In the wake of International Women’s Day and as the TUC’s Women’s Conference meets, Trade Union Futures is proud to publish an invaluable new resource. This new brilliant essay by labour historian Mary Davis shines a light on the history of women and their relationship with the trade union movement. In this short essay, Davis examines how an often conservative trade union movement has been pushed to represent women by the interaction of capitalist development and the recomposition of the working class with the class consciousness provided by socialists. She exposes how the cause of women has risen and fallen along with the ebbs and flows of socialist class consciousness and reminds us that the trade union movement has too often retreated into cosy defensiveness that embeds and reproduces structures of oppression as well as failing to challenge class exploitation. The price of progress, she warns us, is eternal vigilance. This essay deserves to be widely read and studies within our unions.
In the House of Lords second reading debate on 11 January 2016, former TUC General Secretary Lord John Monks warned that the Trade Union Bill ’is a mortal threat to some unions’.
It is a point of view that cannot be disputed by anyone who considers the recent research paper* ‘Strategy, Structure and Resourcing in UK Trade Unions’ by Paul Willman, Alex Byron and John Forth. This very informative and technical study updates empirical literature on trade union resources in the UK. It covers the period 2004 to 2013/14 providing a continuation of four similar studies dating back to 1936.
The main focus is on first and second order collective action problems, these being respectively ‘free riders’ and the cost of running the union and delivering services to members. What throws these problems into sharp relief is the likely impact of the Trade Union Bill on the business end of UK trade unionism, particularly in public services which accounts for only 17% of the overall workforce but contains over two-thirds of trade union members.
Individual workers who benefit from the product of collective bargaining but opt out from union membership have been a long term problem for unions in Britain.
In Charles Forman’s ‘Industrial Town’ (1978), a seminal study of manual and craft unionisation in the period leading up to the 1926 General Strike, a branch secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen in St Helens recalls: “the job was getting those men in the union. When I first started there was only 30 or 40 (members). We talked to the people we were working with, and we used to give them a form to fill in. There were some awkward folk. It wasn’t not wanting to be in, but it was paying the 6d a week subscription. It got to industrial action – there was a strike over it, one time. Like at our place, if a fellow was working there and wouldn’t join, the job he was on was stopped until he was taken off….You’re getting concessions, extra pay, and you’re not doing anything else for it.”
A closed shop arrangement whereby all workers employed are required to be and remain members of specified union/s was an effective response to this problem until the 1980’s when successive Conservative Government’s inflicted a staged demolition of the closed shop starting with the 1980 Employment Act – which legislated for a 80% ballot in order to legalise a closed shop – through to the 1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act which made them unlawful. More recently, unions have offered bespoke individual membership benefits and representation to recruit and retain members.
The costs of collective action
Willman et al highlight that union finances can be a ‘key indicator of the viability of collective action’ and that union members ‘pay a very small proportion of their earnings as subscription and receive limited private goods in return.’
Over the past 80 years, regardless of the ebb and flow of membership levels, UK unions have struggled to raise sufficient income to cover expenditure often relying on investment income to balance the books. The business model in 2014 was more or less the same as that which existed in 1936!
However a key variable is what the authors refer to as ‘off balance sheet’ resources essentially the voluntary activist base and employer support. The latter includes check off of union subscriptions (DOCAS) and management recommendation of union membership (both remain prevalent in public services but subject to slight decline since 1984). This highlights the strategic nature of the attack presented by the 2015 Trade Union Bill.
The huge financial impact of the Trade Union Bill has been documented in a recent Government impact assessment. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented that “the government has underestimated the true financial impact this Bill could have for unions. However, even by its own estimates unions and their members are set to be hit with a stonking upfront bill of over £11million, followed by £26million more over the next five years. UK trade unions are already the most heavily regulated in Western Europe. This Bill is a blatant attempt to make it harder for workers to stand up for decent services and safety at work, or defend their jobs and pay.”
The report identifies the proposed abolition of DOCAS, additional balloting costs and future regulatory changes to facility time as likely to have a ‘substantial impact on a financially weak set of unions.’ As finances become squeezed a strategic challenge for unions will be to reduce ‘on balance sheet’ running costs and base collective action strategies on committed networks of workplace activists.
Gregor Gall identified in his IER pamphlet ‘Union organising and the health of the union movement in Britain’ (2010), that unions need to be “much more masters of their own destinies by focusing upon the foundation stones of their own potential power, namely, their own members and to do so where the members were located i.e. their workplaces, and by means of collectivism and mobilisation”. There can be no better response to the onslaught of the Conservative Government than to reaffirm our commitment to that model of organising. The best antidote to the Trade Union Bill is stronger activism.
* presented at the LERA Conference, San Francisco on 4th January 2016.
