Opinion Piece: Fight the Trade Union Bill: Build the Union

This is the first of our opinion pieces.  These are meant to stimulate debate within our union and we welcome contributions from all members.


Workers-Rights-are-Human-Rights-e1363086471974Writing in The Telegraph on 10th Sept, Boris Johnston uttered forth, “If Jeremy Corbyn honestly cares about the workers, he’ll back trade union reform”.  If I wasn’t already concerned, this would certainly have set alarm bells ringing.  The carefully choreographed buffoonery of Bullingdon Boris conceals an outright attack on working people and our rights.

The Tories don’t like Trade Unions – what’s new?  Capitalism hates organised labour – yeah, yeah, tell us something we don’t know.  We need to fight back – easy to say but how do we do it?

Tory minister, Sajid Javid said the bill will balance the interests of trades unions with those of working people.  Hang on, let’s just read that again.  They want to do what? – balance our interests against our interests – a piece of Orwellian doublespeak if ever there was one.

Trades Unions are the democratic representatives of working people, but don’t let that get in the way of a good soundbite.

Crisis Management

The proposed Trade Union Bill is the latest in a long line of attacks on the Trade Union movement. It is an extension and deepening of Thatcher’s anti-union laws which has seen our movement reduce in size.  From well over 13 million in 1979, membership in 2014 was sitting at 6.4 million. As we prepare to fight this battle, we are only half the size we were when Thatcher came for us.  This fight therefore has to also be about building the movement.

Proposals such as the right for the employers to hire scab workforces from agencies, ballot turnout thresholds far higher than those affecting the same MPs proposing this and two weeks notice of strike action weight this heavily in favour of employers at the expense of workers.  make no mistake, this is ideologically driven by the needs of neoliberalism in crisis.

Collective Response

The recent exposés of shoddy employer practices at Amazon and Sports Direct highlight the need for trades unions to represent workers and protect them from employer excess.  In the HE sector, issues such as zero hours contracts, workload/stress and creeping privatisation require a collective response.  But are our unions up to the challenge?

In recent years UCU industrial action over both pay and pensions has been less than effective.  I don’t intend to unpick the detail here and it’s not wholly a UCU issue.  The question is why are people not joining trades unions and whay are many of those who do not active?

We’re doing it wrong!

In one of the many meetings that I have attended over the last year or so, I remember a question being posed about why the radical left vote in Scotland had never gone above a certain level.  Two answers were offered:

  1. The ideas don’t appeal to enough people.
  2. We’re doing it wrong – we can’t convince people that these ideas can be delivered by us.

I think this same question can be asked of the trade union movement.  If we are convinced of the need for trades unions and the need is quite clearly demonstrated, then there must be something in the way we work, in the way we organise and engage with members and potential members that is not working properly.

Like many representative organisations, trades unions are hugely hierarchical.  A lot happens at the top and is cascaded down.  Committed activists work with elected officers and the membership have little day-to-day involvement.  We lament that there are not enough of us doing stuff – we know this story well.

I don’t believe people are naturally disengaged and apathetic.  To some degree we must be doing it wrong.  This is not to dismiss the efforts of the many, many activists that are engaged in sterling work, tirelessly, week in and week out.  However it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and refocus.  Trade Unions should involve mass participation.  If they are not, we need to more than simply lament the fact.

In many respects we are going through a period of democratic renewal.  The huge upsurge in political engagement that accompanied both the Scottish independence referendum and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader are signs of this.  Our trade unions need to be part of this and change and adapt accordingly.

About the author: Grant Buttars is currently Honorary Assistant Secretary (Communications) for UCU Edinburgh, a member of RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance and an organiser with Common Weal Fife

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