Small unions and big leaders, or why we might need to ask some different questions….

In November last year, the Huffington Post ran an article by Professor Gregor Gall about the emergence of ‘new, radical, independent unions’ like the IWGB. In it he declared that “more than any other union” the IWGB has led the way in “fighting bogus self-employment and precarious employment amongst cleaners, couriers and drivers, especially in London” and that they “have been able to make considerable headway in successfully fighting for the rights of precarious workers…when their much bigger and more longstanding counterparts like Unite and the GMB have not”? (emphasis added).

Is this true?

It is difficult to deny that, despite the launch of more organising initiatives than you can shake a stick at, existing union structures have failed to stop the ebb of union membership and power. Unions are not keeping pace with the changing nature of the economy. In that respect, Gregor Gall’s piece is a welcome addition to the wider debate. Indeed, last year, Trade Union Futures published a piece by Jake Burns in which readers were invited to consider “heretical” propositions, including the case for developing new unions. Nevertheless some of the wilder statements in Gregor Gall’s piece are not particularly helpful.

One of the troubles is that the way many commentators make unsubstantiated statements and claims for the IWGB and sister unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners’ and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU). Statements and questions are framed in a way that leads one to draw simplistic conclusions: that the problem is located within centres on existing unions and their leaderships.

Having a pop at existing union hierarchies and leaders is always fun, but it is not very analytical and doesn’t help those of us wanting to organise the unorganised.

For example, Gall uses the successful of outcome of two IWGB members’ case against Uber at the Employment Appeal Tribunal as the hook for his piece. Only much later in the article is it mentioned that the original cases (along with 60 others) were taken by the GMB and, it seems that the IWGB picked-up the members in question from an existing union. Also, shouldn’t he have highlighted that without the initial resources provided by the GMB, the cases may not have seen the light of day?

Please be clear, it is not the purpose of this article to dismiss the gains made by the IWGB et al. The IWGB and its like, along with various ‘pop-up’ unions, must be considered as part of the changing industrial relations landscape. That union’s members should be congratulated for building the power necessary to wring concessions from their employers. But let’s keep it in context. At best, the combined membership of these small unions is 3,000 members. A proportion of those members were members of existing unions with pre-existing grievances before they jumped ship; they weren’t entirely the unorganised. To suggest, as the Huffington Post article does, that these unions’ achievements, however remarkable, are greater than all the work done by UNITE, GMB, UCU, RMT, UNISON etc. seems to be more a statement of faith than one borne out by an analytical approach.

It is this simplistic approach that bedevils debate about trade union renewal. Far too much, the debate skips over structural determinants and ploughs straight into issues of leadership and organisational character in which the heroic leader apparently enables an activist-led, democratic, model of labour organisation without ever really thinking through what that means in concrete terms.

Of course, strategic decisions made by union leaderships are important but these are situated within a much larger framework that dictate the parameters of the choices available.

What is needed is some structural analysis before the debate on agency. On this site, there are already essays and briefings on the changing nature of the economy and the issues faced by those attempting to build union power. But there are other fundamental questions that the movement needs to address, such as

Why is the nature of work constantly changing?

What is ‘precarious work’ and how has it developed?

Why are trade unions struggling to organise labour in these new spheres?

Do newly emerging unions offer something different to existing union? Why do some consider them to be more radical? Do they offer a blueprint for future organisation?

Trade Union Futures aims to stimulate debate and discussion on these and more issues. In the coming months we will be publishing new blogs and essays as our contribution to addressing these questions of our time.

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Brexit and Public Services

As TUC Congress kicks off the headlines have been dominated by Frances O’Grady’s defence of Single Market membership. This is the culmination of months of recent debate in the labour movement around the commencement of the government’s Brexit negotiations and the policy of the Labour Party. Much of this debate has been reflected in the pages of the Morning Star and has tended to focus on the question of Single Market membership. In this blog, Jane Carolan, the former chair of Unison’s policy committee argues that we need to keep a focus on the role the EU plays in reshaping public services. Trade Union Futures invites more contributions on either side of the debate over the labour movement’s position on the EU.

Brexit and Public Services

Political and media discussion over Brexit has overwhelmingly focused on whether it should be “hard” or “soft”, whether free movement (and hence migration control ) was the principle motivator of the Leave vote , or whether membership of the Single Market is the only way forward. Trade union campaigns have focused on “workers’ rights” insisting on a level playing field between the UK and our EU counterparts.

