By Shaun Doherty
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Strategies to defend our unions

This article is over 6 years, 6 months old
The Tories' election victory has provoked moves towards 'doing politics differently'. Shaun Doherty stresses how workers' confidence to fight back lies in industrial struggle.
Issue 404

In April 1974 I attended my first union meeting at a north London comprehensive school. The NUT rep, a member of the Communist Party, read out a request for support for a demonstration in work time protesting at the jailing of Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren — the Shrewsbury Two building workers. More in hope than expectation I suggested we support it. To my surprise there was a near unanimous vote to take unofficial solidarity strike action in support of the demonstration. I thought, “Yes, this is what unions are about.”

In subsequent years teachers, particularly in London, working through semi-informal organisation of school reps, had the ability to take different forms of action on conditions, pay and support for other workers independently of the official structure of the union. This was during a period of right wing domination of the union’s leadership. Similar forms of action were not restricted to teachers, but replicated in many industries and workplaces.

Today, in the wake of the Tory election victory, we face further anti-union legislation that would seriously impair the ability of unions to take any form of strike action in their own interest, let alone solidarity strikes in support of other workers. The proposals are for a 50 percent turnout threshold for ballots on industrial action, and in essential services (defined as health, education, transport and fire services) 40 percent of those eligible to vote must vote yes.

In addition, the ban on using temporary workers to cover for strikers will be lifted and the mandate for a strike ballot being activated will be shortened. These rules will apply to the unions with the highest density of members and the ones most likely to consider strike action. Compare this to the election of the current Tory government. The Conservatives won 37 percent of the votes cast and only 26 percent of all those eligible to vote.

The principal effect of any more draconian legislation is political rather than judicial — deterring unions from even contemplating action, with the courts acting as a back-up if strikes are actually called.

I make this juxtaposition not to indulge in nostalgia for the past nor to lament the shifting patterns of unionisation and militancy over the last 40 years, but to provide a perspective for reflection on the relevance of unions today and the possibility for strategies for resistance to the Tory offensive.


It is particularly important that this reflection doesn’t take refuge in panaceas or short cuts in the face of what is unquestionably a key problem for socialists.

The TUC outlines some of the challenges we face. Only 14 percent of workers in the private sector are unionised; only one in ten of the 16 to 24 age group. For those over 50 it is 32 percent. Only 13 percent of those defined as low paid and 14.4 percent of those in temporary employment are in unions, in London and the south east less than one in five of all workers is a union member.

These figures are stark, but they are decontextualised and we can’t rise to the challenge of responding to the situation we face without digging a lot deeper. In 2013 there were some 6.5 million union members in Britain; in 1979 the figure was 13.1 million.

In 2013 over 55 percent of public sector workers were unionised compared with 14.4 percent in the private sector — but there is still a union presence of some kind in 44.2 percent of workplaces, and 85.4 percent in the public sector. Where unions are present in workplaces wages are 19.8 percent higher in the public sector and 7 percent higher in the private sector.

So while it is important to recognise the changing patterns of membership it is also important not to underestimate the enduring potential strength of the unions. Indeed, why would the Tories try to further undermine them if they didn’t think they had this potential to fight back?

To put the emphasis on new forms of organising or “doing politics differently” without looking at the broader political context within which unions are operating can easily lead us up blind alleys. The task is an urgent one because, as Andrew Rawnsley pointed out (Observer, 7 June), the Tories are pressing ahead with plans to impose further punitive cuts to benefits of those least likely to vote for them while simultaneously introducing tax breaks for their potential supporters.

Labour meanwhile is preoccupied with the debate about party leadership. Three of the candidates have the “aspiration” to become party leader on the basis of pursuing policies that can only be described as Tory-lite and have all drawn the wrong conclusions about the reason for Labour’s election defeat. Only Jeremy Corbyn can be described as a genuine socialist candidate and there is an instructive correlation between the amount of vilification he is facing from Blairites and the Tory press and the amount of real enthusiasm his anti-austerity message is receiving from ordinary people.

Yet Labour’s relationship with the trade unions is crucial to any explanation of the problems we face. It is instructive to note that in the weeks running up to the election the biggest and potentially most powerful union, Unite, contributed £3.5 million to Labour’s election fund. Given that in opposition Labour had not supported a single strike and Miliband made a point of repudiating strike action at every opportunity, this is surely the most obvious example of feeding the hand that bites you.

Currently it is reported that the union is encouraging its members to pay the £3 necessary for them to take part in the leadership election — will McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, be urging his members to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, the only candidate who supports its policies, or someone who will be even less supportive of workers’ resistance and who refuses to repudiate any of the Tories’ austerity measures including their most recent attack on benefits? Will Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, be urging support for Corbyn, a former organiser in NUPE, one of Unison’s founding unions?

It is the link to Labour that has hamstrung the unions for decades — even when it is unconscious, in the case of those unions not affiliated. The capitulation over the pensions dispute in 2011 is only the most dramatic example, but there have been many more campaigns over pay and conditions where unions at a national level have refused to go beyond one-day strikes and raise the level of action necessary to win. This is in no way to minimise the significance of the many localised strikes that continue to demonstrate a willingness to resist, albeit on a smaller scale.


