It’s May Day and our increasingly vulnerable and disempowered workforce want to know…………
whatever happened to our trade unions?
On the 4th May 1890 250,000 trade unionists descended on Hyde Park Corner in London to hear a speech by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. The marchers were there in response to a call by the international trade union movement to claim May Day as their own and to use it to demonstrate their support for an eight hour working day and the right of free association.
Across much of the twentieth century May Day remained a potent symbol of free trade unionism and the forward march of labour. Through a series of landmark strikes and determined collective action, British workers gained improvements in pay and working conditions that would have been unimaginable to previous generations who had come to see their exploitation as an inevitable part of the natural order.
Today what we take for granted as established human rights in the workplace and in wider society were originally hard won – often in the teeth of determined opposition from employers, capitalists and right wing politicians who saw the unions as a challenge to their natural right to rule and their God-given control of resources. However, while the ruling classes have never forgotten the defeats that labour has inflicted on them, it seems that the trade union movement has itself grown forgetful and complacent. Gradually the unions have found themselves in retreat and in danger of surrendering so much of what had been gained.
But why? How can it be that the trade unions who are so steeped in the past glories of the struggle are seemingly unable to rouse themselves to stop the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism?
It is clearly the case that the union movement has, over the past three decades, been facing a determined counter-attack from capitalism’s cheerleaders in the political classes and in the media – including thirteen years of a so-called Labour government that was frequently as hostile as anything the Tories would have been capable of. And, yes, there have been any number of legal and quasi-legal assaults on the freedoms of trade unions to organise and to be effective as an opposition. But is that really an excuse for their pitiful and supine surrender to the interests of big business and right-wing ideologues?
Trade unionism originally proved it’s relevance to the working classes of this country by taking on the vested interests of capitalism and the ruling elite – an elite that was prepared to be considerably more vicious and vindictive than even the most vociferous modern day anti-unionist. They did it because they had to – no-one else was going to do it for them – and because they were guided by the principles of justice and the vision of a fair and equal society. And they did all this voluntarily and in their own time because they believed in what they were doing and they believed in the values that the trade union movement represented.
And maybe this gives us an important clue in helping us to solve the problem of our slowly disappearing trade unions. Have they, in fact, lost their sense of mission and their connection to the people they are supposed to represent? Their eagerness to mirror the structures of the employers, to be seen as ‘partners’ in the modern capitalist infrastructure, to be the establishment’s critical friend has turned too many of them into an irrelevance at best and a set of Quislings at worst. Made timid by their fear of financial penalty and media-manipulated public opprobrium they have retreated into carefully delineated industrial silos where they engage in a time-honoured ritual dance with the employer or the government, interested only in protecting the perceived advantages of ‘their’ members. And too many of them treat those members outrageously in exchange for the subscriptions they pay – tossing them the odd email, inviting them to participate in meaningless postal ballots and elections.
And what about the increasing numbers of exploited, un-unionised workers forced into temporary, part-time or zero-hour contracts? Who is going to speak for them? The trade union movement is ultimately nothing worth having if it isn’t an evangelical movement – willing to speak and act for fairness and social justice. And as with all evangelism it’s best done face-to-face and in a campaigning fashion not by relying on social media.
The trade union movement needs to rediscover its soul, get out of its expensive offices, get back into our communities and start to organise resistance to unfettered capitalism. Our increasingly exposed and vulnerable workers need a champion, they need a sense of hope and they need a trade union movement that has reinvented its radical heritage.
Senior Lecturer in Working with Children Young People & Families, Newman University.