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Today’s thirst for change should be something we can harness as a movement

A new, revived left politics deserves a new trade unionism, writes TIM ROACHE

TODAY working people from across the country will come together in our capital. 

There will be banners, bands, speeches and hundreds of thousands marching through the streets, but most importantly there will be a collective voice demanding change. 

The status quo is not working for working people. Austerity has spectacularly failed. People are so sick of the way the world is that we’re leaving the European Union. Voters would rather tear down the entire system than carry on as we are. 

As terrible as these circumstances are, that thirst for change should be something we can harness as a trade union movement. 

We were ourselves born from struggle against exploitation and unfairness and we exist to seek change.

That is what we will be doing today — not just challenging the world, as it is, but changing it for the better, making a practical difference to the lives of the working people who make the economy tick but see too little reward for their toil. 

The shine has well and truly gone from the cosy neoliberal consensus that once seemed to be an immovable fact of politics and economics alike. 

Young people are seeing that things are not inevitable. That their actions matter. Political choices decide how much they are paid, or whether they must pay for their education. 

The people they elect will decide so much in their lives; from how late the pub stays open, to how much it costs to fill up their car or catch a train, or whether they will ever have a home of their own. These things are the result of choices that have been made and as such can be changed. 

People from all walks of life are looking at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and starting to see that things can be different.

We’re not there yet but if we continue to show people what practical difference politics can make to their lives we will build that hope, belief and insistence which can take us to power. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, the trade union movement has not done enough to keep up with the pace of change in society and in the economy. 

Politics can, should and will change people’s lives. But so can industrial strength and organisation. We cannot rely on the legal system or politicians alone to deliver the change our members need. 

We have to start making the case for strong unions in the workplace even more loudly and clearly than before. If ever there was a time in recent memory that that message should be heard, it’s now. If ever there was an opportunity to speak directly to the concerns of a generation, that time is now. 

The message is clear: things do not have to be this way and together we can change them. 

Of course being a trade union member is about making sure someone has your back at work, and getting legal advice and support. But it is about more. We were founded not just to defend what we have — because what we have has never been enough — but to advance the interests of working people by standing together as a class to demand better. 

It could not be more necessary but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. Governments have restricted what we can do. Bad employers don’t want us in their workplaces and refuse to let us near their workforce. Successive governments’ worship of the flexible labour market means for many, employment rights aren’t worth the parchment they’re written on because they’re not enforceable in practice. 

The organising environment in the private sector is tough. Which is why we have to restate the case for our own existence and purpose. It’s why we need to guard against any fatalism that an unorganised workplace will never be organised. 

It’s time we got back to our roots. Demanding political change hand in hand with shaping a new trade unionism that shows the world what is possible through industrial strength and solidarity. 

That is unashamedly proud of who we are and why we exist. 

When we march today it should mark the start of a new trade unionism to match a new politics.  

Tim Roache is general secretary of the GMB.


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