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How Trade Unions Can Fix Britain (And What We Can Learn From The French)

by Alexander Netherton
30 November 2011 51 Comments

Our economy is screwed, our jobs are pointless and our food is crap; you can't move in Britain without hearing what's wrong with the place. But maybe in our refusal to embrace the unions, we've only got ourselves to blame.

Of all the reasons to be relentlessly down on Britain, there is none more deplorable than this cowardly island’s persecution, ignorance and wilful mistreatment of trade unions. There is no better example of the insecure, jealous and pompous nature of English people criticising solidarity they envy. Me, I love the unions. As well as defending hundreds of thousands of people in this country – contrast that with any political party – they show up the abject farce of the spiteful private sector and average voter in the UK.

Insecure, because the people criticising the recent London tube strikes would have likely sat down in the office and discussed their longer journeys into work. The net effect on them was a couple of days swapping a crowded tube for a crowded bus. That’s real suffering. The reason for the vituperative criticism of the ‘lazy’ strikers, is because on a subconscious level it brings into focus how worthless their jobs really are. They have no impact on wider society. The tube workers transport millions of Londoners, commuters and tourists. The dull office worker, ninety minutes late to a grey office, resides in his second home of existential angst. Angst, because the chap behind the desk knows his job is not in the least constructive. The guys running the tube, he now knows and resents, make a worthwhile difference.

Jealous, too, because not only is the vast majority of non-unionised work essentially pointless, that can be swapped from one country to the next, but because their jobs are so much safer. Unions hit on a long time ago on the staggeringly hard-to-grasp concept of withholding labour to improve conditions, pay and job security.

Pompous, because they are so self-important as to look at these people, resent them for the advantages of unionisation, and stew. But they’re so craven that they will never think of unionising themselves. The unions and their members have the dignity they crave. The private sector worker shouldn’t resent the unions, he should look up to them and imitate them. Crowing about the inconvenience of their holidays cancelled by British Airways, they won’t stop to think that maybe the strikers aren’t to blame, but Willie Walsh. It’s purely class hatred from the petit bourgois that shifts the blame from those in charge to those defending themselves.

The private sector worker shouldn’t resent the unions, he should look up to them and imitate them.

Ask someone why they hate Bob Crow or Andy Gilchrist, they’ll bumble along, angrily talking but saying nothing, maybe having a pop at his accent and the power he wields. He’s working class and uppity? So what – he does his job effectively. It’s class hatred. The papers and Sky News will complain that they’re holding the country to ransom. Who would you rather holds a gun to the head of the government? Dacre, Murdoch and the guilty who obliged them by voting for Cameron, or people standing together to improve the conditions for their colleagues? The internet has largely been a disaster, for many reasons, but especially as the comments under blogs and paper articles give voice to this malign, poisonous minority.

Speaking of the press, whenever a strike is threatened, you can’t move but for disingenuous whines that the economy stands to lose billions. Two things. A union secures a pay rise for its members, it stimulates the economy as it is spent. It’s a cheap point, but bankers bonuses don’t exactly trickle down when in offshore accounts. Secondly, when we have the royal wedding, granting access to yet another state sponsored parasite, the whole country gets the day off. Any complaints? Nope, just a handful of us complaining about the rank hypocrisy of this whole show.

In France, if a man is asked if he supports a strike, he will more than likely respond, ‘Yes, and why are they striking?’ In England, he’ll say no and just resent his lot in life. In France, the trains aren’t loathsome and the working conditions are better. The people, despite their cinema, are happier. French food tastes better. Their newspapers are not filled with riffs full of class spite. Their bars aren’t Saturday boxing rings. The French are a better race than the English. In France, socialism isn’t a universally dirty word. This isn’t a coincidence. The graffiti slogans in Lyon reject the economic reforms Sarkozy wants to impose. We’ve got Banksy.

As we face swingeing cuts, the fire service threatened a strike on Bonfire Night. They called it off, but they had made their point – they are hugely important to the country. If your office announced a strike, would it matter? No. Maybe a media website would be launched a day later. Perhaps you wouldn’t get to post your drooling interview with a hardman actor’s phony posturing. Possibly you’d have to call off the Hunter S. Thompson fancy dress postwork jaunt to somewhere even more objectionable than your output. Do something worthwhile and stop your impotent fury. Vive la revolution, cocksuckers.

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Flo 11:45 am, 24-Nov-2010

+1 Having a go at the unions is exactly what the people in power want. Let there be solidarity among all workers.

