In March 2020, the Office for National Statistics informed us that wages were again back below their pre-crisis peak. Regular weekly pay in the UK lower, in real terms, than it was in March 2008. Before we even experience the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this 12-year period represents the longest squeeze in living standards since the Napoleonic era. It is in such an hour of need that Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union, has written his ‘call to arms’ for workers of the world in his short book Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist.
Convincing people to join a trade union in the current climate should not be the hardest of tasks. Current levels of inequality in the UK are high and, after accounting for housing costs, continue to tick upwards. These disparities are associated with stagnant life expectancy, obesity and a whole host of other health and social problems. Inequality is also associated with greater carbon emissions as well as, more obviously, hindering poverty reduction.
One of the main causes of this growing inequality is the decline in union membership. The OECD has said this, the IMF has said this but, unfortunately and somewhat puzzlingly, Len McCluskey has not. Despite a brief nod to growing levels of inequality buried a hundred pages in, there is no opening salvo on the importance of unions for a healthy, equitable democracy. No narrative that ties together the threat of automation and the gig economy with an economic system that increasingly rewards wealth and not work.
Instead, we are greeted with a haphazard list of anecdotes extolling the benefits of trade unions. As McCluskey goes on to tell us: ‘Unions negotiate with employers on pay and conditions. They fight to protect the workforce when major changes, such as large-scale job losses, are proposed… [Union members] are also likely to get better sickness and pension benefits, more paid holiday, and more control over things like shifts and working hours.’ We are rooted here in the language of trade unionism as a service. Membership of the NUJ even gets you free access to museums! Some rallying call for the working class…
On a similar note, despite it being the most important political development of his tenure – and considering his personal role in sustaining it – we get no front-row insight into the operation or basic ideas behind Corbynism.
We learn only that McCluskey saw the Corbyn project’s attempted revival of 1980s social democracy as an answer to ‘neoliberal dogma’. More than anyone, McCluskey is seen as personifying that project’s collision (or collaboration, depending on your view) with Brexit and populism. He misses his opportunity to set the record straight, offer a clear definition of Corbynism, and defend the role of the labour movement in supporting, sustaining and/or challenging it.
As such, we are left with more questions than answers. How cathe post-Corbyn Labour party face an impregnable government majority, without letting them frame the political battlefield and returning us to the turgid ‘lesser evil-ism’ of 2015? How does Labour, whose radicalism centres on state intervention, avoid being eclipsed by Johnson’s Tories, recast as big-spending, embracers of socially conservative Keynesianism?
More fundamentally for Labour’s left, how did its moment of triumph collapse so utterly? Were its moral scruples such that it could never match the machinations of Labour’s right? Despite the ‘movement’ rhetoric, did its inability to look beyond narrow parliamentarism run so deep as to finally vindicate Ralph Miliband’s argument that Labour offers no road to socialism?
McCluskey claims he sees no ‘difference between the industrial and the political fight’. But this synthesis, leveraging workers’ industrial strength for political power, was exactly what Corbynism lacked. What is needed today from our union leaderships is a clear analysis of that power. That won’t be found sitting under studio lights opposite Andrew Marr. It comes by virtue of a leadership embedded within the class that is not only most in need of change but is the only class able to deliver it. It is to understand what the great Irish-Liverpudlian union leader Jim Larkin knew intuitively: that socialist ideas can only succeed when they are ‘a response to the needs of the hour’.
Despite telling us he prefers ‘class-based unionism’ to ‘business unionism’, McCluskey not only fails to make any class-based rallying cry for socialism. Instead, with an admiring nod to German corporatism, McCluskey seems desperate to show just how reasonable, non-threatening and accommodating trade unions can be.
It wasn’t always this way. Unite was formed as a merger of the Transport & General Workers union (T&G) and Amicus. As a general secretary from the T&G faction, McCluskey has always had two giant predecessors to choose to emulate – the militant or the statesman.
For the militant, McCluskey has his hero Jack Jones: a fellow-Liverpudlian, Spanish civil war veteran and leader of the T&G during the 1970s. Jones’ autobiography Union Man explores his left Euroscepticism, his advocacy of industrial democracy over corporatism and the opening salvos of Thatcher’s war on the trade union movement.
For the statesman, McCluskey could turn to the founder of the T&G, Ernest Bevin. Bevin’s biography by Alan Bullock requires 650 pages to traverse his role as a stalwart of the old union right. Bevin is traced from reluctant leader during the 1926 general strike to Churchill’s wartime government, Labour foreign minister and early cold warrior with the founding of NATO.
In contrast, we learn nothing of McCluskey’s role, if any, in Liverpool’s ‘militant years’ of the mid-1980s, nor his role in he left during the partnership-soaked years of Blair. To take just one example, his book’s potted history of the movement glosses over pivotal industrial disputes such as at the Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013, when one of the best organised workplaces in the country was forced to accept job losses, wage cuts and an end to the final salary pension scheme in an eventual capitulation to a company lockout.
Jones and Bevin were great in the historical sense. They remind us of the giants the labour movement has thrust onto the national stage, for better or for worse, and what Unite, no less than the T&G, Amicus or any other predecessor trade union, expects of its leadership. All subsequent general secretaries lived in their shadow and if this book is to serve as his record then McCluskey resides in the most abject darkness.
Ultimately, McCluskey’s book will not tell you why you should be a trade unionist. For that you should turn to A Collective Bargain by American rank-and-file organiser Jane McAlevey. Part battle plan and part testimony to the workers whose power trade unionism realises, McAlevey’s book not only tells us why we should be trade unionists in the 21st century but offers a comprehensive guide to the battering of the union movement since the 1980s. It suitably places the challenges facing the movement in context, replete with inspiring case studies and hard-earned organiser nous.
Between McCluskey’s and McAlevey’s books there is no contest. That the first word of the former should be ‘I’ and the first of the latter ‘unions’ gives away all you need to know about both. Seldom has the opening letter of a book told the reader so much about its author and all that follows.
This review was written by an anonymous collective of Unite members and originally appeared in issue #228 ‘Climate Revolutions’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.
You can purchase a copy of Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist from Verso Books.
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