This is a continuing theme from the trade union Remain campaign, based on a view that fundamental rights emanated from EU legislation. This supposed strength of the EU is brought into question by several ECJ rulings in favour of corporations, for example the Viking, Laval and Alemo-Herron cases. (1)

Yet arguments about the essential ideology of the European project were far wider before the EU referendum and for many years on the UK left included the serious threat posed to public services. The main thrust of European level economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation and privatisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness, the neo liberal agenda writ large . This has been reflected in European treaties from the early 1990s and the austerity programmes imposed in response to the 2008 economic crash.

However voices on the sidelines of the Brexit debate continue the conversation about privatisation and public services:

“One of the biggest prizes in the UK’s Brexit negotiations is the opportunity to devise our own public procurement procedures………The existing EU-inspired regulations are complex, time-consuming, and cost both the public sector and potential contractors hundreds of millions of pounds per year…….Our Brexit negotiations need to ensure that as soon as possible after March 2019 we withdraw from the EU procurement regulations which would be possible even if there was a transitional customs union.” Simon Randall CBE, former Bromley Councillor and local authority adviser on procurement matters 

APSE is calling upon the Government and all political parties to ensure local government services are protected. A future domestic framework, governing matters such as freedoms and powers for local councils, procurement regulations, environmental protection regulations, employment matters for the local government workforce and, most importantly, council budgets are treated fairly with the full involvement of the local government sector. In developing alternative plans, policies and any necessary legislative changes, local government needs to be fully consulted.” Paul O‘Brien Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) 

“Public services have been brainwashed by marketeers and ….. it is incredulous that little effort had been made to expose the limits of markets and neo-liberalism despite the major role this had played in creating the recession.” David Walker Guardian

Public services used to mean publicly owned, publicly delivered universal services. Public procurement refers to the purchase by governments and state-owned enterprises of goods, services and works. As public procurement accounts for a substantial portion of taxpayers’ money, governments are expected to carry it out efficiently and with high standards of conduct in order to ensure high quality of service delivery and safeguard the public interest. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must ‘comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality’. This means that all procurement contracts must be open to bidders across the EU and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries.

Thus there is an imperative to begin to frame a critique of EU procurement, competition policy and single market regulations to examine its effects on public services and public service delivery. More importantly, are there left alternatives that deserve promotion and not only challenge the neo liberal agenda but could bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs?

(1) For an alternative view see Brian Denny, EU Attacks Our Pay And Undermines Unions – Morning Star online

Jane Carolan retired from UNISON NEC in June 2017 and was formerly chair of UNISON NEC policy committee

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Missing the movement

Zoe Williams’s call for ‘fresh thinking’ shows an ignorance of what’s really happening in the unions

Zoe Williams is a highly skilful, highly intelligent writer who considers herself a progressive and who has done much good work to promote progressive causes. She often writes thoughtful and thought provoking articles. That’s what makes her article on the trade union movement so disappointing. Williams appears to be completely unaware of recent and current developments in the unions.

Leaving aside the comments about Len McCluskey, Unite makes a bizarre target. The union can be accused of many things but a lack of strategic thought and imagination are not among them. Unite’s Community initiative does precisely what Williams wants the unions to do. It is a serious, if not uncontroversial, attempt to create structures that bring people outside employment into contact with unions. Unite Community is creating precisely the bridges between struggles and organisation in the workplace and those around collective consumption that Williams calls for. The jury is out on whether it will work but it’s a bold initiative. Unite is placing serious resources behind attempts to organise migrant workers. Unite’s leverage strategy has demonstrably delivered some impressive results in key industrial disputes, to the point where it became an issue of Parliamentary concern for the Conservative Party.

The idea that unions are resistant to engaging with the precariously employed or the new workforces in the economy is just bizarre. One can question how successful they have been but the idea that unions simply view agency workers and those on zero hours contracts as a threat to their members is seriously wrong-headed. Unions in the public sector deal with this reality every day as a consequence of public sector reform and the New Public Management, from the NHS, Local Government to the Civil Service and the tertiary education sector. Unions in the retail, social care and hospitality industries, often deal with little else.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the NUT will be able to tell you how much thought and energy is going into the issue of building closer links between workers in schools and the parents and communities who use their services. Yet Williams calls on unions to reach out to consumers, citizens and communities as though no one had ever thought of it before.

The Pop Up Union that gets a passing mention is wrongly described as having won a victory. It didn’t. The Southern Rail dispute is cited to accuse the RMT of neglecting the rail consumer. This overlooks the work of the  joint union Action for Rail campaign, the efforts made by RMT reps to directly communicate with consumers, not to mention the spontaneous solidaristic organisations of rail users in support not just of Guards, but of the unions’ calls for nationalisation.

