New Internationalist

What Did The *unions* Ever Do For Us?

Issue 341

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Trade Unions / UNIONS
What did the Unions ever do for us?
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There is scarcely a basic right we share today that was not
fought for tooth and nail by trade-union members yesterday
– or that, without them, could not easily be lost tomorrow.

Click here to go back to the top. The eight-hour working day
[image, unknown] The origins of May Day as an international celebration of working life lie not in communism but in Chicago, where four anarchists were executed for ‘incitement’ following nationwide strikes for an eight-hour day on 1 May 1886. At the time, 12-hour – and even longer – shifts were commonplace in the US, as they remain today in many parts of the world. In France and Germany some trade unions now want to restrict the working week still further so that employment can be more evenly shared – and a less dominant feature of daily life.

Click here to go back to the top. A living wage
[image, unknown] In 1888 the activist Annie Besant wrote a newspaper article called ‘White Slavery in London’ about the dreadful pay and dangerous conditions suffered by young women working at the Bryant and May match factory. Three girls suspected of giving her information were sacked – and 1,500 women walked out in sympathy. The firm capitulated. Many countries now have a legal minimum wage – a formal, if minimal, recognition of union demands for human dignity.

Click here to go back to the top. The vote
[image, unknown] The right to vote was conceded only reluctantly in the North. Unions played a major role in founding (and funding) the labour and progressive movements that pushed for ‘universal suffrage’. In the South, unions have been the most consistent, courageous and organized opponents of military dictatorship – and their members have paid a heavy price. In 1979 at least 200 were killed during a general strike opposing a military coup in Bolivia; thousands have been killed or imprisoned for resisting tyranny in South Africa, Chile and Indonesia – as they were in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Click here to go back to the top. Democracy at work
[image, unknown] Experience in Scandinavia, Germany and Japan suggests that democratic engagement at the work place promotes, rather than restricts, rewarding work. Union members have always insisted on having some influence over the decisions of management, and they have helped to generate alternative forms of ownership and control, including co-operatives and mutual societies.

Click here to go back to the top. To each according to their needs
[image, unknown] The idea that essential services, like healthcare and education, should be ‘public’ and ‘free’ to all at the point of delivery was first advanced by trade unions. Their members still provide many of these services, which have been starved of public funding. The sense of public service – every bit as much as self-interest – is reflected in union resistance to ‘structural adjustment’ and privatization. This resistance is now a common feature of union struggles in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as in the North.

Click here to go back to the top. Unite and resist
[image, unknown] Such benefits have only been won by workers acting together through unions, and in alliance with other social movements or political parties, for the common good. In recent years, many rights have been lost or restricted – and inequality has spiralled to historically unprecedented levels as a result. The international fightback, North and South, is now under way.

An invaluable and comprehensive guide to
trade unions and their history in almost every
country is provided by Trade Unions of the World, 2001,
John Harper Publishing, London, 2001.

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