Developing trade unionism in the crisis

Unions must rise to the challenge of the cuts by empowering local branches and developing wider civil society resistance says Huw Beynon

June 30, 2011
11 min read

In spite of talk of coming out of recession, it is clear that the UK, and western capitalism generally, remains in the throes of a major economic and social crisis with consequences that are yet unclear. In this there is an urgent need for progressive forces of the left to organise and argue for a future that emphasises equality and justice and re-examines the assumptions that have underpinned the neoliberal politics of the last thirty years.

Trade unions have a major role to play in this. Over the past decade they  have often been identifies as ‘special interest groups’ – groups that have to be faced down by government in defence of the general good. Many of their leaders have felt vulnerable to this change and reluctant to openly challenge a government elected by the people.

However there is another view and one that is gaining ground: that given the scale of the social crisis that beckons the trade unions are now the only institutions capable of preserving a democratic civil society, constraining the unbridled powers and capacities of the rich.

Legitimation crisis

A number of factors have contributed to the development of a legitimation crisis within the British political system. The breakdown of the two party system is one important development. Today no single party can  will  an election backed by the majority of those who voted, let alone a majority of the electorate.

This is exacerbated by the ongoing formation of a new political class dominating Westminster politics. This class is drawn largely from business and professional families and educated in the  major universities; mainly Oxbridge. Normally recruitment to the class requires no experience of employment beyond the political machine itself, where work in research and public relations is obtained often through patronage.

More broad spatial demographic changes also have an effect. Danny Dorling has identified the ways in which ‘mixed neighbourhoods’ have become far less prevalent as the property market has worked in a way that people increasingly live close to people like themselves. As a consequence (and for example) almost all the members of the current cabinet represent constituencies with unemployment rates far below the national average. This spatial effect is likely to continue and make it increasingly difficult for there to be the development of a coherent national strategy to deal with the complex of crises (economic, political, environmental) that will face the UK.

One consequence of this will be an increasing centrifugal force seeing Scotland becoming independent in all but name and greater powers devolved to Wales  and Northern Ireland. Another will be the increasing concentration of poor people in poor neighbourhoods, stigmatised and prone to crisis and subject to sporadic violent regulation.

What underpins much of this has been the upward trend in income inequality which began with the intervention by the IMF in 1976 – when the bankers in New York decided that the UK had ‘run out of rope’ and has gone on apace since then. It is currently at a level not seen since before the first world war with the top 1 per cent receiving 20 per cent of the national income. This trend has produced over half a million millionaires while at the other end of the scale 13½ million people in the UK (around a fifth  of the population) live in poverty. This inequality is increasingly mirrored in health and mortality data with the very rich living longer while the poor have an early death.

Who can speak out against all of this? Who and which organisations can attempt to affect changes in these powerful tendencies?

Trade unions, class and equality

It is interesting to note that incomes were at their most  equal in the UK in 1976. This was also the year when people declared themselves to be happiest. It was also the year when trade union membership peaked. These things are not unrelated. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett conclude in their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, institutional changes associated with right wing politics have been at the root of rising inequalities and of these changes trade union membership is the most important single factor.

Even at the height of the attack on trade union power when MORI polls found a majority of people agreeing that ‘trade unions had too much power’ and were ‘run by militants’, 73 per cent also agreed that ‘trade unions are essential to protect workers’ interests’.  MORI last polled on this issue in 1995 when only 24 per cent of its sample thought trade unions too powerful and 79 per cent thought them vital to the protection of workers’ interests. Interestingly, and after a gap of sixteen years MORI included the questions again this year. Today 35 per cent thought trade union too powerful but 76 per cent continued to believe them essential for workers’ protection. In all of these polls, the responses of trade union members were consistently more positive towards trade unionism; offering some support to the idea of trade unions as an ‘experience good’ – something that is valued more, once experienced directly.

And, of course thereby hangs a tale, for trade union membership has been falling since it reached the heights of 13 millions in the seventies.  While membership has been flat-lining since 2000, this is at the low level of  25 per cent of the labour force, some 7 million employees.  There are strong differences between the public (56 per cent) and private (15 per cent) sectors and between men and women, with women now and increasingly more prone to union membership than men.

