Trades Union Perspective resolution and document by Counterfire steering committee
2013 saw more than 120 separate industrial actions, including in particular combined action by the teaching unions NUT and NASUWT, the PCS action including the one-day strike on Budget Day, the ongoing fight by the FBU on pensions, action by workers in the higher and further education sectors in UCU and Unison and in the private sector and a strike by workers at Hovis against zero-hours contracts. Alongside these welcome indications of a growth in co-ordination of strike action, the year also saw in the Grangemouth dispute a concerted attempt by employer and government to break the power of the union, demonstrating the continuing importance and potential of trades union struggles.
As socialists, we recognise that the fundamental division in society (not just Britain but worldwide) lies between those who have to sell their labour to enjoy any reasonable standard of living for themselves and those they love, and those whose enjoyment of the good life rests on their ability, through their control of the means of production, to extract profit from our labour.
There are many other ways in which we are ripped off – rack-renting landlords; extortionate prices for fuel, energy, transport; credit cards and payday loans – and many ways in which whole swathes of society are oppressed – racism and religious bigotry; homophobia; disability; and, of course, gender. Nevertheless, it remains true that the driving motor of our society is the pursuit of profit through the extraction of surplus value, and that all other divisions in society are based on how effectively our rulers can divide us to better exploit us.
It is this fact, and not any romantic attachment to the ‘dignity’ of labour, that makes our work in the trades unions so fundamental to our politics. It is as workers that we are most powerful, when we are organised. This is true in individual workplaces: there is a good reason why on average, workers in unionised workplaces are paid on average 15% more than workers in non-unionised workplaces (the so-called ‘trade union premium’). It is also true for the political role of trades unions.
In Britain, trades unions represent the biggest voluntary association of individuals in civil society. With 6.5 million members, the TUC-affiliated unions far outstrip any other civic organisations (including faith-based communities) and are, almost by definition, entirely working class organisations. Despite the effects of four decades of neoliberalism and the recession, which has seen a reduction in membership from a high (in the 1970s) of 13 million, trades unions remain deeply rooted in the British working class. More significant are straws in the wind which suggest that the long period of decline may be coming to an end. For the first time in many years, Britain’s largest union (Unite) last month reported a rise in total membership (in other words, the numbers of new joiners exceeded the numbers of members who left).
A number of trades unions have realised the necessity of taking a wider perspective on their role in society, not merely relating to problems at work, but seeing a need to relate to wider social issues in a combative context. This is undoubtedly partly a defensive response, as the effects of austerity increasingly affect trades union members outside the workplace as well as within, but also reflects a trend towards political trades unionism as a generation of activists and officials move from the politics of accommodation, so dominant in the decades after the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, to a more combative approach.
Trades unions have long supported social issues (think of their support for anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-fascist campaigns, or the essential support they gave to the anti-war campaigners in StWC) and this has continued, with many – Unite, and the teaching unions in particular – supporting anti-establishment protest, as Occupy, Hacked Off, UK Uncut and student protestors among others can testify. The step-change is that this work is combined with many unions placing themselves at the forefront of the struggle against austerity, as evidenced by the series of TUC marches and the support of a number of trades unions for the People’s Assembly.
This political orientation on the part of a number of unions demonstrates the importance of our work in and with the trade union movement. As well as being a very welcome shift objectively, this trend also offers a fantastic opportunity for revolutionaries to work within an increasingly sympathetic audience in a strategically important arena of activity.
The outstanding success of the People’s Assembly initiative, predicated on our analysis of the need for an overarching united front against austerity is in no small degree a result of national unions lining up with the initiative. This success, however, breeds its own problems. One obvious one is that we are now very small fish in a pond much larger than the swamp occupied by the traditional left, working with general secretaries of major unions and with a number of high-profile figures from outside traditional political formations. Both these groups at the moment hold us in high regard, because we have shown we can deliver. No matter how much affection they might feel for us, unless we can continue to deliver (in terms of both ideas and practice) then the likelihood will be that we are pulled towards them, rather than them towards us, or that we will be benevolently ignored and become irrelevant.
A serious orientation towards trade union work in this context will mean that we can cut with the grain amongst trades union activists who have a serious desire to fight austerity, develop class solidarity as an integral, natural part of the anti-austerity struggle and ensure that the People’s Assembly develops both the material resources and strength in numbers to be a pole of attraction for those who want to oppose the current system. The deeper we can set the roots of the People’s Assembly, the less it will be dependent on the goodwill of individual figures and the more it can serve as a force of attraction for them rather than the obverse.
In practical terms, this means that engaging trades unionists in local People’s Assemblies is crucial. Reaching out to organised workers in each area must be a natural part of People’s Assembly work and Counterfire comrades must take a lead on this. Solidarity with workers in struggle is also important, both through foregrounding strike reports, comments on industrial issues, contributions by workers involved etc. on the website (as we did successfully with Grangemouth) and through members engaging with workers on strikes in their areas. The behaviour of much of the left can suggest that visiting picket lines is an activity only for selling papers, but we must be clear that demonstrating solidarity is a vital part of our trades union work, building contacts with local trades unionists, and providing opportunities to engage them in the People’s Assembly.
In addition to this, we should also have an expectation that our comrades in work should see active membership of the relevant trade union as an essential part of their activities as Counterfire members. Comrades who are not in work should seriously consider joining their local Unite Community branch, and so on. Clearly comrades in workplaces and industries with a strong history of union organisation will be better placed to undertake union activity, but even for those in non-unionised workplaces, membership of a trades union can provide surprising opportunities to build support amongst colleagues for anti-austerity campaigning as well as struggles in the specific workplace. Just as important, we can most credibly argue for the current centrality of trade union work if we are active trades unionists ourselves.
By taking the politics of the People’s Assembly into the trades unions and therefore, we hope the workplace, we can help to shape the battles that are ahead. When even the head of the CBI tells his members to share a little of their profits with their workers, you can be sure that our rulers are aware of the depth of anger and resentment among ordinary people, as we react to years of wage freezes on top of years of price rises. The anger is there, and will out. We have to be part of that anger, and part of the fightback.
- That the fundamental division in society lies between those who have to sell their labour and those who extract profit from that labour through control of the means of production.
- That although trade union membership is lower than its 1970s peak of 13 million, with 6.5 million members, the TUC-affiliated unions still represent the biggest voluntary association of individuals in civil society.
- That in November 2013, for the first time in many years, Britain’s largest union, Unite, reported a rise in total membership.
- That a number of unions are placing themselves at the forefront of the struggle against austerity and supporting the People’s Assembly.
- That this political orientation on the part of a number of unions demonstrates the importance of our work in and with the trade union movement and offers an opportunity for us work with an increasingly sympathetic audience in a strategically important arena of activity.
- To ensure that reaching out to organised workers in each area is a natural part of People’s Assembly work.
- To continue to give solidarity to workers in struggle, both through foregrounding strike reports etc. on the website and through members engaging with workers on strike in their areas.
- To expect members in work to become active members of the relevant trade union and to encourage members not in work to join their local Unite Community branch.
 Figures from ONS to October 2013
Amendment – submitted by Tony Dowling and Mark Tyers
Add to Conference resolves
Counterfire members within unions should be put in contact with each other by the national office; these members should discuss & agree interventions in their unions' decision-making processes.
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