Archive | January, 2013

A fairer vision for the UK: the challenge for the labour movement

29 Jan
by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC

The year has started with an economic outlook as bleak as the weather. We’re stuck in the middle of what at best looks like becoming a lost decade. Jobs are being slashed across the public sector – including in services like health that we were told would be protected. And while we should be pleased unemployment hasn’t been as bad as feared, it’s still far too high, especially for young people.

The hidden problem of under-employment is growing too. Many people in part-time jobs want to work full-time, and many more workers aren’t able to use their skills and education to the full.

To make matters worse, living standards are stagnating as wages fail to keep pace with prices. Family budgets are under real pressure, particularly when you look at the soaring cost of what those on middle and low incomes actually spend their salaries on – food, childcare and transport.

The government is failing to offer a vision for the economy that works for ordinary families. Even before the recession, living standards were stagnating for the majority and the resulting unsustainable growth of credit-fuelled consumption was a key cause of the crash. There has been a long-term decline in quality, skilled, and well-paid jobs that should make up the back-bone of the labour force, as the short-term interests of banking and finance have continued to dominate the economy over the last few decades.

The labour movement has a huge challenge to make the case for a better vision, and this is going to shape my campaigning priorities over the coming months.

First we need the government to change course and abandon the austerity that is doing more harm than good. That means stopping these self-defeating spending cuts, instead putting investment in jobs and growth first.

Second we need a long-term vision of how we can build an economy that works for the many. That means leadership from the very top to drive a new industrial policy, including investment in the country’s skills and infrastructure, including affordable homes and transport. The changes we’ll need to make to respond to the challenge of climate change could be a key part of this. Banking reform needs to be stepped up too, and an effective industrial bank is needed to help us invest for the long-term.

And third, we need to build a fairer society – one where we really are all in it together. It’s no coincidence that the economic model that we’ve followed since the 1980s has led to a huge increase in the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. Recession has only made this worse. We need to do a lot more to tackle the root causes of growing inequality.

This is why I want to see a major push for many more people to be paid the living wage in the year ahead, and a clampdown on the tax evasion and excessive tax avoidance endemic amongst corporations and the richest in society. We also need to begin a public debate about economic democracy, making the case that a fair society is also one where people have a real say in the decisions that affect their working lives and their families’ security.

Short-termism driven by runaway greed proved to be unsustainable and we can no longer entrust the best long-term interests of a company to shareholders alone. Giving workers a say over top pay through employee representation on company remuneration committees is one example. But it’s also about making all workplaces more like the best performing ones and genuinely giving staff a voice in the strategic decisions on which the future success of a company depend.

Stronger unions too must be a vital part of creating a better Britain, helping to tilt the balance of power back towards ordinary people.

I believe that when we look back at the period of deregulation and inequality from the 1980s to the crash, historians will see these as exceptional times – as damaging in their way as the 1930s. What will dismay them most is how slowly we are building a new economic model to replace the one that fell with Lehman Brothers.

This all adds up to a very different approach to the economy and it poses a challenge to all the political parties, employers and indeed unions. There is surprisingly broad consensus that we need real change. What we need now is the determination to deliver it.


Frances O'Grady


Frances O’Grady is the first female General Secretary of the TUC, which represents around 6.5 million trade union members.

Don’t let the Prime Minister repatriate workers’ rights

28 Jan

Speaking later today at a conference in Madrid, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady will appeal for the help of unions across Europe in persuading their governments to resist David Cameron’s attempt to ‘repatriate’ workers’ rights.

The new head of the TUC will say that if the Prime Minister gets his way over Europe, British workers, who already face the harshest anti-trade union laws in Europe, will lose out. The General Secretary’s words come after Nick Clegg expressed reservations about Cameron’s plans for the EU,  warning his coalition partner that a promise to hold a referendum on EU membership risked damaging the already weak economy. Clegg, in further signs of coalition unrest, dismissed prospects of securing a significant renegotiation around the EU and suggested Cameron should concentrate on the economy – which risks slumping into a triple-dip recession.

Speaking at the ETUC event, Frances O’Grady will say: “Last week, the British Prime Minister made a speech which you may have heard about. To some people outside the UK, the logic of his argument may not have been entirely clear.

“Like the last Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, David Cameron has a problem – not so much with Europe as with his own party. He has now promised – if re-elected in 2015 – to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU, which he says he wants to win.
“What David Cameron is doing – if putting internal party management above the national and European interest wasn’t bad enough – is even more sinister.

“As well bringing the prospect of an unprecedented triple-dip recession even closer, the UK government is making the most vulnerable pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, and is set on a wholesale scrapping of workers’ rights.

