Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Expenses Scandal: Why Are Union Leaders So Quiet?

I may have missed a lot of proclamations of outrage by trade union leaders about the MPs' expenses scandal. If so, this post will be a little off the mark.

But if, as I suspect, they have actually been quite quiet on the subject, it begs the question as to why.

Possibly, they have been too busy shouting from the rooftops about job losses, pay cuts and attacks on workers' rights? Sadly, no: union leaders' response to these issues has ranged from co-operating with the bosses to flawed attempts to resist, and their efforts certainly leave hours in the day to proclaim on other issues too.

Possibly, the Labour-loyal union leaders do not want to avoid chiming in with attacks on the party that they still delude themselves is 'theirs'. This is probably partly true, but they could get round that by sticking the boot into the Tories - there is plenty of material, from moats to floating duck islands, to throw in their direction.

Which leaves another explanation - namely, that union leaders may not want to invite scrutiny of their expenses. I have had the dubious pleasure of attending TUC Congress a few times, which comes across as a week-long binge where union big cheeses already on salaries way above their members' hardly dip their hands in their own pockets all week, instead living on sponsored nosh-ups and flashing the union credit card at the bar. And during the other 51 weeks of the year, union activists continually find that unions are far more reluctant to part with cash for rank-and-file initiatives, representation, organising, campaigning or - dare I mention it? - strike pay than for hospitality.

I have no doubt that some union leaders are very much more guilty of this kind of thing than others, but I am equally convinced that the feathering of leaders' nests is not only wrong in itself, but contributes significantly to rank-and-file members' alienation from trade unions. It also puts a weapon in the employers' hands: while we busily publicise the fat-cat salaries, bonuses and expense accounts of the bosses who attack our jobs, pay and rights, they can retort that at least some union leaders are in a similar league.