What direction for Labour and the unions?

The Labour Party in Britain is at a crossroads in its relationship with its 15 affiliated unions (comprising some 3m affiliated unions members). A little known Westminster parliamentary constituency in Scotland– Falkirk West – became the fault line for what could comprise another few nails in the coffin of the historic party of labour that once was the party for labour.


Unite union, the biggest union in Britain and biggest affiliated Labour union, adopted a political strategy two years under its new general secretary, Len McCluskey, of trying to win back influence for itself and the union movement. Given that the parliamentary Labour Party, and not the annual conference or national executive, is the key locus of power within Labour, Unite naturally sought to get its activists selected as prospective candidates in safe Labour seats for the May 2015 general election. The method was to recruit new members to Labour and then win the vote for the selections.


It targeted some forty seats and was well on the way to securing the prospective candidature in Falkirk West until someone cried foul and accused the union of signing up new members without their consent. The Tories smelt blood and hounded Labour leader, Ed Miliband, as being in thrall to – and under control of – the unions. Within weeks, Miliband announced he was going to change the nature of the union-Labour link, requiring affiliated members to opt-in (rather than opt out as is the case currently). Subsequently, no wrong doing was found on the part of Unite and the two suspended activists were re-instated as full party members.


To have a political fund, all unions are required by law to hold decadal ballots and under affiliated union policies, the 15 unions ask members to pay the political levy of which a proportion is used to affiliate a certain number of members to Labour. With the withering of union activism and membership participation, this is far from a perfect system. But it does, nonetheless, mean that union members can act collectively to try to influence the historic party of labour. To opt-in would atomise those members that did and reduce any collective clout they might have.


Given that the affiliated unions are the one remaining organised source for social democracy in Labour, to remove their influence in this way would make Labour like theUSDemocratic party, namely, a free floating liberal party with no tangible association with the organised working class.


Criticism of Miliband from most of the unions was vehement. Most of all, they called his response ‘dog whistle politics’ and suggested he’d be better to concentrate upon battling the Coalition government over making workers pay the cost of the crisis of neo-liberalism (through the austerity programme) as well as them not gaining any of the fruits of the return of (limited) economic growth. Indeed, a few like Unison told Miliband that he faced an ‘Australian’ meltdown like that of thee ALP if he continued to misdirect his fire on the unions and not the government.


For the time being, the unions seem to have won out. The union-party reform was debated for only 30 minutes at this year’s Labour party conference and Miliband made a leader’s speech that was broadly welcomed where he fleshed out some of the content of his ‘one nation’ perspective. But it is a case of battle deferred not battle over for a special spring 2014 conference will debate the commission Miliband has set up under a former chair of the Labour party.


Ironically, when it comes to this special conference, Unite might be the one save Miliband’s bacon. It has been the least critical of the unions and, indeed, went so far as to welcome Miliband’s proposals as an opportunity to debate the union-Labour link. Much will depend upon the internal politics of this particular union.


So far only the siren voices of a few unions have argued for the setting up of a new party of Labour. The most prominent is the RMT transport union which was expelled from Labour nearly a decade ago for supporting the Scottish Socialist Party.


Consequently, unions still remain between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in terms of their political voice. For some of the big affiliated unions Miliband has not offered the clear alternative to the Coalition that they wish – it’s been a case of ‘austerity-lite’, namely, being for cuts albeit of a lesser size than the Coaliton’s.


Yet none are prepared to make the break that the RMT urges them to do. They fear it is cold outside Labour – better to be inside the tent albeit unhappy than to be outside it and better to be in the corridors of power even if they have no influence there.


This means that the alternative of a new party of labour has never gained the momentum or credibility that it needs to become a viable option for the currently affiliated unions. It is possible they may feel spurred into doing something if Miliband get his way next spring at the special confernence. But equally well, it might be another case of battle deferred if Miliband thinks that this battle will do more harm than good in the run up to the 2015 general election and the unions warm a bit more to him with the fleshing of ‘one nation-ism’.


Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford.

Labour and the unions

Unions21 is politically non-affiliated and impartial, here’s Gregor Gall’s view of the unions and Labour post-Falkirk, post your view below.


Unite has welcomed the opportunity of Ed Miliband’s proposals for reforming the union-Labour link for debating the issues at hand. But is it in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


The union has argued that – in line with its political strategy document agreed at its executive in December 2011 – that its desire to reinvigorate Labour through the influx of union members (especially its own) can come about through the opt-in proposal.


Unions like the GMB, Unison and the CWU have disagreed and both GMB and Unison will reduce their number of affiliated members from 2014 in response to what they see as the attack on the remaining amount of union influence within Labour.


Let’s look at Unite’s key argument. It says that the status quo cannot be defended as it is not working for union members. So it argues that the current arrangements by which unions attempt to exert influence on Labour and the Parliamentary party did not stop the then Labour government going to war in Iraq and neither did it stop the neo-liberal takeover of Labour.


It would be difficult to argue against that. But it does not follow that not defending the status quo means supporting, however tacitly, Miliband’s proposals or anything that will come out of the Lord Collins’ commission.


After this year’s TUC, no one can surely argue that Miliband should be taken at face value when he says that he wants to see a mass Labour party again. This is because, on the one hand, he is dead set against any substantial input from unions simply because it is a stick the Tories will use to beat him with. On the other hand, he rejects the very social democratic politics that are absolutely essential to provide a party with the policies that would be attractive to workers.


Instead, Miliband’s goal through his proposals is a party free floating from unions and any other organised body of opinion – apart from his, of course. This is a centralised, top down organisation, not a democratic, participative and discursive organisation. The closest political cousin of the outcome of the Miliband project is the Democratic Party in the United States.


Just as logically, Unite could call and work for a return to the so-called ‘bad’ old days before one member one vote and before the diminution of the bloc vote or something else entirely.  The problem is that Unite has not come up with an alternative to Miliband’s proposals. This makes its implicit criticism of those that wish to defend the link less than convincing.


It seems that approach of Unite is a product of its rather schizophrenic relationship with Miliband. From helping secure his election, the union has gone back and forth where one minute Miliband is a sinner and the next he is a saint. After Miliband’s TUC speech, he is currently accorded the status of saint.


If we turn back the so-called ‘bad’ old days, the reason why affiliated unions did not exert anything like the influence they could have and should over because they were divided. Even after the election of the ‘awkward squad’ leaders to the major unions, they were still sufficient differences that prevented the three or four biggest unions from blocking together. By the time the necessary alliances were made around the time of the Warwick I and II agreements, it was a case of too little too late.


Again, just because unity was not achieved then does not mean it could not be achieved in the future. And, it certainly does not mean that the mechanism by which affiliated unions work is faulty.


If unions can be criticised for small groups of people making decisions for their wider memberships without consulting or involving those members, then the problem lies on the side of the unions and it is they that must sort this out. It, therefore, does not follow that the actual current mechanism of the union-Labour link needs reforming.


So Unite as the biggest affiliated union – as well as all the other affiliated unions – need to get their thinking caps on in order to put up proposals that can combine the means and ends of mass membership participation for social democratic policies. Crucially, the proposals must address how to make the Labour leadership and the parliamentary party accountable to members so that if and when the right kind policies are taken up, they are actually implemented in opposition and in government. While Unite’s current attempt to get its activists selected as prospective MPs is to be welcomed, it is not up to the scale of the task of influencing the parliamentary party.


It is difficult to see how achieving such social democratic aims can be done without union members acting collectively. The individual opt in system will atomise and de-collectivise them.  Unions as the embodiment of the collective will are essential to having anything approximating to a decent Labour Party.


Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford (g.gall@bradford.ac.uk)

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A small overall rise in union membership is a considerable achievement

Pretty much against all the odds, union membership rose in Britain last year for the first time in a decade. According to the government department, Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), membership for 2012 was 59,000 higher at 6.455 million workers compared to 2011. This rise still means that the union membership is below where it was prior to the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Then it was 6.999 million and in 2002, a decade earlier, it stood at 7.020m in 2002.


But given the scale of the recession in the private sector as well as the age of austerity in the public sector leading to huge job cuts, even a small overall rise in union membership is a considerable achievement.


The breakdown of the figures shows membership grew in the private sector from 2.509m in 2011 to 2.586m in 2012 while membership in the public sector steadied at 3.883m in 2012 (down from 3.886 in 2011). This meant that union density in the private sector increased from 14.2% to 14.4% while in the public sector it fell from 56.6% in 2011 to 56.3% in 2012. Overall, union density remained the same for 2012 as it was for 2011 at 26%.


What accounts for this surprise rise in membership? First, unions’ ability to show that they are the best available collective defence in times of need. Often unions are unable to practically do much to prevent redundancies when they have been announced but the fear of redundancy and job insecurity is motivating employees to join. But even where the threat of redundancy is not so present, workers who remain in work fear the downward pressure on their terms and conditions of employment.


Second, unions have put considerable resources into employing organisers and training activists to recruit and retain members. This is termed ‘in-fill recruitment’ because it happens where union membership and organisation already exist. But one further aspect of this is that unions are still pushing out into some new areas of organising like non-union companies in sectors that already have a union presence. This means, however, that seldom have unions tried to establish a bridgehead in the vast swathes of non-union sectors.


Whether the trend of membership stabilisation and limited growth continues remains to be seen. We know the cuts will continue and we know that any economic growth is faltering but at least we know that a firmer foundation for further growth to take place on has been created.

How does your union grow?

Looking back over the last few years, there appear to be three significant strands to growth in union membership. One is organising employers through partnership deals. Another is playing the role of a profession. The third is militancy.


The unions which best exemplify these strands are, respectively, USDAW the retail workers’ union, the NASUWT and NUT teaching unions, and the RMT transport union. Read More…

Whatever happened to the ‘smart strike’?

Before and after the 30 November 2011 mass strike over punitive reforms to public sector pensions, the feverous talk was a new and innovative form of action to increase the pressure on the government to retreat and make the necessary concessions. This was the ‘smart strike’.


Given that a number of the major unions like Unison did not envisage being able to sustain continuing and frequent one day strikes by all their members over pensions, the idea was to have rolling strikes across the public sector but by different groups and regions. So, for example, a particular section of Unison’s members in a particular region would strike for a day followed by another section in another region the next week.


The premise was to sustain the action with the least amount of pain – financial sacrifice through lost wages – to members. But the smart strike also related to bringing out the more high profile, visible and strategically placed section of members. The idea was tried in Scotland by Unison to a small degree and, in a separate dispute over job losses and pay cuts, by Unison and Unite at Southampton council.


However, the tactic was never really tested out. Consequently, we don’t know whether it was able to pack a bigger punch than the mere numbers of strikers would suggest. Read More…

Workplace Occupations and the Remploy Dispute

Seldom is it convincing to say that one single event can transform a wider situation. But in the case of the battle to stop the closure and sell off of the Remploy factories, this is the case. Specifically, if the threatened workers had occupied their factories, there is good reason to believe not only would have this created considerable leverage over the government but it would have also popularised the tactic of the workplace occupation in the battle to save jobs.


Since twenty seven of the 54 factories were earmarked for closure by the government by the end of the year, putting 1,700 disabled workers on the dole, and the remainder faced an uncertain future of either closure or being sold off, there has been an impressive battle fought by the workers and their unions, primarily the GMB and Unite.


It has involved strikes, high-profile demonstrations and one short occupation of the company’s HQ by less than ten workers. But there have been no workplace occupations. It is far from clear that the actions so far have created leverage over the company and, mostly importantly, the government.

Read More…