THIS MONTH'S THEME
The truth is that trade unions are still very much alive. They matter, and in future they are going to matter even more. For just so long as people have to sell their labour to someone else in order to survive, so will the ‘freedom of association’ at work be fought for and celebrated. For just so long as human beings do not turn into machines when they go to work, so will they aspire to a measure of dignity, self-expression and democracy at their workplaces. Those who wish this were not so are sitting on a periodically dormant but nonetheless active volcano.
A similar mistake has been made many times before. For the first two decades of the 19th century in Britain, during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, trade unions were legislated away by the Combination Acts. In a paranoid political atmosphere, heavy with the smell of rebellion in the ‘lower orders’, employees were prohibited from even thinking to ‘combine’ against their employers, on pain of summary arrest, imprisonment and deportation. If not the first – and by no means the last – then this was certainly the crudest attempt to make freedom of association in Britain entirely subject to the sanction of the state.
It didn’t work. The result, as the great historian EP Thompson tells us, ‘dissolved the remaining ties of loyalty between working people and their masters, so that disaffection spread in a world which the authorities could not penetrate’. Having had this unintended effect, the Combination Acts were hastily repealed and the long, slow haul towards democracy at work resumed once more.1
Richard Sennett, an equally acute observer of our present times, found a related anxiety among the ludicrously rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It is, Sennett tells us, ‘more like a court than a conference’, held every year in the ski resort where Thomas Mann wrote The Magic Mountain. ‘They of course fear the resurgence of unions,’ he writes, ‘but become acutely and personally uncomfortable, fidgeting or breaking eye contact or retreating into taking notes, if forced to discuss the people who, in their jargon, are "left behind". They know that the great majority of those who toil are left behind.’2
Who, or what, remains to express the outrage such studied indifference merits, and organize to make a change? Trade unions have a long and vibrant tradition of gathering our collective strength. But they also have a history of human frailty. There are the corrupt union mafias and power brokers, the bosses like Jimmy Hoffa in the US or Fidel Velásquez in Mexico, who was 96 when last elected to head up the official unions in 1997, for a term set to last until 2004. Trade unions have sometimes preferred to discipline, rather than represent, their own members. And they have been in decline for almost 30 years in the North, losing membership and influence, circling their defensive wagons around a restricted outlook and increasingly meagre ambitions.
One credible explanation for this is that they have been the victims of their own success. They have ridden the industrial capitalist tiger since it was born. In a bitter and bloody contest, usually against all the odds, they have induced it to behave in ways that offend against its true nature. Arguably, without trade unions there would today be little sign of what almost everyone in the North now takes for granted: the right to vote, to education, to good healthcare, to safety at work, to rest and leisure. The tiger has been tamed.
You don’t have to look very far back to notice the change. Take Adelaide, South Australia, in 1930. In that year there were state elections. One of the parties stood on a platform that included the right to strike, equal pay for women, workers’ compensation for sickness or accident, a 40-hour working week and two weeks paid annual holiday for all workers. Such a political platform today would be modest if not retrogressive. But, no more than a lifetime ago, it was advocated by trade unionists in the Communist Party, which at the time liked to think of itself as revolutionary.3
According to this explanation, so successful have trade unions been that most working people have now reached an accommodation with capitalism – and trade unions have thereby done themselves out of a job. They have saved capitalism from itself.
Unfortunately, capitalism does not want to be saved from itself. As sharks must keep swimming to stay alive, so capitalism must be free to roam the globe, forever accumulating yet more wealth, power and profits if it is not to collapse in ruins. Anything that stands in its way will be attacked.
So far, trade unions have shown what is possible only in a tiny enclave: the 20 per cent of the world’s people who consume 80 per cent of its shrinking resources. You can understand why, in the North, unions might therefore wish to circle the wagons against the rest of the world. But the manoeuvre is self-defeating if the most important battles are being fought somewhere else – which is why trade unionists have always been internationalist in their outlook. Thanks to corporate globalization, most of the world’s industrial labour force now works in the South – in conditions resembling those of early 19th-century Britain. And, in the South, people are turning to trade unions in increasing numbers, not least because there’s nowhere else for them to turn now that their governments are effectively run by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
This might suggest a rather comforting process of evolution, of historical ‘stages’ through which all working people must pass. The ‘backward’ follow the ‘advanced’ in orderly succession along a single path towards the same destination. Given enough time and application, the workers of the Majority World will eventually catch up with their Northern brothers and sisters.
The growth of trade unions in the South has, indeed, already had some civilizing effects. In Brazil the progressive Workers’ Party (PT) emerged from the trade unions in the car factories of São Paulo, led by the charismatic Luís Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva. The PT played, and still plays, a major role in steering that country away from military dictatorship and in restraining its rapacious oligarchy.4 The Nigeria Labour Congress, COSATU in South Africa, the ZCTU in Zimbabwe, are having a similar effect in Africa. Trini Leung describes (see 'Taming the Tigers') how unions have been taming the savage regimes of the ‘Little Tigers’ in Asia – perhaps, eventually, even China as well. Arguably, it was the strike by Russian coal miners in 1989 that finally put the Soviet Union out of its misery, in a pattern repeated elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, including Poland and Romania.
So far, so good. But travel any further along this path of historical evolution and you find it gets you nowhere. The distance between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘backward’ is getting bigger, not smaller – there is no catching up going on. On the contrary, the advance party has disappeared over the horizon. The vast majority has been left behind in a wilderness and is beginning to wonder whether it was ever on the same path at all.
