There are two dynamics within modern British trade unionism. The one that grabs the headlines is the labour movement in confrontational mode. We have had some of that, with talk of a series of strikes in protest at public spending cuts to force the Government to change direction. But as we report today there is another less bellicose face, in which moderate union leaders have been holding private talks with senior Tories, leading to a planned meeting between the Prime Minister and the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.
This engagement can only be to the good. The country would be ill-served by the kind of hostile stand-offs which characterised relations between unions and the Conservative Party in the Thatcher and Major eras. This newspaper's view is that the Coalition Government is planning cuts in public spending which are too fast and too deep. Yet cuts of some severity are a necessity over the longer term. That accepted, they must be prioritised and delivered with considerable sensitivity. Otherwise structural damage could be done to important public services. And those regions of the country which are most dependent on public sector jobs could see the axe fall with such ruthlessness that entire towns could be devastated with decades-long consequences.
A number of prominent union leaders have publicly asserted that talking to the Coalition is a waste of time because it is "beyond reasoned argument". That is not only pig-headed, it does a disservice to union members. The best way to protect members' interests is to share the expertise and insight of ordinary working people on where economies can be made with least damage. Unions might still feel the need to strike if no one listens to their suggestions when they are made. But it would be a mistake to refuse to take part in advance. This Government has an electoral mandate for cuts of significant degree. It cannot be "forced to change direction", as some union leaders have proclaimed.
So those TUC leaders who say they are keen to deal with the Coalition rather than confront it are to be applauded. As are Conservative ministers who understand that a re-run of Thatcherite callousness is not in the national interest.
Although union membership has halved over the past 35 years, unions remain strongest in the public sector, where there are forecasts of 600,000 job losses over the next six years. The economy might well contract under the strain. But a wave of strikes would only make the pain worse.Reuse content