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.’

Engelen, E., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2014) ‘How to build a fairer city’, Guardian, Wednesday 24 September.

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:

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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NEW RESOURCE: Working class women and the trade union movement

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.

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The best antidote to the Trade Union Bill is stronger activism

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.

Free Riders

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.

Kevan Nelson


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Essays in the EU debate #2: The case for Brexit – it’s all about power

By Roger Dunn

British trade unions can be forgiven for having clung so tenaciously to the idea that the European Union is a positive force, a source of valuable jobs and employment rights. The idea of ‘Social Europe’ and the raft of legislation in which it was embodied appeared at exactly the time that British trade unions were facing a brutal frontal assault from a government bent on their destruction and traditional manufacturing sectors were haemorrhaging jobs. In such a context, the Working Time Directive, TUPE, the part-time workers equal treatment directive and other legislative initiatives from the Commission seemed and to some extent were bulwarks against some of the worst excesses of unleashed British employers and unchecked Tory governments.

In recent years though, a series of highly detrimental judgments in the European Court of Justice, deep public spending cuts, rising and chronic unemployment in large areas of the Eurozone, the collapse of collective bargaining, the European Commission’s deregulation programme (REFIT – Regulatory Fitness and Performance) and the brutal treatment of the elected government of Greece by the ECB and Commission in particular have thrown the idea of Social Europe into deep crisis.

To understand the real content of Social Europe, we have to return to the context of its birth. Social Europe was never a project for embedding equality and workers’ rights within the European Union. Rather it was a policy solution pushed for by Social Democrats particularly in France and Germany to ensure that the creation of the single market in labour did not lead to politically problematic social dumping – more a set of minimum standards that normalise labour flexibility than a set of controls on capital’s action. The Directives on Agency Workers, on part-time workers equal treatment and on TUPE for example, have proved horribly weak in practice.  The ECJ judgments on Viking and Laval, followed by Ruffert and others have revealed that there is in fact no balance between labour and capital in the EU. Capital’s right to establish and undertake business wherever it likes trumps labour’s attempt to limit it using the rights to association embedded in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.[1]

The deeper problem with Social Europe was that it was an attempt to use regulations to solve far bigger problems of economic and political power. The main direction of travel in policy-making within the EU was always toward the free movement of capital and labour and this is embedded in the Treaties that underpin the Union. The Single European Act in 1986 established this principle and it was reiterated in the Lisbon Treaty. The Maastricht Treaty in 1991 added to this the Stability and Growth Pact, a fundamentally neoliberal policy stricture that said that no government would be permitted to run a budget deficit of more than 3%, effectively outlawing any Keynesian policy interventions that might have this as a consequence. This was a preparation for the Single Currency which enshrined the ‘one-size fits all interest rate administered by the European Central Bank. Britain did not join the euro, but it did sign the Maastricht Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact.

What has been the effect of this policy drive? The European Union’s policies and particularly the price of the euro have driven the massive concentration of industrial power among a handful of French and mostly German companies at the expense of industries in the Greece, Italy and other Southern European states as well as Britain. German imports now dominate these economies while unemployment in the Eurozone has soared to 1 in 8, a figure that leaps to 1 in 4 for youth unemployment. Public spending cuts and attacks on welfare and pensions systems for workers have been driven forward as key parts of successive waves of European integration. The 2008 crash has only accelerated this drive. Economies like Ireland, Greece and Portugal which were opened up to speculative real estate and asset investment bubbles have had vicious austerity enforced on them by the ECB and the Commission in return for bailouts aimed more at protecting the investment of US, British, German and French banks than the ailing economies of these countries. Collective bargaining is under pressure, not from ‘exogenous’ unstoppable global forces but from the deliberate policies of the EU such as the Stability and Growth Pact and the European Employment Strategy, both of which drive to create greater labour flexibility and mobility partly by creating pressure to break up centralised collective bargaining arrangements and generous social welfare systems at national level. One of the main targets of the austerity programmes enforced on Greece, Portugal and Ireland by the Troika has been the collective bargaining structures and practices in place.[2]

Since 2012, this has been accompanied by REFIT, akin to the British Government’s ‘Cutting Red Tape’ programme, which is ‘screening the whole stock of EU legislation’ to remove ‘burdens’ on corporations. Already, directives on musculoskeletal disorders and protections for workers against tobacco smoke have been blocked.  According to the ETUC, the Refit programme has an action plan to ‘simplify EU social laws’, including key directives that underpin workers’ employment rights in Europe, such as the directives on information and consultation, temporary agency work, data protection, posted workers, as well as the Working Time Directive.

