Trade unions, dissenters and the things we all enjoy

Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, has said that further strike dates are almost inevitable. He is convinced that a deal is there to be done and if the government would only allow the Union and the management company to negotiate freely. Whether that is right or not, I don’t know. But the RMT are adamant that the current deal on offer is unacceptable.

What is notable is that some are frustrated at the thought of further strikes. How dare these unelected unions hold the country to ransom! I share Lynch’s view that, actually, there is fairly widespread support for this particular strike action. But for some, the RMT members are well paid enough. There are no real safety issues at stake. And job losses are just part and parcel of modernisation, they aver.

Unfortunately, those same people consistently fail to remember that just about every decent working condition they currently enjoy was brought about through the industrial action of Trade Unions. Pay is consistently benchmarked against that set through industrial action. That this is so is affirmed even by those who insist RMT members are paid well enough, because they try to benchmark matters against their own pay instead failing to realise that is precisely what the government do and will use their lower pay to benchmark against what the RMT are trying to negotiate and continue to keep workers pay low wherever possible.

But these things obviously extend well beyond pay. The basic five weeks of holiday we now have as a statutory right was initially introduced because unions campaigned for a mandatory single week of holiday. They since campaigned for better conditions that were then rolled out across different sectors as standard. Dozens of other examples can be found. Pay and conditions enjoyed by most people, the kind that many would be apoplectic if it were not part of their terms and conditions, have largely been won by these sorts of industrial disputes.

Which is why I find it strange when people are routinely down on the trade union movement. Their own pay and conditions are usually a result of what has been won by the unions before them. Most people’s pay gets benchmarked by other sectors and conditions that are deemed standard have usually come about through the work of union organisation. Which means – though strikes may be personally disruptive to a lesser or greater degree – they should be seen as something that will benefit workers across the board. The pay and conditions granted at the end of this dispute is likely to be used in future for others to benchmark pay and seek similar conditions in other sectors.

There is something similar that goes on with respect to the church. Or, rather, dissenting churches in particular. I think it is fair to say many people outside the church have very little interest in what goes on within it. And to an increasingly large number of people, we are not the good guys anymore. We are morally dubious in their eyes and, if not morally repugnant, something of a menace and an irritant more generally. But as much as people view us that way, it bears saying the majority of freedoms that most people take for granted today trace their roots back to matters won by dissenting churches in particular.

The freedom of religion is the one on which all the others hang. The right to free speech and expression, for example, was birthed out of the desire to be able to worship God in the manner that one’s own conscience believed was right. The right to be able to think differently to the state church was naturally a matter of utmost importance to dissenting believers. The ability to freely associate with whomever we want was again a key question for those who view the church as a gathering of God’s people. I could go on, but you get the point.

And in many ways, it should come as no surprise that many of the popular uprisings and movements in the modern era – levellers, diggers, chartists, the co-operative movement and the like – were all largely drawn from dissenting backgrounds. Similarly, the trade unions found a ready ear in dissenting chapels across the country. Even the banners they carry have clearly been lifted from Methodist and Covenanter style marches.

But just as we ought to have more sympathy with trade unions, who gain pay and conditions – without our having to go on strike with them – that will get applied to our own sectors, so we ought to have sympathy with dissenters who have been the cause and champion of most of our freedoms in recent years. Next time you are tempted to curse the unions because your train isn’t running, remember that what they gain may well have beneficial implications for you. When you next want to curse a dissenter as a menace because they dare to hand you a leaflet or express an opinion you don’t like, remember it was such people who won the right for you to spout whatever views you will in public too.

We too rarely realise what irritants have done for us.