Guest post: Unions are you and me

This is a guest post by Steve Turner, Executive Director of Policy, Unite

We often talk about trade unions as though they’re institutions which exist on a foreign planet somewhere. We read it in the papers: ‘the unions are thinking this, the unions are doing that,’ as though we have no control over, or relationship with, trade unions.

In fact, unions are you and me. They are part of society, like a church or a school. The union movement in this country consists of seven million working people. At Unite, we’ve just opened our membership up to the unemployed. So unions are part of everyday life: they are part of the community.

The most empowering aspect of unions is that they are controlled from the bottom up. Ordinary members at branch meetings decide what they would like the union to do, and then tell the people at the top – not the other way around. The people at the top then try to make sure that these demands are heard by politicians. Some unions form a relationship with the Labour Party (which trade unions founded in the first place), others try to influence politics through campaigns.

May Day is an important day for trade unions because of the important role they had in creating the modern working day: in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday in the United States, to come in effect as of May 1, 1886. The demand was met, and May Day is our international celebration of what can be achieved when people organise together.

It’s appropriate that UK Uncut’s Great British Street Party is taking place in May – the month when collective action is remembered. UK Uncut’s newest action reminds us, as the unions of 1884 did, that a fairer future is possible. It reminds us that there is an alternative to austerity; one we can fight for together.

These cuts will affect an enormous amount of people across the country, so it’s important that the response is unified and all-encompassing. We want help the parents who are worried about changes to child benefits to stand up to the government. We want young people on workfare to realise they do have a choice. We want public sector workers losing their pensions to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Trade unions want a movement of British people to stand together for what is right and decent, and above all, we want to be there to build it, just as we’ve always been.