The awful “truth” about unions

by Stevie Anderson

In 1979 there were over 13 million trade union members. They represented over 60% of the British workforce.
In 2013 the number of trade union members was around 6.5 million, a mere quarter of the workforce.

Tell that to nearly anyone on the street, and you see their toes curling and them thinking “trade unions, oh god, booooring!!”.

Indulge me for a moment. How did that attitude and that level of stigma come to be associated with something that was a central pillar of working class life and identity? How did unions become so vilified and seen as redundant to the modern working class? How did we go from their high-point in the 1970’s to where we are now?

We all know the received wisdom that trade unions are terrible things in so many ways:

  • They ruin the economy and make workers lazy
  • They mean that jobs all go abroad
  • The unions definitely ruined Britain (several times)
  • In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected and she pretty much single handedly saved the country from unions and made sure rubbish was buried and dead people were collected – or something like that.
  • In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher made sure that Arthur Scargill couldn’t hold the country to ransom as an unelected despot pursuing the end of all that is good about Britain.
  • Trade unions are old fashioned, with their silly banners and Edwardian images. We don’t need them, where good management theory and modern ways of working have removed our need for undemocratic union power and the bullying of entrepreneurs – the real wealth creators in society?

You only need to look at adverts for Google and companies like that to see that every workplace is now a happy diverse place where creativity is cherished and people are all always smiling, especially Tibetans with iPads.

Mass consumption British fairy tales

Does the above summary sound familiar? It should. It’s the we-hate-chavs worldview of Richard Littlejohn, Jeremy Clarkson and the tabloids. It’s the force-fed concoction every night on the news and in print. The story told therein is that trade unions are outdated things, and that they are not a useful or important part of the modern world.

Our ancient and venerable royalty and systems of title and privilege don’t suffer being written off, run down, and attacked for being old fashioned and out of date. Quite the opposite, our ruling class and system of property ownership are worshipped, never more so than in celebration of traditions – the distilled essence of British values.

In a never ending procession of common-sense-propaganda British culture, values and civilising power is represented in antiques with Quentin; dinner parties with Nigella; country cooking with Mr Fernley-Whittingstall; sliding down pukka bannisters with top-geezer Jamie or matey chefs; Oxbridge comedians keep us up to date with home improvements in stately homes; there’s villas in the med to wish-buy; travel diaries and action with Bear and Dan Snow.

The process isn’t subliminal, it is a cultural class battering on an overpowering scale and it leaves us clear about how we are to engage with the world, and improve our lot in it. We don’t dream daft dreams of changing the world – no, what we do is change our flawed selves.

We’re not meant to fight for social justice or progressive change. We’re not meant to protest. We’re not meant to make a fuss. What we’re supposed to do is strive to become middle class, and if we don’t make it to a leafy suburb it’s because we have personally failed. Class war is common and hegemonic.

The price for our individual failures and loser status is high. Our story, the one that’s represents ‘us’ in the world is Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Street, Ross Kemp in Glasgow or Manchester. It’s Danny Dyer telling us he’s “f****n shittin’ me’self” while an old woman walks past him with her messages, waving and smiling to the camera. It’s the Daily Mail hating everyone who isn’t white, born in Britain, heterosexual, cisgender or Christian.

It serves up hatred of chavs, chips and deep-fried individual failure.

Hear Jeremy chastise us – Clarkson, Vine, Paxman or Kyle, it doesn’t matter – they know better than us. They are better than us. Hear them heap their opprobrium.

Outside of the prescribed route of conforming and aspiring it becomes almost impossible to imagine how any one of us could change a thing, or that people like us ever have – welcome to capitalism without end and don’t you dare dream of anything else.

No wonder so many look to New Ageism, crystals, conspiracies, pop psychology, spiritualism and niche oddities. Escapism into alternative worlds, in religion, in porn, in gaming, Netflix pacification on demand, and in almost all aspects of our lives has become a soother to the nagging voice of our humanity telling us that we are crushed.

There is a different story of us, and we began to discover it recently in Scotland

A crack in the hegemonic monolith

In the years running up to the independence referendum in Scotland we began to examine our story as it was being told to us by others. It doesn’t bear much examination, what we’re told doesn’t make sense when measured against what we against live through and experience. Eventually 45% of us realised the “reality” we’re being given isn’t the one we want. It’s not in our interests and we have a different view of how our world should be.

We stopped believing what the BBC and the mainstream media told us about ourselves. We stopped agreeing with what a distant elite needed us to believe about what it was to be us. It was extraordinary and beautiful. We started believing in ourselves and the belief was and still is based in our realities, our experience, our story. Not theirs.

We’ve come some way, but clearly having lost the referendum and now facing a vile Tory government intent on hammering the vast majority of working class people – we have so much further to go.

A re-telling of our story

We must aim for more than misty-eyed pronouncements using lovely abstract nouns – blossom, flourish, progress, social justice, are all as nice as they are necessary, but they’re also as poorly defined as they are easily stolen and appropriated by Tories and others who lay claim to notions of aspiration.

Social justice must mean economic justice, and that means having the economic power to deliver it, not just the political party to demand it. Almost none of the challenges that we face are new. We’ve a proud history of making exactly the sort of political and economic progress that we yearn for now. Brace yourself, here comes the union bit. I’ll be unabashedly quoting from a 1934 pamphlet written by JT Murphy for the Communist Party of Great Britain – because being aware and making use of our class history matters.

It doesn’t need re-inventing, just re-discovering.