The suggestion that unions might engage in campaigning to inflict reputation damage begs the question of what Williams has been doing while a succession of unions have been using her paper among others to target Sports Direct, Uber, ASOS, the care industry, even universities.

None of this is to say that unions are succeeding or doing as well as they could be. But Williams’s suggestions indicate that she hasn’t really been paying attention to the unions and might be in a poor position to lecture them. Those who are working in the trade union movement know better. And many of us know that in fact none of these tactics and approaches represent a magic bullet (though at times the TUC has behaved as though they are). Instead, each must be adapted to the precise, concrete situation in which unions find themselves. Further, those working in the movement are (or should be) aware of the limits on our ability to simply make things different through acts of sheer will power. Reading Williams’s article, you could be forgiven for thinking that all we need to do is get our shit together and it could all be fine. This is voluntarism writ large.

One of the strangest things about Williams’ article is that she manages not to mention the constraints placed on unions by the state. The Trade Union Act has only just come into force, placing new obstacles in the way of our freedom to associate and our freedom to organise and withdraw our labour. We have a legal framework that would warm the heart of a Chilean Fascist and these laws have real life consequences on our ability to defend members. This is not a small matter. It’s certainly not a matter for silence.

Similarly, there is no place in Williams’s article for any consideration of the way the state’s actions have interacted with profound changes in our economy and class structure. Capital has been dramatically recomposed in Britain as a consequence of state policy in the 1980s, and EU membership, as well as broader forces like technological change. The British working class and its working lives have been dramatically transformed and the state has made absolutely sure that we were hampered in responding.

Zoe Williams says she intends her article to be helpful and positive, but it shows little knowledge of what the movement is doing and her analysis deals with unions in the abstract, as though they are unconstrained by the state or the deeper forces at work in our society. It also shows no sense that the movement has a history. It’s as though everything that’s happening is without precedent or parallel. This is not really good enough.

As we have argued consistently on this site, there are major challenges facing our movement – some immediate and obvious and some deeper and more profound. There is no one answer. The survival and revival of the movement will depend on our ability to learn properly from our history, analyse and understand the forces changing our world around us, identify the ones we can shape – as well as those we can’t – and develop ideas and approaches appropriate for our situations. This was the very rationale for setting up Trade Union Futures and we will continue to do our bit.

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Making the case for New Unions

Jake Burns asks if the left should consider breaking with historical union structures if they inhibit the ability to organise workers in unorganised workplaces:

We cannot ignore the fact that union membership has been falling steadily from its zenith in the late 1970s. Members are now heavily concentrated in the public sector and although some quarters cling to the delusional notion that this sector is still subject to national bargaining, an honest appraisal would suggest otherwise. Trade union density in the private sector is 13% and falling. Vitally, fewer workers than at any point in the 20th century are covered by collective bargaining agreements. , with entire sectors of the economy almost free of union organisation. In key areas of economic importance, there simply is next to no union organisation, meaning that union power is ebbing.

Since the 1990s thousands of books, articles, and academic papers have been written about union attempts to create organising cultures. Unfortunately, none of the numerous initiatives within individual unions; nothing co-ordinated by the TUC has addressed the fundamental problem. At very best, some unions are slowing the rate of decline of organised labour. Now it is always fun to blame union ‘leaders’ but it seems pretty pointless laying the blame at their door when they are also constrained by existing roles and structures.

Elsewhere on the Trade Union Futures site, some of the reasons for the drop in union power are explored. A major factor is the movement’s failure to adapt to the changed political economy of Britain. This begs a question: given a free hand, where should those wanting to organise the unorganised focus their resources? Looking at four important areas of the current economy reveals some real problems to be overcome.

First, the financial sector, which in turn can be split into the retail and clearing banks. In retail, there are low levels of organisation by Accord and the ex-banking unions that are now part of UNITE. But, the investment houses, where the big money is are virtually union-free. It is an attractive thought to have organised labour at the heart of the capitalist beast but this isn’t a sector easily lending itself to collectivisation. Of the top 1% of earners in the economy, half of them are located in the investment sector. Most workers have more modest salaries but the starting point in the City is around £30k plus for graduates. Trying to create the sense of grievance to organise these workers around would require considerable creativity and the lower paid workers providing general and security services tend to be outsourced.

Second, the social care and personal health services is growing. Highly-regulated sectors of this ilk provide ample opportunity to put employers under pressure without the immediate need for industrial militancy. Employers are vulnerable to effective campaigns but, sloganizing aside, the reality is that these businesses are in tight multi-employer cost competition. They operate on low profit margins so the economic imperative is to dig in and fight hard against union organisation. Wins in this sector are hard won.