This is an issue that has perplexed trade union leaders for some time, often to the exclusion of all else. Here they have received encouragement from the USA where – as recent events amongst New York’s hotel cleaning staff has shown – campaigning unions have been able to establish membership strength and support vulnerable workers in the least propitious of environments.

However there has been a game change, brought about by the policies of the current government with regard to the public sector. The cutbacks planned by conservative and liberal ministers will, in the view of the IMF, see the UK have the lowest level of public expenditure of all the OECD countries by 2014. In three years time, with these plans, the UK will have a smaller public sector than the US. Privatisation and job cuts together would see British trade union memberships dropping below 20 per cent of the labour force; perhaps well below and severely damaging the capacity of these organisations to affect major change. For them a struggle for a better society is also a struggle for their very existence, and in this they are fortunate is having in leadership positions people of real substance and experience.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, was brought up in Liverpool and (to borrow from Bill Shankly) didn’t do PPE at Oxford but learned about it on the Liverpool waterfront. Similarly with Mark Serwotka of PCS  who became active in the trade union though his work experience in benefit offices in Aberdare and Sheffield. Both of these men (articulate and intelligent) came out of the working class and are framed and marked by that experience. It distinguishes them from Cameron and Clegg but also from Miliband and Balls, and from the rest of the new political class. They represent increasingly a different locus of power and understanding within society.

We should remember that in the 1951 Census, manual workers made up 64.2 per cent of the labour force of 14.7 million people. While much is often made of the decline in these numbers these accounts almost always ignore the power of memory and of generational inheritance and transfer. In the UK , and often to the dismay of the media, people have regularly expressed an identity with being working class. As the Sunday Times noted fifteen years ago:

The majority of people regard themselves as working class even when they are (according to the people who decide these things) middle class……..Confused? Either they are or we are. (The Sunday Times, 22 September 1996)

So within the threat there lies an opportunity for trade unions in Britain to survive and also to reform society for the better.  But to succeed in this they need to revolutionise themselves.

The challenges

We live in threatening times, but also a time of opportunity which trade unions need to grasp. The new government has fragile support across the country. There are few signs that the Labour Party is keen to lead a broad based opposition to the cuts and to policies of privatisation. Yet there are signs that opposition is developing – often in unexpected places. Only the trade unions – with the national organisations and experience of struggle and dispute – have the capacity to coordinate and develop this into a coherent resistance movement. But to achieve this the trade union leadership will need to act with a sense of urgency. They will need to develop new ideas, new ways of organising and work with new, more open alliances. In this, and though the direct experiences of their members they will need to develop a full defence of ‘the public’ as opposed to the assumed supremacy of ‘the market’.

In this there are many challenges; some of ideology others of organisation and practice. At the moment it is clear that a majority of the people in the UK have become convinced that cuts are necessary if we are to come out of the crisis and, in the phrase of the Tories ‘penalise our children’. The Labour Party hasn’t helped to dispel this account and most of the people think that a Labour government would have embarked on similar policies, albeit slightly slower.

However, and in spite of some anticipatory adjustments, the cuts have not yet begun. There is reason to expect that they will be seen by many as shocking. Already 57 per cent of people polled have expressed dissatisfaction with the way the coalition is governing the country. In this context the trade unions needs to be in a position to speak, not only for their members, but for the population as a whole and especially the poorest and the most vulnerable. Len McCluskey was adroit in speaking of ‘the people against the cuts’, placing the trade unions with the majority and for the country. This however needs to be backed with a strong and credible account of alternatives and of the threat to democracy posed by the enormous power of the banks.

The second challenge is one of organisation. If the trade unions are to help lead us out of this mess they will need to develop modes of organisation that have almost been forgotten. They will need to empower their local branches and organisations and encourage involvement with a wide range of social movements and protest groups. Again, in his open approach to the students and his defence of them as they faced police harassment, McCluskey hit the right note. This link also needs to be taken forward though local committees, and through a devolution of powers, that will be difficult to achieve but nonetheless essential.

To this there is another problem and one that the trade unions have struggled with over the last thirty years and it relates to the problem of striking over the delivery of public services often to the vulnerable. Aside form the publicity this gives to the Daily Mail, trade unions need to be seen to stand for a better kind of society and a better way of doing things. While striking against the employer deep consideration needs to be given to ways of ameliorating distress and harnessing this into a campaign for a better society.


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