Friends reunited

With the ballot for the Labour leadership under way, we asked the five candidates for their views on

How much does Labour need the unions?

Diane Abbott The Labour-union link has been at the heart of the party's fight for power, and has helped us do great things once we got there. Unions win vital funds for Labour when our opponents are lavished with donations from rich individuals; they promote equal representation; they protect the party from political extremism; above all, they ensure that the voice of working people stays at the heart of Labour's vision for the future.

Ed Balls It's not so much about Labour needing unions. Working people need unions and the Labour-union link is the best way for our party to stay connected with the concerns of millions of working people. We must strengthen the link and I will defend it whenever it comes under attack. I have proposed a special £1 membership rate for affiliated union members joining Labour for the first time.

Andy Burnham We have to do more to bring the Labour family together: party, unions and affiliates. There are far more trade union members than there are party ones, but both are a diminishing breed. We need to have a more symbiotic relationship, so that those who share Labour values do so as part of a union and as part of the party.

David Miliband The trade unions keep Labour rooted in the lives of working people and are brilliant campaigners for the party on the ground. Their insight and experiences will help our party develop an agenda for changing Britain for the better.

Ed Miliband The trade union link is a vital connection between our party and working people. Some of Labour's proudest achieve­ments in government - minimum wage, stronger parental leave rights and legislation on gangmasters - came about because we worked together. We will not agree on every issue, but the link is essential as we rebuild our party to win again.

Are you a trade union member?

DA Yes. I have always been active and am the only leadership candidate that has front-line experience. In 1986, I served as full-time equality officer for the film technicians' union ACTT - a great way to cut your teeth as a politician.

EB I am proud to be a member of Unite and Unison and to be supported by the CWU in this leadership contest.

AB I have been a member of Unison for many years.

DM Yes, I am a member of Unite.

EM Yes, I'm a member of Usdaw and Unite.

What have the unions done for you?

DA I understand and appreciate the work of trade unions as the daughter of working-class Jamaican immigrants. My father was a sheet metal worker. He worked hard in difficult conditions to provide for my mother and buy the odd treat for me and my brother. This is what working should be about: providing for your family and being proud of what you earn. Most recently I have been fortunate to obtain formal backing from two trade unions, and have lots of keen supporters in others.

EB As schools secretary, I formed an excellent partnership with teachers' and support-staff unions. Unison, Unite and the GMB in particular helped me fight off the BNP and Ashcroft's millions to win my new constituency this year. I would rather union members support Labour in an open way, through the political levy, than depend on money from tax-dodging billionaires as the Tories have done.

AB In some ways unions are responsible for me joining the Labour Party. I come from a mining area and it was during the 1984-85 miners' strike that I witnessed first-hand the incredible solidarity and community engendered by the unions. That politicised me as a 14-year-old. I saw the injustice suffered by the miners' families and I wanted to do something to help.

DM They have taught me a lot about the values and practices of our movement at its best. The link between Labour and unions isn't a transaction - it is a living, breathing relationship that rests on a shared vision of a good society.

EM Most recently, six unions - Unite, GMB, Unison, UCATT, Unity and NUM - have put their trust in me as their first preference to be leader of our party and the next prime minister. They have endorsed my argument that we need to leave the New Labour comfort zone to win again.

What have you done for the unions?

DA I am the only candidate who can show a real commitment to workers' rights. I voted for the Agency Worker Directive and Regulations, due to be implemented by December 2011 (the Labour government made a major error not signing up to the directive sooner), and I also support the Trade Union Freedom Bill. The right to strike is fundamental, and as Labour leader I'd make sure it was reinstated.

EB Our relationship is based on fairness, not favours. Union members benefited from high employment, the minimum wage and tax credits, all of which I fought for at the Treasury. I set up the first national bargaining framework for school support staff, stood up against media condemnation of social workers after the tragic death of Baby Peter, and was the only cabinet minister to institute the living wage in my own department.

AB As health secretary, I worked very closely with trade union colleagues. I am particularly proud of the work we did on establishing the NHS Preferred Provider system, which guarantees the NHS is the first option on the table for service provision. This has ensured that jobs remain within the NHS, under NHS contracts, not outsourced to the private sector.

DM As an MP I have fought alongside trade unions for jobs and services. As a minister, I negotiated the social partnership deal that broke down the divide between teachers and support staff, and defended the Local Government Pension Scheme's "rule of 85".

EM I am proud to have worked with trade unions on a number of issues as energy secretary. Together, and working with business leaders, we helped establish new clean energy industries in the UK that could create thousands of jobs.

What is the role of trade unions today?

DA The number of people organised in the unions has fallen, and there is a younger generation who only realise the point of trade unionism in times of crisis. It is no coincidence that inequality has increased at the same time. That is why trade unions are as vital as ever, to give workers a voice and stand up for their interests.

EB The world of work has changed dramatically, but there are more workers than ever, living longer, facing new forms of insecurity. Though occasional strikes grab the headlines, the day-to-day work of unions is seen in improving safety and fairness at work, protecting the vulnerable, defending living standards and pensions and maintaining respect at work. Who would campaign as effectively as the CWU to "Keep the Post Public"?

AB Their role is the same as it has always been: to secure the best possible working conditions and settlements for their members. The Tories and the media have sought to define the role of unions as somehow negative, but the opposite is true. The party and unions themselves must be better at putting forward the positive benefits of trade union membership.

