Dawn Butler MP: There is nothing more aspirational than fighting alongside a trade union

'Trade unions are the aspirational vehicle for working class people. They are how workers organise to have a good rate of pay, good sick pay, a decent retirement, and a reasonable work-life balance.'

Dawn Butler

Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent Central

The next time you hear a Conservative MP say they believe in aspiration, ask them why they don’t support the right to strike.

With over 40,000 workers across Network Rail from RMT and TSSA walking out on Wednesday, followed by ASLEF workers on Saturday, I am clear that there is nothing more aspirational than fighting alongside a trade union. 

Trade unions are the aspirational vehicle for working class people. They are how workers organise to have a good rate of pay, good sick pay, a decent retirement, and a reasonable work-life balance. 

What is more aspirational than that?

It is aspirational to want to work and receive a decent day’s pay. The Tories often bang on about how they got to where they are by hard work. That’s just not true. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes – like inherited wealth, trust funds, private schools and connections. So, it is not a level playing field for ordinary everyday workers. 

Trade unions help workers receive decent pay so that they can afford to live, the cost of living is rising rapidly but wages are not keeping up – TUC analysis shows that real wages in the UK are forecast to shrink by -£1,750 over the next two years. 

Clearly, workers are right to aspire for more.

I support the unions and the fundamental right to withdraw their labour, if they are not being listened to, for example when managers want to cut corners and make the work environment less safe for workers and customers. If you ask me to choose, I will choose the workers every single time. 

My message to the rail workers, postal workers, firefighters who are striking or balloting for strike action is: you have my solidarity in this vital fight for jobs, safety and fair pay. After all, we have seen what can happen when unions stand up for their members. Workers at Cadbury recently secured a pay deal worth up to 17.5% over the next two years. Meanwhile, over 300 workers at Gatwick airport will benefit from a 21 per cent pay increase after representations by Unite the Union.

This is what aspiration looks like. 

Yet on the Tory leadership debates this week, Rishi Sunak declared the Conservative Party to be the ‘party of aspiration’. In the same debate, he and Liz Truss committed to ban strikes on essential services, a direct attack on workers and their employment rights. 

The truth is, it is the Conservative Government that is regressive – they are determined to undermine collective bargaining, protect profits for shareholders and keep workers’ pay down. It is clear they fear a precedent being set of workers getting a fair deal. This Government has shown itself to be reckless and dishonest, with their latest disgraceful decision to allow employers to use agency workers to replace those walking out to break strikes. This, rightly, used to be unlawful. As it is not only dangerous but also irresponsible and short-sighted. There is no reserve army of temporary train drivers, signallers or skilled track maintenance staff.

Current decisions and attitudes will do nothing to improve the service for travellers, it will only create more risk. The only sustainable way to keep travellers and employees safe is to value the hard work and expertise of those key workers who have been keeping our rail services alive despite chronic underfunding, including through the pandemic. 

RMT Secretary Mick Lynch, as well as many others in the movement, have expertly demonstrated the Government’s failings. Lynch was right to point out that it is not wages that cause inflation but escalating energy prices and profits.  Let’s not forget that under the Conservatives, not only have we seen stagnating pay and job losses, but 19,000 rail services have been axed all while fares are skyrocketing. The Government is happy to demand workers tighten their belts but says nothing about bosses raking in millions of pounds for failing services. That is why so many workers are striking, it is just not fair. 

With the Tory leadership race in the final stretch, it is clear the Tories will only ramp up the fear and division. But it doesn’t appear to have worked so far – public support for the industrial action has only risen in recent months.

We cannot allow the Tories to turn people against each other in this culture war. There is indeed such a thing as society and community, we’ve seen that over Covid. We must show solidarity with each other against the Government who are protecting the 1%. Because as I often say, they might be coming for rail workers today, but another day they might come for you. The good negotiated by the unions will be good for workers across the country. 

Let’s instead come together, as a responsible society to pressure the Government to do its job, properly invest in the railways and intervene to ensure that bosses reach a fair deal with the unions. 

So too my party, the Labour Party, must be loud and proud in supporting the unions, and stronger in calling for pay rises. We are a party founded in the trade union movement. We must show workers that we are on their side and create a clear choice at the next election. And let’s not forget that you won’t see the Tories attacking the top 1%, that’s because it is who they stand for. So, we must be resolute in our support of trade unions and trade union rights. That also means being clear that we will end the inefficient profiteering and high fares, by running the railways as a not-for-profit organisation, run for people rail workers and passengers alike.

I will never apologise for my support for those striking. They may be disruptive, but that is why it works. No one likes to strike, those striking lose time and money, but it is the last resort after all other attempts fail. I know this as a proud former trade union official who, the majority of time, was able to negotiate good deals for my members but at times had to reluctantly threaten strike action.

I believe in better. I want to see an economy that values hard work, pays people what they deserve, ensures safety, and delivers proper terms and conditions in the workplace for all. Ultimately trade unions are fighting for people to receive a wage people can live on, with decent terms and conditions. This isn’t charity or benefits; it is workers fighting to be paid and respected for their labour.

Never again can we allow the Tories to claim they are the party of aspiration. 

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