Britain’s trade unions are thinking of you this Christmas. Specifically, they think that if they can make your life difficult enough you will be angry at the government and not just them. Drivers and conductors on the Southern Rail network are staging full-day strikes today and tomorrow, with another on Friday, affecting something like 500,000 passengers. Then, next week, around 3,500 Post Office staff will walk out for the week in an attempt to stop planned branch closures. It is said that the elves at the North Pole are also balloting , while Rudolf is taking the other reindeers’ name-calling to an employment tribunal.
The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is incensed. In a letter to MPs seen by the telegraph, he claims that Aslef, the train drivers’ union, rejected two offers to hold talks with the rail company, and that it is “hell-bent on fomenting this dispute”. Of course he would say that, but he also made a more interesting claim: that Southern’s persistent delays and breakdowns are partly the result of a long, unofficial campaign of working to rule in which unionised workers repeatedly call in sick or falsely report trains to be broken. “Intervene,” says the Telegraph.
The suspicion for many will be that these strikes are not directly about pay or conditions but about trade unions who see themselves as the only remaining guardians of public services. Our writer Leo McKinstry thinks so, saying they “see themselves as part of a radical vanguard against the Tories”. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, which represents Royal Mail staff, hinted as much on the Today Programme this morning when he told John Humphry’s strike was necessary to defend public services. “We’re in a situation where unless we fight now, unless we actually take action now, the future of the post office network, high street post offices in particular, will no longer exist,” he said. Of course, insofar as closures would mean fewer staff these unions are also protecting their members.
But all this cuts to the heart of an ongoing conflict within trade unionism between militancy and pragmatism, epitomised by the forthcoming Unite election. Unite’s current general secretary, Len McCluskey, was forced to call an vote early after failing to convince his executive committee to lift an age ban which would have stopped him from running again at the end of his term in 2018 (and thus from being in post during the next General Election). Although most people think of him as a hard leftist, but in the mirror-world of union politics he is under sustained threat from his own left flank. His vocal support of Jeremy Corbyn – what former Morning Briefer Stephen Bush has called “the most important relationship in Labour politics” – has as much to do with neutralising this threat as it does with ideology.
But as a consequence he now faces a different challenge in the shape of Gerard Coyne, reportedly the favoured candidate of anti-Corbynites in the defence and auto industries who fear the long-term consequences of Unite’s alliance with the hard Left. Labour centrists believe that electing Mr Coyne could be the key to isolating and eventually removing Mr Corbyn. Remember that in the 1980s it was the trade unions’ moderating influence which fought with Militant to keep Labour in the centre. Of particular importance was the AEEU, which boasts among its former members one Tom Watson MP.
The unions are fighting for their future in a world of increasing fragmentation, automation, and casualisation. Their membership has declined from 13 million in 1979 to just 6.5 million today. The rise of the “gig economy” may soon subvert their role entirely (though it could theoretically enhance it by increasing public support, and the necessity, for collective bargaining). And the current government may still attempt to cut them off from their Parliamentary support. Gambling on Jeremy Corbyn seems more likely to hasten this process than to arrest it.