One hundred years ago, trade unions knew how to fight. In Britain, industrial action that began in the Welsh mines was spreading across the country and would culminate in national strikes in 1911 and 1912 that all but shut the country down. In the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World organisation was campaigning to topple the recently established economic system based on trusts and cartels. In France, the CGT and in Spain, the CNT, the largest trade union confederations in their respective countries, were pursuing a similar program. Workers didn’t simply put their trust in political parties and hope for the best. Instead they aimed to get rid of managers and owners and to take control of industry themselves – a method of fighting for socialism called syndicalism.
Unions knew how to fight because they knew what they were fighting for. Working class organizations had created their own media that informed and reflected a lively culture of public meetings and discussion groups. Radical newspapers allowed direct effective communication between members and helped unions to develop a program that enjoyed mass support. The earliest was the Yiddish Arbeter Fraint, which was revived under Rudolf Rocker's editorship and became an essential tool in building the Jewish trade unions of the East End up to 1912. In Ireland, there was the Irish Worker and People’s Advocate, the paper of the ITGWU. In England, there was Tom Mann's short-lived Industrial Syndicalist - which was followed by the ISEL's The Syndicalist in 1911 and, the most enduring of all, The Daily Herald which developed out of a printers' strike-sheet in 1912 and was an independent syndicalist newspaper until it was handed over to the TUC in 1922.
In some parts of Europe, Spain in particular, syndicalism remained a strong element on the Left, but both the state-oriented socialism of the Bolsheviks and fascism greatly weakened the movement. In Britain, the First World War all but ended the syndicalism. The trade unions in Britain no longer took the lead in developing a program of social transformation. They concentrated on defending the interests of their members in the existing structures of the capitalist economy and left the Labour party to manage politics in Westminster. During the decades of affluence after the Second World War, the unions spent less time and energy on far-reaching debates about politics and economics. Though a strong left-wing press survived the Second World War, it went into gradual decline. The Daily Herald was sold in 1964 and rebranded by its new owners as the Sun.
Right now, the people across Europe are facing an organised and sustained onslaught on the things for which the syndicalists and their successors fought. An economic crisis that has its roots in stagnating incomes and reckless credit expansion is being used as an opportunity to scale back the welfare state and to open up public services to yet more profit-taking by the financial sector. This isn’t a process that began with the creation of the current coalition government. The Liberals and the Conservatives are continuing the work of previous Labour governments, albeit more swiftly and more aggressively.
The trade union movement is finally beginning to register the scale and significance of what the Coalition is seeking to do. And it is starting to act. On March 26th it organized the largest trade union-organised demonstration in British history and, on 30th June, co-ordinated strike action by major unions, including the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the National Union of Teachers(NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the University and College Union (UCU), will send a strong message to the government. However, the unions have so far not been able to make their case to the wider public, trailing behind student groups and UK Uncut activists in taking action. In part, this is because there are far fewer trade union members than there have been in decades, and they are concentrated in the public sector.
In part, though, it is because the trade unions are no longer venues for wide-ranging and serious debate of the sort that animated working people in the years before the First World War. Marches and strikes do not speak for themselves. We have already seen how little interest the media had in exploring the concerns of the hundreds of thousands of people who marched peaceably in the Spring. Most newspapers and broadcasters focused instead on a relative handful of young people in balaclavas.
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A campaign to stop the cuts may be simple to articulate, but it is nothing like enough. Things had gone badly wrong before May 2010. Successive Labour administrations privatized public services, deregulated finance, winked at tax avoidance and did nothing to reform a grossly unfair and unstable economic model. We can't go back to the world that crashed in 2008 and we shouldn't try to. Unions need to stop deferring to the Labour Party and to recognise that the hostility they face in the mainstream media will not go away. We should be moving forward. Like our forerunners a century ago, we should be trying to bring about a new world.
Now, as then, communications are key. Unions that provide their members with the means to understand the current economic situation offer something that the mainstream media and the large political parties no longer provide – a coherent account of reality. They need spread this information more widely than their membership. They will only represent working people in this country if they refuse to allow the Labour Party to set the boundaries of left-wing ambition. Trade unionists rightly complain about the treatment they receive in the press and on television. We have the means to do something about it.
It isn't enough for the trade union movement to voice support for the Morning Star and even Tribune. It's time for the trade union movement to take the power back – in society and in communications terms. If trade unionists could set up and distribute newspapers 100 years ago, there's no reason why we can't now reach mass audiences, not only through print but also online media, as Walton Pantland argues in his call for the unions to join the information age. We have so many more communications tools at our disposal that there is no excuse for doing things as badly as we do them now. But this isn’t just about better presentation. Real communications cut both ways. Once we begin to talk with our members about what’s wrong and how to put it right, the program that emerges will present new challenges for us as well as for the governing parties. If we want to win, we will have to change.
Survey after survey has shown that the number one reason people don't join trade unions is because no-one asked them. If we can sort out our communications and start engaging openly and effectively with the wider public, maybe they'll come and ask us.