Saturday, May 19, 2018

Trade unions decline as our leaders whistle to keep their spirits up

Last weekend tens of thousands of people marched through central London in response to a call from the TUC to protest against continuing austerity.

That was an impressive turnout and it no doubt gave encouragement to those union leaders who stressed the importance of the occasion and emphasised that the Government could expect strike action in opposition to continuing public spending cuts and declining living standards.

But I remember that in March 2011 there were hundreds of thousands of us in the streets. In the first year of the Coalition Government our movement (from a stronger position than it now occupies) prepared to take on that Government.

And we did.

On 30 November 2011 we organised the largest day of strike action in this country since 1926. We did not just threaten action against Government attacks – we took action.

And then we backed down.

Instead of taking the risk of pursuing further action in order to maximise pressure on the Government, our leadership led us into shabby compromises. (And then they won a majority in our democratic structures to endorse this retreat).

Those compromises meant that those leaders could not then deliver on further promises to smash the pay freeze – instead our trade unions continued to fail our members. Our members continued to experience the decline in real earnings about which the TUC continues (ineffectually) to whine.

The membership density of our trade unions and the union wage premium (the simplest measure of the material benefit of union membership) have both continued to decline since 2011, as have measures of member engagement in their trade unions (such as turnout in union elections).

The increase in Labour Party membership and activism, which began when Jeremy Corbyn declared his candidacy for Party Leader, has passed our trade unions by. Our largest trade unions remain under the direction of a sclerotic bureaucracy incapable of recognising or responding to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Because our unions cannot mobilise our members we see the effective recommendation or acceptance of pay claims (for example in health and local government) which do nothing to reverse the decline in living standards of union members.

There is no prospect of a national fight to defend the interests of working class people led by our trade unions under their current leadership – working class socialists have to focus instead on the need for a change of Government (and the need to maximise the influence of socialist politics within the Labour Party).

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