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From The Socialist newspaper, 26 October 2006

How can the trade unions regain their strength?

LAST YEAR, the Fabian Society claimed Britain's trade unions were risking irrelevancy. They argued that union membership in Britain has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to just under seven million today - and that the changing composition of the workforce has made unions weaker in challenging the bosses.
This weekend's RMT railworkers' union conference on rebuilding the shop stewards' movement needs to address these burning issues. KEN SMITH asks how can the shop stewards' movement and unions be rebuilt to their former position of strength?

TRADE UNIONISM in Britain was predominantly built on workplace struggles - particularly in industries such as extraction and manufacturing - on questions such as pay and working hours that challenged the capitalists' exploitation of the labour of the working class.

Now, according to the TGWU union, if current trends continue, no manufacturing industry will be left in 20 years. 100,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost this year and a million since 1994. Only 13% of the workforce is currently employed in manufacturing, just over 3.6 million workers.

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of strong organic union growth due to the economic upswing. 39% of the workforce was employed in manufacturing in 1951. TUC-affiliated union membership grew from 7.5 million in 1947 to over 13 million by 1979.

On the anniversary of the 1926 general strike Ann Perkins in the guardian, claimed that Britain's trade union movement is still in "remorseless decline" because "strikes don't happen anymore" and "British workers now have fewer rights than in 1906 or 1926". Yet, collective workplace action has not disappeared. There are signs of renewed militancy and union growth in some sectors.

Unions are still very relevant to the lives of working people under attack from the bosses' super-exploitation. But union leaders cannot take their relevancy for granted or expect that, after 20 hard years, the pendulum will swing back in their favour if they win a few legislative changes allowing unions greater freedoms.

Such changes as the Trade Union Freedom Bill, being fought for by the RMT and other unions, can be important. Nevertheless, the trade union movement's history in Britain and internationally shows that reforms and building the movement are only won through determined and effective militant struggle on behalf of working-class people.

It also shows that industrial struggle needs to be linked to creating a political party to represent workers' interests as happened 100 years ago after the Taff Vale judgement. The RMT conference's major weakness is that - unlike its January conference - it does not address the burning issue of political representation for working-class people.

The unions have to retrace their history industrially and politically, looking at the conditions they face today, to come up with the ideas and drive to rebuild the unions in every sector. This does not appear - in practice - to be on most trade union leaders' current agenda.

Class anger

IN BRITAIN, there is a huge contradiction between the enormous class anger that exists and the seeming lack of industrial action or shopfloor militancy. Many workers, in both private and public sectors, are falling further and further behind in their wages and conditions because many trade union leaders are not fighting effectively on their members' behalf.

Explosive struggles like Gate Gourmet and the mood around pensions or the NHS shows the potential for militant class struggle that union leaders could tap into. But, generally, they have not conducted struggles to advance workers' rights that could show how the anti-union restrictions and, in recent years, the regime of fear in the workplace could be overturned.

In Britain last year, 157,400 working days were lost in strikes from 116 stoppages. In 2004, official statistics claimed only 130 strikes; 40 years ago there were 130 each month. This year has seen an upturn in strikes. Up to a million struck on 28 March in the public-sector action against pension changes. However, official statistics say only 400,000 strike days were lost that month because of the way the figures are now calculated.

Yet, strike statistics are only a weak reflection of the class anger of Britain's working class and unpopularity of the government. In the absence of mass collective action British workers often resort to individualist solutions, losing 164 million to sickness/absenteeism in 2005.

And whilst there have been no big surges in union membership, the decline in trade union membership from the mid-1980s appears to have stopped. There are some significant growth sectors in unions such as RMT and PCS in Britain where industrial struggle has been conducted.

Unions like shop and retail workers' union USDAW have also experienced some recruitment. Many retail workers, facing deteriorating working conditions, are looking for a collective organisation to defend them on the shopfloor. However, this has not led to a net membership growth. Last year the union recruited 70,000 new members but its net membership only increased marginally. Most other unions experience similar turnover.

This shows that whilst people will join unions - if they can find ways to join - they may not stay unless they see unions fighting and winning on their behalf. Usdaw has especially failed to do this with its 'partnership' deals with companies like Tesco.

