Possibly one reason why I’ve never really connected with industrial politics, nor looked at the world primarily from a labour versus capital perspective, is that I had never, prior to a year or so ago, been a "worker" in the classic sense of the word.
That is not the same thing as saying that I haven’t worked. Those who know me well enough to be familiar with my work rate and are honest would giggle at the frequent invocations that I receive from my politico critics to "get a job" (it is a perhaps worth reflecting upon the ease with which politicians who profess to speak for the disadvantaged seem in reality to regard unemployment as a question of personal choice, but I digress).
What I mean, rather, is that I had never previously worked in a unionised, shop floor environment. The airfreight export industry in which I began my working life is, or at least certainly was, a union-free zone. As an airport porter, and later as a manager at the same company, hire 'em and fire 'em was very much the name of the game, although that changed dramatically once myself and my late friend, comrade and colleague Lance Newbigging had finished with them (see Goodwill, Bad Faith and the Politics of Scapegoating for the full story). For many years in later life I devoted myself full-time to my duties as a councillor.
At the Royal Mail most employees, including myself, are members of the union, and there are naturally ongoing concerns about reorganisation, competition, working conditions, the trend toward part-time and fixed-term labour, and the looming spectre of privatisation. I’ll not go on to discuss how these topics play out at my own place of work as there will understandably be confidentiality issues and I don’t wish to blot my copybook, but that the matters referred to are areas of concern is pretty much public knowledge and obvious besides.
The value of having a strong trade union to speak for the worker at the pointed end cannot be overstated. Sometimes unions get a bad press, and possibly at times during the 1970s this was not without justification, but having worked with and without the benefit of a union I know which situation I would prefer to be in.
I see little connection these days between being a good trade unionist and offering political support to the Labour Party, and this seems to be a view shared by many and probably most of my colleagues on the shop floor. In this respect I would suggest that the union’s leaders lag considerably behind their own membership. Where the Royal Mail is concerned, of course, it was Labour’s Lord Mandelson who first mooted privatisation.
Although as a relatively new employee on a fixed-term contract it would be neither proper not advisable for me to want to play any more than a passive, supportive role within the union, I value my membership and pay my dues (sans political levy) with a happy heart.