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

Monday, 20 October 2014

Unions and the 'Post Political Labour Movement'

For decades union activists across the world have argued the case for or against alliances between trade unions and social democratic parties, or with other parties with political and organisational links to the trade unions.

In the UK it has raged around the links to the Labour Party, now reformed (or `deformed` depending on your position) once again by the fallout from the Grangemouth and Falkirk  episodes involving Unite and the Labour Party. UNISON retains its still superior (in the light of those 2 incidents) options of Labour Link or the attractive option of the Political Fund, or even `none of the above`.

In Germany a different electoral system of proportional representation at least allows unions a choice of left parties who have elected representatives, but even with this the SPD continues to be the party of choice for all major union funds.

In the US the major unions donate to the Democratic Party, in the elections of Obama, significantly so in order to win a pro Labor candidate for the Democrats who could deliver on health care and turn back employer attacks on unions.

As an experiment it can be deemed a failure, despite an expansion of private health care. But union density in the US continues to fall, down to 7% overall and there is no emerging plan B.So it is in this context that Stanley Aronwitz (professor of Sociology at City NY University), a former union and community activist, is now advocating a way forward that he has termed as the `post political labor movement`.

Aronwitz is no ivory tower academic. He has a history of both trade union and community organising and as an activist has been through the mill of defeat, victory and victimisation. His new book `Death and Life of American Labor` identifies 3 problems for union development.

Firstly are the long term contracts (mostly a US issue - but they exist in the private sector in the UK) that are agreed by unions in the US that rule out collective bargaining and the possibility of rank and file action for improvements along the way. Secondly an over focus on numbers and the need to recruit instead of a shift towards strategic recruitment in key areas. Lastly the rise of the `General Union` as a result of mergers to save ailing unions.

This, he believes, has led to the building of unions that don`t identify, or display identification, with workers in their own sector or industry. His solution is for unions to turn resources away from electoral machines to workers self-organisations such as housing, transport and banking cooperatives.

He argues that these were the types of activities that unions were running very well in many countries and that turning back to these at the expense of funding election campaigns made be a way to reconnect workers to unions. Workers who get these kind of direct benefits will reconnect to the movement as it directly addresses their needs instead of waiting for politicians to promise and fail.

There is much merit in what is being proposed. Unions get less and less value for money from parties who take funds but deliver back very little and opting out of funding party machines is not the same of turning away from politics altogether. But such a fundamental change in strategy would mean a decade at least of change before the post politics approach would bear fruit.  It would require an enormous sea change inside the union movement, for members, activists and leaders. The direction of his argument is best when understood in terms of its assumptions.

There should for example, be better and more strategic organising, aimed at powerful groups rather than relatively blind number counts. The RMT has an extremely strong bargaining position because of the nature of the work and the industry and of course its high density.

But general unions, like UNISON, can find areas to focus on and put resource into, to deliver more effective selective action by key groups. We could also seek to make sure that bargaining should be aimed at small term advances rather than sweetheart deal type contracts.

As generations change inside the unions the post political movement may become the default position – because younger people have the least faith of all in elected politicians, the Russell Brand generation if you like. But it has a long way to go to becoming a conscious strategy.

All our campaigns to save the public sector involve working with the Labour Party. In the short term the election is next year and that offers the earliest opportunity to stop the Tory Government destroying the cherished services. But after that, with TTIP and an ongoing commitment to austerity politics by Labour, the questions will keep coming back about why members bother to fund Labour and what we could spend the money on instead.

Organising is about the prioritising of resources. Set up cooperative services requires the kind of level of resources that may fatally impact on our ability to build density and grow union strength. We have no choice whilst operating in a very hostile environment other than to focus on our organising work.