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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Union Forever: Reviving Trade Unionism in Sheffield

On the day that Margaret Thatcher died my Dad came in from work kicking his legs and singing 'There is Power in a Union'. Perhaps the angriest I’ve ever seen him was one teatime when my brother suggested that trade unions were useless. As a working-class lad looking for meaningful employment in the 80s, he feels that Thatcher cost him a real future. He lived through Orgreave. And while I didn’t quite grow up in a house with a candlelit Scargill shrine in the corner, I am most certainly a fully paid-up member of Unison and have been since I started work in the NHS at 18. I long for a return to the days of mass unionised labour. Please don’t take me for a nostalgic fool who believed Brexit would see a return to traditional British values (I wore a Remain badge through much of the campaign and changed a few people’s mentalities on the subject, for what it matters now). However as a nation, or at least as the working class people of this nation, we’ve lost considerable political clout through our blasé attitudes towards the union. During the latest display of NHS industrial action, I witnessed colleagues - colleagues who pay their monthly membership fees - crossing the picket line, yet when bullied or harassed at work they’d expect the full support of the organisation. I once heard a non-unionised co-worker say, “There’s no point in joining, because if they win a pay rise we all get it anyway.” To have to dissect that comment and explain the consequences of everyone feeling the same way to an individual twice your age is tragic. There are plenty of people, women in particular, who insist that they will always use their democratic vote because of the well-documented historical struggle to win it. The unionisation of UK industry was not an easy process, but it’s one we’re in danger of losing. Trade unionism has won us a national minimum wage, holiday and sickness entitlements and equality legislation. The future will hold many more challenges. As the Conservative government clamps down on our right to organise in such a way in the workplace, we need the trade unions more than ever. It’s only dwindling membership and a lack of support from paid-up members that makes them appear powerless. They can still make a real difference, but not without a strong support, especially one made up of the younger generations. I know of very few under 30s who pay union subs, but it's these people who would most benefit from backing a union in the current climate. I admit that my days as Young Members Officer are over. My job itself is too involved for me to commit the time that the Unison role deserves. I now use my status as a Workplace Contact to distribute information to colleagues and vote in Labour leadership elections. I was overjoyed to learn that, resulting from a members’ poll, my union, along with Unite, have recently announced they are backing Jeremy Corbyn in the contest. But all that aside, just paying subscriptions is a start, and may prove to be the best money you ever spend if you’re ever caught up in workplace dispute. I urge you to find the ‘Benefits’ page on your own union’s website. You may be surprised what else they can do for you. Richard Hawley once told me that a red flag used to fly from Sheffield Town Hall in the 80s. We used to proudly call ourselves the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. We must still have that mentality in us somewhere. There is still power in the hand of the worker. At least go and watch Pride. )

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