“The government has already made it easier for employers to sack people they don’t like and more difficult for workers to get justice before the courts. Now it is trying to abolish wage protection for farm workers, and stop people injured at work getting their rightful compensation.

“But there’s one set of workers’ rights David Cameron can’t touch. Those are the rights provided for by social Europe – paid holidays, health and safety, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, protection when a business is sold off, and a voice at work.

“The Prime Minister wants to ‘repatriate’ those rights, and not because he thinks he can improve them! David Cameron wants to make it easier for bad employers to undercut good ones, drive down wages, and make people who already work some of the longest hours in Europe work even longer. To do that, he needs agreement from the rest of Europe. And when the UK government calls on your government to give him the chance to undermine British workers’ rights, we want your governments to say no. Not just out of solidarity with us, but in the interests of your own rights, your own wages, and your own jobs.

“British working people are looking to their colleagues around Europe to work with us. Trade unions are all about solidarity, about working together in the common interest. We must make common cause to defeat David Cameron’s attack on working people and Social Europe.


“As trade unionists, we have a crucial role to play in winning the argument for an alternative. Our focus must not just be on jobs but on good jobs that pay a decent wage, that help build sustainable demand, and that give opportunity to those who need it most. Only collective bargaining can deliver this.

“Together we must make the case for a worker’s and citizen’s Europe, not a banker’s and financier’s Europe. If the EU is only about fiscal austerity, open markets and privatisation, then ordinary Europeans will increasingly question its legitimacy – and rightly so.

“For a generation, Europe prospered by balancing the interests of business and those of workers. It’s time to rediscover that bargain – and the sense of solidarity that underpins it.”


A Burns Supper – An Immortal Memory

27 Jan

by Karie Murphy

In 1801 in Alloway in Ayrshire, nine people gathered at the cottage where Robert Burns was born to remember their friend. That was the first Burns Supper.

We celebrate Robert Burns – his words and his motivations. Hopefully we can apply his humanitarian values to our own lives.

To make his humanitarian example a force for good  and, of course, to enjoy ourselves.

As the great man himself wrote in ‘Friars Carsh Hermitage’

“Let prudence bless enjoyments Cup, then

raptured – sip and sip it up”.

This annual celebration of Burns in Scotland and throughout the world – now ranks as the second most celebrated Birthday in the history of mankind.

So, too, “Auld Lang Syne” is the second most sung song in the world, where “Happy Birthday” takes first place.

This is truly remarkable.

But why is this so?

In my view it’s because of Burns’ breadth and vision; through his songs, his poems, his universally quoted lines. Burns’ politics were radical. Much of his best poetry is politically subversive. His satire is withering, revealing himself as a true opponent of cant hypocrisy and injustice. In this respect, he sits with Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and Wordsworth.

Burns was utterly against hypocrisy and injustice. He was – and is – a victim of it. The Government pensioned slaves of Burns’ time – essentially “betartaned” Tory unionists – did a pretty good hatchet job on Burns. As they did to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Burns, as a direct result of a continual stream of publications and character assassinating obituaries, has been devalued being described as a writer of  “The safe and pastoral”.

He wasn’t. He was a radical political poet.

Revolutionaries have sought solace in the insights of Robert Burns. The bold German duo of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibnecht – the Bonnie and Clyde of the Spartacus League –  were both devotees of Burns. When executed by the German state 94 years ago, Karl Leibnecht had in his pocket a translation of the Burns’ line:

“That man to man the world o’er
Shall Brothers be for a’ that.”

Robert Burns was never an uneducated ploughman. He was a skilled poet – able to suit his style to the occasion and to his purpose. Whether it was the traditional Scottish Stanza – as in, “To a Mouse”,  or to exploit the sophisticated English Stanza as in, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”.

He would cleverly adopt the language to his objective, and his works resonate with important themes. His faith, that a democratic culture depends on a willingness to take seemingly modest people and their ideas seriously. Burns led a vision of seeking, and relating, to a living community of people and ideas.

This deepens and broadens our sense of who we are, and who we can be.

Had they been around in his time, Burns would have been a natural trade unionist. His confidence in ordinary folk has, inevitably, been appropriated and bastardised by unsavoury elements like the Scottish pro-consuls who have ruled Scotland from Prime Minister Pitt – during the lifetime of Robert Burns – to our own previous Prime Minister – the fetishist Tony Blair.

Each have attempted to exploit the appeal of Burns. They have failed, and will always fail – for Robert Burns speaks to and for ordinary women and men.

