Skip to main content

Full Marx Can trades unions build a better world?

The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY looks at the role of unions in the 41st fortnightly Full Marx column for the Morning Star

SO, CAN trades unions build a better world? Not by themselves, no.

In Britain, trades unions focus on their members, on particular types of job or workplaces. But they are an essential part of the process of building a fairer, more just and more sustainable society for everyone.

Employers have important weapons: fear, victimisation, the (often hidden) penalties applied to those who challenge their power, and the promise of individual advancement for those who don’t. Formal or informal blacklists, an increasing ability among some employers to shift employment elsewhere — and ultimately political control (directly through the law and indirectly through the media) — in a system that is geared to and dependent on profit and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a small section of society; all these restrict or handicap the ability of trades unions to organise, within and beyond the workplace.

At the same time trades unions can be the single most important factor in limiting the power and autonomy of individual employers and enabling collective action not just to protect existing pay and conditions but to secure a better deal for all workers.

Marx declared over 150 years ago: “Trades unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

Trades unions have of course changed significantly since Marx wrote, and particularly in the last half-century. There has been a transformation in the character of Britain’s workforce: a big shrinkage in large-scale manufacturing (and now in sections of the public sector) and an increase in service occupations in small units with precarious employment.

Women are a growing section of the workforce, have always suffered from part-time and casual work and, together with young people, have been particularly badly hit by outsourcing and the expansion of zero-hours contracts and phoney self-employment. The level of unionisation is only half what it was in the late 1970s, largely concentrated in the public sector (55 per cent) and manufacturing (20 per cent). Unionisation in the service sector is considerably less — not much more than 10 per cent.

Trades unions also have to contend with a far more challenging legal and political environment than in the 1970s, a generally hostile press and more sophisticated HR techniques. Legal restrictions introduced under Thatcher — including a requirement for secret ballots before strike action and a ban on secondary action — have been made even tighter by the 2016 Trade Union Act.

This now requires a minimum 50 per cent turnout of eligible members and in key public services a Yes vote from 40 per cent of all those entitled to vote before industrial action can be taken; restrictions on picketing, and a requirement for unions to pay employers for check-off deductions of membership fees. Other challenges (including a repeal of the ban on employers hiring agency staff to provide strike cover) are likely to follow through changes in regulations introduced without parliamentary scrutiny.

At the same time there have been some positive changes. The trades union movement is concentrated in fewer, generally stronger and better organised unions. Trades union membership in some areas of the service sector (particularly retail) is larger and far more concentrated than previously. Some unions in essential services (transport, energy, school education) are still powerfully organised. New sectors such as teachers, nurses and junior doctors have also moved into militant action.

Big unions, such as Unison, Unite and the GMB are increasingly responsive to new challenges (the GMB’s victory in securing basic rights for Uber drivers is an example). New unions such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain have had successful campaigns, organising among cleaners, couriers, and security guards. The increasingly social and interconnected character of production has increased opportunities of leverage. And union activity at all levels has been vital in the renewal of the Labour Party, symbolised by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.

Labour’s 2017 Manifesto contained important commitments to trades union recognition (including a repeal of much anti-trades union legislation, and a policy of awarding public contracts only to companies which recognise trades unions) and “working with trades unions” to end workplace exploitation. Together with other commitments — on public ownership, on education, health and social services — the election of a Labour government could mark the start of socialist transformation of Britain.

But this is by no means guaranteed. The key issue is the degree to which — inside or outside the EU — such a strategy will assist in securing a Britain “for the many” or whether it will accelerate a crisis of profitability which — in the context of a Britain still dominated by finance capital and monopoly control of the media — will result in further economic crises and a reversal of support for socialist policies.

A recent, British “Communist Manifesto” declared: “Trade unions often play a defensive role under capitalism, seeking to protect workers against excessive exploitation, dangerous working conditions, redundancy, bullying and harassment.

“But they also go on the offensive to improve the terms and conditions of their members. Moreover, they also seek to represent the wider and more fundamental interests of workers in society. Trade unions campaign for changes in government policy, establishing or supporting political parties. They involve themselves in a wide range of economic, social, cultural and political issues, both domestic and international.”

But however successful they may be in these respects, trades unions are not of themselves capable of leading the transformation of society. Engels wrote in 1881: “For the full representation of labour in Parliament, as well as for the preparation of the abolition of the wages system organisations will become necessary, not of separate trades, but of the working class as a body. And the sooner this is done the better. There is no power in the world which could for a day resist the British working class organised as a body.”
That remains as true today as then.

[Puff for yellow button:]

A panel discussion on Thursday February 7 at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School will feature Professor Jonathan Michie, Jon Lansman and John Hendy QC discussing the 1974-79 Labour government’s Alternative Economic Strategy and the obstacles it faced.

MML’s four session course on Trade Unions, Class and Power, led by Professor Mary Davis, starts on Tuesday February 19 with an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the trades union movement in Britain today. There are still some places left on a parallel on-line course which has just started. More details on all of these activities on



We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 10,322
We need:£ 7,678
8 Days remaining
Donate today