Rebuild the unions!

Submitted by AWL on 1 September, 2004 - 6:54

The union movement has a marathon to run, but is performing at the level of an egg and spoon race.

At least the unions, for so long stuck fast in a swamp of partnership, have now started to move. In the last year or so, changes at the top of the unions and pressure from below have resulted in the TGWU, Amicus, GMB and Unison moving to get concessions from Blair. The TGWU has announced a new campaign to build up membership.

In Solidarity 3/56, we argued that the tiny concessions from Blair to the big four unions can not justify the “concordat” which they signed in July, for the period up to the next general election, with a New Labour leadership committed to keeping the vast majority of the anti-union laws inherited from the Tories. Those laws remain a shackle on every level of our movement.

If the TUC congress on 13-16 September is allowed to pass by in applause for Blair's concessions and windy speech-making, without a call for an emergency drive to rebuild union membership and organisation at workplace level, then it will be a scandal.

The marathon ahead for the unions is not just the political race to beat Blair’s anti-working class policies. Fundamentally it is one of rebuilding strength in the workplace.

There is a crisis, and it is urgent. The latest surveys show no real improvement in TUC-affiliated union strength. Union membership has not kept pace with the growth in employment.

Young people are less likely than at any time for decades to be union members. The ageing of the unions' membership will guarantee decline in years to come, unless we recruit more young activists now.

A continued decline of union membership in the private sector is only partially masked by membership increases in the public sector which themselves are not keeping pace with increasing employment levels.

Union density is very poor in many areas where unions are recognised, and levels of organisation in the workplace are often worse than at any time in the last fifty years.

The membership crisis is all too often approached as a problem of finance. Falling membership means a falling income. Then the problem is too often put off by cash-strapped unions merging.

The real tragedy of a shrinking membership, however, is not that it makes it hard to pay the Head Office rent or the general secretary's salary (still over £70,000 for every major union except the PCS). It is that it critically undermines the strength of our unions and leaves a growing group of workers with few or no means to protect themselves against their bosses.

Workplace and industry union density and organisation is not just one of many problems facing the unions. It is the beginning, the bedrock, the A of the alphabet.

If unions do not have a good level of membership and organisation the employers can walk all over us. Too many unions are content having a recognition agreement and occasional visits by full time officials - with 20 or 30% union membership levels, no steward structure, and no membership involvement.

Such weakness is soon exploited by bosses, undermining workers' conditions and support for union recognition. Officials end up bargaining in a vicious circle, taking conditions lower and lower.

The growing gap between the fat cats and the poor, the longest working hours in Europe, increasing levels of insecurity, bullying, and speed-up at work, are all fruits of the decline in union power in the workplace.

Running a marathon is not an easy thing to do as Paula Radcliffe showed us. But to compete you have to face the facts about the competition.

"Partnership" was an excuse for not even starting the race. While the fat cats were pumping their veins full of massive pay rises and using their influence and money to ensure that their friend in power, Blair, did nothing to undermine the Tories' legacy, "partnership" gurus spread the myth that bosses and unions were all in the "British relay team".

In truth the bosses compete head to head with the unions. Fat cat pay is their gold medal for holding down wages and extending hours. The recent Guardian pay survey found that directors' pay has risen by 12.8%.

Tesco’s entire boardroom are on the top pay list, with pay packets ranging from £1.9million to £8.6million. Tesco have a "partnership" agreement with USDAW. Tesco workers are on a basic wage of just £13,000 a year, and this year Tesco announced that it was launching a pilot scheme to cut sick pay.

The GMB has shown it would take a massive amount of overtime for Tesco or other low paid workers even to reach the average worker's wage of £24,600 - and even that is only one seventieth of the average chief executive's pay.

The unions and the TUC should totally reject the partnership lie and get down to work organising the unorganised, in unionised workplaces and in new areas too. The key to success is helping workers organise to win against their boss, not holding back for the sake of a good "partnership" with the employer.

Every serious campaign, every serious piece of industrial action will bring in new members, train new activists, build union organisation and strengthen our movement. Every poor deal, pay freeze, and unnecessary compromise will weaken us.

Defeat has scared the unions. Standing still has failed the unions. Not fighting the boss has left us in the blocks. It is a marathon, but not to compete means certain defeat.

Figures on union membership from a Financial Times survey
Certification Office report
Office of National Statistics estimates of trade union membership (March 2004)


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 08/09/2004 - 16:53

Trade-union membership figures have stood more or less still since 2001. According to the government's Labour Force Survey, membership was 7.42 million in 2003, 7.39 million in 2002, and 7.37 million in 2001. Union density (membership as a percentage of people in employment) was 26.5% in 2003, 26.6% in 2002, and 26.7% in 2001.

That seems a triumph against the record of the decline in the 1990s, but is in fact a serious failure in a period where public-sector employment has risen.

The public sector job count is now 10 per cent higher than in 1998. Desperate to have something to show to the electorate and to sugar the pill of its privatisation plans, the Blair government has created an additional 509,000 jobs.

Union density is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector - about 59% as against about 19%, on the latest figures - so the public sector job uplift should have led to an automatic increase in overall union membership and density.

Unless Blair-Brownism is fought and defeated, the relief given by the public-sector jobs rise will be only temporary. The government will continue to push to privatise and contract-out. Already the government has announced plans to cut over 100,000 jobs in the civil service.

Only 11% of workers aged 16 to 24, and only 25% of workers aged 25 to 34, are unionised. Those young workers are our future. Where will the union movement be in twenty years' time, when the great majority of today's ageing core group of union activists have retired?

Submitted by Janine on Thu, 09/09/2004 - 05:29

In reply to by AWL

I'd be interested to see a break-down of these half-million public sector jobs.

Clearly, a fair few of them are Blair's advisers and spin-doctors, but that can't account for all of it!!!

How many are decently-paid jobs with good working conditions delivering quality services on the front line?

And how many are administrators and paper-shufflers? Or badly-paid posts substituting for better-paid (or slightly-less-badly-paid) jobs? Such as teaching assistants?

I am in no way devaluing these workers, and it should certainly be a priority for the unions to proactively go out and organise them.

I just think that New Labour will make a lot of these half-million new public-sector jobs, and I think some detail might make their boast look rather less impressive.

Anyone have the statistics?

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