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Len McCluskey’s short Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist gives us a powerful run through the arguments for working-class organisation, finds John Westmoreland

Len McCluskey, Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist (Verso 2020), viii, 145pp.

Len McCluskey’s Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist is an excellent book, published at a moment in history when working-class organisation is of paramount importance. And while the book could be used as a handbook for shop stewards and union organisers, it is much more than that. It puts forward a powerful intellectual argument that should make politicians and employers sit up and take notice.

It seems appropriate to refer to the author simply as Len, because the wit, knowledge and humour of the author comes across to the great benefit of the reader. You feel the guiding hand of an older brother taking you through the various stages of the argument.

Len has been a trade unionist all his working life, from starting work on the Liverpool docks in the 1960s and becoming a shop steward, to working full-time for the Transport and General Workers Union, to becoming the General Secretary of Unite. His vast experience and his own personal story are used to illustrate the points he makes.

Len eschews the bureaucratic or merely functional reasons for being a trade unionist. Trade unionism is a cause that gave him ‘hope in my heart’:

‘Trade unionism is not just about pay and conditions. It’s about diversity, putting equality at work and in society front and centre stage; it’s about community, politics, internationalism and much more’ (p.10).

The deindustrialisation of the UK alongside Thatcher’s anti-trade-union laws, have taken away the voice of the working class. Listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme can attest that the BBC obsesses about the views of business leaders. Len explains that time and again trade unions have given working-class people a voice, which coupled with industrial strength, led to important reforms.

Organisation against exploitation

Examples are drawn from the nineteenth century fight for the ten-hour day, and from striking workers at TGI Fridays and Pizza Express today, to show that exploitation begets organisation that leads to action. Health and safety laws, economic justice and political reforms have come about through workers fighting back, and that fight has required collective organisation.

Today the voice of trade unionism has echoes of the past but is entering a new phase:

‘We are seeing young trade unionists, with women at the fore … carrying forward the values of older members and expressing those values in different ways. And this is fantastic for the future of our movement’ (p.29).

Len’s optimism for the future, for the ability of our side to fight back, is in stark contrast to the kind of trade unionism beloved of the likes of Tony Blair and his followers in the trade-union bureaucracy. Their preferred approach is to work with business and the market to achieve those reforms (sic) which are affordable, and that is why they are content with the existing anti-union, anti-strike legislation. And that’s why when Len became the leader of Unite, he had the words ‘within the law’ removed from the rulebook, because he knew that Unite members might have to break bad laws.

After a devastating electoral victory for the Tories, the social justice we are owed will have to be fought for on the streets. Len wrote the book before the election result was known yet his chapters on Unity is Strength and A World without Unions really meet our needs.Len advocates a fighting trade unionism as opposed to the business model which seeks to merely keep the unions afloat through recruitment. Citing Unite’s successful strategy in recruiting members from new ‘greenfield’ sites in the industrial and manufacturing centres, Len describes a ‘muscular bottom-up strategy’ that identified leaders and focussed on the issues that needed addressing to organise workplaces. In a couple of years, the strategy recruited 69,000 new members (p.39)

The gig economy has led to gross exploitation. As trade unions have declined in numbers, and sectoral bargaining has virtually ceased to exist, working lives have been devastated.Poverty pay, dictatorial management and precarious employment are what happens when trade unionism doesn’t exist. And Blair and Brown are not spared for their shameful refusal to abandon Thatcher’s anti-trade-union legislation.

New technology and production methods threatens to further devalue labour unless trade unions stand up and fight. Robots and digitalisation pose a threat to working-class living standards, dignity at work and the future of democracy itself, as labour is deskilled. Strong trade unions can make sure the benefits of technology can be shared with shorter working weeks, and increased training. This is an issue that requires some urgency.

Movements and equality

It is particularly good to read a leading trade unionist extolling the virtues of important activist based campaigns which trade unions can support and benefit from. For example, Len welcomes the leadership Stop the War gave to his own union by helping to strengthen internationalism and confront US and British imperialism:

‘Although most of the bigger trade unions, including my own, passed strong policies on peace and internationalism at their national conferences … there was a reluctance to fall out with New Labour over its pro-war stance. But by the September 2002 Labour Party conference most affiliated unions opposed the government’s position’ (p.95).

The book also makes clear that trade unions cannot succeed in effectively organising workers unless they are prepared to fight against oppression. The struggle for equality in the workplace is essential. Employers are only too happy to use divide and rule tactics. But we let that happen at our peril.

Encouraging more women, black, disabled and LGBT+ reps in the workplace is not tokenism as right-wing commentators claim. It is about ensuring that the trade unionists who lead the fight for true equality reflect the diversity of their workplaces. We can all be leaders if we are given the encouragement (p.121).

This battle for equality and social justice spills over into the communities we live in. It informs our politics and is hugely beneficial to a democracy. The recent battle to save the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast involved workers occupying the yard and the community rallying behind them. Workers standing together and articulating opposition to government and employers encourages other workers to question the status quo.

In this review I have been overwhelmingly supportive. The reason is a simple one. If we believe that trade-union organisation is a precondition – not the only one, I know - for workers fighting their exploitation and oppression, then this book is an excellent weapon to have to hand. Some on the left could, and no doubt will, castigate Len for not criticising the trade-union bureaucracy enough, or for having illusions in the Labour Party or whatever.

However, what comes across very strongly is that for Len the members are the trade union, and fighting is necessary when negotiation fails. This is what trade unionists want from the leadership.Len McCluskey has set the standard for other trade-union leaders to follow, and offers a way out of the crisis for young workers desperate for change.

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John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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