British Trades Unions in a state of flux

Bert Ratcliffe reviews the state of play as part of a discussion by trades unionists in Anti*Capitalist Resistance.


The British trades union movement is in a state of flux. This has enormous possibilities for those in the unions and wider working class movement who want to see positive militant change. There is also good reason to be worried about the opportunities being missed. We need to both develop our understanding of this situation, and work out how our comrades active in the trades union movement and the wider propaganda work of all our comrades can play a role in what is going on.

There are many factors creating this situation, some widely known and obvious, others more esoteric or debatable, some global, some local. We need to consider some of the more directly trades union factors: crisis in the cost of living, shake ups and intensifying conflicts within many unions, crisis in union left strategy – which, when combined with chronic sectarianism and control-freakery, could be an obstacle to any breakthrough. The biggest opportunities always arise when the ruling class are in disarray, and they are, so there’s lots to do.

We need to take seriously on board the questions of racism and sexism that are not only highly visible in society at large but also in the union movement. Despite all the appropriate statements and policies, the union movement is no better than the rest of society. The weaponisation of accusations in Unison, for example, is not a serious attempt to deal with the issues but will have the opposite effect of creating partisan positions and undermining effective action.

There are many aspects to the practical work we need to undertake and a need to be very serious about our real capacity. Having a clear understanding of where the trades union movement is at and what it might be able to achieve in the coming months will provide the guidelines for both propaganda and the activity of comrades in the unions. Having clear tasks for our comrades around overall demands, and strategy with regards to left organisations and possible allies are needed.

What is happening on the ground?

Obviously, centre stage recently has been the RMT strike. The determination of railworkers and the totally unintended willingness of the media to allow Mick Lynch the opportunity to talk honest straight class war to millions on prime time news bulletins (surely they are going to try to ignore him from now on) has really shaken things up. Though many railworkers on the picket lines will talk up job security and public service, the reality of declining pay and the rate of inflation, and the fact that this is generalised across the working class, means they became the temporary vanguard against the frustrations and fears shared by tens of millions of UK workers.

Second, a mini strike wave was already developing in local, smaller businesses and council services. This could be now enhanced by national pay campaigns across the public sector and the wider transport industry. Additionally, the smaller new unions have been developing organisation within small parts of the gig and hyperexploited migrant worker economies. And initiatives such as CaSWO! have shown the impact even small groups of determined workers can have on public opinion and people in local government.

Together, these factors have put trades unions back on the map as a tool of working class resistance. As we saw with the NEU’s dispute over Covid, resistance enables organisation. Thatcher’s successes against the unions did not make people ideologically hostile to unions. People just saw them as ineffective, which enabled unions to become individualised insurance brokers rather than collectivised weapons of resistance. That this situation has continued for decades is the main reason that so many young people just don’t know they exist as an option for resistance. The myth that unions were overmighty might have galvanised middle class people against them in the seventies and eighties, but union members at that time always wanted to join the union that was leading the fight because their own was useless/feeble/unwilling.

What is happening in the working class?

Collectivity and mutual support, the bastions on which working class organisations were build between 1850 and 1950 has been ripped apart since 1979. Not only have the unions lost their clout but mass participatory activities are much reduced and mutual support organisations have been turned into shareholder focused businesses. Ironically, the post 1945 welfare state probably played a big role in undermining self-organisation by statising (while developing and generalising) what had gone before.

Council housing as a bedrock of providing secure good housing has been replaced by the housing ladder, increasingly exploitative private flats and (on their way to total privatisation) housing associations. These structures are only viable as a housing strategy in a time of generalised relative affluence.

Migration and gig working are transforming the population and the work it does. Sectors of racialised employment have always existed but now seem to be endemic. Gig working and informal non minimum wage jobs, sub-contracting both to agencies and so called ‘self-employment’ are way beyond the evils of the lump decades ago. The concentration of the unions in public services and big workplaces is a real obstacle that has to be confronted. The proletarianisation of the professions has reduced the status and probably the pay and conditions of many formally privileged middle-class people. Barristers are on strike already!

The combined impact of the various crises from climate change to cost of living and Covid appears to be creating a crisis in women’s employment as they are more likely to be low paid, work in collapsing sectors and more likely than men to be made redundant or just have to quit because of domestic responsibilities.

Racialised segregation within work is not new, but it appears to be growing stronger. The decline of old industries pushed much of the non-white population into self-employed work like corner shops and taxis. Night cleaning, cycle delivery and security have gone the same way – and they are always the hardest to organise. There are many support organisations within newer and non-white communities which the unions need to be linked with, both to win members but also to jointly campaign.

It’s probably a bit simplistic to say the whole economy (and society) has lost its shape and all is now short term, fast buck survival, but there are elements of failed or underdeveloped state chaos about the UK – not least its shady government.

What is happening in the unions?

The weaknesses of union leaderships over the past decade or two are becoming visibly obvious to activists and the wider layer of union conscious voting members. This however is going in multiple directions – which explains the risk of failure in the coming months. The roller-coaster ride of Unison from right victory (general secretary election) to left victory (executive election) to left humiliation (conference) is very different from Unite where a political Corbynist strategy has collapsed with Corbyn’s defeat and been replaced by a workplace/industrial strategy.

Unions with influential far left groups in their leaderships have fared no better. The influence of these groups is hamstrung by two interrelated factors. First, they have risen to their positions not because of rising militancy but in a time of decline and lack of interest. They have at best a limited mandate to fight back and possibly even less capacity (PCS). Second, chronic sectarianism in its worst form, a preoccupation with one’s own sect’s interests. Born out of an arrogance that assumes the all-knowing leadership is infallible and unable to encourage innovation and initiative taking by new younger activists. This situation can be exacerbated by the way People before Profit (SWP) and Peoples’ Assembly (Counterfire/CPB) intervene into unions. In some areas this is resulting in a strengthening of a positive syndicalism – based on the idea that union bodies such as trades councils need to take control and be at the core of campaigns, rather than left fronts.

The June 18th mobilisation was a step forward, but it was the most chaotic TUC mobilisation in many years. It is hard to get a clear sense or understanding of what happened. Obviously, the numbers were good but far from what should have been possible. Like most London demonstrations the turn out from the south east was the core of the numbers involved. It would appear that mobilisation was carried out by local activists rather than the central trade union structures. The TUC realised this quite late and tried with some success to activate regional offices and trades councils. However, the geographical divide was stronger than previously.

Certainly, in the northwest, for example, a growing hostility to ‘trips to London that achieve nothing’ reduced the mobilisation to parts of the far left. It has become very hard to motivate comrades beyond the far left and the cancellation of the national demonstration in Blackpool just confirmed a general feeling that the TUC is a London organisation and that London comrades won’t leave London. A regional strategy is also needed.

Local resistance and new alliances in each of the unions that will enable joint action is crucial now.

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