Writing in the Daily Mail, Leaders Council chair, life peer and former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Blunkett, shares his view that this week’s historic strikes by railway staff will leave other workers, who rely on trains to commute, among the worst affected.
For more than a century, trade unions have been a central force in preventing workers from being exploited and in giving a voice to the powerless. I am a lifelong trade unionist and am proud to belong to one of Britain's largest unions.
But to be specific, I believe in modern trade unionism, as exemplified in countries like Germany. These unions not only represent the long-term interests of their members but also provide key services and support throughout working life and beyond.
What I don't believe in is one set of workers knocking bells out of another. And that, sadly, is what we are seeing this week.
Thankfully, this is not the 1970s. And yet the leaders of some trade unions seem not to have grasped the enormous difference between the economic and industrial situation of the past and the very different landscape of the 2020s.
Take the railways, which as of today are experiencing the largest strikes in a generation, with thousands of services ground to a halt.
Unlike during the 1970s and 1980s, with threats to major industrial employment, no ministers today are talking seriously about closing down the railway network altogether. Instead, ironically, the strikers are doing that for them — at a huge cost to the ordinary workers who rely on the services.
Or look at education. Many people I speak to in Parliament are keen to discuss how we can put in place a radical recovery programme for the millions of children who lost out so gravely during the pandemic. They do not want to see their life chances blighted still further by the mindless threat of strikes from some education union leaders.
In both these cases, union leaders are acting as if they are fighting a class war from several decades ago.
So, today, I have a message to the most militant of these leaders: hitting fellow workers trying to get to their jobs and threatening to wreck further the life chances of the next generation, is as daft as you can get.
Doing so is alienating the very support you need to bring pressure to bear on both the government and, in the case of the railways, the employers, too. In the end, such behaviour will only hurt your own cause.
During the pandemic, some £16 billion of taxpayers' money was rightly pumped into the rail network to keep the trains moving. Not only did this ensure that key workers could continue going to work, but it also aimed to make sure that Britain still had a functioning railway system when life returned to normal.
The goal, in other words, was to encourage people to return to the rail network after Covid, and to grow passenger numbers to previous levels. This would then bring in the income needed to pay for future wage increases and to protect jobs.
Now, though, strike action threatens that carefully thought-through arrangement.
Meanwhile, the way people use the railways is changing. More of us than ever are working from home, which means fewer commuters using the railways during rush hour. But equally, leisure travel remains popular.
It is likely, amid these changes, that some jobs on the railways will have to be phased out because of the drop in passenger numbers — although safeguarding health and safety will remain fundamental.
Yet instead of finding positive solutions to work through these concerns, we are faced with this week's widespread action and threats of even worse to come. Some people, living in fairyland, have started to talk about a 'general strike'. Their grasp of history is tenuous, to say the least, and so is their grasp of reality.
The industrial landscape of 50 years ago was often about capital versus labour. Intransigent employers faced off against workers, and industrial action hit employers where it mattered: in profitability.
Since then, the trade union movement has lost millions of members and the working environment has changed beyond all recognition.
Gone are the large industrial units that I knew as a child, where the trade union was not only a voice for individuals but also part of creating a social community in which people engaged in adult learning, holidays and other crucial benefits.
But if the trade union movement is weaker, the signs from central government are not much better. Ministers and employers seem just as inept as one other.
When the governor of the Bank of England, only a few weeks ago, told a House of Commons select committee that it would be economic suicide to respond to inflation by bringing in inflationary pay increases, the prime minister's spokesperson contradicted him. They couldn't even get their messaging straight.
The fact is: most people are broadly in favour of increasing wages at a time when the cost of living is soaring. But the issue is not just what the government does now to alleviate the harm, rather the impact in months and years to come.
That means not accelerating inflation still further, which would wipe out any temporary gains made through pay increases.
So, what is the solution? To start with, the government should commit to respecting the independent pay review bodies, which make recommendations on pay for workers after considering evidence from all parties. Instead, letting the impression develop that whatever is offered will be cut back in years to come is a recipe for future trouble.
Second, the unions need to recognise that times have changed, and a 'workers versus bosses' mentality is too simplistic.
For example, in the case of the railway strikes, which workers should my own party, Labour, be backing? The ones who are striking, who typically have a job and reasonable pay, or the workers who can't get to work as a result of the strikes, and who are often on the lowest pay?
After all, the latter will be the main victims of the strikers — who are demanding that those on the left in British politics support them. Sympathising is one thing; but inflicting pain on other workers is quite another.
The pandemic showed that solidarity — which I take to mean looking after one another during difficult times — is something to be cherished.
But 'solidarity' that favours one group for support when it substantially hurts another is not worthy of the name. It is, in essence, a throwback to a time when it was easier to determine who were the villains, and who were the victims.
Britain undoubtedly needs a lively trades union movement. But that same movement must also be up to date, facing the challenge of globalisation and carrying enough sophistication to be able deal with those who actually pull the strings — and not the men and women trying to get to work or the children who want to go to school.
Today, we all — and especially the union leaders — need to remember that the world has moved on, and the simplicities of the past have gone forever.
Image: Lord Blunkett attending The Leaders Council member's gala at Mansion House, London. Taken March 2, 2022.