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N30: trade unions only look dead

Hardliners. Militants itching for a fight. Michael Gove is in no doubt about who is responsible for N30.

Yet there are a couple of fundamental flaws with the education secretary’s assertion that those taking part in Wednesday’s  public sector stoppage are being manipulated by an unrepresentative clique of hard left union bosses.

For a start, every single one of the unions participating does so on the back of a mandate from its membership, with overwhelming ‘yes’ votes in every instance of which I am aware.

The Tories typically point to the low turnout figures, on the questionable assumption that failure to return a ballot paper is somehow equivalent to opposing a walkout.

Yet the evidence is that the strike is strongly backed, and not just by the strikers. An opinion poll published by the BBC today finds 61% believe N30 is justified, a total that includes almost four in five 18 to 24 year olds.

It is perfectly true that certain traditions on the left regard class struggle at the point of production as a good thing, in and of itself. These are largely individuals of Trotskyist or Communist political background, and yes, some of them do hold prominent union positions. And yes again, some of them are personal friends of mine.

But then there were plenty of leftie union officials in 1998, the year in which UK strike levels fell to the lowest since records began in 1881, demonstrating a reversion to pre-Edwardian levels of deference in the labour movement.

Even hardcore tankies from Hell cannot conjure up industrial action out of nowhere. How telling that Gove regards ordinary union members as incapable of striking because they want to go strike. That they have a genuine grievance about the government’s pensions rip off does not seem to have occurred to the bloke.

For a long time now, the reality is that British unions have more or less been on life support. Union density has fallen from over half the workforce in 1979 to well under a third, and this minority is largely concentrated in the public sector.

The current situation gives unions the best chance in decades to rebuild some of the strength they have lost since the defeat of the miners, and the country will be a better place if they seize it.

The finding that leaps out at me from that Beeb poll is that almost 80% of young people are in favour of the strike. Yet fewer than 20% of them are unionised. Somebody needs to get out there and dish out some union cards, pronto.

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