The abiding relevance of the trade union movement

Guest editor Natfhe general-secretary Paul Mackney introduces this month's Red Pepper features

September 1, 2004
4 min read

They say whoever you vote for, the government gets in. Certainly the time between celebrating Tory defeats in one general election and being told to shut up to avoid a Tory victory in the next one is very short. There has been little to celebrate in New Labour’s second term: privatisation continues relentlessly in different disguises, tuition fees will be tripled, pensions are in crisis, and we are unable to extend trade union rights. We are told the economy is healthy and that unemployment is very low, but too many of the new jobs are transient, casualised and low-paid.

Not surprisingly, Labour Party membership is plummeting. There are valiant campaigns afoot to revive it, such as the Labour Representation Committee (see “Labour against neo-liberalism”, on page 23 of the print magazine), but many disaffected voters are now vulnerable to the virus of fascism (see “Nul points for the BNP”, page 24). And any victories for unions in the internal Labour Party political process have, so far, been defensive, failing to achieve real change in the party’s direction.

We should have seen major progress on the skills agenda, but New Labour refuses to require firms to contribute to the training of their employees. This same deference to business is leading New Labour to dismantle health and safety legislation to an extent that Mrs Thatcher did not dare (See “Danger: people at work”). The government’s support for the Iraq war and occupation has proved to be the last straw for many Labour loyalists. Now an assault led by Blair and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on workers’ rights in Europe is making it hard for even Europhile trade unionists to generate support for the proposed EU constitution.

In this political climate, trade unions, together with social and community movements, are playing an increasingly political role to create the impetus for change from below. Whether or not they are affiliated to the Labour Party, modern unions are recognising that they have to work in alliance with other trade unions, students, equality campaigns, international bodies, social movements, NGOs, and so on.

Indeed, it is from the social movements that the new generation of trade-union activists is likely to emerge. This is already happening, and not just at the national level, but internationally (witness the trade-union movement’s support for the European Social Forum) and locally (see the rebirth of community trade unionism), too. The workplace-safety Hazards campaign, a lasting and growing product of connections established between social movements, intellectuals and trade unions in the 1970s (see “Danger: people at work”), is exemplary of the radical but practical kind of trade unionism required.

Similarly, the role unions can play in confronting fascism is critical. In “Nul points for the BNP” two union-backed organisations – the magazine Searchlight and the coalition to get out the anti-fascist vote Unite Against Fascism – present differing assessments of how to take on the British National Party (BNP): Searchlight editor Nick Lowles explains the magazine’s emphasis on local campaigning among the communities to whom the BNP is making its appeal; Unite Against Fascism demonstrates the importance of developing a national campaign and appealing to young people. The two approaches can be seen as complementary, and the BNP would have done much better in June’s local and European elections without them. Through supporting both, unions released political energy and resources for a social movement without throttling its spontaneity.

The Stop the War Coalition mobilised the largest demonstrations the UK has ever seen, but we are now moving into a new phase of campaigning, which involves unions building solidarity with the labour movement in Iraq. The Natfhe motion to this month’s TUC conference calls for an end to the occupation, urges support for the country’s newly emerging free trade union and women’s movements, and encourages twinning, material support and other help as the Iraqis form their own resistance to the privatisation of their country.

Across the Atlantic, the growing US Labor Against The War movement has linked opposition to the occupation with the reasons for removing Bush, stressing that the promotion of corporate interests and the attacks on workers’ rights in Iraq are part of the same process that is causing suffering to the US poor. The response to Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 illustrates the unease among ordinary Americans that is well captured in “GIs against the war”.

All these issues will be central to the debates on how to build another Europe as part of a better world when the European Social Forum comes to London in October. Be there.

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