Mourners at the grave of trade unionism

Universal rights hold the key to workers' protection, not outdated union wrangling
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The Independent Online
Yesterday was trade unionism's grand heritage day. It was the yearly rally held to commemorate the martyrs of Tolpuddle - the Dorset village from which six farmworkers were transported in 1834 for the sin of forming a union to protect themselves against rapacious farmers. So the brass bands marched in their honour, brotherly banners proudly unfurled.

But how many hearts' cockles does all that stuff warm these days? Not many. Most of Britain's young have no experience of trade unions. The whizz-kids of new industries or the Have-A-Nice-Day workers of the service sector do not even know what a shop steward is. We who are older, however, remember, and the memory is not fond. A blend of Tory propaganda and union reality conjures up a discontented winter when bodies went unburied while the rest of us were buried under mouldering black sacks of uncollected rubbish.

My own personal brushes with trade unionism left a sour taste. The National Union of Journalists, its commitment to freedom and civil liberty demonstrated by sending a letter of support to ColonelGaddafi, once arraigned me. The charge sheet read: she continued to handle her husband's copy after he crossed some picket lines. Since I worked in a closed shop newspaper, I stood to lose my job if the union threw me out. In the end they fined me pounds 1,000 and on appeal reduced it to a reprimand.

But in the 10 years since, how have the mighty unions been brought low. Union membership has plummeted. Those automatic seats for union leaders on quangos have gone. In my own workplace, like so many others, the management refuses to recognise the union at all. Does that make me pleased? No. We have exchanged one tyranny for another. I, along with most others, according to opinion polls, feel deeply uneasy about our status as the country with the fewest employment rights in Europe.

Privately, union leaders also despair, with apocalyptic talk of terminal crisis. The Labour Party may have recovered its political fortunes, but there has been no parallel renaissance of trade unionism. On the contrary, they remain frozen out in the cold.

So where now? For my Tolpuddle anniversary I visited Jack Dromey, National Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. In his office, visitors are offered earl grey - new trade unionism, new tea. If anyone can speak for the unions' future role it must be him (he is married to Harriet Harman, front bench health shadow). He is the helmsman of union modernisation, a lonely post almost alone out there with his souwester turned into the storm-forces of entrenched reaction. He, therefore, is able to decode Blair's calculated statement of support for London Underground's blundering management.

It was a warning shot - to the unions. Pay freezes in the public sector have created a volcano of demand which may erupt on the morrow of a Labour victory. So Blair, Brown and others are making it very clear that the first union to try their nerve can expect a bloody nose. No union tanks on Blair's prime ministerial lawn.

So, can the unions renew themselves? Dromey's assessment is withering. Warring old barons predominate, fighting one another over the bones of dwindling membership, dog chewing on dog - the chaotic teachers' unions being the paradigm case.

Everything is against renewal: the decline of unions' power base in heavy industry, the rise of service industries which are notoriously hard to organise, the spirit of individualism and loss of old ideological certainties. The Thatcher reforms have left the unions crippled, (although those who travel on London Underground or use the Royal Mail have felt a sharpish kick from their callipers).

Jack Dromey, however, has faith. He has a vision, optimistic maybe, but not unpersuasive. It is of unions as "the firm and effective friend of the citizen at work". Not bad. A very large number of downsized, insecure, bullied, over-worked and intimidated employees, both the high and low paid, are in need of one of those friends.

But can unions as we know them change enough - and in time? Yes - progressive trade unionists of the Jack Dromey stamp could still influence the culture of management-worker relations. His formula sounds impressively realistic and moderate. "We have to say to our members that they are not going to achieve their dreams of higher pay and status except with more productivity and ending absurd demarcations."

He cites some good examples: at Ford a new deal included training courses in every and any subject for the whole workforce, to improve their skills, to upgrade themselves for promotion or simply for personal fulfillment. Seventy per cent of the workforce at Dagenham stay after shift now and attend courses. Staff turnover has dropped sharply. And a new local government deal is about to be struck for 1.5 million workers, tearing down all the old demarcations, offering new flexibility to both employers and workers in exchange for vocational and self-development courses to let people escape dead-end ghetto jobs. The idea is to pursue the long- term interests of employees, not just a year-on-year pay deal.

Those are examples of what forward-looking trade unionism can achieve - but only in the few traditional unionised workplaces. What of the great non-unionised majority? The only hope of better employment protection comes not from trade unions at all but from new universal rights for employees. A fairer balance of power in most workplaces depends less on Jack Dromey or his unions - however progressive - but on Labour's promises on the European social chapter and a minimum wage.

The only chance for trade unionism is for workers to see the new briefcase- carrying breed of Dromeys as a professional friend, financial adviser, carrier of a portfolio of opportunities and advice services - a far cry from the factory gate soapboxes of yesteryear.