An under-reported WikiLeaks document was a curious US embassy cable sent one year ago, on 10 December 2009, following a meeting between US ambassador to the UK Louis Susman and the TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber - who reportedly said he did not expect a Tory government would be hostile to unions and that a Cameron led regime would be ‘no disaster’:
‘If the Tories were to win, trade unions do not expect a return to the Thatcherite days of hostility to labor, when she called unions the "enemies from within," stated Barber. Cameron, in contrast, has publicly stated that he wanted a sensible relation with the unions, that he did not have an anti-union basis.
Barber stated that the Tories have actually been "courting" the unions a bit, because they know they would need union support in any effort to reduce public sector employment as a deficit-fighting measure. If the election were to result in a hung parliament, the union movement might actually be in the strongest political position, since all three parties would need its support, stated Barber’.
James Forsyth, writing for The Spectator, takes a similarly benign view of the Tories’ strategic approach to unions:
‘Unsurprisingly, the Tories have little appetite for a Thatcher-style showdown with the brothers. And, quietly, they believe they have developed a strategy that will avert one. They calculate that the unions, while no friends of the Conservatives, respond rationally to threats and incentives. They also feel the unions are still hungry for government money and may be assuaged by the offer of it. In short, they reckon union leaders are hungry for carrots and fearful of certain sticks: that is to say, men they can do business with’
Forsyth claims possible Tory blandishments to unions include retention (in the short term) of the Union Modernisation Fund, decentralisation and scrapping of the targets culture and the green agenda.
However, eight months of Con Dem rule has been enough to convince most trade unionists that the TUC leader called it wrong and that the Cameron led Government is indeed a disaster for working people.
Unprecedented cuts in public spending, large scale job losses across the public sector, pay freeze and erosion of pension entitlements, attacks on the right to education, housing and universal benefits add up to an onslaught unprecedented in living memory. Not to mention further attacks on individual and collective employment rights which are in the legislative pipeline. Many unions, including UNISON, acknowledge that we face a tough fight for survival over the next five years.
Forsyth points to imposed pension reforms and the break up of national pay bargaining as potential flashpoints in the relationship between public sector unions and the Tories. Let’s hope he’s right.
The quality of the relationship between trade unions and this (or any other) Government should be judged not on institutional coexistence but on the impact of its policies working people and their families and the ability of unions to ameliorate them.
UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.