There is an unfortunate tendency for articles nowadays to have sensationalist “click-bait” headlines, but by any standards the aggressive spin put on Michael Chessum’s latest piece in the New Statesman is highly unfortunate.
The headline screams “It’s time for Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to take on the trade union leadership”. Nothing could be more counterproductive than seeking to mobilize supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party to intervene in internal union politics.
Trade unions are organizations that have their own rule books, decision making structures and autonomous interests. The lay activists who participate in the decision making processes, and who are elected and delegated to conferences and to sit on committees, are the same lay activists who represent their work colleagues in disciplinary and grievance hearings, who negotiate with management, who recruit to the union on a daily basis, who hold the participatory branch, sectional and regional structures together, and campaign on industrial and political issues.
Many thousands of these lay member activist in trade unions also support Jeremy Corbyn, and it is highly mischievous and irresponsible for Michael to misrepresent such activists as potential agents of disruption within their own unions.
From my experience the deliberations on policy issues within trade unions are serious and well informed, based upon the expert opinions of those with experience in the industries or sectors whose interests are at stake, and informed by other expert opinion commissioned by or researched by the unions themselves.
Michael Cheesum seems to be suggesting that pressure should be applied to unions from outside to subvert the outcomes of such democratic decision making. This is a fundamental breach of the well established protocols whereby the political and industrial wings of the party operate in a spirit of mutual restraint. As Lewis Minkin describes in his magnum opus “The Contentious Alliance – Trade Unions and the Labour Party” the development of unwritten “rules” governing the relationship between the unions and the party have arisen over many years, and effectively derived “from fundamental values of trade unionism”
Trade unionism is inherently based upon collectivism, and preserving the autonomy of collective organisation from constraint. It is collective organisation which counterbalances the disparity of wealth and power between employers and individual workers. As Minkin describes
“Through their collective capacity, the liberty of the individual worker was enhanced via-a-vis the employer. Through the collective, workers increased their control over the work environment. Through the collective, workers advanced living standards without which a simple “absence of restraint” was often the freedom to go without, to grow sick or starve. This view of collective capacity involved minimizing impediments to the operation of the industrial collective, whether they were external or internal to the organisation. By its nature, this involved restricting individual rights in relation to the collective (albeit a democratic collective). Whatever libertarian views trade unionists might hold about individual rights in a wide social and political sphere, they recognized the necessity in industrial life to accept some diminution of choice in one relationship in order to enhance it in another”
This concept of liberty as being a mediated one through respect for the collective is one that dovetails with the moral underpinnings of labourism as associated with thinkers as diverse as R H Tawney and Tony Benn. For example, the astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.
For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful. Trade unionism is therefore inherently virtuous through being founded upon collectivity and mutual support, rather than individualism and personal acquisitiveness.
It is worth looking at Michael’s views in more detail. He writes
The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.
The description of the unions as a “conservative influence” is spookily close to that of Tony Blair, who used to rail against unions as the forces of conservatism because unions resolutely advocated economic growth and good, well paid, high skilled jobs, and resisted his deregulation and privatization. Of course Michael Chessum has different objectives to Blair, but in his case he considers unions to be conservative because they advocate economic growth and good, well paid, high skilled jobs in the face of sometimes ill-considered and knee-jerk policies from parts of the fashionable left.
It is hard to know what Michael means by “transforming the workplace”, which he thinks trade unions don’t currently do. Let us look at the premium that workers in organized workplaces enjoy. According to a 2014 booklet by the TUC.
In the public sector, for every £10,000 that a non-member earns, a union member on average earns around £1,690 more; in the private sector it’s around £580 more.
Over the period 2001–2013 union members were on average a third more likely to have received training than nonunionised employees.
Union membership brings the greatest financial benefits for young workers: 16- to 24-year-old union members earn 38 per cent more than their non-union counterparts.
Union members also have more paid holidays, with 3.8 days more paid holiday than non-members (25.5 days compared with 21.7 days).
Workplaces with unions have far fewer accidents, according to a 2007 study.
To take two examples over the last couple of weeks, the solicitors Leigh Day won the first stage of a legal campaign to force ASDA to give equal pay to the mainly female retail workforce compared to mainly male workers doing similar work in distribution.
With the same employer, GMB national negotiators recently gained agreement from ASDA that they would cease the individual monitoring of scanning rates in stores, which colleagues were finding oppressive and demeaning.
These are both examples of trade union organization making a real difference. The workplace is transformed when workers have a strong independent organization which allows employees to redress injustice, and gain greater respect.
Michael seems to believe that unions are failing their members if we are not involved in ceaseless class warfare. However, while recognizing that in the final analysis employers may have potentially antagonistic interests to their workforce, it is also true that employees do have a material interest in their employer’s business prospering: there is no point is advocating higher wages if employers don’t have the means to pay them. Where an employer treats their workforce with respect and dignity, then trade unions do have a legitimate interest in advancing the business prospects of such good employers, thus benefiting their members.
Currently, with perhaps the exceptions of Community and USDAW, every British trade union has a leadership that historically could be regarded on the centre left; and the claim by Michael that trade unions mediate “workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system” is nonsense. The constraint on militant industrial trade unionism in the modern world is due not to timid nor bureaucratic leadership, but deep seated difficulties of organizing workers in workplaces blighted by casualization, bogus self employment, low union densities and not enough experienced lay activists.
Indeed it is worth reflecting, as Gregor Gall did in his recent Huffington Post article, that far from being unimaginative, unions – especially Unite and GMB – have been very innovative in combining political, legal and media pressure on employers, such as Uber, Asos and Sports Direct.
The challenge for such campaigning tactics is ensuring that they are financially sustainable for the unions in the longer terms by both recruiting and maintaining paid membership. Ultimately, however innovative trade unions may be at using our political and campaigning leverage, the foundation of union power is industrial strength.
This is why Michael Chessum’s article is so disappointing. Whereas the locus of purely political campaigning is constantly pulled towards Westminster, and a schedule of elections that is dis-empowering for activists, trade unionism is geographically dispersed and workplace injustice happens every day, giving activists an opportunity to make real change for the better. The biggest opportunity for building a powerful campaigning left is not to encourage Corbyn’s supporters to challenge the leadership of the unions, as Michael rather foolishly does, it is to encourage activists to join and recruit to the unions where they live and work, and to help us all together to build the strong industrial organization that can empower working people to improve their own lives.