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From The Socialist newspaper, 21 May 2008

Reasons to be cheerful about the trade unions

Trade Unions have been reading their own obituaries since workers first combined. If you look hard enough you can occasionally find media reports that draw attention to the injustice and inequality at work but rarely will you find a report that commends a trade union for taking industrial action to redress the wrong.

Chris Baugh, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) assistant general secretary, personal capacity

This is no surprise. Trade unions have encountered an industrial and ideological battering because they stood in the way of so-called free markets. The result is growing inequality, financial insecurity and the modern epidemic of work-related stress.

Union membership fell from a historical high point of over 12 million in the late 1970s to the current figure of just below seven million. Union density has remained strong in the public sector. But, reflecting the decline of traditional industries where unions were well organised, density has fallen in the private sector to 17%. This is cited as evidence of terminal trade union decline.

The pro-business and anti-union agenda of successive governments has undoubtedly reduced the power and influence of trade unions in the UK. However it would be wrong to accept the superficial analysis of most journalists and academics.

From a trade union perspective there are a number of reasons to be cheerful. Various official reports indicate that the decline in membership and collective bargaining coverage has largely been arrested. The International Labour Organisation points to rising trade union membership on a world scale.

The outcome of the bargaining process is not down to the force or logic of our argument alone. Leverage comes from strong organisation and a willingness to take action when the employer won't listen. A recent academic report pinpoints PCS and rail union RMT as particular examples of unions that have won new members and activists. They both have an elected leadership that is prepared to wage campaigns amongst its membership.

PCS faces the biggest attacks on members' conditions for decades. While we always need to make a sober assessment of the scale of the task in front of us it is sometimes easy to forget the important achievements of trade unionism in the UK.

Many of the major social advances for working-class people that the Conservatives and New Labour are both committed to dismantle, were the result of trade union struggle. UK unions have shown their resilience and at seven million-strong retain enormous latent power. The alliance of public-sector unions around pensions and the recent action of workers at the Grangemouth oil refinery are both expressions of this.

In the ten years of its existence, I would argue that one of the most significant achievements of PCS is to contribute in a small way to helping build confidence that trade unions can challenge the insidious idea that you can't make a difference.

Without in any way overstating our success, PCS members have shown it is possible to overcome the fatalism which has afflicted the trade union movement for too long. Building the confidence of trade unionists is key to challenging the neo-liberal consensus and posing a political alternative to an economic system that places profit above social need.

Taken from The Socialist PCS conference supplement.

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