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Trade unions, the working class and our fight against neoliberalism

Nothing has ever been handed on a plate to workers — we have always fought industrially to gain these rights, says DENISE CHRISTIE

AS WE commence the debates at the 122nd annual STUC Congress, the highest body of the trade union movement in Scotland, it is an appropriate juncture to discuss the great things trade unions have done for the working class and also recognise our responsibilities in the fight against neoliberalism.  

Historically, trade unions are a big reason that the working class won many of the protections and rights we now rightfully have.  

Health and safety, an end to child labour, equal pay for women (although the fights still continue), shorter working hours, a “living wage,” campaigns to end bullying and harassment, maternity rights, holiday pay etc, have all been won by ordinary working people withdrawing their labour. 

Nothing has ever been handed on a plate to workers — we have always fought industrially to gain these rights.

Economists, too, have long puzzled about how to think about trade unions. 

They don’t fit easily into the standard patterns of modern economic theory in which individuals and companies abide by rules overseen by governments. 

Some economists see unions as a cartel, protecting insiders at the expense of outsiders. 

According to this theory, unions raise wages but also drive up unemployment. This is the interpretation of unions taught in many textbooks and courses a few decades ago.

But there are many reasons to think that this theory of unions isn’t right.

First, even back in the 1970s, some economists realised that unions do a lot more than just push up wages. 

By providing workers with a voice both at the workplace and in the political arena, unions can and do affect positively the running of the economic and social systems.

Data shows that unions reduce staff turnover, which lowers costs associated with constantly finding and training new workers. 

It’s also acknowledged that unions engaged in political activity benefited the working class more broadly, rather than just union members. 

Finally, it can be argued that by defining standard wage rates within industries, unions can actually reduce wage inequality overall.

But the world didn’t listen to these arguments by economists and many unions’ membership declined. 

Now, four decades later, economists are again starting to suspect that unions were a better deal than the textbooks made them out to be, with some concluding that unions were an important force in reducing inequality (this is the part where every trade unionist says: “I told you so!”)

Other than massive government redistribution of income, wealth and power, there’s really no other obvious way to address the country’s rising inequality. 

This is where trade unions are vital. Also, there’s the understanding that unions might be an effective remedy for the problem of increasing corporate market power — evidence suggests that when unionisation rates are high, employers are less effective at suppressing wages. 

Repealing all anti-trade union legislation and electing pro-union governments is just the medicine the economy needs to counteract neoliberalism — including austerity, deregulation and reductions in government spending. 

These are all implemented in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society; for tax and regulation to be minimised; for public services to be privatised and the organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions portrayed as barriers to progress — the ultimate purpose being the starving of our public services and the silencing of our workers. 

The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so appealing when expressed in general terms, turns out to basically mean freedom for the privileged few. 

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress workers’ wages with a race to the bottom. 

Freedom from regulation means the freedom to endanger workers and the public in order to maximise profits. 

Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty and invests in our public services.

We in the trade union movement have a serious job to do. We must continue our industrial campaigns to put public before profit and empower the working class if we are truly to achieve a society that is fundamentally fair and free from poverty, inequalities and oppression. 

Denise Christie is regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union Scotland.


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