Instead of a tiny percentage of stewards, branch officers, activists, we must return the ownership of the union to the members...
The 144th Congress of the Trades Union Congress has come and gone, but where does it leave the six million affiliated members in their day-to-day struggle to survive? What's changed from 1868 when the pioneers of our movement set up the organisation – bar the surface gloss?
We are still fighting for the right to work. We are still fighting for rights at work. We are still fighting for wages and terms of employment. We fight for equality in numerous garbs but avoid resolving the real issue of inequality between worker and employer. We fight for social justice but never challenge the inequity and injustice inherent in the capitalist system. We can document and expose the failures, flaws, corruption, brutality, greed, lies, deception, fraud and theft inherent to capitalism year on year over the last 144 years.
Workers never cease to be amazed that they, the capitalists, can keep perpetuating their frauds, their financial scams, their incredible bonuses and fortunes at our expense year on year, decade on decade. Are our members' memories so short or have they been so successful in creating mass amnesia among Britain’s workers?
Capitalism has actually created an industry which exposes its own corruption and rottenness because that generates profit, a market, income and employment for crusading journalists. Whereas no one can identify the distinction between legal and illegal capitalist enterprise, capitalists revel in their own filth. But exposure does not lead to cleansing the problem, otherwise we would have rid Britain of capitalism many years ago.
Agenda of attack
What is capitalism intending to do? Accelerate the agenda of attack on workers and their trade unions at every opportunity and in every forum it can. Abolish health and safety provisions; abolish workplace employment rights; abolish security of employment; destroy the ability to bargain over wages; destroy pension provision; destroy skill and invention; undermine the ability of trade unions to organise and represent; perpetuate a “no rights culture”. Promote exploitation and wealth extraction in every function of civil society – education, health, housing, transport, energy – all up for grabs and profit.
Every area of working class advance in the past 144 years is to be either asset-stripped or privatised and all limited democratic gains made are reduced to ensuring that the capitalist class controls all and is perceived to be unchallengeable. Parliamentary democracy and local democracy are both stripped of their functions and services as capitalism ransacks the nation. The bought access to politicians and control over most occupants of the Houses of Parliament contribute to the disengagement of workers from the so-called democratic process in Britain. Capitalism in Britain in the 21st century has a vision of absolute unchallengeable control by them, for them, forever.
So what are we going to do about the state of Britain? There are six million of us affiliated to the TUC, six million in unaffiliated trade unions or staff associations of some description and a further 18 million of us unemployed, self-employed etc, who are not in any form of workplace organisation.
Part of the march during the TUC’s last big London walkabout, on 26 March 2011.
Do we think that the Coalition is unassailable as Thatcher presented herself 30 years ago after the Malvinas War that supposedly re-established British military global presence? Were the Olympics Cameron and Clegg’s Malvinas moment – will they now sail gloriously into winning the next general election based on our stupidity and intoxication over games and circuses?
Saturday 20 October will see the TUC’s second public demonstration, following on from 26 March 2011, against the government’s so-called austerity policy. March 2011 was the mobilisation of millions of workers to fight for pensions and a “march for the alternative”. Now hundreds of thousands of workers will march under a slogan of “March for a future that works”.
Why do we adopt the language of the enemy when we use that bastardised word “austerity”? What has austerity to do with the rich, idle capitalists and their class of asset strippers, bankers and estate agents masquerading as MPs? The only application of “moral strictness”, “self-discipline or self-restraint”, as austerity is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is as it is being applied to the working class: depressed wages, rising costs for essentials, reduced quality of life, unemployment, poverty and despair. What is a march for the future or a future that works when the trade unions are too frightened to actually spell out what we mean?
If we mean full employment, a planned economy, health, education, housing, transport, industry, investment, equality, then we should speak the unspeakable. Away with the market, away with exploitation, yes to socialism!
Is the march on 20 October going to set the country on fire? Will it be that spark which ignites all the anger, frustration, despair of millions of people suffering from an economic strategy now in its 35th year which is solely intended to destroy us as an organised working class? Sadly no.
Is it the start of a protracted strategy of measured resistance to see the Coalition gone? One would hope so but when the major trade union caucuses are manoeuvring towards two huge trade unions within the next five years, one public sector, one private sector, then sadly the answer is no again.
The largest public sector union to mobilise its members to attend the 20 October rallies (Glasgow, Belfast, London) has run its campaign on a supposedly clever theme of footwear, with some political message about “shopping” and “shoes” assumed to be the only interest for women in resolving our difficulties. How infantile and irrelevant for day-to-day workplace battles – especially in a union with a claimed membership of over one million women!
Will marches make the government change direction? Workers have been marching for hundreds of years with no recorded success of a government surrendering once the banners have passed by. Will the TUC move towards a general strike as some seem to aspire to? If in a position of weakness and assault on all sides, why would we bare our bosom and invite a death thrust to the heart?
What is needed now is not rhetoric or posturing but calm planning and organising. Instead of the jockeying for position in the big one, two, three or four trade union amalgam, why not a real fraternal organising plan to put assets and resources into the real rebuilding of Britain’s trade unions?
During the London 2012 Games, Unison, Unite and GMB carved up on clear industrial and organisational grounds their strategies to cover recruitment of catering, security, transport, logistics support staff, etc. The disaster of the recruitment exercise was that all three unions failed to recruit and one reported only seven recruits out of a potential seven thousand.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this but one was that the vast majority of potential recruits did not understand what a trade union was or the concept of collective organising and bargaining. An immense educational project with a real battle of ideas is required to re-educate, re-enlighten, re-recruit these lost generations.
Do we only want two trade unions in Britain, when the line between public and private and private and public becomes so blurred? The answer has to be no.
Paul Kenny, retiring President at this year’s TUC and GMB General Secretary, in his presidential address commented, “Our challenge is to grow, to organise those industries and workers which in some cases we have avoided, perhaps because of the difficulty of the task.” How absolutely correct!
The time has come when the manoeuvring, political shadow boxing, marriage proposals and broken romances about possible trade union mergers has to cease. The egos of less than half a dozen general secretaries concerned as to whether they go into the history books as the first leader of the biggest trade union in British history or the Captain of the New Titanic are not what our trade unions are there for.
The answer shouts from every workplace across Britain. Every worker in their respective union, every workplace organised in a union, not a general union for every workplace, not 6 million workers affiliated to the TUC but 30 million.
Instead of a tiny percentage of stewards, branch officers, activists involved in the union, too often for their own agenda and self-interest, we must return the ownership of the union to the members. Six million members to be conscious, engaged, active and participating.
Some would argue that such a view is idealistic and undeliverable. But revolution is made by the conscious involvement of millions of people knowing the how and why there must be change. Without such a new consciousness there will not be an end to this aberration in history called capitalism. ■