For around 6.5 million workers in the UK, being in a union is a recognition that we need organisations to defend us at work. Over 2.5 million of us in the public sector enthusiastically struck together in defence of our pensions on 30 November last year.
Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, has published an interesting article on the Centre for Labour and Social Studies website. He argues for a “new model of trade unionism to account for the change in the nature of the modern working class”.
He says unions should learn to use the new forms of social media, just like UK Uncut, and develop new forms of community unionism.
Problems he identifies include low levels of unionisation in the private sector, among low paid and young people. He stresses the importance of the service sector.
Although some of these are real, it is important not to exaggerate their impact. Jones himself refers to the 1880s New Unionism.
Dockers on day work, and many others formerly regarded as beyond the union pale, organised. Notably it was militancy and a determination to fight that made that organisation possible.
Today, many workers described as “precarious” find themselves wearing uniforms with different logos but doing exactly the same jobs for a succession of different employers. They may have been outsourced and transferred but they remain organised.
Jones is right to point to the potential for trade unionism among non-unionised workers. One survey showed that 47 percent of workers who have never joined a union believe unions have a future.
But the debate doesn’t stop there. There is a danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. People ask why some union leaders have acted against their members’ interests in recommending rotten deals. We need to explain the role and social position of trade union officials.
Many union leaders believe that trade union activity should be subordinated to Labour’s electoral prospects.
Some believe that members need a servicing union model, one that deals with members’ problems through casework, representation and discounts. Others believe that goes along with a level of organising to build the union.
What is missed is that militancy builds unions. At one level the solution is simple—people join unions when they see them fighting back. In the run-up to 30 November at least 100,000 people joined unions.
It is also not enough to simply issue a call to the under-employed and the young—Jones’ slightly vague solution to declining union density.
Rather we need to encourage workers’ collective confidence through solidarity collections and delegations to picket lines. We need to win small victories,or better still, big victories, against managers and employers.
That means we need networks of union activists organised in rank and file groups in every union.
We need to argue for turning our unions into fighting unions, democratically run from below. They must be prepared to fight back on the ideological and political issues we face as well as economic issues.
That is what we mean by political trade unionism. We start from the general neoliberal assault that our class faces and insist that unions join with any other organisations prepared to fight back.
We need a strong rank and file that can, where necessary, deliver action independently of union officials when they fail to act in members’ interests.
We have a way to go on this. But we shouldn’t underestimate either how crucial it is or how quickly things can shift in the coming struggles against austerity.