One of the key arguments the left must put is the need for the unions to sever their links with Labour and help to establish a new party of the left. Despite the verbal threats from some of the union leaders about Labour not taking them for granted, this argument can only be won with pressure from below.

Paul Mason (Guardian, 8 June) attempted to characterise the new demographic of those engaged in the struggle throughout Europe in a way that deliberately cuts them off from historical political struggles. He set those who are handy with a smartphone against those older revolutionaries more familiar with Lenin’s selected works in an example of what can only be described as political impressionism.

Even worse was his separation of “identity” from ideology, as if one does not influence and shape the other. Of course, future struggles must have innovation and youth at their heart, but must also build on the rich tradition of centuries of working class resistance and socialist theory.

There is an alternative theoretical justification that is being promoted and it lies at the heart of even the most encouraging political developments in European politics. It stems from a misappropriation and distortion of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. (It seems to be Gramsci’s fate to be subjected to one form or other of misappropriation in every political era.)

Gramsci built on Marx’s formulation that in any society the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class and he looked at the ways in which this dominance was sustained and reinforced. However, Gramsci was always clear about the ways in which ideas were materially related to competing social classes. Kieran Allen, in a timely article in the Irish Socialist Worker, responds to the way in which a particularly selective use of Gramsci provides a theoretical underpinning for Spanish radical formation Podemos.


Influenced by former Marxists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, ideas are cut adrift from their relationship to and positioning in the conflict between the classes, and the political project is described as creating an “alternative hegemony” — a set of ideas that could be counterposed to those of the ruling political class and representative of “the people”. But these ideas are not informed by any ideological position and are explicitly described as neither left nor right in an attempt to offer an alternative form of common sense.

Inigo Errejohn, one of the leading Podemos intellectuals, describes their political project as a battle for meaning in which discourse is constructed from a range of different meanings and positions. It seems to me that this approach owes much to the postmodern notions about the endless relativity of meaning and ideas slipping anchor from any material roots. This could lead to a pick and mix set of political demands rather than coherent policies derived from an analysis of struggle and based on fundamental political principles. If you move beyond left and right you move away from politics based on the conflict of different social classes with opposing interests. You also risk playing down or even abandoning those policies that appear less popular.

Another strand in this argument is the debate about the efficacy of different forms of struggle. There is an interesting discussion within the NUT which draws on the concept of “Social Justice Teacher Unionism” from the United States, where all public sector workers have had to confront a drive for privatisation and de-recognition far worse than anything we have experienced. The focus is on broadening the base of the union and embracing political and ideological issues as well as the bread and butter economistic concerns.

It involves building wider community coalitions and addressing issues of equality and diversity. These initiatives find an echo in TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady’s recent Observer article in which she calls for “new models of trade unionism” and “citizen bargaining”.

The NUT is attempting to rejuvenate the organisational structures of the union to transform it into a campaigning union active in solidarity groups around these broader issues and appealing more to the interests of younger teachers. This is wholly admirable and builds on the trajectory of recent years, when the union has explicitly identified itself with organisations such as Unite Against Fascism and Stop the War.

Its support for the Anti Academies Alliance has recognised the need to incorporate local community organisations into the defence of education. It has also in recent years been much more willing to sanction strikes in individual schools where members have voted to take action on a range of specific issues.

It is vital, however, that the pursuit of this strategy doesn’t sideline the more difficult issue of national strike action. The pensions issue was lost because of reliance on a series of one-day strikes and a lack of sustained and coordinated action between all the unions affected.


There is much debate about the consequences of this flawed strategy and the current state of the unions’ response to the Tory offensive. Central to this discussion is an understanding of what constitutes “confidence” among rank and file workers. Because consciousness among workers is not static it is impossible to predict what may motivate them to take action.

There could be any number of trigger points — the Tories overstretching themselves, specific workplace grievances, political developments in other countries — and these can all feed into each other. Confidence can also be strengthened if effective leadership gives a clear sense of strategy in any dispute. For the unions to balk at national action, perhaps hiding behind the new constraints imposed on them by legislation, would be to capitulate to the offensive and give the Tories what they wish for.

In making this argument I am not minimising the significance of demonstrations and other manifestations of opposition. In the immediate aftermath of the election there was a heartening response in the form of protests in a number of areas, and the 250,000-strong People’s Assembly demonstration on 20 June will give a boost to any future struggles. But demonstrations on their own, no matter how vibrant and militant, need to be accompanied by sustained and coordinated industrial action.

In the Chicago teachers’ dispute community campaigns went hand in hand with extended strike action. Significantly in the political upheavals in Greece and Egypt the politics of “place” and the symbolic significance of the occupations of the squares were accompanied by widespread strike action.

In the case of the latter, the subsequent counter-revolution tragically underlines the need to address the question of state power and in the case of the former, it is the need to confront the international agencies of global capital that is uppermost. “Counter hegemonic” arguments are no match for tanks and the pressure of the market. Progressive ideas are shaped by struggle and, if they are separated from it, will wither and die.

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