UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The stigma of organised labour?

A Reuters article properly highlights that Western, post industrial societies have gone through structural economic changes - typically the closure of large sized, heavy production and manufacturing industries (which were heavily unionised) towards a mixture of service sectors with low wage and part time or temporary work patterns and hi tech industries, small in size but requiring professional type skills. Understandably this led to a reduction in union membership which most unions are trying to redress, in some cases placing less emphasis on collective organisation:

But this is no longer new. This argument is old hat now. These changes led to unions trying servicing strategies - recruiting workers as individuals on the basis of the free and excellent services we can offer. It has failed.

It is also wrong to extrapolate lessons from that particular European and less evidently North American experience and say it's the same all over. Most of the world would not recognise this western stigma.

In East Europe - 'new Europe' as termed in the Bush era - reactionary free market politics have been let loose on the economy. That has been the greatest factor in union density in the 'east'. Privatisation, closures and the stripping away of social security protection has directly and indirectly reduced union power and union density. The growth of new industries and sectors has gone hand in hand with an almost non existent union power. There are few active social partnership arrangements in new Europe (as is the case in the US) to slow down the full impact of structural change. The lack of any union presence at all is a dominant factor. Exploited workers in these countries have not been attracted to services provided by so called professional unions. Nor have the existing unions had the access to employers afforded by Works Councils.

In Latin America, Africa and the new power house economies of China and India the unions are fighting the battles of the industrial working class. No partnership arrangements, no legal minimum rights just pure undiluted union building and union smashing. In the last few weeks - 321 strikers in Paraguay sacked for registering a union and striking. In Africa - a record number of dismissals and of course the tragic events at the Londmin mines. In India - 200,000 security workers fighting for union recognition and even in Turkey DHL workers sacked for registering a union.

If there is a stigma of organised labour it is in most of the world a stigma associated with fighting for the poor against powerful and very rich European and US multinational companies. When in Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, activists are subject to death threats and violence then we have to put the experience in Western Europe into a reality check.

Finally the thrust of the argument in the article is that if unions opt out of struggle and offer a service akin to a National Breakdown service then that is the best chance they have of growth and relevance.

Most unions in the countries mentioned are committing resources to a more basic change. By focusing on organising strategies they hope to gain power and members. Reorganising unions to be member focused, leading campaigns, identifying activists and delivering real influence based on power is a better option that is not even acknowledged in the article. These new organising unions will bargain and not be reduced to begging favours from employers. Unions need to change - but not into advice centres. There is an obvious place for advice and expert representation, but we need to rebuild mass membership based on power to get a hearing.

That is the world wide option that unites unions