Tariq Ali on how unions fare under Labour rule

March 22, 2010

Amid a stand-off between British Airways and the Unite union, the Labour Party’s main financial supporter, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a planned strike by BA cabin crew workers “unjustified and deplorable” last week and said both sides should return to talks.

Rail signal workers in the RMT union are also threatening to strike, but haven’t announced a date.

The Conservatives have tried to make political capital out of industrial unrest ahead of a general election expected to be called for May 6, accusing the Labour Party of being in the pocket of the unions.

But how much political leverage do trade unions in Britain really have?

Unions are still burdened by the steps former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took to crush the labour movement in the 1980s, says political commentator Tariq Ali, who has written more than 30 books, including “Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror” in 2006 and most recently a novel titled “Night of the Golden Butterfly”.

The Labour Party, founded in the early 20th century by trade unions to represent workers in parliament, has done nothing to reverse the consequences of a protracted coal miner’s strike under Thatcher which, combined with de-industrialisation and privatisation, weakened the power of trade unions in Britain, Ali told Reuters in a recent video interview at Verso Books headquarters in London’s Soho.

“When New Labour was elected in 1997, Tony Blair, the New Labour leader, made it very clear that he wasn’t going to change anything that Thatcher had done,” Ali said. “They used to boast in those early days — that not only will we not change, we will go beyond Thatcher.”

“The minute there is a strike, the entire weight of the political system in Britain together with the media comes down on them,” Ali added, saying that it is ironic that a country “which gave birth to modern militant trade unionism is today a country where the trade unions are virtually down on their knees hoping for a few crumbs”.

Watch the video with Ali below, or if you can’t see it, please click on the headline of this blog post to view it.

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