“Too often… we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” said US president John F Kennedy in 1962. Fast forward 55 years. Opinion has never been more readily available, and inconvenient facts more readily ignored.
Kennedy, in the same speech, said: “For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Prospect and trade unions more generally must deal in fact. We must proudly stand up for experts. We must shine the light of evidence on what we say – first, testing and ensuring our messages are valid, and then relentlessly applying them to those preferring the shade and dark of myth.
From March I will have the privilege of beginning a second five-year term as Prospect’s general secretary. I start the year with a very warm welcome to BECTU, who merged with us from January – Prospect now represents more than 140,000 members across the diversity of the public and private sector.
Our combined union has a wealth of experts of our own – staff, representatives, members – giving us both reach and reputation.
We have to use those resources to transform how we deliver for members in the tumultuous decade ahead.
Diffuse politics with left-right boundaries are continuing to lose meaning. As the world of work is revolutionised through technology, opportunity for one becomes potential exploitation of another. All our certainties are being challenged, with people all too easily reduced to “‘factors in production”.
All working relationships have power at their core. New forms of employment such as zero-hours contracts are currently the subject of legal argument, government review and economic debate.
Industrial struggles are headline news again, in part because of the strikes by rail workers over safety. Within our own union, at one end of the spectrum we see members with many years in work – for example at AWE and in the nuclear industry – fighting to defend their pension rights and at the other end, young cinema workers becoming unionised for the first time as they fight for a living wage.
Corporate performance, greed and productivity are playing out in the macro context of Brexit, geopolitics and security fears. How do we make sense of this for members? By searching for the substance and holding the purveyors of myth to account.
If the government says it is “for workers”, let’s see policy and laws that reflect that. If employers say they want co-operation and improved employee experience, prove it. If change is proposed, demonstrate that it is for the better.
Unions remain the countervailing force to those who use their power to remove workers’ rights – at both an individual and collective level. That is why so many would like rid of us. Our existence forces opinion to bend to the force of fact.
In all this, though, our performance, too, faces scrutiny. We must apply our finite resources to what members want, when they need it. We must make sense of this shifting environment to manage the range of members’ opinions and channel our energy into the right priorities. That means celebrating and sustaining our core union values, while interpreting them for the world we are in, not one we may fondly recall.
Will we still be in here in ten years’ time? My answer is “no”, unless we change. We face an exciting, challenging journey to find answers to the questions facing members. We must succeed, or opinion and myth will imperil us all.