Nigel Flanagan, Our Trade Unions: what comes next after the summer of 2022? (Manifesto Press 2023), iv, 78pp.

Lindsey German welcomes Nigel Flanagan’s timely book that argues for a re-orientation of trade unions around rank-and-file organising as a way fully to revive the movement

I was expecting to enjoy Nigel Flanagan’s book on our unions, and I did. What I didn’t perhaps expect was how polemical it was, and how much the author sees this as intervening in a crucially important debate within the left and the labour movement in Britain. But this is exactly how Flanagan begins his book, arguing that ‘the unions are in trouble’ (p.1).

This might seem, as he admits, counterintuitive, given the recent increases in strikes and industrial action, and some may see it as unhelpful given the need to strengthen the unions. But it is exactly at this time that we need to discuss the weaknesses of union organisation as well. Flanagan gives several reasons why the unions are in trouble: membership has not recovered from decades of decline; the unions are aging; they are very weak in many of the areas of expansion of capital in recent decades, such as logistics; leaderships are out of touch and remote from the members; and rank-and-file organisation is simply not a reality for the vast majority of union members.

A mixed picture

If 2022 was the year when the working-class movement came back onto the stage and engaged in mass strikes across the public sector, as well as a number of localised strikes in the private sector, then over a year on from then there is a rather mixed picture. The last official figures still showed a slight fall in membership – largely accounted for by women in the private sector – but it was also clear that strike action had forced improvements in pay offers, even though these still tended to fall well short of inflation. There is a bit of hiatus as we approach the autumn of 2023, with groups like teachers and nurses reaching settlements, but the RMT and Aslef rail unions still engaging in strikes and overtime bans, and both junior doctors and consultants planning further strikes, as I write.

Nigel Flanagan’s approach to this situation is firstly to locate it in our industrial history, but also to look critically at the models of trade-union organising put forward and at the failure to look to the global south for lessons in how to organise. He discusses both the servicing and organising models used by trade unions over recent decades. The servicing one – where unions see one of their main roles as providing services to their members – has been seen by some trade-union leaders as an alternative to collective struggle and solidarity, and much more attuned to individual consumerism in neoliberal capitalism. However it, and the related idea of partnership between businesses and unions, has failed to stem the exodus of union members.

Nor has the organising model imported from the US and identified most in this country with the academic and activist, Jane McAlevey, fared much better in terms of recruitment or in developing an independent rank-and-file presence in the workplace. While it is an attempt to build on successful local organising such as the Chicago teachers’ strikes, it essentially posits a model based on organisers employed by the union pursuing a certain strategy, rather than developing the consciousness of those potentially moving into struggle. So, while it has had a number of local successes, it has not translated on a larger scale into rebuilding the unions. It tends to rely on professional organisers and on a fixed group of workers who are identified as most likely to commit to organising.

This ignores the fact that, in any strike, those previously passive may come to the fore and become more militant than the established activists. And, as Flanagan points out: ‘Both these versions of servicing and organising have one element in common. They view the workers as inert actors who will only respond to specific tactics.’ He continues, ‘The use of professional organisers assumes that workers simply need leadership and guidance from outside, a cult like operation of getting people together and getting them to “see the light” and follow the tenets of organising gurus’ (p.25).

Political trade unionism

Rather than follow these models, Nigel Flanagan looks to political trade unionism and to international examples of successful organising taken from his own extensive experience. All the time, this political approach is put in the context of the recent history of British trade unionism and the reasons for its decline. The late 1960s and early 70s saw a burst of industrial militancy – largely through unofficial strikes – which helped increase living standards and build unions. Successive governments tried to curb this power – unsuccessfully for a time, but by the late 1970s, the Callaghan Labour government was attacking workers and cutting wages in real terms. This was also the beginning of public-sector cuts. Thatcher, elected in 1979, extended these attacks, introduced restrictive trade union laws, privatised utilities, and other industries, presided over deindustrialisation, and took on groups of workers separately in order to defeat them.

This culminated in the miners’ 1984-5 national strike, which was a defeat for the strongest group of workers, and so a class-wide attack. We live with the consequences – weaker unions, much lower density, a much harder background to take industrial action, and a weakening of solidarity. The present strikes need to be seen in this context. They represent a new militancy among the working class, but with still only partial successes as new generations are required to relearn the lessons of the past. The British trade-union movement is in recovery, but is a long way from its full strength.

This brings us to the question of how we do rebuild. Flanagan stresses the need for political trade unionism – the need to move beyond industrial and bread-and-butter issues and to bring a political dimension to our fights. He cites movements such as Momentum, Black Lives Matter and the People’s Assembly as a way of linking those immediate concerns with wider class questions, and reminds us that big working-class victories, such as that of the Pentonville Dockers in 1972 and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 were led by ‘activists who brought into the union a wider vision of the world’ (p.77).

There is no doubt that political approaches are essential – not least because our class enemies are highly politicised and use every means at their disposal. It’s also true that previous upsurges of struggle have seen politics to the fore: in the 1880s, with the new unions, where there were movements over Ireland and free speech, and the birth of modern socialism; in the 1910s, where women’s struggles and Ireland informed those fighting against poverty and low pay; and in the 60s and 70s, when movements against war, and for racial and sexual equality fed into the trade-union movement.

It’s this political approach which also informs the experience of industrial action among security guards in Kenya and call-centre workers in Morocco – not simply the challenges of poverty and lack of organising tradition, but also the background of imperialist domination. Flanagan raises the technique of ‘spider webbing’ where militants create a web of activists around them and uses it as an example of the need for much more detailed organisation at the base. He talks of Africa being the future in terms of models of organising: ‘The African, Latin American and Indian trade unions show that national mobilisation and mass recruitment is a viable plan for any trade union’ (p.82).

There are a whole number of detailed plans put forward, too detailed to list here, including mass appeals to the rank and file, leading to recruitment – and this means reorienting the unions and their priorities. Flanagan argues for less emphasis on casework, expensive lawyers, costly affiliation to the TUC and Labour, and more on sustaining a membership through activity, putting huge resources into doing so, and thereby strengthening the rank and file.

This is a fresh and serious approach to organising in trade unions, based on a lifetime of experience by the author. With women and ethnic minorities disproportionately likely to be members of unions, and with current struggles, like the ones at Amazon, involving precarious workers, this book is long overdue. It is an important contribution to the debate on how we reverse the decline – and that isn’t going to come from the top.

Buy Nigel Flanagan, Our Trade Unions, at a discount price of £15 from the Counterfire shop.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.