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LEN McCLUSKEY’S slim volume Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist is a whistle-stop tour of its subject — the ethos, history and practical value of trade unionism.
Given the breadth of the issues it examines — from the birth of the Labour Party to the fight to organise precarious workers and from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to climate change — it’s amazing he managed to cram it all into 145 pages.
“It’s supposed to be brief,” McCluskey tells me when we meet to discuss the book. “There are lots of books on the history of the trade union movement. This was deliberately short in the hope it would attract young people, shop stewards, people coming into our organisations for the first time.
“This is just to say who we are, where would we be without trade unions, sketching an underlying theme that trade unions have always been a force for good in society.
“I wanted it to be a quick read that looks at the historical perspective but injects an element of my own experience,” tracing his career from joining a union on his first day at work through becoming a regional and then national officer.
McCluskey’s immense pride in his union both as the T&G and now Unite shines through, though he doesn’t hesitate to call out elements in its history he is less than proud of, such as its failure to stand by striking dockers in the 1990s.
Nor does the book focus solely on his own union, with passages considering GMB’s tactics for organising Amazon workers, the BFAWU’s efforts at McDonald’s and the role of “pop-up” unions such as United Voices of the World.
With a majority of the workforce not organised in unions and the public exposed to distorted media depictions of unions, McCluskey is keen to dispel any mystique about their nature, quoting Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long Bailey to the effect that a union is a group of workers coming together to raise their voice collectively at work.
He points to the basics: that being in a union provides you with protection from bad treatment by your employer and that it’s likely to mean you get paid more.
But he stresses that being a trade unionist is about “much more than holding a union card” and the importance of the political role of trade unions recurs throughout the book.
“There’s a right-wing trend that says ‘you’re too political’ and wants unions to stay out of politics.
“But everything in our lives is governed by politics. To do that I go back to the great industrial battles that took place in the late 19th century, the victories achieved but that were undermined by defeats in the political arena.
“That’s when our movement came together to say we needed a voice in the political arena, and that’s why the unions created the Labour Party.”
The Labour-union link is pretty unique internationally and has often been attacked. I ask what he makes of claims that the large increase in the size of the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader was largely made up of people who were not in unions and who counterpose the affiliated unions and the members as opposing forces in the party.
The journalist Paul Mason in particular has accused Unite of exercising a malign influence over the Labour Party and argued that democratising Labour should entail reducing trade union influence.
“On the influx into the Labour Party — are these young people members of a trade union? Probably not. Do they understand how trade unions work? Probably not.
“That’s why some years back I started our schools programme. The Sun accused me of trying to recruit kids, but we don’t go in and say come and join Unite, we say this is what trade unions are. It’s outrageous we have to do it really but it’s because it’s not in the curriculum.”
McCluskey hopes an easy-to-read introduction to trade unionism will show Labour members who aren’t in trade unions why they should be.
“Because the idea that the unions are somehow opposed to the members — nothing could be further from the truth. As for Paul [Mason], I think he has been injected with Brexititis, he seems to have lost all his compasses in his culture or identity war versus class war approach.
“The right wing of the Labour Party have always sought, if they couldn’t use the trade unions — because I remember the time when trade unions had a block vote of 90 per cent at Labour Party conferences and it was consistently used to block any radicalism coming from the constituencies — to block the input of left-wing or radical trade union views.
“These are the individuals who would like to turn us into an American-style political system, where you have the Republicans and Democrats. But Labour can only exist if it exists as the arm of organised labour.
“You cannot abandon the role of organised labour. The year before last at conference I remember there was the row over mandatory reselection and when it came to the vote there was a very clear split, which shocked me.
“And the reason it shocked me is because I worked in particular to persuade some of the other unions to support what was being put forward by Jeremy Corbyn — a number were opposed to the concept of what we got through, the trigger mechanism. We argued for it on the basis that this is what the leadership wants.”
But while the book argues strongly for the importance of electing governments that will work with unions, he is scathing about the “partnership unionism” of the 1990s. I ask him how this differs from the way unions and businesses work together in Germany, which he supports.
“After the Thatcher years when she destroyed the mineworkers, the print workers, the steelworkers, the dockers, those years of total confrontation with the state, this business unionism emerged with people like Frank Chapple. I’d say the partnership was not born of equality, but then there never is equality between the power of capital and of workers.
“But trade union leaders were so delighted that after Thatcher they weren’t getting kicked seven bells out of that they acquiesced in a partnership approach that wasn’t even handed and ended with members feeling we were on the bosses’ side.
“The difference in Germany is that trade unions aren’t seen as the enemy within. We’re happy to work to improve productivity, indeed even to increase profitability, on the basis that it gets shared.
“In Germany the co-determination principle written into their constitutions sees workers sit on supervisory boards, there are things that cannot happen in Germany that happen here — like getting sacked by text message. The Chancellor will meet trade unions and consult them.
“I always think it’s ironic that we’re the country that defeated fascism in the second world war yet German workers are better protected than our own!”
McCluskey’s sense that Labour cannot survive without the unions is backed up by Labour’s dramatic reversals in post-industrial areas, where the trade union culture he grew up with in Liverpool — he recalls being told: “You join the union here, son” on his first day on the docks — has disappeared with the destruction of traditional industries by the Thatcher government and its successors.
One of the initiatives Unite took to try to engage with communities beyond traditional workplaces was Unite Community. Was that a response to the retreat of union culture?
“Very much so. Thatcherism and austerity had stripped communities of many of the welfare organisations, the clubs and so on, that were there to help people.
“We wanted to challenge this view that unions are just vested interests, that Thatcher creed, ‘I’m all right Jack’.
“We wanted to give communities back their voice and say ‘there’s someone who cares, come and join our family.’ And it’s been fantastic, Unite Community has been at the forefront of struggles like the one that saw Sports Direct end zero-hours contracts or the campaign against the bedroom tax.”
For McCluskey that wider social role is the reason Unite is active in everything from the People’s Assembly to Show Racism the Red Card.
“We don’t just make donations. We actively engage. When I go to Show Racism the Red Card events on football grounds and see these 10 and 11-year-old kids listening to a platform that includes their heroes or their parents’ heroes, you hear them talking about words they hear their parents say, saying: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad he shouldn’t say that,’ and it’s fantastic.
“I do see socialism and trade unionism as two sides of the same coin. They share exactly the same values.
“I learned very early in my industrial life that an attack on one is an attack on us all. Being a trade unionist is as important today as it ever has been.”
Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist is published by Verso and is available at the reduced price of £4.79 from the publishers at versobooks.com.
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