“Respect is earned. Honesty is appreciated. Trust is gained. Loyalty is returned.”
– Author unknown.
The trade unions and the Labour Party have a long and storied history, not always one of comfort and happy co-existence by one, from what older and wiser colleagues tell me, was always surrounded with respect for the vital roles both sides played.
My how things appear to have changed, dear reader.
Firstly it should be noted that their are two running fallacies associated by large sections of both the Labour Party and trade union communities about the other. One is the notion that the trade unions are effectively there to prop up the Labour Party, to allow a form of Labour Governance to do what it wishes to do because the unions have no other choice.
This is one of the most frustrating, preposterous and frustratingly foolish notions that is pre-eminent amongst far too many Labour officials. Equally, it is not the case that the Labour Party should be bowing down to every demand of the trade unions with their mandate being one owed to more than simply the organised labour of a workforce.
These myths appear to have had the unfortunate circumstance that in the realities of negotiations many Labour politicians simply are either incapable or refuse to grant the trade unions, the very representatives of the workforce they rely on to deliver services, a basic level of respect.
I should take this juncture to let you know I’ve been in these type of meetings before as someone who has for the best part of a decade now been first a representative and then an employed official for a major trade union but also having the good fortune of having worked closely with politicians who wear the red rosette. I have known many Councillors and senior trade unionists and have viewed negotiations and bargaining machinery from both sides.
Within these negotiations, it is no unknown for politicians to scarcely look up form their i-Pads whilst the trade union representatives plead the case for the workforce, often because their members feel in times of despair over pay cuts or losses to pensions.
Now this, of course, doesn’t mean the politician isn’t capable of listening to the concerns but negotiations are about so much more than hearing a case. They are about emotions and passion, about trust and respect, decency and body language, all of which are undermined by this failure to interact properly.
This story of base level disrespect is one that is repeated across the Country and I want to let you know about one that happened just yesterday.
First, I will need to set the background.
Derby City Council is a Labour controlled Council, a majority of one (though with a by-election there next Thursday, this could possibly increase to two). It has had exceptionally tough times of late, being hit harder than most councils due to a mixture of Conservative tom foolery with the funding formula for Local Authorities and admittedly, mismanagement over the years.
They are currently in an industrial dispute with the trade Union UNISON who are representing a group of Teaching Assistants who are now into more than 60 days of strike action.
Just pause a second and think of that amount, mostly low paid women who have now been on industrial action for more than 60 days.
Many of these Teaching Assistants are losing up to 25% of their salary and are understandably not pleased at the situation. Members there have lost their homes as a consequence of these changes.
The dispute has been running now for a sustained period but yesterday there appeared the chancer for a breakthrough, with a meeting being agreed to be held with UNISON, Derby City Council including the Leader Ranjit Banwait and ACAS, the body that helps to try and resolve industrial disputes.
After half an hour, UNISON claims Councillor Banwait left the meeting for another pre-arranged appointment.
Now, this could be something that warrants leaving the meeting early, maybe an appointment with a minister to lobby for more funding, perhaps a meeting with residents and parents about the dispute to garner opinion. But according to UNISON it was a meeting with ITV to pass comment on the very negotiations he had left.
This strikes me as disrespect of the highest order.
Not to the trade unionists who were in the room, they are more than thick skinned enough to take it, but to the people delivering essential public services across the City in incredibly difficult times and circumstances.
Now I’ve met Ranjit on a few occasions. He’s not a monster or someone with bad intent towards the workforce, which can only lead me to the conclusion he has made a bad political choice here or is following poor advice. To think this wouldn’t anger those who feel absolutely pushed into a corner should be considered at the best naive and at the worst foolish.
In fact, I’ve met numerous members of the Derby Labour group and none of them are bad people, they are passionate about the communities they represent and the services they provide. They are also in an incredibly tough place having to attempt to effectively keep the lights on after untold numbers of Conservative attacks to their funding.
The night before was full Council which was interrupted by protestors from the public gallery, shouting and throwing balloons down in a symbolic protest. Now, I for one don’t believe this to be a great idea, democracy should still continue and Council no doubt had important matters to discuss and decide upon for all residents of the City but these are people who feel powerless and backed into a corner over not only their wage but over the education provided to the children of what is undoubtedly a proud city. Afterwards it was rumoured the police had been called by the Council after people refused to leave the offices of the Council.
To me, the Labour Party is not simply about organised labour but it is and should always be the party of empowerment for all.
If the beginning to this is one of a lack of respect we have failed at the first hurdle and shall pay the political consequences accordingly.
You can find many of the key players in this dispute on Twitter:
Derby City UNISON branch: @unisonderbycity
Councillor Ranjit Banwait: @CllrBanwait
UNISON East Midlands: @UNISONEastMids
Derby City Council: @DerbyCC
Editor’s note: Nathan is neither employed by, nor a representative for, either body in this dispute.