The imagination of Rabbie Burns was energised by the American and then the French Revolutions. To understand Burns without these radical commitments is akin to writing about W.B.Yeats without mentioning Irish nationalism.

In New York in 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture entitled “The Poet”, he told his audience:

“Art is not as much about formal technique as it is about the ability of the artist, in strong clear language, to reveal beauty in the unlikeliest of places”

Ralph went on to confess, “But I look in vain for the poet I describe”.

Not for long. That poet already existed. His name was Robert Burns whom Emerson was later to describe as, “an important figure in world literature, whose works are the property and solace of mankind”.

In the audience that night, listening to Ralph Waldo Emerson was a twenty three year old journalist. Walt Whitman – a direct inheritor of Burns’ Baton. Walt Whitman distilled that inheritance when he described the purpose of his work.

“The Art of Art;

The glory of expression;

The sunshine in the light of letters is simplicity,

Nothing is better than simplicity”.

These were the watchwords of Walt Whitman. This is the essence, today, of the appeal of Robert Burns.

And we can trace that appeal most noticeably in North America. In Whitman, in John Steinbeck and, without being fanciful, in The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Steinbeck’s great novel “Of Mice and Men” comes from the same line in Burns’ poem as Sydney Sheldon’s “The Best Laid Plans”. Sheldon is the most translated author living today. From just one line of Burns’ poem “To a Mouse” – we’ve got two titles of blockbuster novels.

Steinbeck’s exposure of the impact of the Depression on agricultural workers was galvanising: creating films, concerts, photo exhibitions, radio broadcasts, and a whole new canon of song.

Through Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan to Springsteen, we experience the themes of Burns’ output. The outrage and injustice of Robert Burns, his distress of poverty, the whole notion of solidarity, and the pain of love.

The similarities are chilling.
Hungry Heart” by the Boss reeks of the frustration of a relationship doomed from the outset. Most popular music is about the downside of loving relationships. “Love Hurts” by R.E.M., “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison, “Yesterday” by Lennon and McCartney. And Islington’s sweetheart Adele could bring a tear to a glass eye with “Someone like You”. No one as yet has written as poignantly of the pain of love than Burns in “Ae Fond Kiss”.

“But to see her was to love her

Love but her, and love forever”.

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ the title to the 2004 film by Ken Loach, the most radical and honest left-wing filmmaker of our generation… who incidentally was with us this week campaigning for justice for the Shrewsbury pickets. But enough of fighting let’s get back to love….

Of his doomed love for Mrs McElhrose he wrote         

         “Had we never lov’d sae kindly

         Had we never lov’d see blindly

         Never met – or never parted

         We had ne’er been broken-hearted”.

Truly heart rending: Burns at his best. The theme of honesty runs through his poems and songs and letters. A virtue much lauded by Burns. Burns could be devastatingly honest about himself. Let me quote his letter to Peggy in January 1788: This is what Burns wrote to Peggy:

“God have mercy on me
a poor damned incautious

         Duped unfortunate fool!

         The sport, the miserable victim of
rebellious pride,
hypochondriac imagination,

         Agonising sensibility,
and bedlam passions”.

And to finish off the mea maxima culpa, he writes on 2 March 1790

“God knows I am no saint
I have a whole host of follies

         And sins to answer for.”

Burns never confused artifice with reality. He confronted things as he saw them. With so much heat and indiscretion as to raise a hue and cry of heresy: He covered controversy. Brilliant repartee: Lionised and patronised by society, Sir Walter Scott recalled that his eye literally glowed when Burns spoke.

         “I never saw another such eye in a human head –
         though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time”.

Sir Walter Scott modestly added.

         “That eye was also for the women too”.

No doubt Robert Burns would have been referred by his contemporaries mothers as that Robert Burns, as in

“You’re not going out with that Robert Burns”.

“You keep away from that Robert Burns”.

Robert Burns’ work lives on. Relevant today as it was over 200 years ago. His openness, his honest insights, and genius serve us well. HIs work is timely, too. In attacks by the Daily Mail and The Sun, as we face the demonisation of the working class, Burns’ words in his glorious song “For A That and A That” ring true indeed.

“The rank is but the guineas’ stamp
The man’s the gowd for A that”.

Perhaps it’s common touch and common sense, put pithily and perceptively, that epitomises the global appeal of Robert Burns. Justifiably, Scots feel a special pride in Burns. But he was never simply a Scottish poet. He was a poet for all seasons. The Scots Bard is also the Bard and benefactor of humanity. His songs. His poems. And his birthday celebrated all over the world.


Karie Murphy is standing for selection as the first Unite candidate in Falkirk, Scotland. 
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