Kyly Unlikely 11:47 am, 24-Nov-2010

YES! We totally need more articles like this. I'm so fed up of the rain of anti-union bullcrap that's hurled out of the papers on a daily basis, given the ideals of unions are beneficial for all of us (except the super-rich, who, conveniently, own the papers). Okay, so unions are not perfect - often a little bit stuck in the past, with their tendency to call each other 'comrade', amongst other things. But they're on *our* side, and they have decades of experience in resisting the sort of change most of us whinge about anyway. In a world where profit is being held high as being the be-all and end-all in the face of humane values and common sense, these guys have been on the right side all along.

biff bifferson 12:01 pm, 24-Nov-2010

well bloody said. one of the worst things of the last 15 years or so has been the rise of the 'right to work' gobshite. they say they dont agree with the union striking, which people ignore is a last resort, but they'll take the better terms that come their way as a result of it. i used to work at a newspaper and most of the editorial staff were in a union but NONE of the sales/admin staff were. and when the redundancies started coming they were all caught short, didn't know what to do. because all they were looking at was commission - working through their dinner, working late and for what? a few extra quid. editorial was as bad though, working without breaks - ie for free. i used to ask how could we ever hope for better conditions when they were doing that? but they weren't arsed. bob crowe might not be everyone's cuppa but you'd want him as your union boss. because he's smart and does the right thing for his members - which he is paid (a lot) to do. companies will be hiding behind the recession for years now when it comes to pay and conditions. it's arguably more important than ever before (at least recently) to be in a union but less people seem to be bothered. because they're idiots.

Uppercut 12:36 pm, 24-Nov-2010

"the chap behind the desk knows his job is not in the least constructive."... that'd be you then ;-)

fox 12:39 pm, 24-Nov-2010

This might be the first time I've really really liked a Sabotage Times piece. More of this please! Have you been listening to Thee Faction and their Socialist R&B? It sounds like it...

Alexander 1:00 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Uppercut, I work in a charity.

Man in a shed 1:09 pm, 24-Nov-2010

"In France, the trains aren’t loathsome" Really? Ever tried to get from Marseille to Sete Transport is a derived need. Stating that "the tube workers transport millions of Londoners, commuters and tourists" and then suggesting that "the chap behind the desk knows his job is not in the least constructive" leads to the conclusion that Mr Crow et al are employed in the unnecessary business of carting people to and from pointless jobs. Hardly a boost for the ego is it? maybe that's why they love the attention of going on strike....

Charlie 1:26 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Great piece, and a great point by Biff there – I think that the jealousy comes less from the relative worth you attribute to your job but from some perverse sense that if you can endure zero security, long hours, crappy pay, others should. But you're right, I actually really admire trade unionists – standing up for the people you work with is a simple, decent, human thing to do, not some act of class terrorism.

biff bifferson 1:28 pm, 24-Nov-2010

also, he;s a fearsome looking fellow. which must help in negotiations. anyone got a link to him giving some football manager down the banks (dagenham & redbridge it might have been)?

Andy 1:38 pm, 24-Nov-2010

+1 great article.

Alexander 1:43 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Shedman, This is a true story. I tried to get from Sete to Toulouse by train once, but there was a strike.

Jonathan Sim 1:52 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Great piece, needed saying and echoes my own sentiments often expressed deep in the bowels of the private sector. Like Banksy's stuff myself though!!

Selbel 2:11 pm, 24-Nov-2010


Uppercut 2:35 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Alexander - apologies; good for you; I obviously wrongly assumed you were: "Alexander Netherton has written for WhoAteAllThePies.TV and is working on a book of the nadirs of existence. He was also responsible for the brilliant Twitter characters pbphilbrown and pmpaulmerson" and that was it. But as admirable as trade unionists like Bob Crow are; all the Joe Blows behind their desks in their grey offices are just as important to society. Their jobs; lives; travel to & from contribute as much to the whole as anyone elses. Whether they are members of unions or not. Isn't that the point / goal of a successful society? All contributing for betterment of all. Fair enough that trade unions fight for the rights of their members; but the folk they ferry around be denigrated.

