More than just words? A response to the TUC
Today has been a big day at the TUC. So big that the York Press rang me for a quote from York Stop the Cuts – Right to Work campaign. My response on the spur of the moment was that I “welcome” this announcement, but actually, I think that was too weak, but Union action can only be one part of the picture, and must not prevent a critique of modern Trade Unions from being put forwards.
The first problem of sorts is that this action is not universal by any means. The unions themselves only represent around 10% of the workforce in this country, and an even smaller proportion of those who, for instance, will come into contact with the NHS this before Christmas. The unions are a key part of actually resisting these cuts, and anyone suggesting that the strike should be replaced with marches and rallies should simply look at the failure of the anti-war movement last decade to truly reverse policies. This will require direct action and civil disobedience, but also the common and garden strike. There are plenty of non-violent means of resisting these cuts, but will the unions allow all of them, even those that show no regard for their power?
But lets not forget that the leadership of a Union are a power elite almost by definition. With so few leaders at the top of a very steep hierarchy, most union leaders are very susceptible to a quick chat about the ‘consequences’ from a senior member of Her Majesty’s Constabulary. A few, though be no means all, are also quite susceptible to the idea that “being reasonable” will lead to dinner invites where they might exercise “influence”. Such influence, apart from being non-existent, is bad for worker’s empowerment, taking decisions further out of their hands. Its not something I mentioned to the Press mind, but I do worry about the way Unions offer their members greater power and agency in the key changes in their working lives and then basically take it off one way or another.
My concerns are three-fold. First that the unions simply won’t come through with the action that they have talked about. Second, that they will control the voices of their membership and of all those affected by the cuts, and in doing so probably take the safe option and not challenge the ideology of the cuts head-on. Last, that they will carry out their activities in a way that fails to link the loss of services for the vulnerable with the loss of their members’ jobs – they will fail to appeal to the public in terms that the public can understand and to mobilise in an inclusive way. Essentially unions have a bad habit of burying themselves in a sort of “us and them” in which the “us” is only their membership and the “them” is therefore everyone else. Our definition of “We” in this campaign must span all divisions barring one.
I’m quite disgusted to see the TUC attempt to impose a common message of “all in this together” on everyone in such a way that it says that Cameron’s friends and former classmates are going to suffer from these cuts. They won’t suffer in the slightest. We’re not all in this together – the graph of effects by decile (tenths of the population as divided by wealth) shows very clearly that starting wealth will heavily determine end wealth or lack thereof. These cuts will further widen the gap between richest and poorest – we simply aren’t all in this together. Its a useful message if appealing to the middle-classes, some of whom will also suffer immensely (e.g. those caring for family members with disabilities), but what was said on the BBC News tonight was the former and not the latter use of the phrase.
Bob Crow’s suggestion that Fathers for Justice style stunts be employed is certainly a welcome sign that the unions are listening to the accrued knowledge of activist movements. I trust a leader like Crow to act in like a flag-bearer in a movement, pushing everyone forwards to take bold action, but the leadership of something like UNITE are much more likely to try and dampen any spirit of rebellion on their membership – the job they have been assigned by those who urged the mergers that have created these big impenetrable and unwieldy institutions. Simply put, we need leadership that will empower and not hold power, which doesn’t seek to limit it’s members’ actions and that allows innovation.
What it all comes down to is this: fighting institutionalised power structures and vested interests with the institutionalised power and vested interests of the current mega-Union structures, doomed to loose. Or finding a way of out-manoeuvring the coalition government by finding a new wave of dynamic organising that empowers the network of workers represented by the trade union movement (if the term is still applicable) and finds ways around the legal loopholes being imposed. We need a movement for the 2010’s, not the 1980’s or 18