Trade unions should be in the forefront of fighting cuts

Bethan Jenkins argues that AMs can help bridge the gap between constitutional and grass-roots campaigning

From the earliest event in the Welsh history of organised labour, the Merthyr Rising, to today’s campaign against the bedroom tax on the Fairyland estate in Neath, the reason that people organise and fight remains the same. It is not because they are against rapacious capitalism or uncaring government. They are against life getting worse. Today I shall be using a short debate in the Senedd to argue this case.

We live in a political climate that allows the UK Shipping Minister, in a letter he wrote to me to refuse to keep Swansea’s Coastguard station because, he said, that with the DVLA Swansea was already “well served” by the public sector. Such views make you ask what we can do to push against an attitude that prices rather than values public services, and allows Ministers to devalue them accordingly.

I believe it is time we acknowledge and build upon the strength of trade unions. Wales has at least four times as many trade union members as there are members of all political parties combined. However, only a fraction of those 610,000 Welsh members are active. There are good reasons. Trade unions are creaking under the weight of casework. Assembly Members need to ask themselves what they can do to support the trade union movement in Wales.

AMs I work with tell me we need to firstly combat the malaise of passive acceptance. Trade unionism in Wales needs to be about more than just managing decline. Trade union membership and activism should be regarded as part of everyday life, particularly in sectors that lack a traditional base, such as contact centres, retail and care work.

AMs must send the right signals. A mature democracy can support those who choose to fight. Those representatives who have in the past refused to cross picket lines should also actively join in the struggle.

Support for and celebration of trade unionism should be embedded in all aspects of Welsh Government competencies and business. Take the black listing of workers in the construction industry. I’m glad the Welsh Government issued guidance over the summer – but was it as good as that provided in Scotland?

We can also help by supporting concepts such as ‘Trade Union Towns’ which pool activist strength. Joint organising among branch-activists from different unions must play a part. If the burden of campaigning is shared by directly elected, representative affiliates from different unions, members can be involved as a matter of course. As community representatives, AMs are well placed to create links between trade union activists themselves and local campaigns.

This worked particularly well with the campaign against Bedroom Tax in Neath. By putting the two together local people were able to benefit from the campaigning expertise found in unions. Meanwhile, trade unionists benefited from being able to access an activists’ base.

Creating such a movement connects with the old ways of mass action. It also provides the best way of bridging gaps between ‘constitutional’ and ‘grass-roots’ campaigning. We need Welsh councillors and Assembly Members to resist any urge towards managerial consensus. We need to stand beside those who are suffering from the impact of austerity.

Bethan Jenkins is Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales West.

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