How does the British labour movement orient itself in response to this? For some, it’s enough to point to the workers’ rights embedded in Social Europe: “David Cameron is launching another frontal attack on the trade unions and attacking employment rights –they still exist in Europe – we’re better off in”, the argument goes. The problem is, as seen above, Social Europe always had weak roots and it’s surrounded by far stronger forces pulling in the opposite direction. It’s not just David Cameron who poses a threat to those rights. The EU itself is undermining them. For others, this is all just another reason why we need to mobilise around the ideal of a real social Europe, a workers Europe. This is the kind of position being advocated by Caroline Lucas and some ultra-left groups for example. Unfortunately, this is a fine-sounding idea with very little material reality behind it. A quick comparison of the levers for the labour movement to influence policy shows this very clearly.

Within the context of each state of the EU, as in most developed capitalist states, it is generally the case that national labour movements have forged a political arm, often in the form of social democratic and communist parties. These parties have at times exerted some pressure on nationally articulated capital, sometimes forming governments that have at least partially challenged the dictatorship of capital, the right of big business to determine macro-economic policy and social objectives. The labour movement has no comparable levers of power at EU level. The EU is established by a series of great power Treaties. Law is shaped by the agreements made possible by the common and competing interests of big business dominated states. It is initiated by the European Commission in the form of Directives, formed by an unelected body that meets and deliberates in private. Law is then interpreted by the European Court of Justice, another unelected body that deliberates in private, in line with Treaties and Commission Directives. The European Parliament cannot initiate legislation, being restricted to sending it back for further consideration, whereupon they lose control of it. The slogan ‘democratise the EU’ might sound good tripping off the tongue but it conceals the fact that there are no levers for doing so. Nor are there any forces actually willing to push this case. To change the nature of the EU would require a more or less coordinated revolt by European labour movements and their political parties. No such political will exists among key parts of the necessary forces. In any event, the domination of pan-European Union politics by conservative and liberal forces is too often under estimated. Political representation in both the European Commission and European Parliament is overwhelmingly right wing. Only 8 of 28 European Commissioners could be described as ‘left of centre’ and the junior partner role of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (social democrats) in the governing majority belies the numerical domination of anti-worker, conservative MEP’s in the European Parliament.

By contrast, at national level there are more hopeful signs for trade unions. The Labour Party has now committed not just to repeal the Trade Union Bill but to restore collective bargaining, renationalise some utilities and to undertake a more aggressive and interventionist industrial strategy. It is at least conceivable that progressive change could be won at national level by left labour government and extra-parliamentary struggle in which unions played their part. What similar strategy could be pursued within the EU? What levers and what political forces exist to accomplish this at European level?

More damagingly for the supporters of the EU, it’s not simply the case that the Union is unlikely to change in a progressive direction. It actively impedes the British labour movement in articulating its own domestic radical agenda. For example, any attempt to develop a domestic industrial strategy which involved state investment and ownership would fall foul of the Competition Law. Any attempt to restore the rights of collective bargaining and embed national labour standards would cut across EU law on the primacy of the right of establishment of business. EU Directives and policy calls for competition and flexible labour standards within all public services and utilities.

The final argument put forward by those locked into the EU is that leaving it would cost jobs. The usual figure touted around is 3 million jobs that ‘depend’ on the EU. But these are in fact simply jobs connected to EU export markets. In fact the very strength of these markets would give EU states an incentive to negotiate trade agreements on any UK exit. But even more importantly, any attempt to seriously rebalance the British economy through an active industrial policy would be practically impossible within the EU’s law, law that the labour movement has no way of changing.

The British labour movement is under a renewed frontal assault. But at the same time, the potential has emerged for a renewed relationship with a radical social democratic politics at national level. If the British labour movement were to make a cold, hard analysis of the likelihood of progressive change emanating from the EU, dominated as it is by multinational capital, concentrated on states over which it has no power, compared with the likelihood of progressive change resulting from a nationally articulated push in Britain, there can be only one answer.

[1] The pressures on collective bargaining in the EU are reported in a recent Eurofound report here and analysed in various writings by John Hendy and Keith Ewing. This essay by John Hendy gives an excellent overview of the employment law situation in the EU.

[2] The  inter-capitalist rivalries that dominate economic policy-making and the preponderance of German industrial interests are well explained from different perspectives by John Grahl  and this pamphlet by John Foster.

