There are many who think that trade unions have had their day. While new and powerful labour movements are emerging around the world, on the whole the labour movement in Britain is very much on the defensive.
I was born at the end of the miners’ strike, and I am in no doubt that trade unionists are on the back foot. The trade union movement is now half the size that it was at its 1979 peak, with vastly fewer elected workplace reps and shop stewards. Strike numbers are at an all-time low.
Around Momentum’s foundation, many debates fluttered around about post-class politics, with a big push to foreground digital activism and nebulous ideas of social movements, against the “old language” and forms of organisation of the “old” labour movement.
But until the answer to the question “where is new value created under capitalism?” is something other than “human labour”, organised labour will always have unique potential, no matter how weak, how beaten down, or how misled our organisations are at any moment.
John McDonnell has said that Labour should become the “party of strikes”. The leadership of Momentum and the Labour Party should throw themselves into supporting strikes, publicly and clearly. Corbyn should be speaking on Picturehouse picket lines, writing articles about the Driver-Only Operation dispute, and why it’s important. He should be asking questions about the McStrike at PMQs.
I’m not saying the party hasn’t supported strikes; but the support should be proud and it should be foregrounded.
The reason it’s not foregrounded is because they’re worried they’re going to get shit in the press for it. And they will do. And they should use that as an opportunity to explain why Labour supports workers in struggle.
They should point to the link between the demands of strikers and Labour Party policy. They should say to striking rail workers, Picturehouse workers, and McDonald’s workers: “We are the political expression of the demands of your strike. If we’re in government, we will legislate to secure your demands”.
Momentum has run workshops with the Bakers’ Union on organising unorganised workplaces. That is brilliant, probably one of the best things Momentum has done.
It’s training people to go as external organisers to other people’s workplaces, which is not the same as convincing people about organising in their own work, but still, very useful.
I have heard about those workshops only in the pub. I am in Momentum, I pay attention to what Momentum says; I know who to vote for in NEC elections; I know when there’s canvassing; I have seen the videos about how much we love police and how much we hate foreign governments owning the railways… But I haven’t seen much about that kind of activist training.
A significant push could reverse the depressing statistics I started with. At the height, the great 1984-1985 miners’ strike involved fewer than 150,000 strikers. Around 20 times that number, close to three million, work in the supermarket industry. Collectively, their labour is of huge strategic significance.
Imagine a union organised across the retail and logistics sector, organising shop workers, warehouse workers, distribution workers, drivers. A strike by such a union would have an immense economic and social impact.
The Labour left has a few hundred thousand people. It has resources. We can take on tasks like that.
A Labour left government should repeal all the anti-union laws and ensure the right of workers to organise, and to strike. That should be their bottom line. They should cut the shackles on the union movement.
John McDonnell told a fringe at a union conference last week that repealing all trade union laws was one of his “first hundred days” pledges. At Labour Party conference, delegates voted unanimously for a motion to repeal, not just the 2016 laws, but all of the laws introduced by the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, and to introduce positive, legal workers’ rights.
The 2017 manifesto had a lot of good things in it, but it did not commit to repealing all the anti-union laws. Instead, it committed to repealing the Trade Union Act, and rolling out sectional collective bargaining. That commitment would keep the ban on workplace ballots, which are used to suck momentum out of industrial disputes.
The last time I went on strike, my union made me have a consultative ballot first, which is a ballot about whether you want a ballot. And that’s not in the anti-union legislation, but it is the kind of psychological adaptation to the anti-union legislation that I mentioned.
That takes two weeks, and then we have a ballot. It’s a postal ballot, and so that takes two weeks. I spend two weeks with people in my workplace saying that they’ve already voted but they haven’t, or saying that they’ve lost their ballot paper…
And then there’s another two weeks, and if the ballot comes back positively, you might have to give another two weeks’ notice before you can go on strike. And so you’ve had a two-month period between the thing that made you want to go on strike, and being able to take that action.
If you had a 30-day consultation because everyone’s losing their jobs, it is very possible that the bureaucracy of the anti-union laws means that everyone would have already been sacked before you could take a single day of action.
Labour’s 2017 manifesto doesn’t just leave that in. It would keep the ban on solidarity action, whereby more powerful workers can fight for ones with less strategic power. Solidarity action allows workers to take action on behalf of others, such as for example nurses and firefighters, who, because of the nature of their work, are reluctant to take full and sustained action.
And solidarity action allows us to fight for things that are not narrow industrial disputes about our own work, but big political issues. As the NHS was dismantled by the Tories privatising it bit by bit, the unions sat on their hands and did nothing.
Why hasn’t there been a massive campaign from Labour to scrap all the anti-union laws?
Part of it is that the unions, or more specifically, the union leadership, don’t want to see the old anti-union laws scrapped. Why is that? Because they have an interest in dampening the struggle. They have an interest in legislation that means that nothing can happen that is decided at the workplace, and instead everything must go through them.
There are some on the Labour left who see unions as important, but not because of their role in the workplace, instead on the basis of their size and power within the party. Trade unions have power in the party on the NEC and at conference, and in leadership elections. And they have not-inconsiderable funding, so unions must be kept on side.
At Unison conference this year, Dave Prentis declared that Unison would always be the first to fight Blair, and always the first to support Corbyn.
It’s not unimportant that Prentis felt that he had to say this, but it is also total nonsense.
For many decades it was the trade union bureaucracy that kept the Labour right in power.
They backed rightwing candidates, and they supported the right as they removed democratic structures in the Labour Party. They did that in the name of anti-Toryism. They failed to push the Labour Party to campaign for even the most basic demands in the interests of trade union members, such as the repeal of the anti-trade union laws.
Before 2015, the leadership of the trade unions had no idea that soon they would be in a position where it would be possible to transform the Labour Party. And I suspect that they don’t want this movement to continue.
However, they know that many trade union activists and members are among those who voted for Corbyn. And they know that for them to stay in their positions of power, and get re-elected, they need the support of those members. That’s why Prentis is now a Corbynista.
The Labour left would be stupid to dismiss the importance of union support.
But they shouldn’t shore it up by encouraging backroom deals between Labour leaders and union leaders, but instead by bringing about a renewed trade union movement.
A confident, democratic union movement that will protect Corbyn from Blairite coups; it will build the extraparliamentary movement needed to push through Corbyn’s programme. It would ask more of the Corbyn leadership, not limit it, as the unions have so far on the union laws. If necessary it would fight the Labour government to make it implement its own programme.
The Labour left can encourage this, by encouraging the momentum for renewal and democratic change to flow from the party into the unions.
Just as under Blair, the wings of the party controlled by the right held each other back, we can see how that process could move forward: the industrial and political wings of the movement encouraging renewal in each other.