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: http://marx-memorial-library.org/education

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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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NEW RESOURCE: How to build left power in the unions

How do Marxists, as a minority within the trade union movement, operate to provide effective leadership? How have they done so in the past? How can they do so again in a situation where union power has been greatly weakened?

This essay discusses the way in which Marxists operate within the trade union movement and in particular focuses on the idea of ‘broad left’ organising. The essay looks at the conditions within which Marxists were able to exert considerable influence using the broad left approach during the 1960s and 70s and examines the extent to which this is still an appropriate way for Marxists to operate in today’s union movement.

Finally the essay offers suggestions for debate on what are the core issues, necessary alliances and organisational forms through which Marxists can help build a revitalised union left and provide leadership in the current situation.

Download our new essay here.


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English devolution – same struggle, different scale

By Kevan Nelson

“…a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly…” (Harvey, 2013, p. 29)


The Government is continuing to pursue its project to shrink the state. Public services – and especially local council services – are being devastated by a sustained attack on their funding and viability. In this overarching context, George Osborne’s championing of devolution to England’s cities should be met with suspicion. As trade unionists we need to understand the weaknesses of the Government’s devolution agenda in terms of democratic accountability, economic development and the financing of public services. At the same time, we need to seize on the opportunities presented by the increasing importance of the city-region scale of governance and policy-making to protect our members and communities.

Osborne’s Devolution

(i) Democratic accountability

The Government’s devolution agenda is largely built around a patchwork of deals with groups of councils in our big cities. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 builds on 2009 legislation that provided for the creation of combined authorities by groups of two or more local authorities. The first combined authority was established in Greater Manchester in 2011 followed in April 2014 by several others in major conurbations across the north of England including Liverpool and Sheffield. Since November 2014 the Government has negotiated devolution deals in several city-regions, notably in Manchester – first covering local government, transport, police and skills followed by health and social care in February 2015. The combined authority or city-region level is becoming a more important scale of governance and policy-making, with plans for economic prosperity and public service delivery increasingly being drawn up at this level.

The current approach contrasts with that adopted in the Blair years, when devolution involved the creation of new national political structures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolution in England stalled in the North East in 2004 when the first and only referendum to take place on the creation of a regional assembly was rejected emphatically by 78% of voters on a 48% turnout. The idea of a comprehensive system of regional parliaments was dropped and instead we have seen piecemeal initiatives emerge based on cities rather than regions.

The Government’s idea for democratic accountability at the city-region level is not through a new assembly or parliament but through the election of a mayor. The Government has made the devolution of powers to combined authority areas conditional on their acceptance of having a directly-elected mayor, with George Osborne saying: “I’m not imposing directly elected mayors on anyone but I will not settle for less.”

A mayoral governance model in itself causes concern. The author Peter Latham has argued that the mayoral system is the “optimum internal management arrangement for privatised local state services nullifying the role of elected councillors”. At their worst, a mayor can become a remote figure from the public while being easily accessible to private interests. The behind-closed-doors discussions that led to the initial deals between city-regions and the Treasury, and their pro-business rhetoric both add to concerns about the shape and culture of devolved governance arrangements. While trade unions are rarely mentioned in devolution document, there are frequent references to business, the private sector and to Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). In the Liverpool City Region, the chair of the LEP even has voting rights on the combined authority – an extreme and currently unique example of private sector inclusion in formal governance arrangements.

(ii) Economic development

In the absence of a regional layer of governance with a responsibility for economic development, combined authorities are cast in the role of promoting growth and productivity.

Boosterism and hype has been conspicuous in local deal submissions with competing claims about the ‘fastest economic growth’ and being at the ‘heart of the Northern Powerhouse!’ There is little consideration given to how local politicians’ economic ambitions may be thwarted due to the key economic levers remaining in Westminster and national policy decisions being taken in the interests of the City of London more than the needs of the cities of the North of England.

There is a danger that a ‘competition model’ could dominate which focuses on the relative position of cities on economic performance league tables rather than on quality of life. A philosophy of competition has been criticised as condemning “the majority of spaces, people and organisations to the status of ‘losers’” (Davies, 2016). Cut-throat competition between cities to make themselves most attractive to private investment cannot be a basis for more equal and cohesive communities.

It is important to guard against a model of economic development that involves shiny new buildings in the city centre and little benefit elsewhere. Pre-dating devolution we have the example of Liverpool One, where a smart new shopping district has been achieved at the cost of losing a huge swathe of public land to private ownership. Engels understood the danger of gentrification being to the economic benefit of property developers and speculators but not of workers:

“…the scandalous alleys disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise by the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else…” (Engels, 1935, pp. 74-7).

(iii) Public services

The devolution agenda involves very little new money being made available at the local level for cash-strapped public services. There is a strong concern that Osborne is seeking to devolve the administration of (and associated blame for) service cuts. Osborne’s recent advocacy of greater fiscal autonomy for local authorities – with his ambition to move to 100% funding from Council Tax, business rates and local revenues by 2020 (in 2010, the proportion was 20%) – can be seen as addressing a key concern of those who have long been critical of the centralised UK state. But for those living in areas of high social need and low economic means, the promise of fiscal autonomy from this chancellor sounds like a threat of permanent austerity and underfunding. There remains a need to combine local decision-making over public spending with solidaristic transfers of funding from wealthy to deprived areas.

