The previous post on this blog finished asking whether our trade union movement is as weak as it might appear, and what we can do about this.
The effectiveness of the trade union movement, at every level, depends upon our objective strength vis-à-vis our opponents and upon our subjective willingness to use that strength. A useful recent overview of our strength is provided by Ralph Darlington in The state of workplace union reps' organization in Britain today, Capital & Class, No. 34, pp. 126-135 (the link is to a freely available online version).
This focuses on the key element of workplace representation, our shop steward structure and picks out factors such as the increase in the ratio of union members to stewards (from 1:25 in 1984 to 1:37) as an indicator of decline. A reduced number of shop stewards are also less autonomous than was previously the case. Darlington argues that shop stewards are now “much more dependent on full-time union officials compared with the relative independence of the 1970s.”
However, Darlington also acknowledges evidence of the continuing strength and health of workplace trade union organisation, point out that; “even though the balance of power remains significantly in favour of the employers, they still feel considerable constraints on the ‘right to manage’ in many workplaces. Shop stewards and other lay union reps are still able to resist, amend or undermine management initiatives on some occasions and win concessions and gains on others.”
This rings true, as does the subsequent conclusion that “the two crucial basic, albeit often ignored, ingredients for the rebuilding of a strong workplace union reps’ movement are struggle and politics.”
The evidence of trade union membership data, whether at the level of the movement as a whole or at the level of individual trade unions, is that struggle is associated with growth. Periods of transformative growth in trade union power have also, historically, been associated with widespread political engagement, or as Darlington puts it; “the strength and militancy of the First World War shop stewards movement, the rebuilding of stewards’ organisation in the 1930s, and the powerful stewards’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, did not develop in a political vacuum.”
Regular readers of this blog (Sidand Doris Trotwatcher) won’t be surprise by my conclusion that, if we want to rebuild our trade unions, we need to be prepared to adopt an assertive and combative approach, and to be hospitable to radical politics. As to the practical application of this conclusion, I shall blog further…
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