Unions rattle their sabres - as Government holds out olive branch?

Even the TUC recognises the limits to its public support. But the Government is right not to play hardball.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
It's the Trades Union Congress in Manchester this week, and as you'd expect in this climate, there's been a lot of tough-talk about the level of unrest we can expect once the Coalition's austerity regime really hits home. TUC boss Brendan Barber was a little more moderate today: he did promise to co-ordinate members' strikes, if needs be, but he seemed to accept (as not all of his colleagues appear to do) that the unions don't have a lot of support on their side. On the other hand, dealing with large scale industrial action will be time-consuming and expensive - so we're glad to see the Government adopting a more conciliatory tone than it has done in the past. If only superficially...

The ever-loveable RMT union boss Bob Crow was spouting his usual brand of rabid nonsense on TV this weekend, even calling for a campaign of civil disobedience (he also suggested he was planning to boycott a planned appearance by Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, on the grounds that he's been one of the key voices arguing for deficit reduction - far be it for Bob to listen to what Merv has to say and actually engage in debate with him). Union membership has been on the slide for years - only one in four UK workers is now affiliated to a union (including just one in six within the private sector) - and we can't help feeling that this kind of rhetoric is one of the reasons why their support is dwindling among the general populace.

Significantly, TUC secretary-general Brendan Barber was quick to distance himself from Crow, suggesting his civil disobedience idea was 'counter-productive'. Unlike Crow, he clearly realises that the weight of public opinion is broadly in favour of cuts and against strikes; as he told Congress today, the unions must do more to win over 'hearts and minds'. Barber and the TUC have a decent case to make - front-line services are bound to be hit, whatever the Government says. And once the practical consequences of the Treasury cuts are visible, they might draw more support. But at the moment, they're losing the political argument.

Nonetheless, it was still encouraging to hear Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude talking this morning about creating a 'genuine partnership' between Government and unions; he insisted that 'the days where there's a complete stand-off are gone'. The unions are ready and willing for a fight, and regardless of their general support, widespread strike action could have a crippling effect on the country; dealing with industrial disputes takes up a huge amount of management time and effort. So trying to bridge the traditional ideological chasm between the unions and a Conservative government has to be a good idea.

That said, we're not holding our breath. The Lib Dems appear to have burned their bridges with the unions for the time being (Vince Cable's invite to Congress has been yanked, meaning there'll be no serving minister there for the first time in ages). And somehow, we can't imagine Bob Crow and George Osborne thrashing the whole thing out over beer and sandwiches...

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