Trade unions are the opposite of the caricatures peddled by politicians - #heartunions
12 February 2016
Barbara Gunnell, former NUJ president and first job-share in post with Scarlett MccGwire
There was no union at the magazine where I first worked as a journalist. Ironically it was at a company that provided subscribers from companies and trade unions with news of pay deals. So we got in touch with the NUJ and within weeks had a chapel going. The management didn’t like it much and argued that the organisation risked losing its objectivity and independence. Over the decades I have heard that argument - that membership of a trade union put a journalist’s or an organisation's objectivity at risk - at every magazine and newspaper where I worked. Strangely I never heard editors or owners worrying that their own economic interests might interfere with their objectivity and independence.
We were also told that a trade union would spoil the friendly relationship of equals that we had enjoyed till then. And that argument, too, in various versions I have since heard over and over. But again, in organisations large and small, these so-called 'friendships' are not much in evidence when the question of redundancies and cutbacks comes up.
At my next workplace, I was on the chapel negotiating team and we got a terrific deal for maternity leave, including the right for a woman to return to the same job after two years away. Such deals then were rare, and we reported this to an astonished magazine branch. We hadn’t known our claim was audacious, and nor apparently had the management. It taught me that trade unions need to aim high. I also learnt that having an agreement in a workplace spelling out rights and obligations actually improved rather than harmed relationships.
I was bowled over when I got elected to my first ADM in 1974. It took place in Wexford, Ireland. Magazine branch had a delegation of 12 (it seems incredible) and it was one of the most exciting weeks of my life. I was amazed by the standing orders committee and its diligence and procedures. I realised that, once again, the popular characterisation of trade unionists as lawless and bullying was far, far wide of the mark. This trade union was a model of democracy in action - the precise opposite of the caricatures peddled by politicians.
Over the years, including one as joint president of the NUJ, through the Wapping dispute and through a particularly harsh period of redundancies in the national newspaper world, I learnt that our union, and the trade union movement as a whole, is a vital counterweight, locally, nationally and internationally, to the power of employers and politicians. It has protected and supported me and thousands of others. It is not at all surprising that employers and their political allies will look for ways to safeguard their privileges and freedoms. The sole purpose of the Trade Union Bill is to weaken organisations that might get in their way.
But more and more economists are arguing that the inequalities now embedded in the UK economy are hampering economic development. This trade union bill is the last thing we need. We actually need stronger trade unions.
The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.