Es are being downgraded while waiting list times are going up.
It is the 21st century trade union movement that is at the forefront of opposing this destruction of our NHS. On high streets, in community centres and in hundreds of workplaces, Unite is working with community groups and clinicians to protect the NHS. A modern trade union for a modern time.
Bernard and many of Unite’s political enemies think they can use Unite’s leverage campaigns as a stick to beat us with – they are wrong. I consider leverage to be one of our union’s most powerful weapons. It is a tool we use sparingly and only when all other forms of negotiation have failed, but when we use it we deliver results for our members.
Take the illegal sacking then blacklisting of a union activist by Crossrail. Our leverage campaign against Crossrail held the company to account for their actions, ensuring an innocent man was returned to work.
It is worth remembering that Unite have used leverage tactics on just eight occasions out of the 25,000 deals we negotiate a year. Perhaps the manufactured vitriol reserved for Unite and our use of leverage by the likes of Bernard Ingham, the Tory attack dogs and their friends in the right-wing Press is not about the tactics we use, but because of the rate of success we have in delivering results for our members.
Earlier this month, Unite met for its policy conference along the Mersey. I know the area well because it is where I began my working life as a docker. When I was young, men used to gather every morning in large halls scattered along the docks hoping for a day’s work.
Bosses used to walk among them tapping them on the shoulder and giving them a Brass Tally which guaranteed a day’s work. And when the bosses tired of that they would take the remainder of the tallies and toss them into the air and watch men fight for them – and I mean fight, because one day’s work meant putting food into their kids’ bellies.
This was zero hours from another age – and it’s now back today to haunt us. Over 1.4 million people are forced to take jobs on zero hours contracts – people living their lives waiting for their mobile to ring and tell them they’ve got a day’s work here, a few hours’ work there.
If you want to understand the role of the modern trade union, then look at Unite’s campaign to end the scourge of zero hours contracts.
If you want to judge who today are the industrial dinosaurs and who are the modernisers, consider this. Bernard Ingham and the Tory party want to introduce new trade union laws that would mean any workers having to use industrial action as a last resort will have to obtain a 50 per cent turnout threshold for the ballot to be legal.
If the same criteria were to apply to politicians then not a single member of the Cabinet would be in Parliament, not a single councillor in Yorkshire would have been elected and the country would not have wasted millions of pounds on the election of police and crime commissioners that got a derisory 17 per cent turnout.
If you want to know who is really locked into the politics of confrontation don’t look at Unite, but look at Bernard Ingham and his cronies. Look at the interests they defend; bankers bonuses, 50p tax rate cut, the removal of workers’ protection.
Then look at what Unite’s members are doing day in and day out. Fighting for the living standards of 1.4 million workers, defending the NHS, working with local communities to protect public services and campaigning for a society that values the many not the few. I know which side I’m proud to be on.
Len McCluskey is General Secretary of the Unite union.