Robert 2:42 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Wouldn't be a bad article if it weren't shot through with your own vituperative class hatred and petty resentments. Leaving aside the transport unions' shameful history of supporting racial segregation in the workforce, not many people would disagree that workers need representation and organisation; my own family is from the South Wales coalfields, and the treatment to which my grandfather's grandfather was subject when he tried to unionise in the nineteenth century defies belief. One cannot forget the dead of Gresford, who were docked a quarter of their last shift's pay packet for having the insolence to die a couple of hours before they were due to knock off. But to suggest that nobody in the private sector does anything worth a damn propels the whole piece into high farce; likewise, the notion that industrial action is always justified is risible. Ask a soldier who took part in Operation Fresco what he thinks of the the Fire Brigade, specifically the money firefighters earn relative to their work tempo. (That was 2002-3, when the FBU demanded a trifling 39 per cent pay rise). When it was tentatively suggested last year that firefighters should be, well, working (and not sleeping) on night shifts (as is the case in virtually every other country in Europe) the FBU warned of 'the mother of all industrial battles'. Furthermore, you seem to view French society through the rose-tinted spectacles of a Sunday Times reader. It's true that workers in France are extremely well protected by labour laws; so well protected, in fact, that hiring anyone is a considerable risk, and youth unemployment now runs at about twenty per cent as a direct result. And while the cafes and bars of St-Germain-en-Laye are a picture of continental civility, travel a few miles further in to Paris and you will encounter banlieue that are not so much boxing-rings as warzones. The civilised, socialist response to the simmering unrest in these immigrant communities? Stop the trains running late at night of course, all the better to confine the urban poor to their ghettos. I know the grass is always greener, but to ignore France's very real social problems and hold it up at some sort of example to us all is utterly naive. It won't be socialism that rescues France from soaring inequality, but capitalism.

Robert 2:43 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Hmm, this interface removes line-breaks...

Alexander 2:51 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Robert, it's really annoying about the line breaks. You make excellent points, though. There is more to it than I explain so thanks for putting more info in.

longsightlong 4:14 pm, 24-Nov-2010

Good article... I think the people who are down on Unions the most are middle mangement in the public sector. They are starting to try and throw their weight around - banking that people will just be happy to have a job regardless of what management inflict.

Belengazi 4:19 pm, 24-Nov-2010

"The graffiti slogans in Lyon reject the economic reforms Sarkozy wants to impose. We’ve got Banksy." Very succintly put. Thank you, Alexander.

griff 6:38 pm, 24-Nov-2010

this is great. i was getting rather tired of articles about how crap c list slebs are. really thought provoking.

RiptheMichael 11:49 pm, 24-Nov-2010

What a load of bollocks. I agree with the idea of unions but ever since the sixties their leaders are just as power hungry as the politicians and industry owners, My better half is a bus driver and by her own admission gets paid reasonably well for a job where you don't have to be a brain scientist. A couple of years ago when this recession first started to bite her union went on strike for a pay rise when they had already been offered 4%. Her working conditions are shit especially as she's female what are the unions doing about that? Sweet F.A. And don't start me on the miners strike of the 80's Scargill played right into Thatchers hands and is as responsible as her for the state this country is in now and Bob Crowe is of the same mould

JC 4:12 am, 25-Nov-2010

"the chap behind the desk knows his job is not in the least constructive. The guys running the tube, he now knows and resents, make a worthwhile difference." How so? By transporting the 'non-constructive' desk jockeys from home to office? This is what constitutes the greater part of a tube driver's workload. Is this piece a piss take, or just trolling for traffic? You do realise the twentieth century happened? Either everyone's life and work makes a difference, or no-one's does; you can't have it both ways.

Tom Armstrong 1:27 pm, 26-Nov-2010

Made me think of a conversation I overheard at Leytonstone station last week. Some fella was getting his knickers in a twist talking about the tube strikes, he said to his friend and this is no lie, "I had to get a BUS to leyton and walk from there, I dont know Leyton very well, what if I'd gone down a dodgy road, bumped into the wrong person and been STABBED?! All because someone wanted to go on strike!?" I couldn't help but laugh and looking back I should have said something really but I was hungover and didn't want to get into a conversation with him.

TC 1:29 pm, 26-Nov-2010

Would be interested to know the other reasons why the internet has largely been a failure...

MrMustard 9:50 am, 27-Nov-2010

Great stuff. More please.

Sean 2:46 pm, 29-Nov-2010

Part of the problem with the Tube Strike is that the default setting of tube workers seems to be 'strike'. This time it's actually for something important - keeping stations manned for safety reasons - but the reasons have been lost. The fault of that, in my opinion anyway, lies squarely at the feet of Bob Crow. Some of the strikes in recent years have been for things such as above-inflation pay rises, when most of the commuters on the trains are seeing their pay cut, or defending drivers who have recklessly endangered passengers (opening the wrong doors for example) I'm not saying they shouldn't strike when they need to, but to do it so often reduces it to little more than gesture politics.