Third, transport: leaving aside the well-organised and militant rail sector, the other sub-sectors of the transport industry have all the organising problems associated with mobile workers, competitive employers and marginal costs (see above).

But there is a sector that has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades: the wholesale and retail sector. Internal consumerist consumption is vital to the economy and with over 4.5m workers, low density levels, and plenty of grievances this is fertile organising ground. Profit margins are generally high, so it would be economically possible for employers to cede ground without a fight to the death on every occasion.

You would expect unions to be at the forefront of organising these workers but while increases in individual union membership may be reported, density has not. In short, ground has actually been lost by trade unionism within the retail sector, not gained.

Now for the controversy. TUC affiliated unions sign-up to agreements to stop unions poaching members from another affiliate. These agreements also allow unions to make claims to specific sectors. The reality is that some unions try to put a protective ring around an entire sector but then fail to organise the workers.

This is just one example of where current structure and form are problematic. Is it time for the left to consider supporting tactical breaks within current union structure and form?

TUF has featured articles about the emergence of civil and social movements (CSMs) and activist networks as campaigning organisations but, thus far, there has been little discussion about their emergence as actors in their own right within the employment arena.

Stories of pop-up unions surface occasionally but these are few and far between. They have generally centred on service workers, often with a grievance against existing unions as well as employers. For example, a relatively recent Morning Star article (21st September) covered foster carers voting to form their first-ever trade union. This featured the  International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a non-TUC affiliated but certified union which describes its mission as “organising the unorganised, the abandoned and betrayed”. On investigation it is difficult to detect a coherent strategic approach at the heart of the IWGB and it would be interesting to see how well it would fare without the driving personality at its centre.

Many trade unionists will also have encountered activist networks, for example those centring on specific industrial issues (e.g. the casualised workforce). While the tendency is for the official machinery of unions’ structures to see these networks as alternative sources of power and to crush them in their infancy, some incorporate their demands into official policy to weaken the attraction of a separate entity.

To most of us on the disciplined, non-ultra left, it is almost heretical to consider proposals that would break with the existing basis of trade union organisation, including the TUC. But if we really think it necessary to increase our significance in people’s everyday struggles; if organised labour is to gain more power to defend our class and to lead the fight for real political change then current union strategies for renewal are failing, badly.

Perhaps we should consider radical alternatives if we want to develop a new cadre of labour organisers. We have to ask ourselves whether, in some sectors, there is a case for developing new unions.


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Strikes and industrial militancy after the Trade Union Act

There are arguably two urgent questions facing the Marxist left in the trade union movement: how to provide leadership in assisting the movement to organise in the real labour market of today and how to raise the tempo of struggle within the workplaces where we are organised. This blog only discusses the second of these questions.

The Trade Union Act and national collective bargaining

The passage of the Trade Union Act into law crystallises a critical tactical and strategic question for the labour movement. What is the role of strike action in future life of the trade union movement and does the strike still have a role in the struggle to build a socialist alternative?

The Trade Union Act, as we know, was simply the latest in a succession of Conservative measures to cripple and strangle the power of organised labour. It was explicitly aimed at hamstringing the public sector unions which form the heartland of the movement with the bulk of its membership and the bastion where collective bargaining is still at least formally observed. The Act throws new barriers in the way of public sector unions looking to mount large scale set-piece national strikes.

Crippling the ability of public sector unions to deliver national strikes will of course further the fragmentation of national collective bargaining structures. But the argument also runs the other way. The fact that strike ballots for large-scale national actions have been delivering turnouts below 50% is arguably symptomatic of the deeper breakdown of national collective bargaining structures.

Under the weight of long-term labour market restructuring in the private sector – assisted by the state – and neoliberal public sector reform, driven at national levels by the state and the EU, national collective bargaining structures were disintegrating in any case. NHS Hospital Trusts manage their own finances and engage in procurement of scores of subcontractors to deliver services. The BBC is now simply a commissioning agent for hundreds of small companies comprised of its former employees. Academy Schools set their pay and conditions at the level of the School or the chain. Universities and colleges increasingly do the same.

Why is this important? It matters because national collective bargaining structures and processes and the strikes used to support them are becoming more remote from meaningful outcomes for members. And following John Kelly’s mobilisation theory, if the secret of mobilising workers in struggle is to work on a deeply felt injustice which can be easily attributed to an enemy, around an issue that can be simply collectivised and where it is possible to win something, then it becomes clearer why turnouts in national strike ballots might have been low even before the Act passed into law.

Put simply, workers struggles and union structures and practices have to follow the restructuring of work and decision-making. Of course, this is not actually a simple issue of power travelling down to the local ‘firm’, as in reality, control of public services is being handed to large monopolistic companies who own or control many smaller ones. But the point remains, national strikes are going to be increasingly hard to deliver because they are increasingly detached from the reality of the organisation of either the public or the private sectors.

