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AS SOME of the trade union movement’s most effective organisers and activists argue in today’s Morning Star, marking the TUC 150th anniversary this year cannot just consist of celebrating our achievements over that century and a half.
Those achievements have been enormous, of course.
Given a hostile mass media and education system that means too many people grow up without any idea of the role unions have played in winning rights we now take for granted, unions have good reason to point out that weekends off, holiday and sick pay and health and safety regulations that keep us safe at work were all forced from the bosses by unions.
On a political level it is union action too that forced the introduction of old-age pensions and later the welfare state, including through the unions’ creation of a political arm in the form of the Labour Party that founded the NHS and other public services.
In today’s workplace, however, many of these historic victories have also become historical victories — in that they no longer exist in any meaningful sense.
Insecure employment has exploded in eight years of Conservative rule, and many young workers given a list of the trade union movement’s achievements would simply retort: “What holiday pay? What weekends off? What health and safety?”
Nor are our public services what they were — as Unison’s Paula Barker writes, that union’s public-sector membership now work for “a huge range of employers” including “multinational companies, small businesses, voluntary organisations and care providers owned by private equity funds.”
As Labour’s current leadership has recognised, the hollowing out of our welfare state through cuts, privatisation and outsourcing and the shift of power away from working people towards big business are not just products of the Cameron and May regimes but of almost 40 years of neoliberal economic policy beginning with Thatcher but continued by the Blair and Brown Labour governments.
Those 40 years have seen trade union membership halve, and the latest stats showing a mild reverse in 2017 do not make up for the 275,000 drop in 2016 – the largest on record.
At the same time, where unions have taken militant action against employers we are seeing growth — as in the University and College Union, where membership has grown by 20,000 over the past year as the union took highly successful strike action against an attack on members’ pensions.
And GMB’s victories in winning recognition for Uber drivers as workers, Unite’s ongoing strike action against TGI Friday’s raid on waiting staff tips and the dramatic increases in pay won by McDonald’s workers organised by the BFAWU show what workers are capable of when they “dare to struggle and dare to win.”
The history of the last four decades show that when our movement isn’t winning, it goes into retreat — there is no “treading water” when it comes to the balance of power between labour and capital.
That’s because the interests of the two are fundamentally contradictory — capitalists make their wealth by appropriating the wealth produced by workers. Increasing the rate of exploitation by forcing down wages is not simply a tactic by unpleasant bosses, but a fundamental tendency of the capitalist system.
Reversing the years of attacks on our class, as John McDonnell committed to do in Manchester yesterday, will take more than a defensive attitude focused on protecting the rights we have or shoring up the status quo.
It requires a co-ordinated offensive by our movement, fighting in the workplace alongside the Labour Party’s battle in Parliament, for a different type of Britain.
Many trade unionists are already taking that step — we must all be marching with them.
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