July 3, 2022 | 3 minutes read | Tags: News & Analysis, Class struggle in Britain

All Change: Updates on the Trade Union Movement

The "cost of living" poverty crisis is widening and is deepening, and in response the organisations of the working class are stepping forward.

All Change: Updates on the Trade Union Movement

The "cost of living" poverty crisis is widening and is deepening, and in response the organisations of the working class are stepping forward. Red Fightback has been organising in local communities around this crisis: some early steps are detailed in our recent piece on going beyond electoral politics. Since then, more community meetings have been held and even more are upcoming. Today though, I want to acknowledge the recent work of some of Britain's trade unions, and discuss how trade unionism is situated within the current working class struggle.

Headlines in the last weeks have been dominated by the RMT[1], which has organised a strike of rail staff threatened by pay cuts and job losses. Alongside this action I would also like to note some other trade union activity: United Voices of the World (UVW) members such as Brighton's St. James' Tavern staff striking for better pay, United Sex Workers (USW) organising to save jobs in Edinburgh and demonstrating in solidarity with RMT, and Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) continuing to fight for outsourced workers. From this upsurge of union activity I think we can draw at least two lessons about our current political situation and the situation of the trade union movement.

Firstly I want to highlight that this wave of industrial action has occurred despite the active and vocal opposition of the Labour party, with Keir actively seeking to punish frontbench support for the RMT. And yet strikers have not been deterred, and their wins have proceeded regardless. The established trade unions must not be content with this half-hearted relationship with the Labour Party. If Labour is not willing to support the strikes, the basic tool of workers fighting for dignity, how can it be an ally? The trade union movement must come to terms with the dead-end path of Westminster socialism. The RMT itself is relatively advanced in this regard: it has not been affiliated with Labour proper since Blair, but is still attached to some pressure groups. More recently we've seen the BFAWU[2] disaffiliate from Labour, and Unite begin to step back. This progress is slow, and has only been possible due to the efforts of many within these unions, pushing for a focus on effective class struggle. But by winning despite and against both Labour and the Tory government, these unions are demonstrating to working people the political power they can possess when organised outside bourgeois party politics.

Secondly we should be encouraged by the achievements of the newer unions mentioned. Specifically these unions have challenged and begun to overcome some of the limitations and blind spots of historical British trade unionism; they have broken through the factory-floor focus; and they have made strides organising workers in precarious, casualised, and criminalised trades. Any socialism which talks "all bourgeoisie and no bosses" has drifted into abstraction, and the shared working conditions of a common trade form a natural line of unity between workers and against their bosses. For this reason workplace organising will always remain a key tool in the workers' struggle. The modern workplace has a new character however: it goes beyond the factory floor and permeates throughout our communities. It is therefore essential that trade unionism develop forms appropriate to the diversity of workplaces making up our current situation, and that we link this tool comprehensively with other forms of community organising.

Where next? We workers must all join a trade union, that much is obvious. But I also ask that you consider what you can do to make your union the most effective weapon for the working class. How can you make or keep your union a tool for struggle, and not a Westminster pressure group? How can you link your trade union work to the community organisations of working class, marginalised, and oppressed people? And how can you adapt that work to best fit our current labour situation?

  1. The National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers ↩︎

  2. Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union ↩︎