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The power and potential of trade unions during a cost of living crisis

In the first of a two-part long read, Ben Manovitch looks at trade union renewal and the role of these organisations in democracy and the redistribution of wealth.

Trade union banners at a pension demo in Sheffield
Andy Halsall

The deck is stacked against you if you want to improve society by organising a permanent, massive redistribution of power and wealth. Billionaires control the mainstream media, the Tories use culture wars to divide people, bosses and landlords keep folk poor, and the police and the intelligence services are also on hand to suppress attempts to get a better deal. It is a staggering task.

We are also living through a cost of living and inflation crisis which is already catastrophic for so many people. The cause of this crisis is simple: some already very wealthy people have decided to up the prices on the products that they sell. To cope with this, workers fight for more income.

As all of this is taking place, I have chosen to write about the power and potential of unions because I believe they are in a unique position to support working-class struggle and overcome many big political challenges that we face. Myself and a friend have also set up a project that has (modestly) tried to support local worker organising, so I will share a bit about that too.

History is replete with examples of where organised labour, in different forms, has been at the forefront of political-social change: be it the strikes of 1917 in St Petersburg which precipitated the Russian Revolution or the worker control enacted in Catalonia by the CNT union during the Spanish Civil War. In the UK, the trade unions shaped the direction of the Labour Party in the 1930s and 40s which ultimately led to the social democratic reforms between 1945-51: the NHS, nationalisations and the welfare state.

We might say that the primary function of unions is to redistribute the power and wealth of employers to workers. In the UK this has normally been by way of achieving better pay and working conditions, or fighting for bread and roses – as the poem and song goes.

In contrast to anarchist or revolutionary unions, organised labour in the UK has generally wanted to improve wider social conditions via representative democracy, reforms and the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Labour Party, rather than seeking to overthrow the state and/or take political power through the workplace.

And so it is on these terms that we might consider their effectiveness.

The economic picture

Generally speaking, you are going to be much better off financially if you are a member of union. Andrew Haldane, the then chief economist at the Bank of England, recognised this in 2018 when he talked about the “pay premium for workers… typically found to lie in the range 10-15%.”

When we look at the broader history of trade union membership and income inequality in the UK, we see that as trade union membership has increased, income inequality has reduced, and vice versa. Wealth and income inequality was at its lowest in the UK when trade unions were at their strongest in the late 70s – when about 50% of the working population was a union member. All of this makes sense given that unions, when they have power, can redistribute money from the top to the bottom.

As membership has declined since the 1980s, inequality has gone up.

This is true not just of the UK though, across all the OECD countries as union membership has fallen since the 1980s, wage inequality increased.

If you look at Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest amounts of economic equality in Europe, they have extremely strong trade unions and these unions are normally involved in co-management of businesses.

Union strength can achieve great strides in the direction of economic equality – but union density has been fragile. Even the Nordic countries have experienced a decline in union density since the late 1970s whilst income and wealth inequality in these countries has also grown.

Unions are not the only factors that can influence income and wealth equality – but their contribution cannot be disputed.

There are many forces that can cause falling trade union membership but in the UK, the Tories’ restrictive laws on union activity, and their de-industrialisation policies (where the bulk of union members in manual occupations formerly worked), New Labour’s acceptance of these changes, hostile employers, violent policing and a pro-business mainstream press loom large. You might call this the establishment’s opposition to equality, or put more simply: class war.

Unions can only produce redistribution when they have strength. They only have strength when they have numbers, and the willingness to fight against those who don’t want to share. So despite the obstacles put in place by plutocrats and their agents, unions must recruit and produce collective action if we are to reverse this trend.

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Sheffield Trades Union Council. Photo by Sheffield TUC.

Unions and democracy

Whatever form union collective action takes – whether petitions, strikes or occupations – it is democracy. An expression of the will of a majority against a privileged few.

In our representative democracy, where unions have sought political clout, they have so far only had two left-wing Labour leaders (by current mainstream political standards) who have managed to win general elections, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson. (This is not to say that either Atlee or Wilson was universally supported by all trade unions or trade unionists, or that either leader did not have run ins or antagonisms with unions.)

These wins happened when trade union density was around 40% of the working population, and when union membership was still growing.

There is no question that these successes did improve wider social conditions in the UK – and the book The Sprit Level remains a persuasive account of the manifold benefits that come from more equal societies.

Higher union density was never a shoo-in for Labour and there was always a complex relationship with the union leaders and the membership, but it certainly helped. Plus, left-wing Labour at its height never sought to resolve the central tension in capitalism between bosses and workers, or between the state’s centralised, monopolistic use of power and personal and collective freedom.

Even nationalised industries like coal were run with the capital accruing profit-motive at heart, the state was the boss and some workers felt like nothing had changed.

In addition, without strong trade unions and the improved economic conditions that they bring, we don’t even have a fully functioning representative democracy. Through the 60s to the 80s, when the UK was a much more economically equal place, there used to be very little difference in general election turnout between manual and professional workers, people on different incomes, or between people with low and high educational attainment.

