Trade unions - whose interests do they represent?

The public row between Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey over the selection of a parliamentary candidate for the Falkirk constituency has been presented as a battle for the working class soul of the Party. The Blairite Progress group wants to end the union link; in contrast, Unite has a programme to ‘promote a new generation of Unite activists towards public office’. Miliband says he wants to ‘mend, not end’ the relationship with the unions – in other words, to further limit their influence. Robert Clough reports.

There are suggestions that Unite has used its power to get 40 constituencies to adopt trade union candidates. Yet this does not bring Labour any closer to representing the working class: such candidates are part of a union bureaucracy which has prevented any serious struggle against the ConDem coalition. More fundamentally, trade unions today are not fighting organisations of the working class. They resemble the skilled unions of the 19th century, organising in the interests of a privileged upper stratum of the working class, or labour aristocracy, today primarily in the public sector.

On 12 June the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that wages fell by 8% between 2009-11, and 4% since the start of the recession in 2008. It argues that workers have been forced to accept wage cuts as a trade-off for keeping their jobs, and this has been in part because of the weakness of the trade union movement. Truly there has not been the pretence of union resistance. Over the five-year period to April 2013, the average number of days lost through strike action remained at a historic low of 600,000 per annum. In the private sector, where wage cuts have been deepest, this average was fewer than 70,000 days per year.

In 1979, half the working class was organised into trade unions. By 2012, the proportion had fallen to just over a quarter (26.0%). The social composition of trade union membership has changed dramatically: it is now concentrated among the better-off sections of the working class, particularly in the public sector. In 2012, over half of trade union members had a higher education qualification (51.9% compared to 41.2% of all employees) and were managers, professionals or associate professionals (54.3%, up from 46% in 2001).

In 2001, 2.8 million trade unionists were in professional or associate professional occupations. By 2012 there were 3.4 million, while overall trade union membership had dropped by 600,000. The number of trade unionists who were in skilled operative, process worker or elementary occupations – mainly manual workers – had tumbled from 2.3 million to 1.4 million. In 2001, there were 2.8 million trade unionists with a higher education qualification, and 3.5 million in 2012. Over the same period the number of union members with GCSE qualifications or less, overwhelmingly the low-paid, fell by 900,000 to 1.9 million. Professional and associate professionals are replacing manual workers as trade unionists.

The economic crisis has accelerated this process. In 2007, there were 982,000 trade unionists working in manufacturing and construction; five years later this number was down to 586,000. On the other hand, the number of trade unionists in education, health and social work, sectors with a high proportion of degree-educated professionals, had risen by nearly 200,000.

Trade unionists are also comparatively old. In 2012, 36.2% of trade union members were aged 50 or over, compared to 26.8% of all employees. In 2001, two million trade unionists were over 50 years old, in 2012, there were 2.5 million. Over the same period, the number under 50 had fallen by 1.1 million. Trade unionism now scarcely touches the lives of young workers. In 1991, 22% of workers under the age of 24 were in a union. In 2012, this had plummeted to just 4.1%, just 270,000 members in all.

These socio-economic changes in union membership mean that a large proportion of trade union members are very well off compared to the mass of the working class. In 2012, 35.8% of trade union members were in professional occupations which had a median full-time annual income of £35,980. This was 36% more than the median full-time income for all employees (£26,462 pa). It was also more than twice the median full-time income for the 10.1% of trade unionists who were in Caring, Leisure and Other Services Occupations (£17,161 pa), the 7.7% of members who were engaged in Elementary Occupations (£17,602 pa), and the 5.4% of members who were in Sales and Customer Services (£16,837 pa). In between were the 13.3% of union members who were associate professionals; their annual median income of £30,473 still represented significant privilege in comparison to the mass of the working class.

Trade unions, then, are more concerned with defending the sectional interests of a narrow, privileged stratum of the working class than organising amongst the mass of the working class, the millions of working poor who suffer casualised conditions with zero-hours contracts, and part-time, short-term jobs. Many trade union members stand in an antagonistic relationship to poorer sections of the working class. PCS members work for the Department of Work and Pensions imposing benefit sanctions, or implement Atos work and capability assessments to drive people off disability-related benefits. Unison members implement the bedroom tax, and a union circular makes their obligations clear:

‘members are advised, that if they are employed to administer part of the arrears recovery process, that they should follow the instructions of their employer...whether that is the sending of reminder letters, issuing possession proceedings, applying to the Magistrate’s Court for a possession order, attending Court, instructing bailiffs or attending with bailiffs in order to secure possession.’

Trade unions have collaborated in local government programmes of voluntary redundancies costing hundreds of thousands of jobs, locking young workers out of secure employment and undermining organised opposition to savage cuts in services. They have continued to sponsor Labour councillors who implement the cuts demanded by the Coalition. Their leaders may make militant speeches at events like the People’s Assembly on 22 June, yet all they committed themselves to was one demonstration outside the September Tory Party conference, and a day of action on 5 November – gestures to please the social democratic left. The truth is that far from being the core of resistance to austerity, the trade unions have prevented any real resistance emerging over the last three years, and there is no evidence that this will change.

 Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

 

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