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Editorial Trade unions are key to delivering Labour's radical vision

JOHN McDONNELL’S commitment to a “large-scale revival of trade unionism” is more than welcome — it is absolutely key to the success of the Corbyn project.

The shadow chancellor will speak on “rebalancing the distribution of power in the workplace” at the Institute of Employment Rights (IER’s) 30th anniversary event today.

The labour movement think tank might not get the airtime given by the corporate media to right-wing outfits like the Institute of Economic Affairs or the Taxpayers’ Alliance, but it is our movement’s greatest repository of expertise on workers’ rights and has played a major role in developing Labour policy on the issue through its Manifesto for Labour Law.

Its proposals — including a ministry of labour, the restoration of sectoral collective bargaining presided over by national joint councils of employers and workers and equal rights for all workers from their first day of employment — would do a great deal to address the crisis of insecurity afflicting millions of workers.

That crisis is seen in the explosion of precarious work, bogus self-employment and low wages. But it is bigger than that: “low pay, long hours and the lack of employment rights” are why more and more people can’t afford a home or a proper holiday or a reasonable “work-life balance” — itself a term that implies the hours we spend at work are a denial of life, echoing Karl Marx on alienation.

Across Britain the feeling that “we can’t go on like this” is widespread. It finds expression in varying ways, from Brexit to the growth of a mass membership Labour Party committed to reshaping the world of work. 

But enabling Labour to do that depends on much more than electing Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street.

The British state from the 1980s onwards has helped enable soaring inequality with policies including corporate tax cuts, mass privatisation and attacks on trade unions, but that inequality is most directly a consequence of the empowerment of corporations over workers.

To redress that we need to empower workers again and that cannot simply be done by passing laws.

The Labour leadership knows this. One reason Corbyn and McDonnell’s politics seems so baffling to many career MPs is that they are at root politicians of the street and the community, not of the corridors of Westminster.

The presence of multiple Labour frontbenchers on picket lines at every major strike has been one of the most heartening changes from previous Labour leaderships.

And McDonnell’s words today show he is aware that pushing through Labour’s radical manifesto is a job that needs millions of hands: it requires a revival of trade unionism in workplaces across the country, challenging and defeating bad employers at the point of production.

Trade union membership has been falling since the end of the 1970s. But as McDonnell points out, the conditions that led workers in the 19th century to come together in unions and fight for a better deal apply now. 

A right-wing Tory government pushing people to the limit and a mass membership Labour Party led by socialists provide potentially fertile ground for a new wave of trade union militancy, and in some areas we are already seeing it: from the strikes at McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s and Wetherspoon, to the organising work being done at Uber and Amazon, to the innovative community campaigning we have seen from the teaching unions via Stand Up for Education or from rail union RMT around the right to safe and accessible transport.

Many of those involved in these disputes and campaigns are Labour supporters, but they are not Labour campaigns. They are, however, far more important in the fight for a better future than most of what goes on in Parliament.

McDonnell is fond of saying: “When Labour goes into government, we all go into government.” To make the party’s transformative vision a reality, we must build a party and movement that fight these battles as one.

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