Gun has no trigger - why unions fail

The tactics of contemporary UK trades unions are utterly failing.

Joe the FTO
29 October 2014

A strike rally in Oxford/wikimedia

I’m sitting in a bar with four local government workers. I’m sitting in a community centre meeting room with a health service shop steward. I’m standing at a nurses’ station in an at-risk hospital, listening to an occupational therapist talk about staff shortages and chronic low morale.

I am a phlegmatic person, but lately, in these conversations, I have felt my bottom lip quivering. I’ve felt on the brink of tears.

It would be easy to personalise this, to make this a matter for a GP visit or some mild self-medication. That would not be an adequate response.

I am sure I feel this way because, to a certain extent, I am a fraud.

As a trade unionist operating largely in public services, I am categorically not part of a movement actively combating austerity. I cannot say truthfully that I am part of a movement for fair pay & non-immiserated working conditions. I cannot say in good faith that I am working for the truly precarious, for the worst-hit, for the most vulnerable.

Instead, I am performing a form of remedial social work. Or a type of piecemeal, outsourced enforcement of dismally anti-worker employment law. Or a form of untrained, ad-hoc counselling.

At every turn, I attempt to politicise, to explain the broad political and economic context, to collectivise individual issues as far as possible. I encourage members to be wary of me as a union full-timer, to see that with adequate support, they and their colleagues can speak for themselves. I hope this stimulates some solidarity, some self-confidence, some worker autonomy. In fact, in a few cases, I know this has happened. But these results are desperately provisional, desperately fragile.

This work of course has value. It is, as was described in a recent Novara show, a form of ‘staunching’. That’s better than nothing and outside a few metropolitan exceptions where SolFed and the like are a factor, unions are the only means to do this work.

In so many workplaces, activists are not simply vulnerable to managers, owners or HR ‘troubleshooters’. They are also vulnerable because confident, militant action for a worthwhile cause seldom has a broad base of support even among workmates or fellow union members. I do not say this as a defeatist, or as an apologist for labour defeatism, for ‘new realism’. I say this because it is what I see.

Union victories are a distant memory. Virtually every town/locality has a bitter, residual recollection of a closed works or factory. Under a constant threat of outsourcing, militant action in virtually all manufacturing is something close to an impossibility. In the act of ‘staunching’, works convenors are forced to connive in wage freezes, two-tier workforces, ‘self-financing pay deals’, sad faced capitulation to redundancies and so endlessly on.

In private sector areas less vulnerable to the withdrawal of capital’s consent/the spatial fix (retail distribution, agrifood, petrochemicals) the primary obstacles to organisation and better pay are ‘who’s the boss?’ issues around sub-contracting, agency use and fragmentation. Added, of course, to anti-strike regulations, latent repressive tactics from the state, and of course witless union leaders promulgating ‘sweetheart deals’ precluding meaningful collective bargaining. This shameful practice forms a modus operandi for Community, USDAW and in most places, the GMB. Still, these sectors offer terrains of struggle worth exploring. Supermarkets run on lean principles are potentially one, broad, five-day strike away from chaos.

Since the TUC and its constituent unions abandoned/suffocated the struggle against ‘austerity’ at the centre, anti-cuts campaigning at the level of local authorities and local health services is a fraught and problematic thing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. One saved service or protected working condition simply displaces the injury. Even a decent concession like no compulsory redundancies simply leads to misery for workers doing ‘less with more’. A collapse in expectations, a collapse in hope, a collapse in collective possibilities ends up making housing officers, domiciliary care officers and Band 6 nurses the de-politicised, final enactors of austerity’s logic. This is intensified through outsourcing and underfunded delegation of services, aggravated by rentier bosses and investors taking a cut. The inhumanity inherent in so much housing and social care is obscene. It is corrosive of the ethics of good people. It is killing people. It is driving people mad.

In England, a simmering, widely-held desire for a politics of grievance, anger and confrontation has been largely ceded to reactionary bastards. Anything compatible with the will of the Labour party is more comfortable with the status quo than swathes of the parliamentary Conservative party and all of UKIP. A politics of top-down, marginal palliatives for unchallenged capital deserves to perish.

You look at the dismal spectacle of another TUC Saturday trudge. You look at Unite’s humiliations at Grangemouth. You look at the recent, utterly putrid surrender on pay by national officers in the local government unions. You look at the pathetically low aims (1% please!) of the health strikes. You look at the dispiriting turn at Ritzy cinemas.

You can point to the resilience, stoicism and radicalism of the Unison Care UK strikers, the IWGB-3 Cosas workers, and the variable but often heroic rearguard actions fought by shop stewards, branch secretaries, works convenors and union officers doing small acts of ‘staunching’ and resisting every day, in spite of our movement’s fundamental failures. For trade unionism, hope partly lies there. But these positives are piecemeal, partly sentimental, and do not scale.

Instead, perhaps we should closely examine geographical, autonomous workers’ councils, with parallel organisations for those not engaged in the wage labour relation. Perhaps we should prioritise a European basic social wage, which would transform workplace bargaining and care amongst other things. We should of course engage in absolutely necessary struggles around housing and the environment. In Scotland, there are exciting possibilities in the various activisms left over from the ‘Yes’ campaign.

But in trade unions, we should be honest about the inefficacy and the sterility of the praxis virtually all of us are engaged in.

To coin a phrase, we should be thinking harder about a future that works.

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