Membership of our trade unions has more than halved since the peak of over 13 million in 1979. Many reasons have been put forward to explain this fact and many attempts have been made to reverse the decline. Yet, in the land that gave birth to trade unions, the decline continues. But it can be reversed...
As the crisis of capitalism deepens so too does the crisis of thought and deed in the working class. In the face of continued and increasing attacks on our class on all fronts, the divide widens between those who want, and act for, better, and those who seek to avoid. The attack, all-encompassing – “shock and awe” – has left our class like rabbits in the headlights, and many of us are turning in on ourselves.
PCS banner on Budget Day – but a turnout for a strike ballot of 28 per cent is a symptom that workers cannot ignore.
Our basic battleground is on pay yet there is a reluctance to fight for it. Why? Is it because our class buys into the enemy’s propaganda that the country cannot afford it due to the parlous state of the economy, as if we earn too much? Do we think there is no alternative to “austerity”? Or is it a case of we know what it will take to shift the government/employer on pay and we're not desperate enough yet?
Recently PCS voted by 60 per cent for strike action on a 28 per cent turnout, though in general the action was supported. Teacher unions have voted 82 per cent in favour of action – on a 27 per cent turnout. Low turnouts only encourage the employer and discourage ourselves. Just how hard is it to return a ballot form? What message would an 80 or 90 per cent return deliver? We should remind ourselves that the employers in Britain hold £800 billion in cash and that's our money.
Too many of our class behave as if scrabbling around for crumbs – “Why should you have it when I haven’t got it?” – cries of “it's discrimination that s/he is paid more for doing the same job”, etc. No more is this exemplified than on the pensions front. Lost through weakness and ignorance, final salary schemes now cover only 13 per cent of workers in the private sector. Too many don’t see why public sector workers should have them, and say so! We should be aware that some £1.5 trillion are tied up in the pensions of British workers – that's also our money!
In general the class still hankers for partnership with the employers, despite knowing that leopards don't change their spots. We are paying the price for avoiding the struggles of the past and clinging in vain to the ideology of cowardice that has brought us to this pass.
The emasculating of trade union facility time in the civil service will be rolled out across the public sector and aped in the private. Of course, when our forebears built trade unions there was no such thing as facility time, only the determination to survive through collective strength and refusal to be wiped out. Today, the attack is sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of commitment - far too many trade union reps are fair-weather “not in my own time” people, as if the struggle stops at the workplace exit gate!
Government also attacks trade unions financially. Larger unions such as Unison, Unite and GMB could each be deprived of up to £12 million annually due to the implementation of the Jackson Report. Set up to review civil litigation costs under Labour and implemented with glee by the coalition government, it scraps payments for Personal Injury referrals and insurances, effectively forcing unions to pay the equivalent of more than 200,000 members’ subscriptions annually.
The drive to elevate individual rights above collective ones which began in the 1980s was reinforced by Labour's introduction of the right to representation. Under the guise of greater “rights” (and trumpeted as a gain) its real purpose is to tie the time of union officers and reps up in knots with individual issues – that is why neither this, nor any other government, will ever repeal that “trade union right”.
There was a time when someone from an unrecognised workplace would be told that they would have to organise the workplace and win recognition if they wanted representation. Now there are thousands upon thousands of individual members just maintaining their membership as a form of “insurance”, draining both energy and resources, contributing little if anything to the development of their union.
Having promoted individual workers’ rights, government now attacks them by restricting their access to the justice system – employment tribunals. By the introduction of deposits (£1,200 for an unfair dismissal claim) and making it impossible to submit a claim without first securing a certificate for seeking resolution through ACAS, these “rights” are seriously undermined. Tribunal claims are often submitted as a holding/negotiating tactic to avoid running out of time and adding leverage on the employer. The employers’ response will be, as now, delay – making a claim fail by going beyond the limitation date.
Rebuilding workplace trade union organisation is not easy but has to be done. It is the foundation from which all progress under capitalism has been built. Fundamentally, this means challenging those workers who are content for the union to exist in their workplace, but refuse to join.
Shop stewards and reps must be steeled to encourage existing members to be more blunt with these people. Non-members must be told that the employer has long used them against the organised and also themselves – they must be faced with this truth rather than permitting the liberal attitude that they have freedom of choice not to belong.
While many do step forward to become the union representatives of their workmates, it can often be a burden too hard to bear. We see it all the time – the poor volunteer (very few elections these days) to become a rep can also result in their setting themselves up to be a target, not just by the boss but more importantly by their workmates.
It is as if workers have the luxury of watching a show from the sidelines and giving marks out of ten. The attitude that says “We elected you to do it for us” is at the root of our problems. It is both the microcosm and essence of our problem: social democracy and the abrogation of responsibility.
This attitude has to be challenged and if we are bold enough to do so, will strike a chord. It is the “We are all in it together” line. There is no hiding place and 100 members should mean 100 reps in attitude. When the boss tells the rep to get lost he is really telling every worker to get lost, so our response must be “What are WE going to do about it?”
The attacks will continue but ultimately, of course, it is not about the enemy class – they will do what they have always done – seek ever more vicious and inventive ways to exploit us while keeping us down. It is about us, the working class and what we do. ■