Friday, August 05, 2016

Reversing a striking decline?

Whilst trade union membership may be holding just about steady, the activity of trade unions, as measured by the level of strike action, is at an all-time low. The 2015 working days lost total (170,000) is the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 157,000 in 2005). There were 81,000 workers involved in labour disputes during 2015, the lowest since records began in 1893. 

These official figures only measure official disputes – but the incidence of unofficial disputes has been low since the imposition of the anti-trade union laws in the 1980s and 1990s (retained by the subsequent “New” Labour Government). Whereas in the early 1950s (for example) apparently low levels of official strike action coexisted with considerable unofficial stoppages, this is certainly no longer the case.

Gregor Gall offers some sensible suggestions about the reason for this decline in strike action. A generation of timidity has produced a workforce often unwilling to stand up for ourselves, generally starting from a weaker point than a generation ago because of the decline in union density and now facing a trade union officialdom to whom obedience to the law is often the most important consideration.

Whatever the reason for the decline in strike action, it is associated with a decline in real wages – according to the TUC we in the UK have suffered the same decline as workers in Greece, worse than any other European economy. With strike action involving fewer workers than at any point in the last 120 years, and further restrictions due to come into force when the relevant provisions of the Trade Union Act are enacted, our movement does not appear to have any strategy to improve the lives of our members and potential members.

Local Government workers, part of the largest single collective bargaining unit in the UK economy, have suffered a drop of 20% in our standard of living since the financial crash, and – in spite (or because?) of the fact that we are organised by the three largest unions in the country, we have repeatedly failed to mobilise effective action to reverse this decline.

Whatever the outcome of the Labour leadership election (and it would be a catastrophe for working people if the corporate candidate, Owen Smith, were elected) – indeed, whatever the outcome of the next, or any other, General Election – trade unions will not be able to improve the living standards of workers until we find a way to apply our collective power at the point of production to exert pressure on employers. And that means being prepared to take strike action.

Whilst the trade union movement generally (and in particular) clearly needs in many instances new, more militant, leadership, the critical ingredient in any recovery must be the development of a layer of activists prepared to encourage and lead workers in taking action in pursuit of our interests. At a local level we have to be prepared to identify and pursue disputes which we have a chance of winning through collective action. We have a very long way to go.

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