18 May 2010

Who pays the piper?

Last night I asked the joint general secretary of the Unite trade union, Derek Simpson, whether he had considered resigning over his conduct of the BA cabin stewards strike ballots.

In the knowledge that BA was likely to test any ballot in the courts, Unite has managed to fail not once, but now twice, to comply adequately with the law to render a strike ballot legal. Mr Simpson told me he would not be “considering his position”.

It costs workers a minimum of £120 a year to be a member of Unite and the better paid cabin staff pay more. Given the legal costs Unite has incurred in the BA instigated high court cases, some members have told me they think the money might have been better spent hiring lawyers to go through every element of the strike balloting process before it ever got to court.

Indeed given the fight the Unite union is likely to have on its hands with impending private and public sector cuts, one BA cabin services director asked me how wise was the union’s considerable expenditure on the BA battle proving to be?

The planned strikes were due to coincide with further ash cloud problems, half term, and Whit bank holiday weekend. Intelligent pursuit of public support, or damn fool tactics designed to alienate the travelling public from the cabin staff’s cause?

There are other union members who I have spoken to, who have begun to question the scale of Unite’s donations to the Labour party – over £11m in recent years.

Over 100 Labour MPs are members of the union; more than 35 are “sponsored” by Unite. At a recent Labour election event several members discussed with me whether they were getting “value for money” with the party. I was unable to answer.

Unite, as part of the Union block vote will have a considerable influence on the election of the next Labour leader. The last one was a member. The trades unions have a third of the entire vote on the matter.

Bill Clinton’s favourite pollster, Stan Greenberg, yesterday published some intriguing findings on Labour’s relationship with the unions. Labour voters when asked whether Labour should be closer to the unions voted 54 per cent to 45 per cent YES. But when ALL voters were asked 60 per cent to 33 per cent voted NO.

Will a hasty Labour leadership fix address these issues? And on the brink of some of the biggest cuts both public and private sectors have ever experienced how well led, organised, and prepared is the trades union movement to responsibly represent their members in the challenges ahead?



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