Since 2008, there has been a broad political consensus among the mainstream political parties around the need for ‘austerity’, whether in its New Labour ‘lite’ or Coalition ‘shock therapy’ forms to tackle the public accounting deficit left by the financial crash and the ensuing economic recession. The massive mobilisations led by the TUC and the People’s Assembly and recent events inside the Labour Party have at last begun to throw this consensus into question. However, the immediate fact remains that the governing political party is still operating policies aimed at attacking working people, including their trade unions, on the justification that the country’s public finances and its businesses require a one-sided exercise in mass self-sacrifice called ‘austerity’. It’s important therefore that trade unionists understand what austerity is and why it is happening.
Many left of centre economists, influenced by John Maynard Keynes, tend to focus on austerity as a set of macroeconomic policy assumptions about the need to make public spending cuts during a recession. Following Keynes, they argue, rightly, that during a recessionary phase, public spending is more important than ever to rejuvenate the economy. Having demonstrated that public spending cuts are the wrong response and satisfied themselves that ‘stimulus’ is the better alternative, they appear mystified as to why the Conservatives persist in their error. This was even more the case when they were trying to understand why the Labour Shadow front bench Exchequer team under Ed Balls weren’t listening either.
The TUC shares much of this ‘Keynesian’ analysis, certainly in its macro-economic analysis. But the notion of austerity current among left unions and organisations like the People’s Assembly is much broader. For these, austerity is a project and a political choice, made by the super-rich, aimed at the poorest and targeted at shrinking the state and destroying the public sector and its unions. Austerity, then covers not just the public spending cuts as a macro-economic tool, but the variety of measures that aim to restore big business to profitability at the expense of working people and even those who identify themselves with the ‘middle class’. This is also the kind of understanding of austerity that has mobilised forces on the left in Europe, especially in forces like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Italy.
There is a lot about this analysis that’s simply correct. But it’s also important to be more specific and definite in our understanding of austerity. If we are not, austerity risks becoming a word that conceals as much as it reveals. The key question, from a Marxist perspective, is what class interests are at work and what are the real processes taking place beneath the ideas. For example, if austerity ideas were abandoned by the political mainstream parties, would that necessarily mean that a significant change in our society had taken place? Would working people necessarily have more power in society? Why has Britain persisted with a particularly harsh austerity offensive when other countries have moderated theirs with more use of public spending? Is it just that we’re stupider and don’t listen to common-sense Keynesian economists as much as other countries? Or are there deeper forces at work? And, if we begin to understand those deeper forces, what then should be the specific response of trade unions?
To help the discussion and debate among trade unionists on the left around these issues, Trade Union Futures has published the latest in our series of briefing notes. Our new downloadable resource suggests that austerity is not only an embracing class offensive but one that is driven specifically by the economic and political dominance of finance capital within the ruling class. The peculiar overdependence of the British economy on finance capital helps to explain why austerity has taken such a harsh form in Britain and why even New Labour, which accepted the legitimacy and power of the capital markets long ago, has been so enslaved to its dogmas. The briefing makes concrete suggestions for how trade unions can play their distinctive role in developing the struggle to overthrow the ideas of austerity and the forces that generate them: work to build effective economic struggles over wages and the distribution of wealth should be combined with the development of a political agenda that targets the economic and political power of finance capital in Britain. And if you want to read more on this issue at Trade Union Futures, you can also download the longer essay by Professor John Foster which puts austerity in a greater historical context.
In the daily business of defending members, it’s a constant struggle even to step back and look at ourselves and our movement strategically. It can be even harder to think about the movement as a historical phenomenon and a social agent in complex power relations. For new activists and shop stewards training and education is currently in place but over a process of decades this has become concentrated on the acquisition of technical skills and competences, in spite of the efforts of excellent trade union educators. Part of the Tory attack on our movement involves cutting off the funding for even this education, meaning that our movement faces a historic challenge. We need a wide-ranging debate within the trade union movement over how we organise our education and what it is we need to teach a new generation of reps and shop stewards. The pages of the Morning Star have carried excellent contributions to this debate from practicing trade union educators like Vicky Knight, Bob Kelly and Les Doherty, Union education officers like John Fisher, and latterly the GFTU’s Doug Nicholls.
One of reasons that Trade Union Futures was set up was to contribute to this educative process. Our argument is that the movement needs to engage with the unique analytical possibilities within our Marxist heritage. Marxist analysis contains a uniquely all-embracing capacity to make sense of our history and to pinpoint the specific possibilities – and limits – of trade unions as social agents within that history. What can trade unions do to advance the interests of the working class? What can they do to contribute to effecting a more fundamental progression and transformation of our society?
At Trade Union Futures you will find a short downloadable briefing note introducing you to a discussion of exactly these issues here. We’ve also published two longer essays that examine the growth of Marxism as a strong current within and influenced the British labour movement. Professor Mary Davis, author of the indispensable history of the British trade union movement ‘Comrade or Brother’, examines the early development of Marxist thought on trade unions in the 19th century. Labour historian Professor John Foster picks up where Mary leaves off, tracing the development of Marxism as a force within the unions through the Communist Party of Great Britain. We hope you find them useful contributions to a necessary debate.