Got a boss? You need a Union!
For trying to uphold some measure of democracy in our working lives,
globally trade unionists suffer victimisations and harassment, even imprisonment
and assassinations. From Karen Reissmann (a mental health nurse sacked
for union activities) to our Colombian brothers and sisters struggling
against Coca-Cola and the state, respect and solidarity is owed to all
those who take a stand and defend the right to organise.
In this country, trade union laws have been introduced to stifle workplace
self activity. Despite this over seven million people remain members,
with enormous collective potential. Although membership is ageing, like
the general population, and is concentrated in the public sector, no-one
should accept the myths that unions are powerless or a thing of the past.
Just this summer, 650 tanker drivers contracted out by Shell took industrial
action and won a 14.5% pay increase over two years.
With the prospect of workers being made to pay the cost of the next economic
recession, and increasingly that of climate change, unions are as necessary
Constraints and contradictions
Unions developed in tandem with industrial development. This has undoubtedly
shaped our official structures, which are in many respects part of the
system they seek to restrain and negotiate with.
Set up to give the union leaders a political voice, the Labour Party has
brought them into the institutions of the British state over the last
century. While the achievements of the welfare state are undeniable, New
Labour's neo-liberal assault on it means that most unions are now questioning
this relationship on some level.
There are other constraints. Unions traditionally represent their own
members first, and there can be petty bureaucratic rivalries and narrow
sectional interests, as against what represents the needs of all workers
and oppressed people. However the union movement has been a leading anti-racist
force for decades, opposes the British National Party and supports the
rights of refugees and migrant workers.
Unions work by mobilising a united workforce, and this can mean moving
at a slow pace. It also means that 'revolutionary unions' with an ideological
appeal to a handful of activists have little relevance for now. There
is, however, a rank and file union tradition that stresses the active
participation of workers in struggle, in ways that can relate to the politics
of today's 'direct action' activists.
Workplace struggles are an ongoing fact of life in capitalism; the challenge
for us is to build solidarity for independent working class politics though
our networks. Ultimately workers run every corporation, giving them the
potential to shut them down, and run society in a better way instead.
Activists who dismiss the unions as a whole, or who don't understand or
connect with the pre-occupations of working class people, run the risk
of being dismissed in turn, to the detriment of us all. The alternative
is to bring new, radical politics to a movement that clashes with capitalism,
to make another sort of resistance possible. Unity is strength, after
For more ideas, discussion and debate on this feel free to contact us
Could not open file