Over the past few weeks the Unite union has been at the centre of a storm concerning the closure of the foreign-owned Grangemouth energy plant. The most recent development in this saga has been The Daily Mail publishing allegations that the trade unionists involved were ‘bullying’ senior Ineos managers. Then came the usual accusations from the Tory party and Tory press of unionists being ‘thugs’ and ‘barons’ who bankroll the Labour Party.
Whatever you think of Unite’s tactics in the dispute, the real issue here is how trade unions are portrayed in our media compared to corporations and their owners. When a corporation chooses to move production abroad to increase profits or opts to slash wages, sick pay and other fundamental worker’s rights to protect the interests of themselves and their shareholders it is portrayed at worst as a sad reality of the free market. Indeed, it is even used by hard-right economists to attack unions and workers, saying they should accept lower wages and fewer rights while company profits continue to soar. However, when ordinary, working people join together to try and win themselves a fairer deal they are portrayed as thugs, bullies, barons and even ‘the enemy within’.
It could not be clearer: the attitude of the Right towards unions is the same as their attitude towards economics. It is fine to ruin lives and communities all in the name of the free-market and so-called liberty if you are wealthy and privileged, and those who get battered and trampled as a result are demonised as scroungers if they cannot find work or thugs if they dare stand up for themselves through the trade union movement.
But the fact of the matter is there are no larger democratic institutions in this country than the trade unions. Their membership outnumbers that of the political parties, pressure groups and think tanks. If you want to find the real enemies of democracy who bully their opponents into submission, then look no further than the papers who claim this of the unions.