So join the union while you may.
Don’t wait till your dying day,
For that may not be far away,
You dirty blackleg miner.
As a child the Blackleg Miner was one of the numerous North East songs my Dad would sing about the house, and over my childhood years it seeped into my consciousness.
I’ve been a Labour Party member for 32 continuous years now, but I’ve been a trade union member for longer.
Last week Jude Kirton-Darling MEP and I were pleased to welcome into our staff team in Brussels our two newest recruits, Ruby and Sian. At their first weekly staff meeting we encouraged all our staff, if not already members, to join a union. Not because we intend to be bad bosses, I hasten to add, but rather because unions have a key role to play in a progressive society, and the stronger they are – i.e. the more members they have – the better.
The recent Barbour strike on Tyneside shows that unions can play an important and successful role in getting a wrong righted. In this case the Unite union did a grand job representing its members to a management group that were at first unwilling to listen to staff concerns about the downsides to the new shift patterns.
For instance the last shift of the day was set to finish after the last bus, leaving staff without cars marooned on an industrial estate. A bit of ‘noise’ later and everyone was round the table at Acas (the industrial dispute settlement body), the staff grievances were addressed and the strike action called off.
You don’t get me, I’m part of the union,
Till the day I die.
Dairy farmers are a group of workers who are having a tough time at the moment, and they are well aware of the need for a strong collective voice. While the National Farmers Union (NFU) is not a trade union in the traditional sense, it does a good job of representing its members to politicians like me.
I have been briefed by the NFU on the reasons why dairy farmers are being paid so little for the milk they produce – less than the cost of production for many – and I have met dairy farmers on a farm in Northumberland.
It is a hard, tough job and you have to be strong and fit to do it - you can feel all that in the handshake. This has led me to the conclusion that customers have an important role to play in this difficult situation, by demonstrating to supermarkets that they do not want to be unwittingly involved in putting UK dairy farmers out of business.
There is a helpful parallel to be drawn here. In the 1990s Christian Aid, Oxfam and other major development agencies campaigned hard to get UK supermarkets to stock fairly traded goods from the developing world, including tea, coffee, cocoa and bananas.
Central to this campaign was the encouragement of customers to request that their supermarkets stocked goods carrying the Fairtrade Mark. In doing so the demand for these products was signaled, the supermarkets responded and the customers bought.
A similar campaign, with customers asking supermarkets to guarantee a fair price paid to UK farmers for produce including milk, could have a major impact.
This would demonstrate – as in the case of the fair trade campaign – that while price is a significant issue for most customers, many would be willing to pay an additional few pence in exchange for a guarantee that farmers are not being exploited.
It is not hyperbole to state that if we continue down the road we are on we will find ourselves dependent on imported milk. While this milk might be cheaper, it will potentially come without the guaranteed high animal welfare standards that we currently have in the UK dairy industry. Imported milk will also have a bigger climate change ‘footprint’, a hidden cost, which our grandchildren will pay for. Do we really want to lose from our countryside the sight of dairy cows grazing in fields?
As I said in the EU Parliament in Brussels, it is right that dairy farmers milk cows; it is not right if supermarkets and customers milk dairy farmers.
Paul Brannen is a Labour MEP for the North East.