Sunday, 13 March 2011

Faith and unions must unite against cuts

The Trade Union Congress is organising a march against the Coalition Government’s cuts agenda on 26 March.
The TUC have called on faith communities to join the March for the Alternative and be part of that movement but how do they intend to engage with those people in order to get them onto the streets.
So far the approach seems to be one of follow us. This is an approach last deployed by the Stop the War Coalition at the time of the protests against the Iraq war.
On that occasion, there was a genuine opportunity to form a mass movement to not only stop the war but to become something else that would unite all of those groups which have become so disenfranchised over the years. Stop the War failed in this respect but could have gone so much further than just marching, marching, marching.
The question now is will the TUC and others seeking to create a proper movement against the cuts agenda have learned any lessons? Simply telling the faith communities to follow the unions will not work.
Many in the faith communities are ofcourse members of trade unions. There has though been a parting of the ways on a number of narrow issues.
In any coalition of interests there are going to be differences of opinion but these need to be accommodated in favour of the common good. Catholic Labour MP Jon Cruddas has outlined the need to recreate the broad Church concept of the labour movement bringing together faith groups, trade unions, the charitable sector and Labour Party supporters under the banner of commonality that unites.
For this to happen though there needs to be some genuine outreach on both sides.
The example of the Catholic Church and the unions does not offer much encouragement of any outreach going on from either side.
On the Church side, while the hierarchy seem quite happy to conduct meetings with bankers in the City of London and sign up to the Coalition Government’s Big Society, they do not meet with the representatives of the trade unions
On the union side, a number of leaders who were Catholics positively disavow their faith roots. One leader of a major union was keen that his name did not appear in a list of the top 100 Catholics in a Catholic magazine. Others simply don’t seem to want to speak to the Catholic audience. There are exceptions. The general secretary of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes has spoken out about his Catholic roots and how they led him to trade unionism.
The reservations of both faith and union leaders are understandable but they need to be overcome and a dialogue established. Most faiths do not believe in a society where a small number of people keep all the wealth for themselves – it runs contrary to the common good.
In the Catholic case, how can the Church be making a preferential option for the poor if it will not speak to those bodies that play an active part in ensuring a more equitable division of resources in that society?
The unions too need to drop their hostility to faith. Many trade union leaders developed the very values that led them into union work from their faith formation. It is particularly surprising the number of union leaders who are Catholics.
It is no good for those who are committed to change and want to build broad coalitions for the purpose to shut themselves off in isolated silos. This is what is happening at the moment in the case of the leaderships of the trade unions and faith communities.
There are though some encouraging signs. The National Justice and Peace Network has embraced the TUC’s campaign and encouraged its members to come out and join the march on 26 March. The annual conference in July is about Justice at Work, bringing together Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC, Jon Cruddas, John Battle and the Movement of Christian Workers.
Community organisers London Citizens have been the most successful body in bringing together faith, unions and educational bodies to work for social change. Their work is the best sign of the broad movement being recreated.
So there are some encouraging developments but much more needs to happen if faith groups and the labour movement are to truly mould into a much larger body for real change based on justice. The barriers need to be broken down, with the common good becoming the aim that can unite all.

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