Trade Unions: An ineffective vehicle for change

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During the 1980s Thatcher was at the reins of the countries’ domestic and economic policy and trade union activity was fervent. My father being a card holder of the Union of Communication Workers would frequently ‘coalesce’ – that is picketing and conducting demonstrations with other union members to show indignation against the neo-liberal system that Thatcher was building: the closing of the coal mines, use of police as a repressive force and privatisation of industries. Amongst workers there was a strong sense of injustice that needed to be addressed. Hitherto wages were generally rising in correspondence to levels of production as unions were taking more active roles and held greater bargaining power. Now however, even within the current framework unions have failed to prevent the stagnation, or in some cases decline of wages where production continues to grow steadily. Now trade unions in the UK have attenuated like in most other advanced economies over the past 30 years. There are only 5.98 million card holders of TUC-affiliated unions, which is less than 50% than 30 years ago. This demonstrates how individualist bargaining or complete inactivity has become preferable to collective bargaining, but this has also heralded a decline in the influence of trade unions. Even though the Conservative government still perceives trade unionism to be a threat, shown by the Trade Union Act earlier this year, I believe this is more a façade to dupe card holders into believing that their actions actually have a destabilising impact.

Written in the light of the recent RMT and TSSA calls for strike action over disputes about work-life balance. It may appear quite the dichotomy, that I, a socialist, oppose modern trade unionism. Those outside of socialist circles are unlikely to understand why, but there are very valid reasons for this which I will be explaining along with another gripe that I have. Trade unions historically have been perceived as vehicles for work-place change and improvement, which to some extent they are. However as James O’Brien of LBC exclaimed in July 2015, there has been a somewhat of an abjure of public opinion: “we have created a society in which employers now enjoy more control over our lives that at any point since the Second World War… we’ve created a country in which when the boss says jump you can’t say no, you can’t say yes, you can only say how high”. This is where my agreements with O’Brien ends, as he goes on to mention how being a member of a strong union can counteract this, but personally I take a Leninist perspective on trade unionism: That trade unions have no real credo to lead to the instigation of meaningful change.

By the same token the Labour party has assumed the role of the ‘trade union party’, especially since Corbyn came to power. Union officials tend not see their members’ disadvantaged position as a result of politics, and will thus will steer clear of any political confrontation where possible and delegate political deliberation to the ineffective Labour party. This provides the ideological justification for eliminating any real movement of change. Trade unions are very liberal apparatus’ in the sense that they view each issue in isolation at a business, national or international level, instead of realising the issues that one sector may be experiencing are in fact universal to all other sectors. Engels made the point that organising into unions allowed for collective struggle, but this has not been the case with modern unions. Trade unions as a result of their nature play a part in the “divide and conquer” strategy by segregating each section of industry into its own corner, meaning that grievances are addressed at the individual or group level instead of the collective. On top of this unions compete between each other through whoever can shout the loudest. Trade unions allow for this mediation between boss and worker to occur and thus prevent any collective grievance to be heard.

For those workers who envisage change through trade unionism and are being led up the garden path, trade unions in their modern form are bureaucratic, individualistic, unaccountable, officialdom kingdoms, with each union leader jealously guarding their position. In the majority of cases they’re unwilling to spread or merge with other unions, meaning they neglect to become internationalist organisations that are global champions of workers’ rights. Leaders, as a result of being a full time ‘job’ have no real vested interest in the welfare of their members. They are unaffected by the daily issues that these workers may experience, meaning that much of what they say is merely lip service. They indeed watch from an ivory tower, in many cases unable to emphasise, as they hypocritically receive wages that can be up to five times that of those they’re supposed to be representing. A ‘Trade Union Rich List’ report produced by the TaxPayers’ Alliance is a damning indictment of the hypocrisy which plagues every major union. Notable examples include Christine Blower, of the NUT, receiving a £142,363 pay package and Len McCluskey of Unite who was on £122,434. Compared to the average UK salary of £26,500 these are an enormous disparity. It would appear that these union leaders are fat-cats, deceiving card holders for an easy ride. This makes it rather difficult to discern between them and the CEO’s and exploiters’ feet they’re supposed to be holding to the fire.

The right wing media selfishly guard their own interests through the perpetual attack on trade unionism and workers movements as a whole This was shown by a recent telegraph article: “Those passengers who have braved the rails have found themselves forced to squeeze onto over-stuffed carriages, before having to leave work early to get the last available train home.” Media pundits’ divisive tendencies have not only contributed to an already inflated blame culture in Britain, they have created a culture in Britain in which people have become more individualistic and suspicious, jealously guarding their own positions. They see their fellow worker as a competitor instead of an ally and a victim of circumstance. Trade unionism has in no discernible way contributed to the deconstruction of this dogma. Trade unions are an appendage of the capitalist life support system, they preserve the structure that they’re supposed to be against.

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