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Trade unions have an urgent need to reinvent themselves

JOANNE KAYE celebrates the achievements of the labour movement highlighted by the many anniversaries being marked but says we must constantly develop new tactics and strategies

This weekend’s Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival will celebrate an impressive range of birthdays.

First, the TUC’s 150th year is to be feted by the excellent Radical History School exploring its achievements and milestones, culminating in a panel — chaired by Maxine Peake — hearing from experts on our past.

The centenary of the first women being allowed to vote will feature as the festival crew wear suffragette colours and an all-women platform of speakers discusses women and politics.

Many unions will be praising the miracle that is our NHS, in its 70th year and Unison and FBU mark their 25 year and 100 year anniversaries.  

Why are anniversaries so important? Is it because they are about survival, especially when that survival is in the face of adversity?

The festival honours those who were transported to the other side of the world simply for demanding better wages. It is important to remind ourselves that this hostility remains undimmed and the enemies of our class, whether in Westminster or in boardrooms, will always seek to undermine trade unionism and will apply the same determination to dismantling the welfare state and our NHS.  

To have survived is indeed a victory at times and the resurgence of socialism in the Labour Party has cheered and sustained many of us.

Many glasses are raised “to the next 100/50/25 years” at anniversary parties, but does our real sense of success come from having got this far and still being here?

Anniversaries help us to take stock and reflect on the past and the TUC 150 stories collection records the best of our history as well as featuring the heroes of today, such as Shen Batmaz, Angela Rayner and ordinary shop floor stewards who make such a difference, such as Unison south-west’s very own Dudley Hackling, a rep in Bristol Energy.   

But examining what we did then may not always be the best way of solving our problems now — too often to new people,  trade unionism can feel like church, where we follow the same rituals and practices for decades, while capitalism constantly reinvents itself to maximise exploitation and profit.  

Calls to modernise offend our rightly held sense of pride and respect for our ways of doing things, but we should allow new, young workers to question and challenge how we do things, why we do things and give them as much space as possible to reinvent trade unionism as they see it and in a way which works for them in 2018.

TUC membership statistics paint a picture of an ageing cadre of union reps and too few young people coming behind to replace them.  

Many unions place increasing reliance on retired members to keep branches going, help with casework and get involved in local campaigns — and a strong voice for pensioners is always a positive thing.  

If we are still to be here in the decades to come, however, our movement needs people: new, different and diverse and ready for new fights in new workplaces using new tools and tactics.  

We are right to raise a glass to survival, to give thanks for still being here.

But what young workers need is not a richly described history, but a brightly imagined future, full of hope and optimism and exciting ideas for renewal and reinvigoration.  

The Tolpuddle Martyrs had no set blueprint for success and had no way of knowing how things were done — no Citrine rules or complex bureaucracy.  

They, and the movement that brought them home, had to invent trade unionism for themselves.

Our task now may be to seek inspiration from their creativity and passion and reinvent a movement which will seem as relevant to the fast food worker of tomorrow as it did to the farm workers of yesterday.



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