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Unions must be political and creative

By organising beyond the workplace, unions can defeat the very real threat to workers' ability to act collectively, says Jo Beardsmore

June 30, 2011
4 min read

The trade union movement stands at a cross-roads, faced with a real and serious threat, but also displaying a rediscovered political voice which reminds us of its historical position as the most effective vehicle for defending working people. It must use that position to fight the cuts.

The government’s ideologically driven programme of cuts will re-shape our society beyond recognition. If allowed to proceed unchallenged they will gut the state and strip back all of those services and safety nets which any society claiming to be civilised should provide. Make no mistake about it; the cuts will be radical and ruthless. The threat to the trade union movement is no less stark or drastic. The government’s cuts will harm trade unions both directly and indirectly. Unemployment and rapid privatisation will reduce membership and renegotiated rights and anti-union laws will make it increasingly hard for workers to act collectively in an already hostile environment. Workers jobs, rights and benefits are already under attack whilst Vince Cable’s comments at the GMB conference come in the context of vicious attacks on union rights in the United States.

But the future of the trade union movement need not look so grim. Some unions have recognised the scale of the threat that we all face and have started to act in exciting ways, opening themselves up and engaging with other groups and organisations. PCS and Unite are currently leading the way.

A successful anti-cuts movement must be driven from the grassroots, as the students and UK Uncut have demonstrated, but we should not underestimate the importance of having high profile figures capable of articulating the arguments of those who challenge the government. This is especially important as the Labour Party neglects its role as the Opposition and the defenders of working people. Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey are important figuresable to fill that void left by Labour.

The unions can play a vital role in helping to build a broad and diverse movement to challenge the government. Diverse both in terms of its membership, and in the tactics it is able and willing to employ. We have received fantastic support from a number of unions, particularly PCS and Unite, who have publicly called on their members to join our actions. We must all work to build a coalition to challenge the government and to show that we are all in it together against them. In this respect, 30 June is a very important day, being the largest day of anti-cuts action yet, with 800,000 workers striking. UK Uncut will be supporting those on strike, through The Big Society Breakfast; we plan to provide food and solidarity to those on the picket.

June 30 cannot be seen as an end in itself, or merely a tool in the negotiations of an industrial dispute. We must all recognise that to defeat the government on any single issue means challenging the arguments which are used to justify the whole cuts agenda. UK Uncut have sought to do this by highlighting tax avoidance to show that there are alternatives to the cuts, and by targeting the banking sector to expose the fallacy that that we are all in this together.

The unions must take a leading role in the fight against the cuts. They need to be bold. Their disputes with the government must be framed as political, not just industrial. They must challenge the myth that they act in their own self-interest, and regain their status as the defenders of our public services. They must shake off the inertia brought about by 13 years of New Labour government and remember that they are not just lobbyists but organisers; they should take the lead in organising politically in the workplace and beyond. They should be brave. They must continue to develop new tactics and be creative. So far some have encouraged their members to join us in creative civil disobedience and they should continue to do so, but also to explore ways in which they can develop it as a tactic of their own. The unions can help the rest of the anti-cuts movement by articulating the arguments and mobilising people on a scale that can challenge and defeat the government.

See you on the picket lines!

Jo Beardsmore is an activist with UK Uncut. This post is a version of his contribution to Red Pepper’s seminar at the Compass conference on 25 June, How can unions be the force for social change we need?

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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