Responding to the cuts – a prospective union response
In the aftermath of a deeply ideological budget announced by a coalition government whose political centre of gravity appears to be firmly right of centre, over the coming months unions will be considering how they respond to policies that have a particular impact on their members and of course to October’s Comprehensive Spending Review which will begin to make real the biggest contraction in public services in generations.
The media lies in wait with their template stories harking back to the winter of discontent and a narrative that portrays unions as producer interest groups concerned only with preserving the ‘gold plated’ pensions and other terms and conditions of their members.
Given this, it’s clear that the union response will have to be considered and sophisticated if we are to both fulfil our core duty of protecting the interests of our members but also speaking up for working people in general and the most vulnerable in society.
Our response, in whatever practical shape it takes, will have more chance of success if it is based on a consideration of values, narrative and action.
Firstly on values, we have to make sure that ours resonate with the wider public and demonstrate that we don’t just speak and act in the interests of our members (although its entirely legitimate for us to do that) and we are a movement that speaks up for all the rights and interests of all workers regardless of whether they are in a union, the unemployed and others who rely on public services. We can do this most effectively by building and being part of coalitions representing a range of interests and concerns. Sometimes unions will be leading these coalitions but we will also have to be prepared to lend our support to campaigns lead and shaped by others. Standing alone we will always risk being mobilised against. Common interest and values rather than organisational ego should be what guides us.
Secondly on narrative, we have to be ready to take the opportunity, when it eventually presents its self, to shift the consensus that has built up around the government’s policies aimed at reducing the deficit. Somehow, a financial crisis that began in the financial sector has been used as an excuse to not just reduce government spending but to question in its entirety the role of the state and the entire labour movement has to share responsibility for allowing this to happen.
Our alternative message, whilst making the point that it wasn’t building decent schools and paying nurses decent wages that caused the financial crisis and the recession, should be build on the fact that whatever caused the crisis, the government’s policies represent neither a fair or effective way out of it.
Our arguments setting out the alternatives to cuts in jobs and services, the raising of VAT and the rest need to be crisp, clear and concise and delivered in as many workplaces and communities as possibly. At the moment, due in equal part to the sympathetic treatment of the governments agenda by the most of the popular media and the fact that for most people the effect of the budget is yet to be realised and ‘cuts’ remains an abstract term: So we have to be prepared for the fact that these arguments may not resonate immediately with the wider public now – timing will be crucial – but things will change when people start losing jobs and services that people value disappear at the same time as banks report huge profits and resume the practice of paying big bonuses.
Finally on action we have to acknowledge that as in politics where much of the discussion and activity occurs without any meaningful participation by or input from the general public, still too much of trade unionism goes on without the active involvement of members. Therefore our response must create and be built around opportunities for activism in workplaces and communities.
This way we can explode the myth that people are naturally apathetic and reluctant to stand up in defence of their interests and values. Most often it’s the case that people DO feel anger, concern and frustration but can see no outlet for this or regard any organisation as relevant or accessible enough to allow them turn how they feel into positive action. If we get the narrative right and express our values clearly, unions and the coalitions we form and are part can give people such a means and make the union response truly effective
Carl Roper is the TUC National Organiser