Strikes and industrial leverage in the workplace

So what happens now? Do we consign the strike weapon to the cabinet of labour movement curiosities? Obviously not. At a very simple instrumental level, to do so would be to denude the movement of a vital and necessary weapon. But we do need a shift in thinking and a new generation of trade union leaders at all levels who understand how to use strikes strategically. It is clear that it will still be possible to win strike ballots and use strike action, but only where it is related to some action designed to win something tangible for members. That does not rule out national or large scale strike ballots. Far from it. the decentralisation of bargaining has been uneven and some bargaining structures are still linked to meaningful processes. These must be defended. Yet we must learn to fight coordinated local battles around workplaces too. It’s clear that the strike weapon can still be effectively used locally without falling foul of the legislation. In their recent IER pamphlet, Ralph Darlington and John Dobson note ‘a clear tendency for workplace, area or single employer ballots to obtain ‘higher’ turnouts and be more likely to clear the 50% threshold’. Turnout in NUT’s national ballots, for example, is around 31%. At school level it was around 64%. Similarly, FBU area ballots outstripped national ones. The current dispute in Southern Rail passed the required thresholds.

Most of these struggles are defensive ones over jobs, working hours, terms and conditions, pensions or imposed pay cuts. With the cost of living set to rise to 3% next year and possibly more beyond, we may well see a revival of more serious wages struggles in both the public and private sectors.

Strikes that are integrated into clear strategies for winning focused gains for workers will always be an option. But they must form part of a wider tactical armoury that uses and combines all the accumulated wisdom of the movement as the concrete situation demands: strategic supply chain organising, leverage campaigning, community and social movement mobilisation and the ‘borrowing of power’ from other agents in supply chains, together with various forms of unofficial or illegal industrial action.

Workplace militancy and the class struggle today

Crucially, for Marxists and those on the genuine left, workplace struggles, including strikes, form a vital part of the wider development of class struggle. As our briefing note explains, the temporary withdrawal of labour throws into question the everyday exercise of control in the workplace and exposes the fundamentally exploitative nature of the working relationship in capitalist societies. This class character of strikes is always present, even if workers aren’t always aware of it. As the current Southern Rail dispute demonstrates, during strikes, the class nature of society and the state can come clearly into view and the question of political power quickly arises.

The state is, quite evidently, an overbearing presence in modern British industrial relations: hampering organisation, proscribing industrial action, blacklisting workers, conducting ideological warfare on unions and so on. Equally, for all the guff about globalisation, the state is a hugely significant agent in the modern capitalist economy. Just taking the rail industry as a contemporary example, it is the state that privatised Southern Rail. The state constructed the conditions that enabled the restructure of the industry around service transnationals like the Go-Ahead Group and its owners. And as the TUC’s excellent recent report demonstrated, it is the state that constructs and guarantees profits politically for these companies. This is why the seemingly small workplace struggles in the dispute at Southern Rail have assumed a sharply political form, throwing up questions about the control of the entire industry.

A rising general level of workplace militancy would raise the possibility of large numbers of workers engaged in struggles that might enable the development of a wider class consciousness. This would feed into – and in turn develop – the political forces arguing for an alternative economic and political strategy today, turning the struggle against a particular government or an ideology into a more profound challenge to the capitalist class as a whole.

Is it possible for workplace struggles to play this role in supporting the development of class struggle and class consciousness today? If so, what might this process look like? It’s unlikely to look like the sort of general strike calls repeated so often in certain sections of the left. The call for a General Strike Now might feel good on demonstrations and serves as a useful slogan with which to characterise everyone else as a sell-out, but it is a slogan and nothing more.  However, it is possible to imagine an industrial strategy in which large numbers of workers were mobilised around a large number of smaller workplace based struggles, deploying strikes where appropriates, both legal and illegal.

Our own history shows us that the emergence of political class consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century and during the strike wave of 1968-74 was built on years of action in many forms taken by shop stewards at the level of the enterprise or shop floor. But for this, we need a new generation of workplace reps and activists who are engaged in political education, applying this to their workplaces and their industries to recognise and exploit spontaneous struggles, to identify the points where unions can exercise leverage, developing collective struggles as part of this and applying the appropriate tactics to each situation. We also need to build an infrastructure to support these reps and to help socialise their experience, to make it part of the common consciousness of the movement. Social media can clearly play a helpful role in this, bringing spatially dispersed struggles quickly into contact with one another. And we need more, not less coordination. Coordination that is less fixated with Grand Days Out and more with ensuring that collective struggles are effectively developed, won, and then widely shared and built on. Then we might be able to ensure that class struggles at the point of production play their role in developing a wider class challenge that questions not just neoliberalism, but capitalism.

