One of the outstanding features of politics in the UK during the last decade has been the near disappearance of trade unionism as a presence in contemporary debates about where Britain is heading in terms of national and international policies. That’s not to say individual membership of trade unions has completely collapsed – latest figures show that there are still over 6 million members – but the voices of their leadership have become harder and harder to hear. This seems to be especially true of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who have become increasingly meek and particularly limp. It’s undoubtedly true that trade unions struggle to get any sort of profile in a hostile media – but that hostility is nothing new and unions have in the past been able to raise their banners above some of that noise.
So what’s going on? Why is it that at a time when the workforce has been subject to the most concerted attacks on its living standards, its rights at work and its influence on decision-making have trade unions failed to rise to the challenge of finding a compelling voice with which to lobby and campaign on behalf of workers made silent by employers and politicians whose only interest in them is how best to exploit their labour?
In trying to find some answers to this (admittedly complex) set of questions I came across Sheila Cohen’s 2006 publication, Ramparts of Resistance which, despite the fact that it’s now some twelve years old and predates the 2008 meltdown of the world financial system, seems to me to offer some interesting insights into these issues. Whilst it’s clearly a polemic – and you can feel the urgency and sense of frustration in the second half of the book – Cohen has done her homework. So in the first half what we get is an analysis of what might be called the ‘high-water mark’ of trade union membership – what she calls ‘the upsurge’ between 1968 and 1974 in both the UK and the USA. She takes a look at some of the great set-pieces of trade union history – the so-called Winter of Discontent and Saltley Gates for example – before trying to analyse why their influence peaked at that time and then began to decline.
It has, I think, become accepted orthodoxy that the engine behind this shift was the emergence of a self-confident brand of neoliberal politics spearheaded by President Reagan in the US and Prime Minster Thatcher in the UK. It was their embracing of a new international, global capitalist order that the trade unions failed at first to understand and were then unable to respond to. Cohen puts it this way:
“In the 1990s, the trends in the 1980s grew to their full potential and revealed their true nature. ‘Team’ became ‘lean’; ‘cooperation’ became ‘partnership’; a crude deficit-based Reaganomics emerged as fully fledged neoliberalism; and, most of all, globalisation expanded from leading-edge strategy to total domination of every aspect of employment.”
Cohen though doesn’t stop at a criticism of this new manifestation of capitalist exploitation – the trade unions themselves come under fire. Too eager to become bureaucratic, too keen to take a seat around the tables of power, too seduced by offers of ‘facility time’ and office space : in other words, too keen to take the King’s shilling.
The second half of the book turns to the questions of what created the decline in membership, why members and potential members became disillusioned with unions and what needs to happen to fix the problem. Reviewing the book on its release, Sue Child from the University of Plymouth notes:
“A key argument of the book appears to be that the term ‘Union’ has historically been constructed by commentators to be one seamless entity fighting solely for worker rights. However, this would appear to be one of the key reasons for the decline in worker power. Cohen’s main argument appears to be that unions must be seen as both formal and official institutions, but, perhaps more crucially; they are also what she terms ‘unions-as-movement’, containing volatile mixes of worker demands, resistances, mobilization and organizational forms (p. 149). Here lies the central paradox to the union debate and why it is often so difficult to offer succinct answers to student questions. To seek the renewal of the glory days of worker power and resistance requires that unions tap into grass roots, rank and file energy.”
So the problem seems to be that those institutions we know as ‘unions’ have become bureaucratic establishments unwilling or incapable of responding to or supporting their members’ diverse demands at the grassroots level. The very reason and need for unionisation and for collective strength that drove the creation of the unions in the first place has simply become a danger and a problem for the institutional unions that have evolved out of these very local campaigns.
Cohen’s conclusions are perhaps the least satisfactory part of her book in my view because after going through this excellent analysis of the problem she is forced to fall back on the hope that the stodgy, unresponsive bureaucracy that has taken hold of trade unions will eventually get booted out by a rising up from the grassroots. And this kind of hope always fills me with gloom because I have seen so little evidence of these kinds of insurgencies ever happening – and in the twelve years since the first publication of this book it feels to me that the situation has got worse rather than better. I suspect that if there was any hope of a grassroots revival of radical trade unionism it was dealt a pretty hefty blow by the events of 2008-9.
But, significant as that criticism of the book is, it shouldn’t stop you reading it if you’re interested in the politics of trade unionism and the labour movement because this is an excellent, well researched and readable analysis and the fact that she can’t find a convincing answer to the problems trade unionism faces shouldn’t be held against her – after all none of the rest of us has been able to either.
( This review was first published on the Letterpress Project website)