Trade union leaders argue correctly that being in a union - especially in an organised workplace - brings higher pay, better holidays and better pensions. But, increasingly the union's credibility on the shopfloor as a body that exercises restraint on the bosses has been lost among many workers.

Some leaders like Tony Woodley of the TGWU and Derek Simpson of Amicus look to a merger of the two unions to create greater organisational and industrial strength. They hope this more 'efficient' structure, with greater resources allocated to organising, can increase the new union's membership.

They also believe the merger can usher in an era of globalised trade unionism, where international struggle can stop job losses in areas such as the car industry, where the effects of globalisation and Britain's labour and anti-union laws mean bosses can shut factories and shift production without hinderance.

However, this approach has not been geared to struggle across countries and continents but limited to boycott campaigns which actually have a nationalistic tinge. They have failed as a means of conducting real, effective industrial struggle to save workers' jobs. The boycott of Peugeot cars - a supposed 'innovative' method of 'struggle' - did not stop Peugeot closing their Coventry Ryton plant (six months early) nor selling more cars during the boycott period.

Tony Woodley's 'organising agenda' - where new 'dynamic' TGWU organisers embark on membership drives - has brought some results but has not apparently stemmed the turnover. Such methods mainly emphasise adding numbers without building a solid union structure on the ground to involve the members. This can only be done if the union leaderships advance a clear political as well as industrial strategy.

Developing the Lefts

THE RUSSIAN revolutionary leader Lenin thought trade unions could not achieve a membership of over 50% of the workforce even in the major capitalist countries. In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s over 50% of the workforce - about 60% of the working population - were in trade unions. High union density and workplace structures are not, however, always a sign of the movement's health.

This was a big advance compared to the situation in the 1930s or today, but it did not in itself assure workers of uninterrupted victories over the bosses. It was no 'golden age' and workers experienced defeats in this period. In France, however, where union density has always been lower than in other advanced capitalist countries, there is a tradition of determined militancy from below with many upsurges of industrial action in recent years.

A higher percentage of the workforce organised in unions would be welcomed, but it is no guarantee of greater trade union combativity or strength. At present industrial action is generally at a much lower level across all EU countries than in the 1980s, for a variety of reasons, but the biggest cause of disputes in all these countries is still pay and the breakdown of collective agreements.

Struggles over these issues will be the catalyst for a new generation of activists and workers' reps in Britain to come to the fore. The Socialist Workers' Party idea that the current small layer of activists is worn out and cannot rebuild the movement is contradicted by the growth that unions experience when they conduct effective struggle - in particular the RMT and PCS.

Even in unions like UNISON where the leadership tried to hinder and derail struggle on the local government pension issue, rank and file pressure eventually forced them into action. This resulted in a growth in membership and new layers coming forward.

Many young workers may never have experienced a picket line, but they can still instinctively feel the class anger against capitalist injustice in the workplace and look towards collective action to remedy the problems they face. The trade union movement must reconnect with this layer and the 600,000 full-time students who work part-time.

Struggles in France, Italy, Australia, Belgium, and Greece show that when workers or young people's battles develop there is a more organic linking together of their struggles. And where big workers' battles developed - in Britain and internationally - a new generation of young workers have been to the fore.

Attempts to establish youth sections in unions such as PCS, RMT, CWU and NUT generated an enthusiastic response. However, these youth structures must be allowed to develop through the young members' efforts themselves, taking up issues relevant to young members both industrially and politically.

Another layer, mainly of young workers in the McJobs economy, have no experience of being in organised workplaces or participating in trade unions. Nearly seven million work in the retail industry but less than half a million are organised in unions.

International Socialist Resistance (an anti-capitalist youth organisation initiated by the Socialist party) has produced a young workers' charter encouraging this section of workers to join trade unions. But the charter emphasises that these young workers should not just be seen as extra membership figures; they should be encouraged to take an active role from the start in organising and transforming the unions.

The unions can also play a vital role in organising migrant workers and stopping the use of cheap labour to push down workers' wages in a 'rush to the bottom'. Socialists in the First International - grouped around Marx and Engels - carried out pioneering work, organising migrant labour and fighting for the same rate for the job for all workers; encouraging workers to stand together rather than be divided.

In Britain, over a million new migrant workers have joined the labour force in the last few years. In Ireland one in eight of the workforce is now from outside Ireland - it was one in fifteen a few years ago.

The super-exploitation of migrant workers, the effect this can have in trying to suppress indigenous workers' wage levels, and how to combat it - are all shown graphically in Ireland in the inspiring struggles of the Gama and Irish Ferry workers.

Struggles from below

HOWEVER, THE biggest factor in developments in Britain will come with a decisive break in the industrial situation. Yet, without a sea-change in the approach industrially and politically of most of today's trade union leaders, this will not automatically result in new members and activists coming forward - unless there is a conscious strategy to involve and develop the new layers.

And, even when a new generation of activists emerges, there is still the question about how this will then develop within the unions' official structure.

In Britain particularly, these official structures have been mirrored by semi-official Left structures generally described as Broad Lefts, which have often been training schools for future Left leaderships. However, one of the biggest problems in Britain and internationally is a lack of organised Left opposition forces inside unions challenging and pushing the leadership to the Left.

Despite the perceived leftward shift in Britain's trade unions five or six years ago with the rise of the 'awkward squad' the Broad Lefts - which can be crucial in developing a new generation of activists - are in a weak state in the unions.

The only real exception is the PCS where Left Unity, a Broad Left organisation which, although still nowhere near the finished article, has thousands of members, organises at national and regional level and campaigns in a way that encourages new PCS members to participate in it.

At present in many unions where Broad Lefts formally exist they are not seen as campaigning bodies but electoral machines. They shy away from taking up programmatic and campaigning issues which would inspire their union's shopfloor members.

And, the lack of effective Broad Lefts in many unions means that the union leaders, no matter how sincere, are still way removed from the average conditions of their members and being accountable to them.

Moreover, the lack of effective, campaigning Broad Lefts (by whatever name) in most unions is a block to a new generation coming through.

As well as building healthy, democratic rank-and-file based Broad Lefts, the question of democracy in all unions is crucial. This means standing for the regular election of full-time officials with them receiving the average wage of the members they represent and being subject to the right of recall. There must be democratic control of industrial action and running of the union at all levels.

However, contrary to what some on the Left argue, democratic running of strike and industrial action on its own is insufficient to win struggles. There has to be a clear strategy and a preparedness to use bold methods and see a struggle through for it to be won.

But the biggest factor holding back the trade unions is their inability to move from the industrial plane to the political plane in challenging New Labour. Their link to Labour and desire to avoid embarrassing the Labour government leads to reluctance to take struggles forward or defy anti-union laws.

If the union leaders were to break with Labour and begin the steps of creating a new mass working-class party this would inspire working-class people that at last the unions would fight for them and draw new layers into activity.

Ultimately, all national trade union leaders are under pressure from conflicting interests. Without pressure from below and bodies that hold them to account - both official and unofficial - then they will inevitably work in the bosses' interests.

As the RMT conference leaflet says, there is a pressing need for a "grass roots organisation of workplace reps" which has been "a crucial barometer of the general health of the trade union movement." But for this to be achieved requires more than just pressing for a Trade Union Freedom Bill or getting workers to take up reps' positions.

What is required is an industrial and political strategy that convinces workers - as happened 100 years ago with the response to the Taff Vale judgement - that trade unions fight for workers' interests and will also build a new workers' party capable of doing that.

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In The Socialist 26 October 2006:

Unite and fight to save the NHS

The battle to defend the health service

How can we build an effective campaign to defend the NHS?

A socialist programme for the NHS

Protests force partial retreat from cuts

Marching for the NHS in Torquay

"Action to defend our birthright"

Sack the bosses not the nurses

Socialist Students

Students join the fightback

No to attacks on democratic rights

Chilean students fight Pinochet's legacy

Socialism 2006

Rally for socialism!


Workplace analysis

How can the trade unions regain their strength?

Trade Union Freedom Bill

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

'Single status' battle continues

How to build a trade union in your workplace

Furious parents turn on councillors

War and terrorism

Bloody chaos in Iraq shatters US war strategy

Sri Lanka: Is peace possible?


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