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Labour Movement Education Unshackled – A Conference of trade union educators held at the Marx Memorial Library, 7 September 2016

The British labour movement has been slow to acknowledge the depth of the crisis that is overwhelming its settled mode of educating its cadres. As we’ve pointed out on this site, and others have argued in the Morning Star, the end of government funding and the TUC model of education is forcing a long overdue debate on the movement about what trade union education should be and how it should be organised and funded. It was precisely to address these issues that the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School hosted a gathering of trade union reps, officers, and educators on 7 September. There were participants from Unite, UNISON, CWU, RMT, NUT, UCU, ASLEF and other unions besides and Trade Union Futures went along to cover the discussion. Because the conference involved open and frank discussion of the issues facing the movement, it was agreed that the conference proceedings should be anonymised.

Crisis, opportunity and the needs of the hour

The first speaker in the morning session from UNISON talked framed the crisis explicitly as an opportunity to go back to basics and ensure that whatever the movement re-establishes is fit for the challenges we face. It was noted that TUC education has been focused on the narrow training of shop stewards, strongly influenced by what governments would fund. In practice, this has resulted in an education that doesn’t support movement building. TUC training effectively rules out political debate or discussion about how to mobilise and organise within workplaces and communities. The speaker pointed out that at the current moment this was particularly inexcusable. While thousands of people are being mobilised and attending meetings in support of Jeremy Corbyn, unions continue to have small meetings and low participation. Education also has to be reshaped around the reality of people’s working lives today. The challenge is to develop a programme of education supporting collectivism and movement building when you have branches with members in dozens of different companies and when working patterns are fragmented and often part-time. There was recognition that any attempt to reshape trade union education on a common basis across the movement would face resistance from vested interests, including from the TUC.

The crisis of the TUC model – new problem or old?

The second speaker, with experience of TUC education, reminded participants that this is in part a new articulation of an old debate in the movement dating back to 1909 and the Plebs League. It was noted that the TUC model itself was an accommodation to a specific political reality, while the current plight of Trade Union education needed itself to be situated in the context of the wider commodification and destruction of education, particularly Further Education.

Common objectives for trade union education?

Looking to the future, the second speaker argued that we could not debate how this education was to be funded until we have a shared conception of what tis education should be for and what it should look like. The speaker proposed that a commonly shared basis for trade union education might be established on two pillars:

1) the need to politically educate activists to achieve change

2) the need for independent education for advancement

The labour movement must aspire to produce citizens capable of thinking for themselves. For unions, this means less emphasis on reps competent to deal with individualised procedures or use the law, and more stress on knowing how to organise collectively. It is absolutely crucial to start to teach about collectivism and collective power again.

A common resource for the movement

In the discussion that followed, it was broadly agreed that it was important that unions should avoid attempting to solve the problem independently and in silos. This is not a time for ‘circling the wagons’ as one speaker put it, but to shape a new working class education. There are immense benefits to multi-union courses, particularly in cultivating a consciousness of the movement and politics. Some participants shared how their unions were tackling some of the issues, including examples of using ‘workers’ centres as spaces where reps and community activists can meet, learn and organise. There was agreement that it was vital to identify and develop venues, spaces and resources that could be shared across unions.

It was also agreed that preserving member education was important. Participants shared their stories of the popularity of courses that provided education for advancement and made the point that these were vital organising tools as well as sources of popular working class education in themselves.

Collective power vs competent individuals

There was also agreement that the content of education needed to be shifted. If we agree that the objective is to educate citizens to think for themselves and be able to organise the effect change then for unions it is vital to rediscover collective power. Reps must learn to think of themselves as personifying collective power, not individually representing an individual. Even the current form of trade union education, where people are invited to sign up to three day courses, is too passive.

Political education

It was agreed that it was necessary to reach a broadly common understanding of what kind of politicised courses we can agree on as a movement. It was noted that we currently have experienced reps and some political institutions, the ‘remnants of an earlier movement’ that need to be harnessed for the purposes of renewal.  As one participant put it, ‘if we don’t grab this opportunity now it will be harder to build later’. Others pointed to the ways in which they had managed to develop a political dimension to their education courses through evening classes with partner organisations like the MML or by clever badging of courses. This need to make the best use of what we have reinforced the point that a renewed trade union education needs to be a common, multi-union resource, developed through cooperation.