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Essays on the EU Debate #1: ‘Brexit will increase liberalisation and strengthen the right’

By Paul Nicholas

Without doubt, one of the biggest political questions in British politics in the next two years will be the European Union (EU) “Brexit” referendum. It is also doubtful that the union movement will speak with one voice on this issue. While many well meaning people on the left make principled arguments in favour of leaving the EU, I believe the reality is significantly different. The Treaty of Rome was based upon the belief that by making markets interdependent, more pan-European wars would be avoided. While placing a strong emphasis on markets, principles like equal pay between men and women were also central to the agenda.

In some areas, the EU has without doubt been a driver of economic liberalisation in Europe: bans on state aid (except for the banks), pushing austerity throughout the Eurozone, the Viking and Laval cases which restricts the role of national collective action, and in several other areas. However, with the exception of trade union recognition laws, nearly all improvements to workers’ rights in the UK since the late 1970s have found their genesis in European legislation: rights for part time workers, parental leave, equal pay, rights for fixed term workers, limits on working time, works councils in multinationals- the list goes on. Similarly in areas as varied as equal pay, competition law and insolvency law, the European Court of Justice has on occasion creatively constructed protections for workers.   While the effect of many of these in the UK have been watered down, they have been watered down by successive Westminster governments, including the Blair and Brown Labour Governments from 1997-2010. Take the 2002 Information and Consultation Directive. Initially, the Commission proposed that decisions taken without the requisite level of consultation of workers could be quashed. Similarly, the Directive initially proposed an automatic obligation for companies to establish consultation mechanisms modelled on German and Dutch works councils. It was intense lobbying, led by the UK and Irish governments, that shaped the watering down process.

At the 2015 European Trade Union Congress in Paris, Commission President Jean- Claude Junker, sent out a strong signal that he aims to return the Commission to a more Delors type approach where “Social Europe” is central. Junker said in Paris the Commission is to bring forward in 2016 a “Pillar of social rights” for the EU. This is exactly the type of thing which the Right in the UK wants to avoid. Junker also announced that there is to be a relaunch of social dialogue to reinvigorate the European social model and that the EU had to do more to move away from precarious contracts as being the rule. Surely, these statements must be welcomed by the left across Europe, particularly those facing attacks like we have seen since 2010 in the UK?

The agenda of both the big camps in the in the UK- those arguing for a “renegotiation” of the relationship with the EU and the most vocal arguing for withdrawal from the EU- is driven by the same logic: the EU is a bulwark against liberalisation and imposes too much “red tape” (i.e. workers’ rights) on British business. What unites the position of Cameron’s “renegotiation” and Farage’s exit is they both oppose the EU legislating to regulate business. Before becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron announced his top priority was to withdraw from the European Social Chapter. The Social Chapter embodies everything which the Right hates about the EU; in particular, they dislike the process where European Directives can become law through the agreement of the ETUC and BusinessEurope without going through the normal legislative process. It was this process that delivered the Fixed Term Workers and Part Time Workers Directives that have benefited UK workers. Similarly, it is not difficult to see that if we are to have any meaningful regulation of the banking industry, in the form of a financial transaction tax, it will come from the EU, not Westminster.

The EU does suffer somewhat from a democratic deficit, although it could be argued this has been reduced in recent EU treaties with increased legislative powers for the directly elected European Parliament. However, when compared to the British system, the EU has a broadly proportional system of parliamentary representation, an indirectly elected Council and indirectly elected President (if only the UK was so democratic!) More meaningful democratic participation is needed but democratic reform, rather than withdrawal, is the strategy which should be engaged. The idea that withdrawal from the EU could benefit workers in the UK is simply not borne out by the evidence or any political reality.

Some on the Left can say they don’t like the liberalisation agenda of the EU or its deficiencies in democratic institutions, but should we not see it as a counterbalance in terms of ever increasing attacks on workers’ rights in the UK? And at risk of being overly pragmatic and pessimistic, a vote to leave the EU will lead to an acceleration of liberalisation and our regulatory framework moving closer to the US model. The entire agenda of Cameron and Farage is not one to reform or leave the EU because it currently erodes workers’ rights but one of withdrawing in order to withdraw more workers rights.

