The Trade Unions are being killed by their own leaders
Is the trade union movement stronger than it was five years ago?
Back in 2010, the unions launched themselves on a campaign against the austerity policies of the new coalition Government involving demonstrations, industrial action and a media and grassroots mobilisation opposing every single cut. In the same year, the big, Labour-affiliated organisations succeeded in getting a left-leaning candidate elected to the Party leadership. Back then the proportion of the workforce belonging to a union stood at 26.6%.
What has been achieved in the last five years? Austerity remains the policy of a Government emboldened by a historic election win. By contrast, Labour was led to a historic election defeat by the union’s anointed leader. The proportion of the workforce that are union members has continued the decline it has suffered for many years and now stands at 25%.
All of this clearly points to a failed strategy. And it is a failure now having a very direct result on the unions themselves. A Conservative Party no longer constrained by the Liberal Democrats (who were pilloried by the unions) is enacting legislation which will make it close to impossible to go on strike by setting new thresholds for industrial action ballots. It has also announced today it will abolish the check-off system, which could lose public sector unions like Unison and PCS tens of thousands of members as well as significant revenues.
My Sob Story
I warned the unions that this would be the outcome of their strategy in a 2011 Guardian article. I mention this not to stress my prescience (quite frankly it was not that difficult to predict) but to highlight a deep problem with the union movement that helps explain their failure.
I had recently left the TUC as Head of Economics and Social Affairs and the response from my former colleagues within the union movement to the article was telling. I received two types of email over the coming days. There were the angry ones which accused me of deliberately undermining the movement at a challenging time. And then there were the resigned ones that agreed with my analysis but said there was nothing that could be done about it.
This is a movement that is deeply unreflective. Rather than engage with its critics to strengthen its strategies, it accuses them of treachery or shrugs its shoulders and ignores them. Since the article I have not been asked to take part in a union event of any sort. For the crime of questioning union strategy, I am decidedly persona non grata.
This helps explain why instead of taking stock of the failures of the last five years and rethinking, the movement is intensifying its approach. The error will be made because there is no room for proper disagreement, no room for considered deliberation.
The biggest affiliated unions are now determined to push Labour even further to the left and secure a leadership which is entirely unelectable. Unite, PCS and others behave as though the anaemic campaign against austerity they led since 2010 is about to burst into life simply because Jeremy Corbyn is preaching to halls packed with the converted. No doubt more industrial action against austerity will also be planned assuming they can get above the new ballot thresholds.
So the current union leadership and their ill-thought out strategies have not strengthened the movement since 2010. It has, in fact, weakened it. Who, given this record, outside the closed world of the general secretaries and their executive committees could really think the unions will be stronger in 2020? Anyone with any objectivity can see that they will have far fewer members, less industrial muscle, less money and be facing a third Conservative government who by then may well have dreamed up a new set of legislative changes to finally finish the unions off for good.
There is An Alternative
The alternative strategy may be hard to swallow but it is, in reality, the only option. The unions should be doing everything in their power to secure a leadership for the Labour Party that stands a chance of getting elected. Yes, that might mean deep compromise with the electorate’s belief that austerity is necessary but it would also greatly increase the chance that a Labour Government will be elected in 2020. That would mean no further anti-union legislation and almost certainly a repeal of the laws now being introduced.
The unions’ campaign against austerity itself also needs to change. The ineffective, resource-intensive, credibility-sapping demonstrations and strikes need to be ditched. The absurd demand that there must be not a single cut and that the country’s deep fiscal problems can be resolved by cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion should be jettisoned. No-one outside of the hard left believes this rot.
Instead a campaign has to be developed which might actually secure public and media support. This would require, again, accepting the reality of austerity but developing a strong research-based case for its pace to be slowed, for less cuts and more tax and for as few public sector redundancies as possible.
That way by the time we get to 2020, the unions may just about be enjoying the novel taste of the odd victory or two.
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