‘If we’re still providing education based on an increasingly imaginary workforce, we will die’

Participants discussed some of the challenges of renewal that arise from the workplace. Participants in public sector unions like the NUT, UNISON and CWU talked about the growing need to develop reps and shop stewards who were also local negotiators, able to mobilise collective muscle around them. Several made reference to the need to be able to reach precarious workers and fragmented workforces with new technology and about the challenges of developing collective forms and content of education for such workforces. One speaker made the point with real force and clarity, arguing that ‘when one third of the workforce are part-time and a large number of those are in some form of bogus self-employment, if we’re still providing education based on an increasingly imaginary workforce in stable employment, we will die’. We have to be honest that we are currently not taking account of the 75% of the workforce who are not in unions, don’t know about collective bargaining or workers’ rights. What would a transformative program look like for real, concrete workers today?

More optimistically, it was also noted that people who do come to unions to be representatives now do not do so for advancement, status or facilities time but because they genuinely want to change things.

The Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School

On behalf of the host institution, labour historian and educator Mary Davis explained the history of the Marx Memorial Library, making the point that right from its inception, the task of providing independent education for workers through the Workers’ School had been at the heart of its mission. The School had provided lectures and classes on history, the science of society and political economy. Now the Library’s Education Committee is redeveloping the School, providing new online and classroom based courses looking at the crisis of capitalism, austerity, trade unions, class and power and other subjects. New tutors are being recruited and new courses developed. The Library can only be part of the solution, Mary argued, but what it was doing was important to the movement and needs to be in the mix.

Finishing up – and moving forward

The conference closed with a rousing account of the struggle over trade union education in the US from labour historian Paul Mishler. In his wide-ranging and engaging talk Paul pointed to the resonances in the debates at issue between the UK and US contexts but also at the key differences. In particular, Paul pointed to the effects of the destruction of left politics in the unions after the war and the different role played by mass higher education in becoming a key site for the struggle over labour education. Paul finished by pointing to the way in which student movements have interacted with labour organisations as a consequence of this different role. As neoliberal reform has transformed students into workers who study, Paul argued, unions have recognised the need to engage with young people in universities on this terrain.

At the end of a positive day that energised the participants, it was agreed that one outcome of the conference should be further meetings to develop the commonly agreed areas already identified and explore the potential for taking this argument into the wider movement.


For more information on the trade union education provided by the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School see their programme of events here:

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The ‘Manifesto for Labour Law’: an idea whose time is coming

It must have seemed a lonely furrow at times. For years now, the Institute of Employment Rights has been the go-to source of expertise and thought on workers rights for the left in the trade union movement. But successive New Labour governments showed themselves to be profoundly uninterested in tackling the iniquities of Britain’s labour market, preferring to wish them away with utopian fantasies about the knowledge economy. The Coalition and its Tory successor of course have launched a further frontal attack on the few rights and protections left to organised labour. But such has been the electrifying power of the left revival around Jeremy Corbyn that suddenly, the issue of workers rights is back on the agenda. Even Corbyn’s ‘moderate’ opponent Owen Smith declares himself in favour of collective bargaining now and suddenly the IER finds itself in possession of the appropriate ideas for the moment.

And in timely fashion, ahead of this year’s TUC, the Institute has published its Manifesto for Labour Law, nothing less than a comprehensive programme for overhauling the legal framework within which Britain goes to work and in which its hard pressed unions attempt to organise. The Manifesto’s starting point is that Britain’s labour market has been devastated by 35 years of neoliberal legal reform. With great deliberation, Tory governments have slashed workers’ rights, crippled unions’ ability to exercise collective muscle and restricted workers’ individual access to justice. The legal framework of the labour market has become an iron cage, remade in the image of the neoliberal market fantasy: the abstract working individual now confronts the employer and the state alone, powerless in the face of massive concrete economic and political coercion. Employers have used this environment to effect a historic wage grab and to restructure the labour market, introducing a proliferation of new contract types that erode employment rights and increase dependence and poverty, from the zero hours contracts in the service industries to the bogus self-employment of construction sector and the ‘gig’ economy. The individual’s theoretical right to redress is worthless in the face of the reality of the modern workplace: unions in a historic retreat; an absence of collective rights; a remote and hostile state; a prohibitively costly tribunal system; the constant threat of unemployment and a job market increasingly characterised by precarious and poor quality work.

The centrepiece of the Institute’s solution is a massive investment of political will in creating institutions and a legal structure to support the recreation of collective bargaining. The various reforms to employment law proposed in this document all flow from this one simple idea. A new Ministry of Labour would be given responsibility for establishing a series of sector-wide collective agreements which would act as legally enforceable wage and condition floors. Within this, enterprise level collective bargaining could still take place but with the scope to adapt and improve around this floor. The attractions of such an approach are obvious for unions struggling to organise and bargain enterprise by enterprise in the context of today’s fragmented workplaces and complex company structures.