Jonny O 2:47 pm, 29-Nov-2010

Brilliant article. About time someone pointed out the easy ride the Banker/Politicians and those who've actually thrown away trillions get in the press compared to Tube Workers (average wage..what 35,000 a year?)... Well done ST...your best article by a country mile. More of this and less of 'my ten greatest socks' please.

Noah Vale 3:22 pm, 29-Nov-2010

It's nice to see this point of view published on a website where it won't just be preaching to the choir. Sabotage Times... Fair & Balanced. Bit harsh on office workers, though. We're all in this together, apparently.

Mick M 3:29 pm, 29-Nov-2010

Its a pity we cant see this in print.....well said..

Tim 4:34 pm, 29-Nov-2010

Tube strike made me finally get on my bike this morning - freezing but saved the tube fare and gym membership. Thanks Bob.

K Wood 5:30 pm, 29-Nov-2010

The guy hardly has a chance - what from the Daily Mail and the Murdoch rags' coverage he wouldn't would he. Deserves to have his corner fought for a bit more

Phil 2:37 pm, 2-Dec-2010

sack the lot of em'

Suzy 6:06 pm, 11-Dec-2010

Great article...more of this please.

Garvey 3:45 pm, 20-Jan-2011

Alexander Netherton; you're an idiot. You obviously live in a world so small that your overwhelmingly ignorant opinion of most things are forced to fester into these ridiculous articles. I've read a few, they all irritate me. I'm appalled that I've even wasted the time to write this comment.

baz 1:56 am, 27-Feb-2011

Alexander, haven't liked/agreed with Much of your previous output but this piece is bang on the money. These things are purely subjective though. Either way...the internet....marvelous innit?

Peeker 1:59 pm, 27-Feb-2011

I have lost two jobs in as many years due to redundancy but did not have the luxury of a union. People should think themeselves lucky to be in a job and stop whining and striking when they can't get what they want. And I'm not pompous, just a hard working girl who wants a job. So stick that where the sun doesn't shine.

darren 1:13 pm, 30-Nov-2011

Total bollocks. Unions are insular, counter productive and largely, do not need to exist in their current form. Striking is no way for grown adults to behave and is a childish affair. The world owes nobody a living and the public sector is no different. Sometimes things don't go my way, but I don't go on strike. The unions aren't relevant in the modern age and behave like a petulant child. It's a shame they drag 'their' workers down with them too.

Jon 1:40 pm, 30-Nov-2011

What absolute drivel. Of course Unions have a part to play, but there are as many examples of unjustified or politically motivated strikes as there are justified strikes to empower employees. The way in which this is written taking such an arrogant stance against private sector workers having a valid opinion against Unions is laughable and devalues the one or two good points it makes. As for the comment "The French are a better race than the English" - both the spurious nature and huge generalisation used here is quite difficult to comprehend.

Jonesy 1:40 pm, 30-Nov-2011

"If your office announced a strike, would it matter? " There's my reply to the "anti" lot for the day. Nice work.

Albert 1:45 pm, 30-Nov-2011

Quick point How much does Bob Crow get paid as union leader.Does he lose any money when he disrupts the life of others in calling strikes? Turns out Mr Crow earns in the region of £150,000 a year, Fair much? Don't get me started on BA's Unite, bunch of bully's Another point you say "Secondly, when we have the royal wedding, granting access to yet another state sponsored parasite" Are you familiar with the Crown Estate? It has a property portfolio of about £7 billion and bring in a annual profit of up too £230.9 million. All of this is money that could be going to the these "parasites" but is instead paid in to the Treasury. So for £40 million a year cost to the Country in Parliamentary funding. I think we are getting an ok deal. Or maybe in your quest for a republic you wouldn't mind seeing the "parasites" walk off with a £7 billion pound property portfolio? P.s Take in to account that the royal family also own 55% of the foreshore, Virtually all of the Uk sea bed and Sovereign rights of the UK in the seabed and its resources vested by the Continental Shelf Act 1964 (the subsoil and substrata below the surface of the seabed but excluding oil, gas and coal).

Dan H 2:12 pm, 30-Nov-2011

Awful article. No factual basis at all.

Melanie 3:49 pm, 30-Nov-2011

I found this article quite disappointing and offensive and not because I don't support the strike. I have worked in both the public and private sector. You do know there are thousands of people working in the private care sector that do not have any access to unions and the protection they afford?

