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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