Thursday, June 01, 2017

Power to the Unions

The World Socialist Movement is like no other movement. Its strength lies in being like no other movement. Other movements dread all attempts to analyse and criticise their objects while the WSM delights in being questioned and quizzed. 

Trade unions have experienced the biggest membership drop since records began, falling by 275,000 last year to 6.2 million.

Union leaders blamed the loss of “good-quality jobs”, cuts to the public sector workforce and the rise of the gig economy for the 4.2% drop, the biggest annual cut since records began in 1995, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. Union membership in private firms fell by 66,000 to 2.6 million and in the public sector by 209,000 to 3.6 million.

Cuts to the public sector workforce have meant the loss of many good quality jobs and recent growth in private sector employment has been characterised by a large proportion of insecure jobs,” said the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady. This presents challenges to trade unions for recruitment. We’re rising to that challenge, not least because we know there’s lots that unions can do to help young workers in low-paid and insecure jobs.” In an era of stagnation in wages – the Institute for Fiscal Studies expects average real earnings to be no higher in 2022 than they were before the financial crisis, a situation it describes as “unprecedented” – it was more important than ever for people to join a union, she added. “It remains the case that trade union members get higher pay and better terms of employment.”

The number of workers in the UK in precarious positions where they could lose their jobs at short or no notice has grown by almost 2 million in the past decade, as businesses insist on using more self-employed workers and increasingly recruit staff on temporary and zero-hours contracts. It found that 7.1 million people face precarious employment conditions, up from 5.3 million in 2006. The TUC suggests that one in 10 UK workers are in precarious jobs, including in the “gig economy, with less access to sick pay, redundancy and job protection, while zero-hours contract workers earn a third less than average employees. Unions also face the challenge of recruiting younger workers – two out of five union members are aged over 50. 

The Socialist Party recognises that, under capitalism, workers depend on the wage or salary they get for the sale of their labour-power and that it is in their interest to get the highest possible price for this; collective organisation and action, as via trade unions, can help obtain this. In other words, we're talking about haggling over the workers' commodity. Clearly, necessary though it is, this has no anti-capitalist content. 

Trade unions arise out of the wage-relation that is at the basis of capitalism. When we say that labour-power has the commodity nature, it must express its value through a struggle in the labour market. Combining together in trade unions to exert collective pressure on employers is a way workers can prevent their wages falling below the value of their labour-power. It is a way of ensuring that they are paid the full value of what they have to sell. This is the usefulness of trade unions to the working class. The competition of individual workers for jobs enabled employers to take full advantage of their strengthened position. If, however, the workers unite and agree not to sell their labour-power below a certain price, the effect of individual competition for jobs can be, at least in part, overcome. Organised workers can ensure that the wage they get is the current value of their labour-power and, at times when the demand for labour-power exceeds the supply, they can temporarily push wages above the current value of labour power or even, in the longer term, raise its value. This was, and still is, the logic of trade union organisation.They cannot substantially increase the living standards of their members under capitalism but they can ensure that wages are not reduced below the subsistence level. The trade unions are essentially defensive organisations with the limited role of protecting wages and working conditions and it is by this criterion that their effectiveness or otherwise ought to be judged. Trade Unions can - and do - enable workers to get the full value of their labour-power, but they cannot stop the exploitation of the working class. Workers may influence their wages and working conditions only by collective effort and only by being in the position to stop working if their demands are not met. The ability to withhold their service in a strike is one weapon in their possession ( work-to-rules and overtime bans are others). It is the only final logic known to employers. Without it, wages tend to sink below subsistence level. With it, a substantial check can often be placed on the encroachments of the employers and improvements both in wages and working conditions can be made.

Trade unions, in general, have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tended to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and time-serving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions and peerage. It has to be admitted that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system.  Regardless though of their faults, the Socialist Party urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power. We do not criticise the unions for not being revolutionary, but we will criticise them when they depart from the basic tenet of an antagonism of interests between workers and employers, when they collaborate with employers, the state or political parties, when they put the vested interests of a particular section of workers above that of the general interest of the working class as a whole. In our view, trade-union action is necessary under capitalism but is limited by being of an essentially defensive nature. To overcome this limitation the workers need to organise themselves into a socialist political party aiming solely at the capture of political power to establish socialism.

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