The authors argue that such an approach would also push the state back from its currently extended role in the labour market. Where the state currently steps in to regulate the detail of working life, under these proposals the onus would be on unions and employers to resolve issues within the context of multi-employer collective agreements. Placing collective bargaining back at the centre of regulating the workplace also creates a powerful logic in favour of rolling back Britain’s draconian restrictions on unions’ freedom of association and creating a positive right to withhold labour. The authors point out that unusually, Britain’s law views strike action as a breach of common law, a tort from which unions are only protected in certain highly restricted conditions.

Why the emphasis on collective bargaining? Why privilege this particular policy solution? Some have argued that the British labour movement’s historic attachment to free collective bargaining was a mistake and have turned instead to trying to build a political case for widening the stakeholder base of British businesses by including workers on the boards. Others have argued that the job formerly done by unions would be just as well performed by giving everyone a basic or citizens income. The IER pamphlet does not reject these measures, but it does make a sustained case for collective bargaining. At the heart of this case is the collective voice or power of workers. Collective bargaining can be an effective vehicle of workplace democracy and social justice, not just giving voice to workers but confronting the employer’s entrenched powers of coercion with the mobilised collective power of labour. They also argue that it can be an instrument of an alternative economic policy. In place of the vicious cycle of wage stagnation offset by the creation of consumer credit bubbles, collective bargaining offers not just an effective way of establishing appropriate wage levels in different sectors but a way of boosting workers earnings and encouraging greater spending. They also suggest that it would play a role in altering the incentive structure of firms by directing them away from a short-termist focus on the bottom line and toward investment in longer term research and development. At this point it becomes apparent (though it is not explicitly stated) that the IER’s proposals make most sense when seen as part of a wider alternative economic and political strategy such as has been advocated for years by the Communist Party and its allies on the left, and now arguably being developed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.* Seen in such a context, legal reforms to the labour market would support action to create an active state, based on democratic control of finance and the use of public stakes in strategically important firms to reorient the economy away from the short term need of finance capital and towards a programme to resolve Britain’s economic crisis in favour of the working class.

But the particular emphasis on collective bargaining in the Manifesto is important for another reason. It’s because it places the working class at the centre of the story as the agent of its own destiny. The great advantage of the Manifesto over proposals like, say basic income, or ‘workers on the boards’ is not only that it’s more efficient or that it supports an alternative economic strategy but that it implicitly emphasises and explicitly licences the role of workers in active struggling to deliver this alternative.

As our briefing note explains, capitalist societies, collective bargaining takes place in the context of the struggle in the workplace as a moment of temporary truce between workers and their employers. Collective bargaining and the disruption of production are the mode of existence of workers’ struggles in the workplace. This is what makes unions essential ‘schools’ in which workers learn to combine to improve their conditions. Unions actively engaged in struggle around collective bargaining are also the vital precondition for the formation of wider political class consciousness. Workers who are not prepared to mobilise and struggle around trade union collective bargaining objectives are unlikely to develop the experience of struggle, understanding of power and wider political consciousness necessary to pose more profound challenges to the social order. Basic income and its derivative forms by comparison, can be seen as a technocratic solution that obscures issues of class power and relegates active struggle and its consequences to the background.

The union movement has a huge amount to gain from the Manifesto and the union left must press the Labour Party’s Workforce 2020 consultation for a future Labour government to implement it in full. By the same token, it will not suffice for unions to simply put their heads down and bet the house on a Labour government. Unions must also earn the political will they seek to mobilise by deploying imaginative strategies that can put the question of collective struggle around collective bargaining back on the agenda in more workplaces. The challenges of doing this are immense, no doubt. Public sector national collective bargaining structures and practices are being rolled back and undermined everywhere. Private sector collective bargaining coverage is desperately low. But established collective bargaining structures did not always exist. They were created out of a historical conjuncture in which shop stewards exerted increasingly coordinated power at shop floor level, increasingly concentrated capitalist industries found that they could not function on the old model of industrial relations and in which a crisis afflicted state discovered that it needed a measure of tripartism and planning. Unions must start to play their role in developing workplace struggles and raising the question of the benefits of collective bargaining in a concrete form, posing the current model as a problem of order for the state and of orderly business for employers. Then perhaps, the IER’s hugely impressive Manifesto stands a chance of becoming a truly materially forceful idea.


*See for example, Manifesto Press’s ‘Building an Economy for the People’ as well as the plans coming from the team around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.


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