Better to fight a union from within than resign

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) . Credit: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) . Credit: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

In the early days of my newspaper life, I rose through the ranks of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to serve as deputy father of Chapel at The Guardian. It was my job to secure the best pay deal from careful employers. 

My devotion to a union concerned with securing the best working conditions for reporters was unwavering even after, in later years, I had risen to be associate editor.

The NUJ was about making sure wages kept up with inflation. After the widespread introduction of computers, ensuring access to treatment for repetitive strain injury (RSI) became a priority along with accessible redundancy terms. 

When I transferred to the Daily Mail in 1999, I took my union membership with me. In contrast to The Guardian, the union played no role in the annual pay round. Over time, I was alienated from the way in which the NUJ became suborned by left-wing influencers such as former colleague Seumas Milne, who eventually joined Jeremy Corbyn’s team when he was leader of the opposition. 

The NUJ drifted needlessly from its core role in protecting the interests of reporters, abandoned any pretence of political neutrality and adopted causes. 

Reporters who were expected in print to maintain a semblance of neutrality on the Middle East were urged to align themselves with the Palestinian cause. 

The agenda for the NUJ’s conferences could easily have been confused with the UN General Assembly. I decided that there was no point in sending a slice of my salary each month to such a toxic union and resigned.

With the benefit of hindsight that was gesture politics and an act of cowardice. As a senior Jewish journalist on a national newspaper, who over the years regularly had reported on the Middle East from both Washington and the region, it should have been incumbent on me to try to change minds from within. Outside the NUJ there was no possibility of changing dialogue at all.

The unions in Britain are a diminished force. The number of members has shrunk dramatically from the heyday of more than 13 million in the 1970s, when they frequently brought the economy to the kind of halt only a pandemic can produce now. As numbers have shrunk to 6.6 million so has direct influence over the economy. Increasingly the unions have been adopted by radical elements who turned Palestinian rights into their cause. There is nothing wrong per se with that except when the advocacy of rights for one group comes at the expense of another. Adoption of the Palestinian cause has led to unadulterated hostility towards Israel and a drift into antisemitism. 

As Jewish News reported, at least 25 members of the teaching staff at JFS have withdrawn from the National Education Union after one of its leaders, Kevin Courtney, spoke at Palestine Solidarity Campaign rallies. It is commendable when teachers’ unions seek to protect the working conditions and health of educators. But when teachers, who should be neutral, take part in events where antisemitic tropes are indulged it crosses into dangerous territory. 

Similarly, it is distressing when such a high-profile and much loved actor as Maureen Lipman resigns from the Equity actors’ union because it is seen as “fanning the flames of antisemitism”. It is particularly difficult for Jewish actors because so much of the profession is still a closed shop.

Personally, even though it no longer makes any sense for me to be part of a union, I deeply regret having left the NUJ. A one-off gesture of resignation does draw headlines and media attention. But, as far as the Palestinian advocates inside the trade union movement are concerned, it is a case of good riddance. It frees them to pursue the cause without constraint. In democratic organisations, it is better to oppose from the inside. 

That can be painful. Poisonous abuse is not acceptable or comfortable and should never be tolerated. 

About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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