ON FRIDAY December 1 at the 45th anniversary of the release of the Pentonville Five, when tens of thousands took to the streets to protest at their imprisonment, there was a call to link that working-class victory with the trade union struggles of today.
Since then the tide of Tory anti-union laws has helped create the conditions where workers are increasingly exposed to poor quality, low-paid and precarious employment and fears of victimisation are a major barrier to trade union membership and activism.
However, at the September 2017 TUC important motions from the NASUWT and CWU became policy and so the TUC now recognises the need to return to the organisation and activism employed in earlier stages of trade unionism.
It is committed to leading a major transformative project to create a new model of British trade unionism which will include:
- co-ordinating solidarity and supporting workers in dispute – to help workers win and raise the consciousness of all involved
- flexibility of organisation and local activism to influence the gig economy, using modern methods to win the next generation of representatives and members
- ensuring appropriate training of activists
Trade union membership fell over the last year by 275,000. The extent of the problem is underplayed by the government for obvious reasons, but it’s also little understood and often underestimated within the labour movement.
The days when the likes of Derek Robinson and hundreds of shop stewards were active amongst a workforce totalling more than 100,000 are long gone. Britain today has upwards of 1.4 million out of work, 1.6 million working for agencies, 1.6 million on “precarious” temporary and zero-hours contracts and as many as five million working self-employed, many barely managing to make ends meet.
The labour movement is facing an onslaught but there are healthy signs of a fightback in various forms and this rebellion against corrupt global corporations is not limited to Britain.
On September 4 the first McStrike against McDonald’s in Britain involved only 30 workers in two stores but was a start. The strikers, organised in the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union as part of an international effort, were making four demands:
- a real living wage of £10 per hour
- an end to zero–hour contracts
- an end to McDonald’s culture of fear and
- a union in the workplace
On top of that they wanted an end to the abuse and bullying from managers, including sexual and physical assaults, and basic rights like sick or maternity pay.
There are many more such struggles often applying new ways of organising, such as flash mobs involving non-employees, for example, from trades councils or Unite Community.
Young trade unionists are leading the way with support from their own unions.
The growing number of examples includes: Mixed Fleet flight crew, Sports Direct warehouse staff, Cinema World mainly young workers, Uber drivers, Deliveroo deliverers, Hermes couriers and universal credit protesters.
This struggle will continue and will bring trade unions to the attention of the young, many of whom know little about trade unions and — as a recent trade union survey showed — have very low expectations of the experience of work.
There is a pressing need to educate a new generation of trade unionists.
Unions should invest in structures geared to organising the next generation in their workplaces which are often small, and have high turnovers, and where traditional organising strategies may not have been effective. A new approach might include:
- developing existing organising strategies alongside new ones outside of the workplace as well as within, inspired by community or social movement unionism.
- young members leading young members’ activities and developing their own sections and networks
- training and development of young members to take on branch roles and educating, especially on economics and politics
- democratising existing young members’ structures in each union, but also across the TUC.
While renewed focus on effective organising is key, it needs to be set alongside defining an alternative way of working and a struggle for a new kind of economy, backed up by legal guarantees to safeguard employment rights. Without this struggle casualised work will be without end.
Together trade unions, young people and the growing movement behind the politics promoted by Corbyn can open up new kinds of work with legal rights from day one, a high skill element, a combination of academic and vocational training in and out of employment, use of new technologies in the service and manufacturing sectors, the kind of jobs that families and futures can be built on.
This is a pathway completely at odds with the kind of labour market which is the core of neoliberal capitalism we are now experiencing and only political change, planning and investment can do this.
Some trade unions are responding to the new situation with courses covering the precarious worker environment and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and the Young Communist League (YCL) are also contributing to this urgent need, initially with a day school on new ways of working and the struggle for a new type of economy: “Capitalism today – low pay and zero hours: Organise to build union power and a socialist future.”
This event will be held in London on May 6, linking with the Karl Marx 200 conference on May 5.
Already young workers from across the country are organising to make it a successful event. There will be plenary and training sessions on organising against precarious employment, for a new kind of economy and for new legal rights. Students can work with film-makers on agitation shorts for use on social media and there will be a pamphlet produced based on the outcome of the various sessions.
The aim is to contribute to the establishment of a youth charter, which can be taken to unions and communities, to galvanise the struggle with ideas to transform the working lives of young people.
Participants will be encouraged to stay in touch and work together as the charter gains support.
If you know anyone who may be interested in attending and taking part — let them know that we will be crowdfunding to help with fares and tell us so we can get them involved before the conference.
For more information go to www.facebook.com/CPBritain and message us with the heading Trade Union Day-school.
Andy Bain is the industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Britain
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