To Frances O’Grady, the new General Secretary of the TUC
My very dear Sister,
You have no idea how long I have waited to be able to greet a Leader of the UK Trade Union movement as ‘Sister’. It makes such a difference to how I say the following and how it might be heard. I know you have a busy few days ahead and that your agenda was decided ages ago but very recent political changes might allow for the odd emergency motion. Even if that isn’t possible, perhaps some of the points I raise might influence future TU thinking about the problems facing all ordinary people.
As someone who is moving slowly from sickness benefit to self-employment I’m not eligible for TU membership but as a former shop steward and TU activist during the Thatcher era I’ve never lost the ‘attitude’. From what I am observing, just about every union member has reason to object to current government plans, whether they are affiliated to the TUC or not. What I would ask you, as the new TUC General Secretary, is to remember that these problems are being faced by everyone, whether they are a TU member or not, because the hardships your members are facing are already impacting upon those living at the poverty end of our social spectrum. I doubt if you need reminding. Your grassroots membership will be directly experiencing these issues anyway.
The trade union movement and ordinary people have faced these kinds of Tory – (and, sadly, Labour) – problems before and the Coalition seems intent on following the same agenda. It starts with attacks upon resources, which can be on the existence of work itself; terms and conditions; pay; pensions; and/or a combination of all the above. The TU movement traditionally responds with protest marches, industrial action and strikes which, sadly, have been known to fail miserably. Given the present Coalition government and its attitude towards the electorate in general, the possibility of further failure starts to look like becoming a miserable reality. With this in mind, I would like to suggest an addition to any actions the TU movement might be considering.
One of the phrases that has apparently fallen off the collective UK agenda in recent times is the issue of the social contract between governed and government. If I look for legislation that might cover this, I find myself looking at Human Rights law. Fortunately this continues to remain in force within the UK (for the time being) and can therefore be tested. The Act recognises peoples’ right to very basic requirements, like life itself, which are under apparent attack from our government. The existence of the Act could offer a route to challenge what is occurring if dealt with in the proper way.
From my own perspective, the heart of government attack upon the social contract resides in the repeal of the UK government’s obligation to provide universal healthcare in England. That this has been enacted by a government-without-mandate; who purposefully disguised their intentions prior to their election; and who actively withheld advice on the changes being proposed when the matter came to be debated in Parliament, points to an intentional breach of a UK social contract that had been in place for sixty years. Removing this right to health-care goes to the heart of both the social contract and Human Rights legislation because it affects everyone. At the very least, it ought to be subject to informed debate and any honourable government proposing such a massive change has a social responsibility to put the matter to those affected by it, if not by election then by referendum at the very least. That our present government actively chose to circumvent this democratic process in order to force these changes upon the people ought to be challengeable through the courts even if the aim is simply to require the democratic right to vote on it. If fundamental human rights are being withdrawn by government then, in a democracy, the people have to give informed consent – the people of our country were not told, nor were they asked. In fact, they were intentionally misled. This has been called “a deceitful way to govern”, particularly when set alongside the removal of accessible safeguards or advice to help those affected by such changes.
I am no lawyer but, in the past, when employment law failed to provide the necessary vehicle for problem resolution, trade unionists fought their cases via contract law. Human Right’s legislation forms part of our social contract. If that contract has been violated, then laws ought to exist that challenge this. If the TUC were to consider exploring this possibility, I suspect there is a firm chance that you would find yourself backed by the public in ways you have not been before.
For those outside the trade union movement – and particularly those outside work – it can be hard to feel a part of the ‘working class’ given the issues being fought. Strikes around pensions or pay mean little to us and this creates conflict even though the issues impact upon us all. It’s hard to work up enthusiasm about protecting public-service pensions, for example, when we can’t feed our families, heat our homes or find meaningful work. This isn’t meant to be critical of trade unions – from past experience, I can fully understand the need to address such issues – but it is a fact and it results in the unions themselves becoming isolated, which makes you easier to pick off. I know industrial action may look as though it is about money, and this can be true, but I also know that public service unions act to protect the existence of the services their members provide to us. Such protective industrial action will be under consideration by your conference this week and it is also being considered elsewhere.
Without doubt, if the trade union movement embarks on major industrial action in the face of government attrition towards our public services, in all likelihood you will be attacked using the same old divisive tactics, especially if the issues are limited to pay or pensions. On the other hand, if the trade union movement, as a whole, were to include legal challenges aimed at restoring the democratic process by demanding a referendum on the peoples’ right to health care, or whether our emergency services should be subject to privatisation, or *fill in this space*, the chances of your attracting collective public support could be extremely high. The TUC and the trade unions might not be able to do this directly, under your rules, but I doubt these would prevent you jointly creating an organisation that could.
Ordinary people have been looking for help and finding none. The Labour Party’s performance in these areas has been abysmal; too many Labour MP’s and peers seem to be profiting from these government changes to render it trustworthy. The usual cries of solidarity with Labour are likely to fall on very stony ground as far as the poor are concerned because Labour has been silent for too long and appears complicit in government attacks upon the needs and resources of ordinary people. For the TUC, this problem is for the Labour Party address, but if the so-called political wing of the trade union movement is failing in its duty, then perhaps it’s time to create another wing, beyond the reach of party politics, that will tackle these issues.
Speaking as one woman to another, when the hungry children of our country are viewed in this way, there is a crying need for democratic change. Based upon recent behaviour, we will not be getting this from many of the incumbent parliamentarians, regardless of party. The only other existing routes for the people are through the likes of the trade union and other social movements.
As the new Leader of the TUC, I’m asking you to consider these points and lead the collective action needed to successfully challenge our undemocratic government through the use of Law. This can be done in addition to any other actions the trade union movement may deem necessary.
If the people, as a whole, know you are acting on their behalf as well as in the interests of your members, the inevitable hardships that follow can be faced together. We’ve seen this happen before during the Miner’s strikes of the 1980’s, when the women stepped up to stand alongside the men. Were the women of the TUC to spearhead a democratic initiative to force referendums on present government plans, I suspect that this phenomenon would happen again. Why women? Because they are the people who hear and feel their children crying from hunger!
These are only ideas – I’ll circulate them to see if they gain traction. In the meantime, perhaps Conference delegates would be willing to consider them too, since we’ve got them altogether.
Thank you for listening.