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

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why Workers Won't Unite: That is the question

In her review of two US books on the decline of unions in the States, Kim Philips Fein of NYU takes us through a hop, skip and a jump of US Union history and then dives into a complex seeming summary of the current state of the American Trade Unions. It's a familiar journey, 100 years ago unions were oppressed but we worked in occupations that lumped us together and now this has disappeared and is being replaced by jobs that are almost wholly precarious and involves mainly service workers in solo occupations.
   So far, so familiar. But let us pause. US union density now stands at about 12%. In the private sector it is 7%. Any explanation for this will have to include the play of certain factors that may not apply in the UK. Or anywhere else in the world. So an examination of the US labour movement is not necessarily very useful when looking at the UK.

Global trends are nuclear strikes on the unions, flattening membership and rendering recruitment efforts as simply buying time before the final countdown. The proof of where we will alll end up is there in the US. But is that all there is to the debate and analysis? That the US represents the future? Much of the US outcome is similar to the UK. Jobs are lost in industries that are being lost. The public sector - once the safe cave for unions - sees austerity politics cutting and shrinking, outsourcing and reducing the direct services that were once the pride of any social democratic political party worth its large affiliation fees.

However there is a need for a more robust analysis than this. There is a decline in politics of social democracy versus conservative values, with shades of neo conservatism replacing what used to be a genuine fundamental difference of priorities and philosophy. But this is at a certain level or layer of British society. Something else is stirring below that, with some green shoots for the future. The picture of overall union decline in the UK seems to be bottoming out, with unions now standing still rather than continuing to decline.

Strike levels are still low and there is no false promise even on offer over anti trade union laws, just genuine threats of further repressive measures. UKIP, the Greens and the SNP, whilst offering nothing of interest to workers, have at least shown that the old debates cannot be kept alive for ever more. We are now in a new phase of discussion. Thats why Len McCluskey raising the question of unions being outside the law, whilst plainly a bit of grandstanding, reaches into new areas for many workers.

Maybe miserablism is coming to an end. Despite everything unions in the UK still have 6.5 million members, over 24% of the workforce and in areas outside the public sector. Unions in the UK have funds, they have power. The question is not `why won`t workers unite? ` but more `why aren`t workers fighting?`.

That takes us to the law and to leadership. On the law, why doesn`t the Government want e-voting? Simply because it could empower union members again and take out the whole deliberate `drag effect` of postal ballots. To leadership - which General Secretary can safely reason to workers that voting Labour will do the job? Sometimes empirical evidence is not what we need. Unlike the US, unions in the UK have still got the ability, the funds and the power to hurt employers. Even outside the law.

UNISON is in that position. Its recent report that 150,000 members are now working in the private sector is a strength. Union workers are working alongside non union workers in sectors not known for their good employer practices. So does it take too much to put together a plan to build union power in these new but not so new environments? The US lesson is that if you do not take that chance while you still have the power, you will lose it. It's time to use the rainy day funds.