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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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         The politics of drinking

September 28, 2010



Trades unions and the pub

Trades unions seem to be back in the news lately, and not just for fighting the cuts. (Or at least for talking about fighting the cuts.) They are also getting themselves embroiled in the murky Byzantine goings-on of the pub industry.

We’re talking about the GMB, the organisation formerly known as the General, Municipal & Boilermakers Union, which has aligned itself with the militant wing of pubco tenants.

A couple of weeks ago it came in for a stinging attack from Paul Charity, the editor of trade weekly the Morning Advertiser (who, to declare an interest, I do quite a bit of work for).

He accuses the GMB of “leading tenants up the garden path” by promising them a ballot on industrial action, with a view to a boycott of beer monitoring system Brulines, and not delivering.

He also quotes GMB organiser as saying “I don’t give a shit whether this is legal or not”. At least I think that’s what he said. Charity employs a coy asterisk in the S-word.

Anyway, whether it’s shit or shot or shat, not giving one is the kind of thing I like to see in a union leader. The union laws are designed to prevent people exercising their right to industrial action, and at certain points they have to tested and broken or we’ll never get anywhere.

Apart from that, and despite the fact I am an active trades unionist (as much as that’s possible when you’re self-employed), Charity has a point. What is the GMB up to trying to organise a bunch of petit bourgeois publicans?

As I’ve said before I’ve a huge sympathy for pub tenants who find themselves in trouble. The pub is not only their job but their home, their life and their family’s life. But the usual methods of trades unionism are not the answer.

Interestingly, a week after Charity’s leader, Jenny Formby of the bit of the Unite union that used to be NALHM, the pub managers’ union, responded with what is ostensibly a defence of the GMB but turns out to be no such thing once you’ve read it.

Metaphorically, she kind of gives the GMB a fraternal slap on the back and then walks away shaking her head. What she does is explain very well what unions are for, and what they can achieve in fighting for proper employees, pub managers and barstaff, and makes it very clear that Unite will keep well out the way of tenant disputes.

I think Unite is right. What worries me about the GMB’s strategy is not only that it could mislead pub tenants but that it’s a waste of resources that a union with deep roots in the public sector should be using to defend working people against the cuts in jobs and services that are being threatened.

After all, those people are pub customers, and licensees need them in work and spending money over the bar. Fighting for them is as good a way of fighting for pubs as any.

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