Era of New Unionism

As the main trade unions in the Anglo-American world continue to decline in density and membership, the question many on the left are attempting to dissect and deal with is what the reason for that decline is.  There are a number of reasons that pre-date the October Revolution and have always existed, as well as many new reasons, relevant to the contemporary phenomena stemming from capitalism. I have no intention of pondering on all of them, but will be raising a few for consideration.


From the day the Trade Union movement developed, it had within it different and competing interests. For syndicalists, the trade union movement would assume political power when everything was unionised. For social democrats and reformists, the union movement was a balancing mechanism to the worst evils of capitalism. For communists and revolutionaries, it was one pillar among many others that played an integral role to the overthrow of capitalist power. To corporations and fascists, unions that displayed any deviation from the line were eliminated, while yellow unions were tolerated.


From these competing interests arose different models of organisation and engagement. When trade unions were most radical and had within them radical figures subscribed to Marxism, they were the most dangerous and energetic — because it was not just a few pounds they were after, but the entirety of the rotten capitalist system. That radicalism which was built up particularly in the pre-war and immediate post-war period has been eliminated. It has been eliminated by anti-communist belly achers and social democrats who peddle cold war myths in order to avoid the resounding political contradiction within the trade union movement: is it an instrument to balance wages out and tail inflation, or does the trade union movement possess revolutionary characteristics?


The social democratic and liberal participative model is the model that the vast majority of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have accepted. The unions function like a service that’s provided to people for a monthly fee. Officials among the ICTU unions enjoy large salaries, pensions and a permanency of work that other workers can only dream of.  To a worker on minimum wage or low wages, the extraordinary financial position of some union officials might appear to be ridiculous and indefensible. Anecdotally, somebody once commented how all of the workers had called on their official to discuss a struggle for a wage and were met by a suit clad representative driving a new looking mercedes. 


Yet this is not just a question of wages, pensions and permanency. It’s a question of what model the trade union movement has adopted in relation to the working class and the continued decline in density. If we can understand both of those questions, we can undo the decline and rebuild the union movement into the militant mass working class movement it was not so long ago.  I would suggest that the model the trade union movement has assumed is a class collaborator model.  


In this model, negotiation with bosses and the state take primacy over the political organisation and education of the membership of unions. Instead of emancipatory approaches to rank and file union members and shop stewards, the central role of decision making is slowly conferred among paid employees of the Union. Legislation such as the 1991 Industrial Relations Act then further entrenches this model, because it essentially creates a legal and illegal withdrawal of labour and defers the negotiation process to so-called third party institutions.   Some trade unions, notably SIPTU and FORSA function as appendages to the Labour Party both directly and indirectly. The Labour Party has been in coalition several times and on each occasion brought in ruthless austerity. As a result of the influence of the Labour Party, both of those unions are extremely amenable to this model of class collaboration. Both unions have openly and quietly intervened against other militant unions, by either undermining strike action directly or by cutting deals that undermine the strike action of other unions.   


The net result of this behaviour and the integration of the union movement with questionable political identities such as the Labour Party is the continued decline in density and the absence of any trade union consciousness among today’s youth. While ICTU is absolutely proportionally responsible for the decline in union members, other factors such as the anti-working class education curriculum and economic model of the two failed statelets North and South must also be considered and are definitely taken into consideration. The reason I touch on the union movement more than the other factors is because I am interested in rectifying the terminal decline of density and therefore choose to examine the problems, with the hope of identifying solutions.


In the last decade, an era of new unionism has emerged in America, Britain and in the Global South. This new unionism is new only in relative terms, because the model of organising that it promotes existed in the 1920s and 1930s and assisted in building the largest most industrially powerful trade unions.  This ‘new unionism’ has been pioneered by smaller, more radical and aggressive unions, often including the more radical members of large unions, who, fed up of the slow approach to unionising and organising opted to experiment themselves. 


These experiments drew on organising tactics from the past I’ve mentioned before. These tactics include foregoing building or maintaining service unions where an official deals with everything, but transforming the unionising process into a member led model that addresses the fundamental contradiction: capital versus labour. As a result, the unions that have adopted this method of organising tend to be more confrontational, opt to use strike action and are crucially, much less tied up in bureaucracy and officialdom.   


This new unionism has yet to infect Ireland, but you will observe that a community-tenant union has initiated the process.  The old has yet to replace the new everywhere else, and especially ICTU, but the process has certainly already begun. Organising, must become a tool every worker and tenant can use in one form or another. Organising and unionising shouldn’t be limited or wired to union officials and organisers, but it should be spread out horizontally so that every worker is able to tell their co-workers in an old or new place, the merits of a union. 


At the root of this much needed shift into new unionism is the need for endless political education. Political education allows for us to explore radical ideas in the context of our struggle against capital. We have to ask ourselves whether our unions are fighting the bosses or cutting deals with them. We have to ask ourselves how much direction we have over the unions we are in. If we are unsatisfied with that, we should strive to improve them, make initiatives and lead by example.  We must initiate political education, we must make a clear cut case that a solid footing in class politics in conjunction with a re-imagined approach to organising can lead to the revival of an energetic, combative and militant union movement.   We must do all of the above because if we do not, our conditions in work and life will continue to deteriorate. The capitalist parasitic class will take everything it can and give as little back.  


In short, in order to combat austerity we have to completely break with the service-negotiation style model of trade unionism and embrace the construction of an era of new unionism. What that new unionism can look like is for us to decide.

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