Those on the Left in favour of withdrawal from Europe often point to the EU as the driver of the austerity agenda. However, the danger here is of viewing the EU as the bogeyman. The shape of policies of the EU is shaped by the approach of national governments. When social democratic/socialist governments have been on the ascendency, a social agenda has been pursued: when right wing and Christian democratic governments have been on the rise, policies such as austerity have been pursued. It is too easy and verging on lazy politics to view the beast in Brussels as causing all our woes. We need a pan –European vision that emphasises a social agenda at national and EU levels. Cameron and Farage both want free markets without social protection. Instead, unions and workers across Europe need to unite to deliver the positive social agenda which Junker outlined and done so in a meaningful way. The nationalism and chauvinism behind the “out” campaign is anathema to the internationalism of socialism. The message of workers to both Cameron and Farage must be we are campaigning to stay in to protect those rights you despise so much. Yes, we want reform but we want improvements to democratise the institutions and strengthen the social agenda, not more deregulation.



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Unions and social movements: Recognising differences, building unity

History teaches us that the gains made in the past were never a gift bequeathed by those holding the power; they have resulted from struggle through organisation. Over time, the organisational forms used to focus collective action have changed. For those of us rooted in the trade union movement, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we are the prime actor when driving change.

Sure, it is through the employment relationship that millions of workers regularly experience the exploitative (normally veiled) nature of capitalism. It is through the struggle for workplace rights that many workers start to make the links between seemingly separate phenomena and recognise the need for political change. Many of us also recognise that workplace struggle, while a vital schooling for socialists is, by itself, not enough. We know that we have to make the links between disparate struggles and build a mass movement for system change.

Although it is hard to hear, we also know that trade union membership is in decline, while popular involvement with civil and social movements (CSMs), particularly by young people is, at least apparently, on the increase. Given this, surely the left should switch the focus of its energy to the development of CSMs as a vehicle for creating change rather than ever-weakening trade unions?

Of course, this is a ridiculous proposition. We are not faced with a binary choice. The rhetorical question is a device that allows us to explore some of the tensions and assumptions we become conscious of when trade unionists discuss the ‘shortcomings’ of CSMs, or when social movement activists talk about ‘the unions’.

Many of us have campaigned with and worked alongside people from CSM backgrounds for years. During that time, we will have frequently encountered mistaken views from CSM activists about what unions are and how they operate, often coupled with thinly veiled criticism dressed as advice about what they should doing. Frequently, we also hear about ‘the unions’, lumped together as if they are a homogenous group, with little regard for differences in political perspective, employment sphere, or industrial militancy. The equivalent in reverse would be to make pronouncements about how NGOs behave and what they do without differentiating between groups like War on Want and Global Justice Now, on the one hand, and Save the Children or Christian Aid on the other.

Even with the radical internationally-focussed CSMs, those that do not consider themselves as charities but campaigning organisations for systemic change rather than service-providers, we often find a disturbing immediacy in a great deal of their analysis. A bigger, historical, picture is often missing. Similarly, the notion that ‘all action is worthwhile’ often leads to an approach based on pantomime stunts and keyboard clictivism, divorced from any attempt to think through how to create the conditions necessary to change an outcome. The act becomes the end in itself. This can be coupled to a deified notion of ‘grassroots activists’ in which they become a kind of cool elite. An exclusive club of romantic superheroes. Who are these people? Why don’t they look like us?

Of course, it is true that many of the criticisms laid at the door of CSMs could apply, without too much amendment, to both the right wing (look busy but change nothing) and ultra-left (win union ‘action’, change nothing) tendencies within many trade unions.

If we actually want to building a mass movement for change, rather than just talk about it then the uncomfortable truth is that we don’t get to hand pick the people with whom we work. We have to challenge our misunderstandings and prejudices and we have a responsibility to really study and try to understand the tensions and differences between trade union methods and those of social movements.

On this site, there is an excellent and accessible resource by Marj Mayo. . It explains that ‘social movement ‘ and ‘civil society’ are contested terms; provides a theoretical underpinning for the notion that both trade unions and social movements are “… campaigning and negotiating within the framework of existing social relations, rather than strategising to overthrow these”. It notes that while trade unions use their power in the production process, CSMs use collective consumption as their principal lever. Differences in organisational structure and democratic accountability are highlighted. Mayo notes “…both types of organisation tend to attract particular types of activists to leadership positions. Dedication, determination and single mindedness are key qualities for leaders who are going to make a difference. But these are also qualities that don’t necessarily enhance the scope for alliance building and solidarity based upon mutual respect.

However, Mayo’s pointers for the future are key, part of which speaks to the role of the broad left in trade unions; that we need to draw out common threads and pull sectional interests together. It what we’ve always done. We need to overcome the differences in approach and reach out to those in social movements who share our desire to change society but have not been immersed in our political education, gained through engagement in workplace struggle.

Exactly how we do that is open to question.

Jake Burns



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