On Thursday, the Guardian excelled itself with an appalling, ill-informed, out-of-touch, way-off-beam editorial about trade unions.
The editorial took as its starting point a report published yesterday by the Fabian Society. Not the first place I would start in assessing trade unionism.
Not surprisingly, the report from the Society for Labour Movement Sucking Up to Capitalism praises the USDAW model of ‘social partnership’, contrasting it with the ‘confrontational’ approach of the RMT.
So, let’s pick apart some points …
The article tells us that trade union "membership at 6.4m is half what it was 25 years ago". Quite how it therefore follows that they should neutralise themselves is not explained. "Unions represent only 29% of the workforce", it continues. Perhaps it would be facetious of me to point out that this is much more than the Fabian Society and the Guardian represent between them, but hey.
"Among the reasons for decline are the erosion of manufacturing …" Only because trade unions have so far failed to unionise newer industries as effectively as they might. The answer to that is to organise, not – as the Fabian Society recommends – to roll over and ask the employer to tickle their tummies. "… [A]nd [also the erosion] of the working class". Er, only if your definition of the working class is so narrow that it requires you to work in a factory, preferably wearing a flat cap and eating white bread and dripping.
"[S]ustained prosperity, at least for most workers, has also played a role." Ah, so the reason that most workers are not in a union is because they are perfectly happy with their lot! Of course, millions of workers will tell you that they do not feel very prosperous, sustained or not. And what this argument conveniently fails to explain is why some of the more prosperous workers eg. train drivers, have high union membership levels and are consistently militant. In reality, better wages and conditions often make workers not complacent but demanding – not least because it is usually strong trade unionism that has won them that "sustained prosperity" to start with.
"Being outside a union does not imply lower wages." Perhaps among the Guardian editors’ dinner guests, this is true. But amongst ordinary working people, the opposite is the case. Get your facts straight.
The report and article graciously accept that "There have been victories - such as the minimum wage, union recognition and the Warwick agreements - but power on the shop floor, partly due to Mrs Thatcher's rule of fire, has been severely eroded." Firstly, this ignores the victories – usually defensive, but sometimes not – that unions win in workplaces without making the columns of the Guardian. Secondly, if you consider the Warwick agreement a victory for trade unions, then you have very low standards. But again, while it is true that union power in the workplace has declined, why would that lead you to conclude that unions should therefore relinquish the remaining power that they do have – which is what the Fabian Society’s preferred model amounts to?
"In the public sector strikes are now threatened to protect pensions, not wages, a situation unheard of even five years ago." It’s not clear to me what point the article is trying to make here. But I would point out that pensions and wages are not such polar opposites – pensions being a portion of wages deferred to retirement.
"What can be done? The author urges the unions to subject themselves to the cathartic reform process that the Labour party has successfully gone through." Oh dear, where to start? Cathartic for who? Successful by what measure? Low pay, attacks on pensions, rampant privatisation, collapsing votes and membership levels, an unpopular war … if these are measures of ‘success’ then the unions would have to be suicidal to mimic them. Labour’s reform can only be described as ‘successful’ if you consider ditching every interest of the class which established your party in order to hold the keys to Downing Street as a ‘success’. And if that’s ‘success’, I’d hate to see what defeat would look like.
"[The report’s author’s] role models are unions such as Usdaw and Prospect, which have developed a ‘robust, cooperative relationship’ with employers …" Bosses make profits by exploiting workers – that’s what they do and what makes them who they are. So his recommendation is the equivalent of arguing that livestock develop a ‘robust, cooperative relationship’ with the slaughterhouse.
"… [W]hich, he claims, far from being a betrayal of the working class is actually what most members want from their union.” Not those USDAW members who have posted their comments on the Workers’ Liberty website. In my experience, most union members want their unions to fight the bosses.
Perhaps my favourite absurdity in the article is this: "It is difficult to argue against his case that the future lies more in unions emphasising lifelong learning and career development (the Usdaw model) rather than the confrontational tactics of Bob Crow's RMT even though the latter has delivered some successes for his members."
The Guardian’s editors write as though delivering success for members is a small matter. Actually, it’s pretty fundamental to what trade unionism is all about.
Furthermore, why counterpose ‘lifelong learning and career development’ to militant industrial trade unionism? In fact, RMT is one of several unions involved in the Rail Unions Learning Project, and has learner reps in workplaces up and down the country. And effective trade unions assist their members’ 'career development' by fighting to defend and advance agreements about promotion, training and other working conditions.
If you want to make a real comparison between the two models, perhaps you should compare the pay and prospects of a Tesco worker with those of a London Underground worker. RMT’s approach wins hands down.
By the way, it’s not “Bob Crow’s RMT”. This terminology has irked me since the papers used to call us “Jimmy Knapp’s RMT”. The fact is that RMT is not militant because Bob Crow is its General Secretary. Rather, Bob Crow is General Secretary because RMT members are militant. That’s why we elected him. Because we know that you don’t win if you don’t fight.
Unions belong to their members, not their General Secretaries. Or at least, they should. I am no cheerleader for Bob Crow, as I am confident that the man himself will confirm. And yes, he does his bit to perpetuate the image of “Bob Crow’s RMT”. But when members criticise him, it is as often for being not confrontational enough against the employers as being too confrontational.
“At a time of sustained rises in real wages the traditional role of unions in striking for higher rewards is less urgent.”
Or, perhaps … At a time when there is a reasonably steady fall of crumbs from the table, why would you bother wanting to climb up and share the feast?
“There are still serious problems - the low-paid earn too little - despite real gains through the minimum wage - and those at the top pay themselves ludicrously over the odds. These are problems which must be dealt with.”
How? No word on this from the Guardian, which obviously thinks that unions should be too busy promoting ‘partnership’ to take it on.
“Let the debate begin.” Workers and trade unionists constantly debate how we can more effectively fight in workers’ interests. The Guardian can announce a round of dinner-table discussions if it likes. The real debate will take place elsewhere.
Agree with your sentiments. A few extra points.
1) Coats is the director( or similar) of the Partnership Fund which gives out working class taxpayers money to companies and unions promoting 'partnership'. So he would say that wouldn't he.
2) The TUC's learning agenda has been a spectacular failure. Vast amounts of money has been syphoned into projects that have delivered very little for workers. The result is under-utilised computer suites in a few workplaces and large numbers of paper enrolments on on-line aromatherapy courses or other pap.
Where the 'Learning Agenda' does have some bite the economic logic of it is problematic for trade unionists to say the least. I.e. "growing your own" nurses by training up health care assistants is seen by the govt and NHS managers as a way of holding down nurses pay. Similar logic to changes to the school workforce.
By promoting 'individual advancement' and 'career development' in that context the unions are defining themselves as a tool of the govt.
One academic explained to some TUC education bods recently that because there are only so many skilled jobs available in the UK their pet project of 'upskilling' the workforce would either have no impact at all or if it did leave a mark it would be to actually drive down skilled workers wages.
There is a socialist trade unionist way of promoting the 'learning agenda' (I can think of some cracking stuff that has been done by the GMB around ESOL and migrant workers rights for instance) but the 'learning agenda' needs to be linked to miltant organising not counterposed to it.
The fact is most of the 'workplace learning' fostered by the TUC is about making the proles more efficient at working the widgit machines. It is about inventing a role for the TUC as a broker in workplace education and as a 'persuader' for the employers in relation to a sceptical working class and also as a syphon for govt money to employers. It has nothing whatsoever to do with education for liberation. The TUC is a bureaucracy looking for a function and they have fastened on to workplace training as their last hope.