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Issue #1704      September 30, 2015

Moving forward as a movement

BRITAIN: Today (September 23) marks the launch of Trade Union Futures, a new resource for the union left, run by supporters of the Morning Star newspaper.

British trade unions in the 1950s.

Britain’s trade unions have a proud history of leading the fight for progressive social, economic and political change and although much has changed, trade unions still have this role. But we face immense challenges.

Trade Union Futures is an online resource centre for union activists. The site combines educational materials, longer articles by academics and labour movement experts and blogs commenting on the major issues of the moment. There is a huge wealth of experience and a rich heritage of analysis in our movement that we need to unlock and disseminate.

And there are big questions that we need to discuss. Trade Union Futures aims to be part of that process.

Readers of the Morning Star are unlikely to need convincing that the current capitalist crisis has provided the cover for an ideological, political and material attack on working people.

Last week’s paper was replete with reports from the TUC (Trade Union Congress), where trade unionists debated the latest challenges posed to British trade unions. The anger of delegates at the attack on our movement was palpable: strong and determined speeches were made. But if we are honest, we know that once the speeches have died down, we have a massive task ahead of us.

What was noticeable about this year’s TUC is that around the fringes more serious debates were taking place among progressive left trade unionists. The discussion located the Trade Union Bill in its proper historical and political context, within capital’s ongoing push back against working people and their capacity to organise around their labour power. Seen from this perspective, the Bill is just the latest move in a carefully thought-out strategy to enable further reshaping of labour markets by reducing the power of organised labour.

We in the labour movement need to have a similarly thought-out and strategic approach. The TUC should be central to the process of developing our own movement’s response to this attack. However, let us not avoid difficult questions facing our movement.

We cannot ignore the fact that union membership has been falling steadily from its zenith in the late 1970s. Members are now heavily concentrated in the public sector (hence the additional focus on the public sector in the Trade Union Bill). In the private sector, fewer workers than at any point in the 20th century are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Entire sectors of the economy in the private sector are not unionised.

Large enterprises in both sectors continue to restructure their workforces using lean management and flexible, casual labour, increasing the numbers of vulnerable and precarious workers. We are also facing political attacks and a crisis of representation. The dominant political response to capitalist crisis has been a consensus around austerity policies that drive forward the dismantling of the public sector and consolidate falling standards of living for working people.

(Labour Party leader) Jeremy Corbyn’s victory represents a significant opportunity for the working-class movement, but we have to recognise that the structural ties between parliamentary representatives and the trade union movement have weakened. For all the excitement and fine speeches, there remains an urgent need to conduct a focused and honest discussion of these developments.

We in the union movement are still hugely significant in people’s everyday struggles. But if Britain’s trade unions are to gain more power to defend our class and to lead the fight for real political change then we need leaders at all levels, from the workplace rep to the official and the general secretaries who can:

  • Understand the distinctive role that trade unions play in economic struggles and influencing political change
  • Understand the key power relations and dominant forces that shape our society
  • Reach out to those in social movements who share our desire to change society but have not been immersed in political education through workplace struggle
  • Develop strategies to make concrete gains for their members and rebuild organisation and
  • Build broad-based left leadership in the trade union movement.

The last time the trade union movement in Britain successfully exercised its muscles was the ’70s. But the power called on at that time had been built on years of strategic economic struggles that meant the political value of the movement was apparent to tens of thousands of shop stewards. We need a new generation of shop stewards, reps and activists schooled in a new generation of collective struggles and armed with a strategic vision of the movement’s purpose.

Trade Union Futures has been set up to provide a focus for discussion over strategy in the movement and a resource for a new generation of reps and shop stewards.

We want to be part of the British trade unions’ process of self-examination and part of the process of developing a strategic response to capital’s great offensive – of which the Trade Union Bill is simply one part.

Morning Star

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