‘The unions are back’ declared The Guardian’s headline over an interview with the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady in which she called on the government to establish a new consensus with the trade union movement to help restore the economy.
No wonder there was just a hint of grim satisfaction: a recognition that it had taken a national emergency and countless deaths to turn the clock back to the days when Prime Ministers had to listen to the collective voice of workers if they were to have any chance of governing effectively.
Once the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the death toll started rising, and as lockdown brought most of the country to a halt, Boris Johnson and his ministers were forced to do the unthinkable.
An administration wedded to Thatcherite principles had no alternative but to engage with trade union leaders and discuss the government’s plans for handling the crisis.
To his credit, the Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak led the way in seeking union advice and support as he prepared his unprecedented programme to furlough eight million workers and fund their wages at a potential cost to the Treasury of £80 billion or more.
Unite and other leading unions welcomed Sunak’s subsequent undertaking to start discussions to plan for financial support for strategically important companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Steel.
For the first time since Margaret Thatcher all-but obliterated the tri-partite structures that had been created and nurtured by successive Labour administrations the government, business and unions have been back together round the table.
Having been a labour and industrial correspondent during the Thatcher decade, reporting the turmoil that followed the break-up of the nationalised industries and the ravages of privatisation, I witnessed the extraordinary lengths to which Conservative ministers went in the 1980s and early 1990s to erase union influence.
An elite and prolific band of journalists ended up writing their own obituary – hence my publication in 2011 of The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents?
But coronavirus has turned the country on its head and perhaps history is about to repeat itself.
If the United Kingdom is to succeed in climbing out of recession there will have to be far greater consultation and co-operation across the economy, a change of direction which Frances O’Grady believes will require a national recovery council with ministers, trade unions and employers working together to rebuild the economy.
Unite’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, has written to ministers to urge the restoration of the Health and Safety Executive’s power to conduct spot checks on social care institutions, shops and pubs to ensure safeguards are in place to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection.
Who knows where a post-Brexit Britain is heading? New trading opportunities and working practices will offer unions new opportunities to engage constructively in industrial regeneration, to strengthen their representation and to accelerate the recent growth in union membership.
We might well see tripartite discussion – and possibly some agreement – on a host of contentious issues such as state aid, intervention, and protection.
In some areas there could be a common agenda that possibly went some way to marrying up the objectives of Conservative Brexiteers to free the UK from EU controls and the complementary long-term aims of many in the Labour movement to target government assistance on key strategic industries.
Getting Britain back to work cannot be achieved safely if the views of workers are ignored, whether in schools, on public transport or in countless public services and private enterprises – a massive challenge and opportunity not just to the wider union movement but also for the news media.
A generation of journalists who have had little or no contact with trade unions will have to turn to new sources of information, develop contacts and then explain the ebb and flow of industrial negotiations and the ups and downs in relations between unions representatives, workers and their employers.
Already there has been a vast upsurge in media inquiries to the TUC and trade union headquarters for an insight into the problems that workers are facing, and the dangers posed by encouraging a return to work before testing and tracing has been fully implemented.
Journalists across press, broadcasting and online platforms are having to grapple with a lengthening shopping list of potential stories about safety at work and social distancing, not to mention the fallout from lost orders, plant closures and the inevitability of countless redundancies.
When workers were up against it in the 1980s at the height of the confrontations of the Thatcher decade – often taking strike action in a vain attempt to protect jobs – many of the industrial journalists writing for Conservative supporting newspapers took pride in the accuracy of their reporting.
They insisted the facts and quotes in their stories were sacrosanct: editors could determine the headlines, presentation, and layout, but if content was altered or manipulated, they not infrequently asked for the removal of their by-lines.
I fear those days are long gone. Hardly any newsrooms have specialist reporters taking an interest in workplace or trade union affairs.
Gone too is the self-discipline – however slight it might have seemed at the time to observers of press behaviour – that went with being a member of what in those days was a powerful and respected group of journalists.
All too often we find that the Prime Minister’s tabloid cheerleaders can no longer be trusted to provide factual information when reporting industrial conflict.
Quotes, facts, and statistics supplied by the Press Association news agency or culled from broadcast interviews are regularly turned and twisted to boost Boris Johnson and misrepresent organised labour.
A recent proliferation of anti-union stories accusing unions leaders of thwarting the easing of lockdown for purely political purposes is a sad commentary on today’s journalistic standards.
After the Observer led the way with its warning, ‘No return to work until we feel safe, unions tell Johnson’ (10.5.2020) and the Guardian’s interview with Frances O’Grady (‘No business as usual. The unions are back’ 20.5.2020), the fightback began in earnest.
‘The left is exploiting this crisis to push its own failed agenda’ declared the Mail on Sunday (17.5.2020) and in his two page assault, ‘Who runs Britain’ Richard Littlejohn added a picture of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill as a reminder of the ‘firebrands’ who had led the ‘unions’ self-destruction on the altar of politically motivated strikes’ (Daily Mail, 23.5.2020).
Set against the negativity of the usual suspects, the coronavirus crisis has led to a re-awakening of interest about workplace issues among broadcasters, regional journalists, and an army of online activist reporters.
Union headquarters have a new-found responsibility to voice workers’ concerns about the need for safe working conditions.
A once in a generation opportunity to flag up the strength and relevance of the union movement is there for the taking.
Illustrations: The Guardian, 20.5.2020; Daily Mail, 13.5.2020.