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20 June 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 7:04am

What are the unions supposed to do?

Ed Miliband needs a summer of discontent like he needs an invitation to go bungee jumping with his b

By Dan Hodges

The unions aren’t bluffing this time. Despite the Tory hype, the TUC’s big battalions rarely march in anger. If I had a pound for every time Bob Crowe threatened strike action, then called it off at the last minute, I’d be as rich as one of his members.

But when Dave Prentice says he intends to bring “huge swaths of the public sector to a halt”, he isn’t making idle threats. He can, and he will.

“Even if we wanted to hold back the members, we couldn’t,” said one trade union insider. “This isn’t a case of officials sending people over the top. We’re having to do everything we can to keep from being left behind.”

The pensions issue has been the time-bomb ticking away at the heart of British industrial relations for almost a decade. When I was working for the GMB I proudly showed a colleague a newspaper report detailing concessions Tony Blair had granted us on PFI policy. “That should buy us some brownie points with the members,” I beamed. “Maybe,” he responded, “but to be honest, the members don’t really care about PFI. The thing they’re really worried about is their pensions.” He’s about to be proved right.

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As always, the news of impending industrial dissent has been greeted with ill-contained excitement by some elements of the left. “Join the Big Society breakfast,” gushed the latest press release from UK Uncut. “Join those on strike, bring them a mug of tea and a breakfast butty, and show them that we’re all in it together against the government.”

Well, we’re not all in this together actually, because we’re not all public sector workers watching an axe being taken to our job security, pay or pension rights. Nor is portraying a focused dispute as an general uprising against the elected government the best way of mobilising support for the cause. But I suppose taking a striking teacher breakfast is more constructive than trashing someone else’s breakfast at Fortnum and Mason.

UK Uncut’s joy won’t, however, be shared by Ed Miliband.

Labour’s leader needs a summer of discontent like he needs an invitation to go bungee jumping with his brother.

Under Tony Blair some careful choreography between the TUC and the leader’s office would have ensured private words of support but public distance from the strikers. But Miliband is in a much weaker political position, and union leaders who expended their own political capital, not to mention a significant amount of their member’s money, on helping get him elected will be less susceptible to lectures on industrial responsibility, however well meaning.

There is a broader political issue that also needs to be considered. Precisely what else is your average, moderate, democratically elected trade union general secretary expected to do?

Commentators like Simon Jenkins think they have the answer; “Are we really to go on strike again now, in the 21st century?”, he asked incredulously in the Guardian.

Given that all the political parties accepted the need for cuts last year, the unions should have negotiated against a jobs cut and for accepting a pensions curb and pay freeze instead. That would at least have been public spirited.

Well it might have been, but first it would have required someone for them to negotiate with. Danny Alexander, auditioning for the part of the coalition’s very own Ian Macgregor, made clear on Friday he was happy to talk, but not listen.

“Before Friday there was a divide between those of us who wanted to keep negotiating and those of us who wanted to head straight off to the barricades,” said one union insider, “but then Alexander opened his mouth, and everything changed. It’s going to take something massive to head things off now.”

Those voicing their concern that the proposed industrial action is “politically motivated” are right. It’s being politically motivated by the Government.

The steady drumbeat over outlawing strikes unless proactively endorsed by a majority of the membership. Vince Cables provocative speech at the GMB congress and Danny Alexander’s inflammatory interventions are clearly designed to back the unions into a corner, with the Labour Party and its leader crushed in between them.

And as an aside, it’s to be hoped those still clinging to the fading dream of a “progressive realignment” notice the relish with which Lib Dem ministers are prepared to do David Cameron’s union bashing for him.

Of course industrial action will be difficult to sell publicly. And yes, trade unionists do enjoy pension rights that in many cases are superior to those of non-unionised workers. But surely that’s the whole point of being in a union. It bargains collectively on its members behalf to secure benefits they couldn’t otherwise obtain on their own.

“Come and join us brother so we can help reduce your pay and pension entitlement to the mean national average”, isn’t exactly an inspiring slogan. Defending members’ rights and conditions are what trade union leaders get paid to do. It’s their job.

And those members have experienced the Thatcherite firestorm of the Eighties, the chaos of the Blairite reforms of the nineties and the gluttony of the Bankers’ Decade. We may not like the action they are proposing. We may not support it. But we should at least understand it.

“Are we really to go on strike again now, in the 21st century?” Yes Simon, I’m afraid we are.