Cowed by anti-strike legislation introduced in the 1980s, British trade unions mostly retreated to the comfort zone of social partnership following their large-scale industrial defeats in the 1980s. Since the financial crisis of 2008, sustained attacks on workers terms and conditions have seen the longest period of wage decline since the 1870s, whilst trade union membership languishes at its lowest level for 70 years.
What will it take to create an effective labour movement that takes the fight to employers, wins concessions and reverses the tide of defeat?
1. End the links between organised labour and the Labour Party (and any other party).
Trade unions hand tens of millions of pounds of their members’ dues over to the Labour Party. What did a Labour government give in return? No repeal of the Conservative Party’s anti-strike laws, a statutory minimum wage set at poverty levels, and subsidies for employers in the form of tax credits.
Since 2010, the Labour opposition has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to austerity, yet reps in Labour’s largest union backer, Unite, were so busy recruiting to the Labour party in Falkirk that they oversaw one of their union’s biggest and most humiliating defeats. Workers gain nothing by having their money and resources handed over to a political party with interests that are antithetical to their own.
Some advocate switching trade union funds to the Green Party or outfits like TUSC. But the energy and resources required to send a handful of representatives to parliament would outweigh any benefit. Workers need organisations up to the task of defending their members, not MPs making speeches on their behalf in parliament.
2. We need better organisational forms…
Most trade unions are run by a small number of bureaucrats who haven’t seen the shop floor in years. Recallable delegates, fixed terms and federal structures (at branch level and beyond) would go some way towards checking the development of unaccountable and self-serving leaderships.
Having local branches retain a proportion of their members’ dues in local dispute funds is vital if branches are to take on a life of their own and spearhead their own campaigns. Industrial unions, in which all workers with the same employer or industry belong to the same union, avoid the pitfalls of workers divided by trade, role or occupation.
If achieving this means breaking with TUC unions and forming new rank-and-file-led organisations that don’t exist as a means to prop up incumbent union bureaucracies and the Labour Party – as workers at the University of Sussex did – then so be it. Given the effort that would be required to shift those in charge of many TUC unions, it almost certainly does.
3. …and more innovative tactics.
A to B marches, random one day strikes and the threat of a mythical ‘One Day General Strike’ at some indeterminate date in the future (a bizarre fixation of Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Party), have got workers nowhere. This small and uninspiring bag of mostly rhetorical tricks have forced employers and the state to concede barely an inch.
Yet workers aren’t losing everywhere. Cleaners in London, members of the independent IWGB union won concessions from their employer, as did workers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton. Both campaigns engaged with their local communities maximising the effectiveness of well-supported industrial action. Brighton Solidarity Federation have been winning back wages stolen by employers in the city’s service sector with a string of militant campaigns. Bristol IWW have achieved similar wins.
Groups like these and the Focus E15 Mothers campaign show how small, determined campaigns of direct action achieve results. In all of these cases, engagement with the wider community has been crucial.
4. Lots of small, militant wins…
The campaigns by striking cleaners and cinema workers have galvanised support for wage increases. Even the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, felt it necessary to profess support for the London Living Wage. Similar campaigns targeting, for example, zero-hours employers in the retail or logistics sectors could achieve similar results, give workers confidence to take collective action, and develop into something bigger.
5. …building up to big wins.
The vast sums of money unions hand over to the Labour Party underline the potential that exists for a programme of militant industrial action backed by financial muscle.
Two local authorities – Barnet and Northamptonshire – are pledging to outsource up to 95% of their functions within the next decade. Why aren’t local government unions using their reserves to make an example of these authorities and fight the employers every inch of the way? Unions should be central to the fight against outsourcing, yet in their current form we see them recommending their members accept derisory pay offers as the “best achievable“.
6. Vastly improved social media presence, campaigning and outreach.
Every month Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, responds to the employment figures by telling us it’s good that unemployment has gone down but bad that all the jobs are so low paid. Maybe O’Grady should look a little closer to home to find out why that is.
Effective labour organisations require a visible, approachable presence; talking to workers, employed or unemployed, on the ground and helping them to organise. That means upping their social media game, aggressively using traditional advertising media, literally setting their stall out and being the go-to organisations for anyone wanting to improve their conditions or defend themselves at work. With arguable exceptions – such as RMT London Calling – can anyone claim that the TUC unions are doing that?
The old ways have failed workers, but better ways of doing things are already happening. Labour activists need to learn from them, adapt their methods and get serious about organising for the battles ahead.