Second, the inability of capitalism to deliver even the most basic necessities of life becomes glaring when magnified to the global scale on which it operates. Why, it can’t even create the jobs – let alone a halfway decent living. Economist Susan George points out that between 1993 and 1996 the world’s top 100 firms increased their sales by 24 per cent, while the number of people they employed actually fell.5 Unemployment has been rising sharply, and strangely unremarked, almost everywhere. Even in places where it is said to have declined, like the US or Britain, it looms behind the smoke and mirrors of part-time, ‘flexible’ work, employment programmes and official statistics.
Third, a few chickens are coming home to roost in the North. Unions have been on the defensive not just because of their own frailties, but because they’ve come under sustained attack. Governments allied to business interests and free-market orthodoxy would like to see the back of them altogether, so the attacks continue. Nirvana turns out to be no paradise, even for those who have good jobs. According to a recent survey of employee attitudes in Britain, an astonishing 80 per cent lack any real commitment to their employers: ‘The uncommitted majority say they don’t know what is expected of them, that their line managers don’t care about them as individuals, that they feel poorly suited to their jobs and that their bosses generally disregard their views.’6
People cannot live by bread alone. The trade-union struggle has always been about more than wage slavery. Roman Emperors famously threw ‘bread and circuses’ at their subjects to keep them quiet and so, increasingly, does corporate capitalism. Trade unionists prefer to make a song and dance. As the song has it: ‘Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.’ Less contemptuous of common humanity, more suggestive of human aspiration and dignity, more beautiful and better fun, the song puts work in its proper place. ‘We are not a market,’ begins the La Falda Declaration of South American Chemical and Paper Workers, ‘first and foremost, we are a people.’
This is what trade unions have always stood for and where their future invariably lies. The French intellectual André Gorz has sketched out what it looks like now. ‘Our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met,’ he suggests, ‘and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact... In a context in which there is not enough paid full-time work to go round, abandoning the work ethic becomes a condition of survival for the trade-union movement. To do so is no betrayal on the movement’s part. The liberation from work and the idea of "working less so that everyone can work" were, after all, at the origin of the struggle of the labour movement.’7
Don’t be tempted to dismiss this as wishful thinking, even if Gorz refers largely to the North. French and German unions in particular are taking his ideas very seriously indeed. There is here a realistic prospect of breaking out of absolute dependence on capitalist industrial growth, unsustainable levels of consumption and spiralling inequalities. Political liberation is one thing, economic liberation quite another. If trade unions don’t strive for economic liberation, who will?
As their influence – and particularly that of their women members – has grown in the South, so has their interaction with society at large. Broad alliances have opened out into what’s sometimes called ‘social unionism’ and the world beyond work. What little is really known about how poverty is overcome – these days we tend to know more about how it is created – tells us that poor people have, in the end, always had to do it for themselves. They don’t require instructions from above but basic freedoms and human rights. Critical to these in the countryside is the right to land, and in cities the right to a living wage. Critical to both is the freedom of association – the right to organize, whether for land rights or in trade unions.8
Trade-union members in the North have for the most part – and with some striking exceptions – become accustomed to thinking of their brothers and sisters in the South as living in a distant, powerless and largely irrelevant ‘Third World’. Too often they have left international questions to aid agencies or government departments. In their turn, aid agencies have tended to guard ‘development’ or ‘poverty reduction’ as their private professional territory, and seen trade unions as little more than a nuisance.
But corporate globalization has thrown everything into the air. What is self-evidently needed now, and is finally starting to happen, is an internationalist process of ‘globalization from below’, in which unions and aid agencies have an overriding, urgent responsibility to collaborate.9 Trade unionists have, after all, taken the first step by providing the bulk of the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa.
‘Tempestuous’ was how Ed Sweeney described the current state of the relationship between unions and NGOs when I talked with him in his office near Wimbledon. He is the General Secretary of UNIFI, the finance-workers’ union in Britain, and one of a new, young, articulate breed of union leaders whose views have been forged by corporate globalization. He also chairs an informal International Development Committee at the Trades Union Congress.
‘I just think it’s all wrong, daft, really silly,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult if they [NGOs and unions] question each other’s integrity. But that’s what they’ve all started to do. I’ve made it my goal in life to try and smooth that over... Some trade unionists are surprised that somebody like me could have such an interest in globalization. We’re private-sector, we deal in the finance world, our people do nothing but exploit money. Well, our industry is global. We’ve seen the interconnection at first hand. We were able, for example, to use the debate about asylum-seekers to say: "Hold on a moment! Don’t say it’s just about economic migrants. This is actually an impact of globalization."’
Another impact is privatization. Whether the push comes from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund via ‘structural adjustment’, or from a New Labour government in Britain in the form of ‘public-private partnership’, the same motive force is at work: transnational corporate capital and the lust for lucrative tax dollars. And around the world, from Colombia to Mauritius, trade unions are mounting a rebellion against any further extension of the private profit motive into public services. They are going to need all the allies they can get. We need to break down the artificial barriers that have been erected between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of public services, so that the struggle includes us all.
Not so long ago I was asked to speak to a union meeting in Birmingham. Rather to my surprise, they wanted to know more about the Tobin Tax on currency speculation. It is being promoted by War on Want, an aid agency with close links to trade unions. Then someone spoke about the liberation struggle in Western Sahara (see NI 297). A few of the people at the meeting had undertaken the difficult journey there – in solidarity with a place that has no obvious connection to their daily working lives. And then Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, delivered a whistle-stop homily on the eradication of poverty and the New Labour Government’s prescription for ‘development’, which evidently would not include a Tobin Tax.
I commented to my neighbour on the ‘informative’ contribution she’d made. ‘Stuff and patronizing nonsense,’ he growled. My guess is that the growl is about to become a roar.
1 EP Thompson, The Making of the Working Class, Penguin, London, 1991.
This special report appeared in the bread and roses: the trade-union revival issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.