Jack P 5:15 pm, 30-Nov-2011

If people weren't selfish and short sighted, stood together, a little short term pain for long term gain, this country would be a lot better place. Govt pitting the private sector against the public sector, the old divide and rule. It goes on and on. Why do the people of this country put up with this crap, it's hardly been to our benefit has it ?

MS 11:17 pm, 30-Nov-2011

I suggest you fuck off to France then if you like it so much.

ginger prince 12:55 am, 1-Dec-2011

MS, nicely put you dumb trout. Talk about proving a point. This article is excellent; well written and has more passion than most of the toffs in the House put together.

Howard 9:58 am, 1-Dec-2011

Loved this article, thanks.

Chris 11:21 am, 1-Dec-2011

I wonder if any of the people slagging off the Unions even realise what the N30 strike was about. People aren't asking for more money, or taking their jobs for granted. They are being TOLD to pay more into a pension, work for longer, only to get LESS at the end of it. At this rate, my mum, who works 70+ hours a week for shit-all money, in a far more stressful job than that of an office worker, will be retiring on money that would put her well below the poverty line. Just because YOU can't be arsed to fight for fair working conditions, don't slag off those who can.

Howard 10:57 am, 2-Dec-2011

Albert, putting aside the questionable methods that the Royals used to aquire the Crown Estate, the figures that you mention are not fact, they are very much disputed. For the other side of the argument you can download the full financial report here

JR 5:26 pm, 5-Dec-2011

do what the Germans do, make it law that every worker has to be in a union of some kind and make it law that union reps have seats on companies boards. so if a compnay wants to change working conditions, pay, pension rights etc they have to get agreement at board level. if they dont the change doesnt happen. the germans worked out long ago that a happy workforce that has its say and feels empowered and part of something is a happy, efficient and productive work force. we in the UK are so far away from working this out is untrue- cue massive amounts of 'sick days' ( highest in europe iirc), no loyalty and workers needs and wants being totally ignored= very unhappy and unproductive workforce. its not rocket science. that should sort a few things out i think.

nick 4:07 pm, 30-Nov-2012

I agree with the general thrust of Alexander's piece - unionisation is a force for good, and there's a depressing lack of solidarity in this country. Unfortunately, I think his anger gets the better of him a little, and he falls into the trap of setting one set of workers against another. What we really need to do is realise who is REALLY taking the piss - ie the big businesses who relentlessly lobby for lower taxes, less regulation and fewer workers rights on the basis that it is 'good for the country' or 'how to get the country moving'. We've essentially been following this (i)logic since the dawn of Thatcherism. The proportion of GDP paid in wages has fallen and the divide between those at the bottom and those at the top has grown exponetially. A lot of these private companies - Capita, Serco, A4e etc, also take millions from the taxpayer to 'run' public services and have the audacity to use tax avoidance strategies to minimise the profits they make on the back of services and utilities our government have disgracefully flogged off. I loathe the 'I'd do your job for less' attitude exemplified by some of the posters above. Maybe you would. But let's say you take the job on, say, a quid an hour less. A couple of months down the line, your employer decides you'll work 3 hours more a week (essentially a pay cut) and cuts a week from your annual leave entitlement. 'Not fair' you cry.But lo and behold, among the mass ranks of the unemployed, you will find someone willing to do it for less than you. Is this how the economy should work? People paid not for the true value of their time, labour and skills, but by how desperate they are for a job? As for the 'luxury' of a union, what nonsense. Unions are formed by working people making sacrifices together to safeguard their livelihoods. It is no 'luxury' that has been handed down from on high, it is something that has been fought for. 'Capitalism is an astonishing belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greater good ?' (John Maynard Keynes)

Markxist 7:10 pm, 30-Nov-2012

In the words of Billy Bragg; There is a power in the union. Well said, but a bit harsh on the office workers, many of whom are union members themselves. Look at PCS, for which I myself was a steward for 5 years. Trouble is, these days, many workers care little for their fellow man, it's all me me me and worse, they've swallowed the crap the establishment spout that a union is something to be feared. I once stopped a union member about to cross a picket line and asked her to reconsider. Her response 'I have to work today. Are the union going to pay my mortgage?' It was such a brain numbing attempt at a retort. We were on strike for higher pay and better rights, to ensure that her - and everyone elses - mortgages could be comfortably paid. But it's all short term and totally selfish thinking now.

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