What we now see though that people with low incomes, low levels of education, manual workers and renters are the least likely to vote. The reason for this seems to be, in part at least, that the economically marginalised feel too disempowered and alienated to take part in electoral politics.

Unionisation specifically is known to have a positive effect on civic participation. There is research from the US that showed that union members were 18% more likely to vote in presidential elections than non-members and up to 93% more likely to participate in protests.

It is also notable that our elected representatives in Parliament are also increasingly drawn from a narrow group of economically advantaged people. It is true that we have more female and ethnic minority MPs than ever before, but the data shows that we have had a dramatic reduction in the number of manual workers. These people, be they labourers, gardeners or drivers, represent 25% of the British workforce. This is significantly down from their height of around 60% from the 30s to the 60s. However, they only represent 3% of all MPs today, whereas it used to be 15% in 1979.

In other words, manual workers – who on average earn less than their non-manual counterparts – have been experiencing declining representation in Parliament.

It is however boom time for MPs hailing from business backgrounds, who have increased massively from 23% of all MPs in 1979 to 42% in 2019.

In addition, Evans and Tilley write in their book The New Politics of Class that “around 10 per cent of Labour MPs were previously union officials from the 1950s to the 1980s, by 2015 only 1 per cent of Labour MPs had worked for a trade union.”

It was the unions that gave manual workers and union officials a roadmap into elected politics, via industrial action and the Labour Party, so that they could have a voice and provide a counterweight to the economically privileged members of society. The decline of union power has made it much harder for that to happen and it diminishes what democracy we have.

The conservative question

Despite the naked aggression shown by the Conservative Party towards poor and working-class people in this country, it is also worth noting that this party is doing increasingly well amongst economically marginalised communities. We have seen, for example, that the Tories since the 2010 general election have won a majority amongst voters who are classified as skilled manual workers, and in 2019 they for the first time ever won a majority amongst all other manual workers, casual workers and non-workers.

In 2019, the Conservatives also had for the first time a majority of people in low pay voting for them (although that does include pensioners, i.e. folk who are not currently working).

Finally, in each of the last three elections, they have increased their vote share among social renters (18% in 2015, 26% in 2017 and 33% in 2019). By way of comparison, the Labour Party attracted 45% of social renters in 2019.

There are many factors that influence statistics like these. They alone do not tell the full story. We for instance have an ageing population and with age comes increasing conservatism.

The way this right-ward inclination shows itself among economically marginalised communities is often through their social conservatism, such as a desire for things like more law and order and limits on migration. These positions are normally combined with traditional left-wing economic views like public ownership and progressive taxes.

NUT banner at a Sheffield demo
Andy Halsall

One of the difficulties faced by left-leaning political parties seeking to attract these voters is that whilst the economic policies might be appealing, even mild socially liberal positions like the rehabilitation of offenders and allowing asylum seekers to settle here can push people away. It is why the reactionary rhetoric of the likes of Farage and Johnson has gone down so well for some.

Trade unionism, however, goes some way to disrupting this situation. There is evidence that indicates that unions encourage more socially progressive opinions or, at the very least, can immunise people against the culture wars.

Let’s take the issue of migration and the present illiberalism and hostility that has been cultivated by Tory and Labour governments and the right-wing press over the years. There has been European research suggesting that union members are more positive toward migrants than non-union workers due to their comparative economic security. It could also be because union actions promote cross-racial and cross-cultural cooperation and bonding. This is what social scientists might call the contact hypothesis in operation. It is what leftists would call solidarity.

When members of the UK’s big three unions (Unison, Unite and GMB) were polled about having a second EU referendum, two thirds of each said that they would support another vote. The People’s Vote, so named, was seen as the vehicle to overturn the Brexit result and, for most people, leaving or remaining was a proxy for their views on migration.

It is also worth bearing in mind that in the 2015 general election, UKIP managed to pick up a 12% vote share of all union members; but their dominance among the rank and file collapsed in 2017 in favour of Labour when Corbyn, a generally pro-migrant politician, was leader.

Even the legacy of unionisation is important here. In the Durham constituencies where coal mines were closed in the 1980s, they had the high leave majorities in 2015 EU referendum but the 2019 vote for the Labour Party still held up when Labour had switched to backing a second EU vote.

This is all relevant in the UK where, like in many other parts of the world, the economic right weaponises social and cultural issues to win over voters. There is Europe-wide research that concludes that social-democratic, radical and green parties are still favoured by union members over right-wing parties, which has always been the case in the UK too. This tends to suggest that unions at the very least insulate voters from these appeals by the right.

There has also arguably been only one occasion in UK political history where we have experienced both traditional left-wing economic reforms (nationalisation of British steel, anti-trade union laws being repealed) and increases to our social freedoms (decriminalisation of homosexuality, ending the death penalty), and this was when Harold Wilson was PM.

These social reforms were not driven by the unions, but union members still overwhelmingly supported Labour and density was about twice what it currently is.

In next week's part two, Ben continues his deep dive into trade unions, including criticism of them and the Bread and Roses project.

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