DM To represent their members, stand up for our values and help bring about a decent society. Unions have become a small minority in the private sector and that needs to be turned around using the rights enacted by a Labour government.

EM Trade unions are at the heart of the fight against injustices in our society. As energy secretary, I saw the way unions can organise with other campaigning groups to mobilise people for action on climate change. I have seen green reps make changes in their workplaces, helping win the arguments for shifting to a low-carbon economy and ensuring working people reap the benefits. This is the kind of campaigning that makes trade unions effective in this century.

How should the unions deal with the coalition government?

DA There is no doubt that the coalition government will encourage the use of the courts to try to stop workers standing up for their rights, as seen in the BA dispute. This will be something that trade unions have to face head-on in the coming years.

EB With a long spoon.

AB Carefully. We have already seen that this is a government that cuts by stealth, so unions need to be alert to any and all hints of scaling back the public sector or specific services. However, both the party and the unions have to ensure that their protests are justified and credible.

DM This government doesn't seem to want to get it when it comes to the positive role unions can play in society. It seems to want to return to the failed, confrontational approaches of the 1980s. Unions will stand up for working people when this government takes our country in the wrong direction and Labour will stand with them when they do that. But as well as opposing, I want to work with unions to set out an alternative vision for the workplaces and economy of the future.

EM The trade union movement has a crucial role to play in exposing the economic risks and gross unfairness of the coalition's plans. I agree with Derek Simpson when he says that the task at hand is to ensure people understand the impact of the government's plans on families.

What advice would you give the TUC?

DA We need more women and ethnic minority officers and more diversity at the top. We must prove that the British trade union movement wants a leadership that looks like Britain.

EB Unions must stick together, carry the public with them and always build for
the future.

AB The TUC must continue to be a reasonable, credible voice in the face of public and private sector turmoil, confronting the challenges but avoiding the bear traps put down by media and Conservatives.

DM To speak up for the long-term future of our country. I have been impressed by the AFL-CIO's "Working America" campaign, which sets out not just the workplace benefits of progressive government for their members, but the benefits across their lives. We can also learn from the Nordic trade unions, which have continued to stand up for a good deal for their members as part of - not an alternative to - adapting to rapid economic change.

EM The future of modern trade unions must be in increasing membership from the current level of less than one in five. That will require union reps having the right to enter non-unionised workplaces. I would support such a move.

Who are your trade union heroes and villains?

DA I was very sad to hear about Jimmy Reid's death last month. He proved that people could stand up against an unthinking government and uncaring big business. That there is still a shipbuilding industry in Scotland today is in large measure because of the campaigns he led. At the other end of the spectrum, Margaret Thatcher's anti-trade union stance has had a lasting effect.

EB Jack Jones, for the way he led with such modesty, integrity, courage and effectiveness. Through thick and thin, he kept "right on to the end of the road". All-time villain has to be Norman Tebbit, who went from pilots' union rep to semi-house-trained polecat of the Tory government.

AB It may sound trite, but the real heroes are the activists, shop stewards and learning reps at the forefront of the fight to protect our public services, often risking their careers and livelihoods in the process. As for villain, that's easy: Norman Tebbit. He soon forgot his trade union roots when he entered parliament.

DM Jack Jones led an incredible life - from the Spanish civil war, to the British trade union movement, to fighting for pensions. I don't think we should be defining ourselves against anyone - except the Tories - but no one in my South Shields constituency has forgiven the UDM for splitting the miners in their strike in 1984-85.

EM Two particularly inspirational figures are Annie Besant, a forceful campaigner in the 19th century, and Bill Morris, who made a tremendous contribution more recently. As for villains, it's hard to look beyond Thatcher for the way she treated working families.

To merge or not to merge?

DA It is up to unions.

EB It's for each union's membership to decide. As old demarcations disappear, unions such as Unite and the GMB have widened their scope. But "niche unions" like the teachers' unions show members still value individual service.

AB Merging trade unions is a difficult decision for members and the executive. But it is their decision, not the Labour leader's.

DM It depends on the circumstances.

EM There is a balance to be struck between ensuring that unions can cater to the specific needs of workers in different industries and the advantage of scale to maximise the benefits to members. But what this means in terms of structure is a matter for each union to think through. 

Are the trade unions doomed?

DA The challenge for trade unions in the 21st century is how to reach those people who do not see the point of them. While former New Labour ministers may find cushy jobs in the Con-Lib government, trade unions are not fair-weather friends. Their support for the party has seen us through the good times and the bad. Together, we can look forward to a bright future.

EB No. Workers suffer new forms of in­security and new pressures as old trades and demarcations dissolve, the workforce changes and we face intense global competition. But too few workers are union members. Unions need to show their relevance and reach out to non-members, especially in the private sector.

AB No, they have an incredibly important role to play in defending public services. I come back to the need for the Labour
family to work more closely together. We have to be better at putting forward the value of trade union membership, to individuals as well as industries. If we do that, then the future for the movement could be a bright one.

DM No, they are as important as they ever were. Working people are stronger when they stand together, our economy is more productive when employers and employees work together, and society is better when the culture of organisation takes root in workplaces and communities.

EM Absolutely not. Since their foundation, trade unions have been crucial in improving the pay and conditions of workers and fighting for fairness. The nature of that fight has changed over the past hundred years, but in an era of globalisation and ever more pressure on pay and conditions, the fight goes on.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right