What we can do at a city-region scale

How then do we respond to devolution as trade unionists? The TUC have usefully set out a three-pronged response to devolution entailing workforce partnership agreements, progressive procurement policies and engagement with civil society. I think we need to adapt to the emergence of the city-region as an important scale of governance and policy-making in a number of ways.

(i) A new scale for employment and economic development

We must work to protect the millions of trade union members who work in the delivery of public services whose employment could be affected by decisions taken on a city-region scale. The need for workforce engagement mechanisms is most immediately apparent in Greater Manchester, where the integration of social care and health is tied-up with the devolution agenda. The North West TUC has co-ordinated trade union input into a very good agreement on workforce engagement. This agreement is important because it ensures that the city-region level is not used as an avenue to circumvent local consultation structures and means that the union voice will be heard. We must ensure that cross-boundary public service design does not negatively affect members who work for local councils and NHS trusts.

Engagement at a city-region level is therefore necessary to defend existing employment standards, but it also presents opportunities to improve labour conditions more broadly. We need to push for decision-makers at the city-region level to endorse and pursue policies that lead to more in-house provision of public services, better environmental standards, and quality employment.

More fundamentally, we can promote policies where quality health and social care, sustainable transport, accessible broadband, and social housing take precedence over vanity tower blocks and a post industrial service economy based on low pay and low quality employment. We need to oppose the ‘competitive city’ model and instead join the calls for a ‘grounded city’ (Engelen et al, 2014) where the emphasis is not on wooing capital investment but on improving the urban quality of life. We can support and contribute to efforts to promote ‘inclusive growth’ at the city-region scale.

(ii) A new scale for planning public service delivery

In Greater Manchester, devolution involves councils and NHS organisations looking afresh at service provision on a city-region scale. This has resulted in a GM Health and Social Care Plan which identifies the strategic importance of services including nursery provision and elderly care, and policy areas such as skills. There is some scope here for arguing the case at a GM level that there is a need for a skilled, well-rewarded and unionised in-house workforce in the delivery of key care functions and for developing high-quality training opportunities for young people. Lobbying that achieves commitments at a city-region level can cascade down to local employers.

(iii) A new scale of governance

Public opinion and the way people vote in city-regions is different to that in England as a whole. If, for example, we have decision-making being taken at a Liverpool City Region scale in a way that is consistent with people’s views and values, we can anticipate a more progressive politics than in the wider country. Osborne’s version of devolution has to at least pay lip-service to the wishes and consent of the public.

To take this opportunity, trade unions need to work with a range of organisations to mobilise and amplify public opinion in our big cities. Where people do not support neoliberal policies we need to find ways of making this clear. We need to put pressure on city-region level decision-makers to influence what they do and not allow them to slip into the role of efficiently administering centrally-determined cuts. Where central government is not providing them with sufficient resources to meet the demands of the people, they in turn need to be demanding more from central government. We cannot allow city-region decision-makers to view insufficient funding as an unchangeable fact or an interesting challenge for their public management skills. There is an emerging tendency in some Greater Manchester-level documents to identify the cause of pressures on our public services in the irresponsible behaviour of individuals rather than in cuts or wider socioeconomic factors. Unions have challenged this in responding to the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Plan and we must have zero tolerance for efforts to blame the victims of austerity for their own poverty or to seek to divide people against each other.

We cannot assume that local politicians will necessarily take better or more progressive decisions than central government just by virtue of their being local. Robert Tressell’s fictional account of a town council meeting in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists describes the self-righteous and self-serving activities of Alderman Sweater and Councillors Didlum and Grinder. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw local company owners and industrialists often serving as council leaders and we can still see the busts, portraits and statues of real-life Sweaters in our municipal buildings. This era was long-lived, and it was only after the second world war that major cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool first elected Labour councils. We must be wary of efforts to promote an uncritical localism through portraying the Victorian period as a time of “high-minded… ideals” that created “a public realm predisposed towards social justice…” (Hunt, 2016). The local state under capitalism, just as at national level, is a site of competing class interests, and it is up to trade unions to play our part in influencing how power is exercised at a city-region level. Devolution marks a shift in the scale of the arena in which class conflict takes place – it does not make class conflict any less real.



Davies, W. (2016) ‘How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary growth.’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-cult-of-competitiveness/

Engelen, E., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2014) ‘How to build a fairer city’, Guardian, Wednesday 24 September.   http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/sep/24/manifesto-fairer-grounded-city-sustainable-transport-broadband-housing

Engels, F. (1935) The Housing Question, New York: International Publishers.

Harvey, D. (2013) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso.

Hunt, T. (2016) Speech delivered at Centre for Cities event: ‘Tristram Hunt MP on the Urban Century’. Monday 18 April. Transcript and video available at: http://www.centreforcities.org/multimedia/event-catch-up-city-horizons-tristram-hunt-mp-urban-century/

Latham, P. (2011) The state and local government: Towards a new basis for ‘local democracy’ and the defeat of big business control, Croydon: Manifesto.

Tressell, R. (2004) The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, London: Penguin.


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