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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