Hobgoblin Journal

The British Trade Union Movement – Slow Death or Radical Rebirth?

By David Black

Hobgoblin 8 2005

6 December 2005

Public sector trade unions have traditionally been concerned with the circulation of existing value rather than with fields of direct struggle between labour and capital. The latter is still with us, as can be seen in the formidable struggle of the Gate Gourmet workers, whose as yet unresolved dispute initially involved illegal sympathy action by other airline workers. The question is whether or not this dispute will become known as a new beginning or a last gasp of the “old” militancy. Tony Blair and the capitalist class would definitely prefer to situate the Gate Gourmet dispute in the latter category, because they do not want strong trade unionism outside of the existing public sector bastions of union power, which, in reality, are in danger of becoming “bastions” of class collaboration in the New Labour privatization programmes.

What is the significance of trade unionism now that in Britain it is largely confined to the public services sector of the economy and has only 6.5 million members out of a total workforce of 30.4 million? According to government statistics for the year 2004, in the UK public sector 58.8% of employees were union members in 2004, contrasting starkly with just 17.2 % in the private sector.

Manufacturing jobs in the period November 2003 to November 2004 fell by 3.3 % (110,000 jobs, leaving 3.25 million workers, a record low). However, a manufacturing workforce of barely 10 % of the total does not indicate in itself any decline or decadence of the capitalist system. For a start, manufacturing productivity went up in the same period by 3.5 per cent, and unit wage costs fell by 0.3 %.

Also manufacturing workers are not alone in producing value (in the sense Marx wrote about value in Capital), for value production resulting in surplus value takes place in agriculture, energy, construction, restaurants and hotels, and creative industries such as entertainment. And in transport and communications (1.8 million workers) value is produced because of the fact that a commodity becomes more valuable when it can be quickly transported. According to one reasonable estimate, about 40% of the workforce is engaged in value-production: “In terms of the population as a whole (almost 58 million) this means that for every value producing worker there are close on five other people.” (The UK and Capitalism’s New Economy, Revolutionary Perspectives #36 2005) This in itself would indicate quite a high rate of surplus value, but British capitalism is not just about exploiting its domestic workforce.

In the top twelve UK “wealth creating” companies of the Financial Times index we find Shell (top with £18.3 billion of added value), BP, Glaxo, Unilever, BT, Vodaphone and Compass; but we also find four banks – HSBC (top with £11.3 billion), Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, HBOS and Lloyds TSB. All of these UK companies are global corporations. Although not all of them are value-producing in the strict material sense, all of them, even the banks and retailers, are involved through various transactions in appropriating and transforming value produced by workers on a global scale. In the context of modern state-capitalism the planned public sector privatizations can be viewed as hidden subsidies for big business.

Looked at in the abstract, the transfer of the tax revenue needed to finance a service from the public sector to a private firms does not in itself make the service productive of new value. However within the totality of the capitalist enterprise and its environment the labour performed by the former-public servant takes on new dimensions: the input of public revenue into the private company will increase its share price, enable it to borrow more from the bank, and to strengthen it’s negotiating/bribery power with state bodies and other institutions for future ventures. In short the privatisation will increase the firm’s power to appropriate value, and even create it in other parts of its business; and the former public service worker will now find herself in the service of capital, which is itself subsidized by the taxes she pays to the state.

Moving on to consideration of the public sector unions, we find that although trade union density in public sector workplaces fell by 0.3% in 2004, the number of union members actually rose by 138,000. This was because under New Labour the public sector has continued to grow: between 1998 and 2004 public sector employment increased by 583,000 - and 80 % of that increase was in health and education. The public sector now accounts for 57% of all trade union members in the UK. But whilst Blair and the capitalist class might find 58.8 % trade union density in the existing public sector manageable, for them the prospect of a similar level of union organisation in such sectors as finance (currently 11 % density) or telecoms or the food and drugs industries, would be a truly “appalling vista” (imagine what huge chunks a unionized retail workforce could bite from the mega-profits of the big supermarkets). That is why the Blair government has preserved Tory anti-union laws, something it has been able to do without much dissent from the existing trade union leaders, who feel themselves to be protected by their “partnership” with New Labour.” For this reason, it is also quite possible, even likely, that this partnership will help rather than hinder Blair’s programme to push through “public service reforms” in the forms of privatization (PFIs) and outsourcing.

The prospects for “Partnership Unionism” in Britain become clearer when we take in the wider European picture. Looking at the those countries for which reliable statistics are available we find that between 1993 and 2003 union membership fell in Bulgaria by 76.5 %, Poland 70.8 %, in Latvia by 28.6 %, in German by 23.9 %, in the Netherlands by 22 %, in Austria by 12.9 %, in the UK by 12.6 %, in Greece by 11.4 %, and in Sweden by 7.2 %. However, in the same period union membership rose in Hungary by 36.4 %, in Ireland by 19.2 %, in Norway by 13.1 %, in Belgium by 6.8%, in Italy by 6.3 %, in Finland by 2.6, and in Denmark by 1.7 %. These figures suggest that although privatization in Eastern Europe has been disastrous for trade unionism (except in Hungary), it has not been so in Western and Nordic European countries. Finland is a case in point. The media, in its obsession with “models” likes to present a “choice” between the two poles of the East European “free-market” and French “statism-protectionism.” However, as a BBC Panorama programme pointed out recently, there is also the “Nordic welfare model,” which in Finland has seen trade union membership and big welfare programs survive intact following a “radical restructuring,” which involved extensive privatization and “employment law reforms” (i.e.making it easier to sack people).

Economically, Britain is closer to Finland than Bulgaria.
Ten years ago Itzvan Meszaros pointed out in his magnum opus, ‘Beyond Capital,’ that following the “derailment of the working class movement” in the late 19th century by parliamentarianism, the “industrial arm” of labour handed over what power it had to the “political arm” of social democracy as its representative. By restricting the role of trade unions to “strictly economic disputes” the Labour Party “ended up with playing a crucial part in actively imposing on labour – by the force of ‘representational parliamentary legislation’ – capital’s vital interest: to ban ‘politically motivated industrial action’ as categorically inadmissible ‘in a democratic society.’”

Ten years on we find that workers are hardly even allowed the “strictly economic disputes,” never mind the luxury of “politically motivated industrial action.” In 2004, there were only 130 stoppages in the UK, the lowest on record. This compares with almost 3,000 stoppages per year in the early 1970s. Clearly economism has become self-defeating. To be realistic (reclaiming a term previously claimed by the TUC leaders) the appropriate response to the modern capital-driven, capital-producing world of work should be a thoroughly politically motivated, anti-capitalist trade unionism; one which would take ideas and debate as seriously as militancy. We need a new unionism, which is not afraid to address what may be the most important question of our age: What sort of work should people do?

The unions, who once nominally backed the Labour Party as means to achieve socialism, now back New Labour simply as a survival strategy – and pay “protection money” to help keep out the rival gang (the Tories). It is no wonder then, that young activists are looking to other organizations, such as NGOs and community politics, rather than unions to fight their politics.

The working class has not disappeared, but the old jobs and communites have and we can only regret that the old politics haven’t disappeared along with them. If real class struggle returns, it will need a critique a capitalism more radical than anything than has gone before, and forms of action more fruitful than what passes today for “trade-union work.”

6 December 2005