How to organise the unorganised

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2009 - 2:25

How to organise the unorganised
To revive itself, the British labour movement needs to organise the millions of currently unorganised workers. Such work has been done many times before, and can be done again.
At the end of 2008, the trade unions in Britain had 7.3 million members, just over 30 percent of the workforce. In 1978, the figure was 13 million, over 55 percent; it dropped at the start of the 1980s as recession and Thatcher’s anti-union laws kicked in, and plummeted after the defeat of the miners, printers, dockers and other groups of workers.
The percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements was 75 percent in 1979, but is only 40 percent today; the number of shop stewards/reps and the numbers involved in union activity have declined sharply too. The average age of a trade union member is 47. The unions are predominantly concentrated in the public sector, with private sector density at 12 percent. Even in the public sector, it is mainly the core workers that are unionised, with ever increasing use of privatisation and contracting out undermining union organisation.
We need an urgent fight to organise private sector, contracted out, precarious, migrant and young workers; to reach out to the millions of workers currently untouched by the unions and draw them into the labour movement, renewing it in the process.
History shows what is possible. Until the late 1880s, most unions in Britain were craft unions, organising only a thin layer of skilled and privileged workers. Then, from 1888, came the great wave of strikes which generated the ‘New Unionism’ among dockers, gas workers, factory and many other industrial workers. The German socialist Friedrich Engels, living in London, wrote excitedly to one of his comrades about this process:
“And these unskilled are very different chaps from the fossilised brothers of the old trade unions; not a trace of the old formalist spirit, of the craft exclusiveness of the engineers, for instance; on the contrary, a general cry for the organisation of all trade unions in one fraternity and for a direct struggle against capital… There you see the difference: the new unions hold together; in the present gas strike, sailors and firemen, lightermen and coal carters are all together…”
These were the retail, catering, call centre, cleaning and office workers of their day.
In New Zealand since 2005, thousands of such precarious, mainly young workers, in McDonald’s and Pizza Hut for instance, have been organised into the Unite union through the “Supersize My Pay” campaign. We need similar campaigns here in Britain; and in fact some work has begun, for instance in organising cleaners in the City of London and on London Underground.
But such campaigns are much more likely to succeed if workers see the unions as a force that can fight and win – not pointless bureaucracies which take your money while failing to protect even their existing members’ terms and conditions. To organise the unorganised effectively, we need to make our unions fight.

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