“For over two hundred years the workers of Britain have struggled to build Trade Unions. Long before there was a political party of the workers there were Trade Unions. Their history is a record of workers who fought the laws which prohibited the existence of the Unions, who dared imprisonment, deportation, victimisation and persecution in order that their Unions could become strong and powerful. One generation succeeded another, in great strikes, massive demonstrations, political struggles, until today millions of workers are organised in Trade Unions.”

Unions defend the wages and conditions of the workers, insure them against unemployment, sickness and old age, provide defence in their claims against employers. All these things are good things. But why was and is it necessary to fight for them? The answer to this question is important because it goes to the foundations of Trade Unionism and Socialism too.

You will undoubtedly say that the workers had to fight for these things because the employers and governments were not prepared to give them until they were forced. That is true and the force which they used was based upon their power to stop work, in other words in their power to strike.

There still remains a further question: Why have the workers had to rely upon their power to strike? Now it is certain you will answer— “Because they have no other power than their labour power”. And again you will be right, for even the workers’ right to vote in elections only came when the Trade Unions gave them the power to claim the right.”

[We modern Scots should note very well that] having the right to vote hasn’t taken away the need to use the power to strike. This has been demonstrated time and again throughout the history of the labour movement. In fact our history proves the need for the ballot box to be supported by the economic power of the workers.

Our primary power, shared by me and you, is an economic power. The organisation of our shared economic power – our labour – isn’t a dead thing of a grainy grey past. It is relevant now, in shops, hotels, nurseries, hospitals, call centres and fast food restaurants. Consider this reported conversation from the excellent Maid in London blog:

“Do you know how much power we have?” I say, staring at her. “Without us this place can’t function. Without us, people can’t check in, beds don’t get made, business men can’t come and iron their shirts. We make this place. The housekeeping department of a hotel is the single largest department, the worst paid, the most invisible, yet the most powerful.”

The real story of us is that you, me, all of us together have an incredible power to shape the world for good and in the interests of all of us. Consider how much energy and wealth goes into dominating the media to shape our stories in the way I illustrated earlier. All of it aimed at negating the fact that together we are both beautiful and powerful. Compare that power with a preferred means of expressing protest these days – middle class consumer protests. Consider this statement made recently by former CEO of Nestle, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe:

“Water should be privatised, it is not a human right”.

Think about that. Think of what’s being said by whom and to whom. Think of the huge power involved and what a social democratic consumerist response would be… well what? Don’t drink water? Get a fridge magnet with “Nestle are rotters” on it and have a fundraiser to help support families who’ve run out of water? Vote against the Nestle party? Oh dear.

A People’s Front of Judea

Socialism is of course about trying to improve the lot of the working class today, in the here and now, not just in some pie-in-the-sky never to be achieved Nirvana. Many though would right off the notion of socialist politics now, or a socialist Scotland in our future as “People’s Front of Judea” stuff. The height of idealist naivety. The opposite is true for Scotland. If we wish to realise the ideals and dreams we are espousing then we have to shed ourselves of the naivety regarding how it can be delivered.

If we wish to raise our wages, improve our support for the weakest among us, and redistribute from those who have to those who need then those things don’t happen without the deliberate struggles that JT Murphy refers to. It would be naive for anyone to believe that the ballot box alone has the power to shape our world as we want it. That goal requires the unification of political party leadership with working class collective economic power.

A £10 an hour minimum wage isn’t pie in the sky. It is necessary because it embodies fighting in the here and now for better conditions for working class people – social justice – while also highlighting the contradictions and true horrific nature of the society we live in and want to change. Socialism is what we do now to improve conditions immediately, but it also wholly encapsulates our attempt to highlight what is fundamentally wrong with capitalism and to illustrate the value in fighting for the socialist form of society we believe in.

Trade unions arise from the opposition of workers to the basic conditions of capitalism. They can be selfish, self interested, bureaucratic and alien, but they’re important. They can be a form of collective and shared experience that has some power to drive home a different version of what society is, one that has the working class as powerful and important. Trade unions are one of the primary and historically most effective ways for us to achieve our immediate and long term goals of social justice.

A resolution

The recent 2015 Tory manifesto blatantly declared war on trade unions and workers with the following pledge. “We will protect you from disruptive and undemocratic strike action.” Then more recently the queen sat on her golden throne, wearing her priceless diamond hat, surrounded by nobles bedecked in ermine, and she announced that her government would not only carry forward its horrific austerity cuts, but also that it would seek to legislate against union rights. The queen announced for the Tories that working class people would be stripped of the only economic power we have.

Do we despair? No, we take heart and listen to a Maid in London tell the truth…

“There have been walkouts before. In one, agency room attendants hadn’t been paid for a month’s work. They had called and asked and demanded their pay, for their side of the deal to be kept up but were fobbed off.
So, some 30 cleaners all walked into the canteen at the start of the day and refused to come out until they were paid. Managers were apparently crying. Supervisors were running around all over the place trying to arrange cover and clean rooms themselves. Double pay was promised to those who’d break ranks and go back to work. The women stood firm and were paid the same day.

Dorota smiles. ‘One time here, three girls were supposed to work on Christmas day. They had stayed the night before, but decided on the day that they weren’t going to work. I don’t know why, maybe they drank too much but, they left, and with just with these three gone, we had chaos on all the floors. Chaos.’”

3 tipsy maids have that power.

Consider the kind of power we have when we organise ourselves and use our power deliberately. That’s all socialism is, our considered power used in the interests of everyone. And that is the very heart and soul of being human – caring for others.

Imagine the scene below revisited and shaped anew and imbued with the political intentions of the crowd’s Red Clydeside forefathers. We are beautiful, powerful and unstoppable if we simply choose to be.