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Book review Unions Renewed: Building Power in the Age of Finance

A tour around the shady worlds of finance exposes murky engineering and limits on worker power

As organisers and negotiators, we are acutely aware that knowledge is power. Keeping up with what the opposing side is devising is a challenge, as the dark arts of financial engineering grow exponentially complex.

This book provides a tour around the shady worlds of finance and how they are impacting on our abilities to build workers’ power, and proposes strategies on how we move forward.

Take the case of a US supermarket, saddled with debt by private equity firm Morgan Stanley - debt taken out to pay its investors the dividends they expect. When the supermarket was sold back to its senior management, the union found itself up against a company  able to claim it’s already debt-ridden with little to give.

The problem is how to organise against an entity that has no product or service except financially engineered dividends for investors. Who is the real boss? Financialisation as explained in Unions Renewed neatly exposes rent-seeking capital as parasitic with potential to weaken union bargaining power.

Alice Martin and Annie Quick concisely explain difficult concepts such as financial engineering that capital uses to extract value from companies, drive down wages and destroy jobs.  
 
They explain the history of the attacks on unions and their subsequent decline from the 80s. Today unions often end up in a servicing-versus-organising conundrum, trying to balance resources to meet everyone’s needs.

It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: without strong unions we cannot get the government we need, but where we have been able - new Labour - we have not gained the advantage needed or expected.

The authors ignore the impulse to work through a “favourable state,” and suggest practical examples of what can be done today to push towards economic democracy.

Social-movement unionism, collective-bargaining organisation and getting through to the “real” employer are the favoured road map, as are shareholder and climate-justice  activism, and making automation benefit workers.

The pandemic puts us at a crossroads. Neoliberalism is failing us more than ever with the dehumanising effects of financialisation echoing across communities.

An organised working class has a clear opportunity to reshape the future, by leading in the fight for economic democracy.

By unpicking the spaghetti-like entanglement of the work-boss relationship and proposing concrete solutions, this book is a timely and instructive intervention in the debate about how to win workplace power struggles.

It belongs on the desk of any activist who is serious about real, workable strategies for 2020 and beyond.

Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance
Alice Martin and Annie Quick
Polity, £14.99

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