As delegates prepare for the Trades Union Congress in London this month, they need to recognise that workplace power is the only solution…
The TUC returns to London, no longer trekking round seaside towns – Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton – or the new conference centres – Liverpool, Manchester – but back to Britain’s capital city. The symbolism of the TUC speaking up for Britain’s workers from Britain’s capital will sadly be lost or submerged in some phoney EU internationalism mixed with a diversion about the ‘far right’ threatening to murder us all in our beds at night. The Cameron-Clegg-Miliband threat and circus will be fudged, a far too challenging issue.
Reduced in number of affiliated members as mergers of unions continue, and with the total membership of those unions affiliated dropping below 6 million, the TUC is still permeated with the idea of ‘big is beautiful’. Reduced is the size of union delegations (long overdue) so as to squeeze into the TUC conference centre, but for the wrong reason: the continuing decline of organised labour.
The TUC now has the smallest number of affiliated members since the early 1940s. Set against a backcloth of civil disturbance across Britain, the questions arising about organised versus non-organised labour – hope and aspiration of a working class as against desperation of the unemployed and supposedly unemployable – should start to focus trade union minds.
The question before trade unionists at the TUC is the one which has seemed unsolvable since Thatcher in 1979: How can the working class through its organisations, primarily the trade union movement, grow and survive in the face of the most vicious, reactionary, vindictive and brutal capitalist class in our history?
It’s a capitalist class trying on the imported US political labels “neo-liberalism” and the even more extreme “neo-conservatism” to justify the excesses always associated with capitalism and the accumulation or re-accumulation of wealth that is happening in Britain today. A capitalist class which has unceasingly overseen the destruction of Britain’s core industrial identity for over 30 years, irrespective of which parliamentary party has been in government. A capitalist class which continues to dismantle all social progress that the working class has achieved – education, local government, housing, planning, health, social care.
The answer for our class is two-fold: reassert that sense of identity, class identity, which primarily comes from the workplace; and challenge the very root of capitalism as an economic system.
We cannot reassert class identity unless we identify ourselves as workers, in the workplace – however that is defined in the 21st century. We cannot challenge the root of capitalism if we eternally delude ourselves by affiliation to the Labour Party and its worship of capitalism.
Issue politics, internet pressure groups, community organising and do-gooding will not do the job either. When one of the last surveys of the Labour government under Brown asked the question of how people would define their class, 86 per cent saw themselves as working class – irrespective of income, residence or job. How do we motivate the overwhelming majority of workers, nearly 30 million of them now in Britain, to promote their aspirations consciously as a class?
TUC economic analysis compares the early 19th-century growth of capitalism with events that are happening in Britain in the early 21st century. Yes the parallels are there, with instability, short-termism, unemployment, disorganisation, long hours, reduced wages, market-driven chaos and anarchy. But there the parallel ends. This is not reborn capitalism full of dynamic growth: this is capitalism in absolute decline.
In Britain the acquisition of wealth has much criminality involved in it – drug trafficking, people trafficking, sex trade, and financial usury – generating profits faster and easier than manufacturing. Britain has a higher density of these capitalist activities than any other country in Europe. All roads for drug cartels, prostitution, and child slavery now seem to lead to Britain.
The figures in May 2011 for unemployment showed 2.46 million unemployed plus 2.35 million “economically inactive” people of working age (largely hidden unemployment), together making 4.81 million people. These figures have risen over the summer.
The largest factor in the dip below 6 million from 6.5 million trade unionists affiliated to the TUC is unemployment – systematic closure and dispensing with workers. Estimates of youth unemployment affecting 16- to 25-year-olds now range upwards of 20 per cent. This is no accident: debt-burdened students, unemployed school leavers and the mass influx of workers from abroad willing to work for a pittance represent the destruction of the seed corn of Britain’s future.
One aspect of the capitalist destruction of Ireland’s now flayed “tiger economy” is the estimated 1 million people who will leave Ireland to seek work elsewhere. Britain now sees wave after wave of mass migration sponsored by the EU and welcomed by capitalist politicians of every stripe, all of which will ensure a further decline in the quality of work – unskilled, low wage, long hours, no job security, no or limited employment rights, minimalist terms and conditions, no training and no future for young workers. An estimated 25 per cent of British workers are now defined in this manner. Unemployment – war on workers – can lead to deteriorating health, debt and hopelessness.
Real wages are in decline relative to the 1970s, or more aptly in reverse gear. The wealth gap increases, profits rise, bank bonuses run at unprecedented rates. The fall in real incomes is now the sharpest for over 40 years with the largest drop in consumer spending for more than 30 years. Wages are frozen if not cut. Collective bargaining is being abandoned as union density drops in workplaces.
Unite the union has seen staggering membership losses in the last 12 months – over 250,000 – paralleled only by losses in the 1980s and 1990s in mining, steel, textiles, docks, and fishing. Regional and plant bargaining to the detriment of national agreements, localism, individual pay and performance-related pay are all on the march, leading to destruction of terms and conditions. This is the employer agenda that has to be challenged. Workers are going to have to stand together and fight to survive.
Fragmentation of workplaces by outsourcing, home working, hot desking, architecture that isolates workers, new technology and the exploitation driven by email and electronic management – all of these challenge traditional ways of organising. It means that tradition has to change and getting organised by whatever method around work and the workplace must become the norm. Wages, terms and conditions, safety, skill and stability of employment have to be the renewed battlefields to produce the resurgent trade union movement. Struggle generates collectivity, identity and consciousness. Consciousness then in turn generates more struggle.
The undermining of workplace organisation during the past 30 years, deeply damaging what trade unions can or seem to deliver, has undermined consciousness. These defeats can be reversed if workers decide to take responsibility for themselves, for their workplace, for their union. Not some gigantic edifice of a union machine covering every occupation and every industry but organically grown workplace identities turning division into unity and fragmentation back into strength.
The TUC will debate at length calls for trade union freedom based on a strategy to persuade a future Labour government to abandon British and EU anti-trade union legislation – the new Combination Acts. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 strengthened this anti-union legislation, the most draconian in Europe; none was ever removed from the statute book.
Workers have resisted anti-worker legislation dating back to its first introduction under the Tudors and throughout every century since. The Master and Servant Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries epitomised how the ruling class saw us and our place. A declining membership base will do nothing more than reassure the employer class that we are defeated and our place is now in the history books.
A different message
A vibrant new unionism transforming the workplace will send a different message. There have been numerous trade union survival strategies and fads since the decline in the 1980s. We have mergers and big is beautiful – one unionism. We’ve had the Australian organising model. We’ve had the US organising model. We’ve had the EU organising model. We now have the mantra that community organising is the key as opposed to workplace. We have managerial trade unionism – if the unions were better managed people will join. We have business trade unionism just to keep certain people employed and we have every fad for whatever the flavour of the moment is.
None of them works. Why would anyone want instruction from the US trade union movement with its 5 to 8 per cent density and elements of gangsterism, or the EU model of corporate integration with the state? Or “community” organising – another US import from a different legal and employer tradition, totally alien to Britain’s trade union movement.
There is only one solution: power in the workplace. The workplace is the bedrock, with workers organising themselves just as we always have done: a class for itself taking responsibility and being responsible. Dump all diversions! ■