"I'd forgotten all about the Unions". That was the damning indictment of one of my colleagues this week, as the Unions seek to bring about chaos to our overground rail, underground rail, airport, mail and civil service structures.
Union-led old fashioned industrial action cannot save a company and Union-rhetoric cannot defy economic gravity. The closing scenes of Union defeat (at the expense of the community and the workers they represent and walk away from) are echoed all the way from the stage of Billy Elliott to the Jaguar Land Rover factory in the West Midlands and to the Corus plant at Teeside. No wonder then that the TUC's figures show total union membership has fallen to levels last seen in the 1940s. The Unions have lost their Purpose and their Vision, because they haven't recognised that they, and their role, have changed.
The Unions are not fighting "The Bosses", they have become The Bosses. They are multi, multi millionaires. Look at the BA striking union, Unite's latest available financial statements – the Union's net asset value is £178million; its two top bosses jointly enjoy an annual employment package in excess of £300,000. Union bosses find themselves leading the life of the internationally jet setting fraternity, overseeing union alliances all over the globe, whizzing in and out of Downing Street. Before driving up to the picket line for a quick rabble rousing shindig and organising a whip round for the boys.
The Unions are the organisational equivalent of the working class hero boss – not sure where he belongs, uncomfortable with his wealth, stuck buying the whole pub a round when he just popped in for a pint and to be one of the lads. There is a tried and tested solution to working class success: it is not "modernisation"; it is not renewed self importance; it is philanthropy, it is giving something back. It is about time that the big Unions started giving something back to the community as a whole, rather than picking fights like a bar brawl to show that they are still down there living it with the masses.
Imagine if the NUM invested in Coalfields regeneration schemes to create new jobs, new skills, new schools, new opportunities for everyone; wouldn't that be a good use of the money taken from miners who wanted to defend their economic future and that of future generations in their communities. How about the NUT providing university bursaries for those struggling to meet tuition fees or helping returning workers get their teaching certificate, or funding new schools.
Some of those multi-millions could be invested in skills and education, training doctors and nurses and setting up fair trade exchanges in developing countries. Instead of flying off (expenses paid) to Washington or Brussels to glad-hand with other big Union bosses and politicians, to talk and talk and talk.
The Unions need to change themselves and start finding a positive purpose in life. That could be the legacy for the workers, the industrial communities, the hardworking men and women who make them rich. In the UK we accept the Unions and recognise their rich history and the individual vision of many men and women who fought hard to make life better at the bottom. The Unions need to find a fresh Vision which fits their new role and their wealth and applies that wealth for the wider democratic good. Isn't it about time we all stopped asking what the Unions are for. And started asking what they could do?