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We Need Democratic Trade Unions (Even if they sometimes make the trains late)

06/02/2014 13:24 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

The real scandal from the tube strike is we've stopped defending the right to strike.

In my attempts to subvert the South West London blogger stereotype I've abandoned my usual method of writing these things (MacBook in Starbucks). Unfortunately I haven't found anywhere I like quite as much as Starbucks (I know they don't pay any tax but I just really really love those blueberry muffins) so I'm typing this on my iPhone on Putney Station platform. Essentially I've just reduced the size of the Apple device and got colder. Today I am eternally grateful to Bob Crow and the RMT for giving me the extra time to write as, thanks to the tube strike, every train has been full to bursting and I've now been sat here for 45 minutes. I'd also like to pass on my sincere thanks for finally providing me with the opportunity to quote The Amateur Transplants in a post. So here goes: "I'm standing here in the pouring rain..." (If you don't know the rest go listen to the actual song)

Apparently I'm not the only one inconvenienced. David Cameron is calling on everyone from Ed Miliband to the Pope (probably) to condemn the "Union Barons" (TM) who are "holding the capital to ransom". Boris Johnson apparently refuses to negotiate  with a "gun to his head" and everyone agrees that the Tube is vital to the London economy and thus stopping it working is a terribly bad thing. This argument might seem a little less hollow had the government itself not cut funding for this supposedly vital service by 8.5%.

This isn't actually going to be a post about the tube strike. Even though it's vying with the Mutiny on the Bounty and the Spartacus Uprising for title of "Worst Handled Industrial Dispute in History".The only thing more amateur than the industrial relations of this dispute is the reporting. A strike represents a failure in negotiation of both labour and management. If Johnson and co really think that keeping the tube running is that important then they should have made more effort to negotiate a settlement. I'm just an (increasingly damp) observer but if Bob Crow won't negotiate until Johnson agrees to postpone the order his proposed changes and Johnson won't negotiate until Crow postpones the strike can't they just postpone them both and stop bitching at each other on LBC?

But there's a wider point to be made here. The tube strike has thrown up all the classic arguments about "holding the country to ransom", whether the Unions control the Labour Party and why strikes should be banned. Of course, none of these would pass scrutiny in a Sixth Form debating society but apparently they're good enough to be trotted out by the leaders of the land.

That said, for the less analytic minds out there:

1. Accusing Unions of "holding the country to ransom" when they go on strike for two days is incredibly hypocritical when bankers threaten to flee the country permanently and en mass whenever anyone suggests they should pay a fair share of taxes.

2. Unions don't control the Labour party and even if they did they're democratic organisations so that argument basically boils down to "Oh my God the Labour party decision making is influenced by mass membership organisations promoting the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of their members, given voice by their elected representatives, and those members are WORKING CLASS".

3. You can try to ban strikes but that would put you on a level with Russia, Egypt and Bulgaria in terms of permitting peaceful public protest.

Now, on to the grown up arguments.

The real scandal here isn't that Cameron and co are trotting out the same ridiculous soundbites. At this point we should expect nothing better. It's that generations of Labour leaders have cravenly capitulated to those arguments. The Unions are now a political problem for Labour because they have been allowed to become one.

The TUC may have a worse PR strategy than Ghengis Khan but, at it's heart the Union movement is one of ordinary people coming together to support each other. Decisions are made democratically amidst fierce debate at conferences and branch meetings across the country. Representatives are elected at every level, from shop stewards to the General Secretary. Union members are prepared to support their colleagues even to the point of losing pay and benefits by going on strike. This is democracy in action but it's also an incredibly inspiring example of social solidarity. Union members don't just ask "what's in it for me" but "how can I help my colleague". If Cameron wants to see what "all in it together" really looks like he should take a trip down to a picket line today.

The fact of living in a free society means that sometimes other people and organisations say and do things we don't like. Unions are no different. The way that society stays free is that the government doesn't then ban them for it.

Every politician bemoans the lack of political involvement but the political establishment, Labour by omission and the Conservatives by calculated strategy, have worked systematically to destroy the largest non-state democratic institutions in the country. Cameron's suggestion that the tube be declared an "essential service" (although not essential enough to properly invest in) so that future strikes would be banned and the Conservatives' constant howling that Labour leaders condemn strikes is just one example of this.

The Unions, and Labour's relationship with them, need reform. But what doesn't? Any institution needs continuous reform to remain relevant: it's called progress. But this doesn't change the fact that Unions are essentially ordinary people helping each other out and trying to have a democratic voice in the future of their industry. Ed Miliband, rather than cowering before Cameron's fallacious thunder, should stand up and say that the Unions are grassroots democracy in action and that people engaging in grassroots democracy is a good thing.

One may disagree with the tube strike, but that isn't an argument against Unions. But banning strikes or condemning strikers is suppressing legitimate democratic expression. And that's much worse than making the train late.