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:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment