Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Could strike action help our unions grow?

Having stepped down from my various UNISON roles a couple of months ago, I have more time to think and read. I am, of course, still interested in trade unionism (and am still a public sector trade unionists).

In a couple of recent blog posts I have commented upon trade union decline - but what do I think trade unions should be doing in order to grow? Well, in this blog post I will address just one answer to that question.

I commend this research from the British Journal of Industrial Relations (Does Strike Action Stimulate Trade Union Membership Growth? by Andy Hodder, Mark Williams, John Kelly and Nick McCarthy) which reports on detailed research on data held by the civil service union, PCS.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a qualified “yes”; “Overall, our data suggest there is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to nonstrike months”.

This doesn’t just ring true – it rings loud and clear. Having served on UNISON’s Development and Organisation Committee for fourteen years until this June, I have read and discussed more than fifty quarterly membership reports – time and again I saw that spikes in recruitment to UNISON were associated with campaigns of national strike action.

Interestingly the research also demonstrates that strike action which is suspended (or called off) doesn’t produce a positive impact upon recruitment. Potential trade unionists are attracted to trade unions when our unions show themselves as acting in the interests of members and potential members.

For years I heard right-wingers in the union try to deny the compelling evidence of our own statistics in order to decry an argument in favour of a fighting trade union, whilst (some) national officials desperately tried to convince themselves that advertising campaigns could grow the union.

The paper by Hodder et al is no easy read, but those who aspire to lead and organise national trade unions should make the effort to read it. The rigorous analysis of evidence demonstrates that trade unions grow when they fight for their members and potential members.

Of course there are other factors which influence trade union membership numbers - and the decline in membership of PCS attributable to mass redundancies and a politically motivated attack upon the "check-off" system for paying subscriptions from salaries may well demonstrate that if one union is not supported by others when under attack from a hostile Government any positive impact on its growth from its willingness to fight may be swamped by the negative impact of political revenge.

What might have happened if PCS had not been abandoned by its sister trade unions is a whole other question.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Which trade unions are in decline?

I blogged a little while ago about the disappointing official statistics which show the current decline in trade union membership. For some years I have been perplexed that the official leadership of the movement isn’t more alert to our plight. Perhaps it would be clearer if it were looked at from the perspective of each individual trade union.

The Guardian’s report of those trade union statistics quoted UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis as saying that his union had increased membership this year. However, UNISON’s return to the Certification Officer, received on 3 July 2017 reported that UNISON had 1,225,500 full paying members on 31 December 2016, compared to 1,239,750 in 2015. That’s not an increase – it is a decline of 1.1% (albeit it is 88,000 more full paying members than the “larger” union UNITE, whose full paying membership had fallen by 7.9% to 1,137,468 from 1,234,757 a year before). GMB members who think that their union is growing need to accept that 617,213 full paying members on 31 December 2016 is lower than 622,596 on 31 December 2015 (a decline of only 0.86% but a decline nonetheless).

With the exception of the teaching unions, all the large unions lost members. It is not just our largest unions which are declining. Community, the descendent of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, beloved of Blairites, and recently in the news for coming up with yet another “innovation” (the recruitment of freelance workers) had 23,475 members on 31 December last year, having fallen by 25% from  31,523 four years before.

As to those who look to the vociferous minnows of the movement outside the TUC who are laudably taking up issues for precarious and hard to organise workers, I fear they will need a magnifying glass. The Industrial Workers of the World had 1,121 members as at the end of 2015 – impressive growth from 437 members three years before (but still tiny). The breakaway from the IWW, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) doubled its membership between December 2014 and December 2015 – but since that was an increase from 405 to 810 that still leaves the entire union (even with any subsequent growth) the size of a UNISON branch. As for the innovatory “pop up union” which popped up at Sussex University – that ceased to function so quickly that it never left any official record. Another of the small unions, United Voices of the World, hasn’t yet submitted its return for 2016 but had just 124 members at the end of December 2015.

It would be nice to think that the TUC will address the decline in our movement at Congress 2017. Watch this space. But don’t hold your breath.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

There can be no socialist case for controls on migration

Much online comment has arisen from remarks made by the Labour Leader concerning the impact of migration on wages. I am not really interested in a debate about whether “Jeremy Corbyn is right” about this or that issue – that simply makes politics about individuals (in a way with which no constituent of St Caroline of Lucas can ever really be comfortable).

I am more interested in the question of migration and the interests of the working class, with reference to the arguments advanced by those on the left who (in some cases having supported a “leave” vote in the referendum) emphasise that “free movement of labour” is something which can advance the interests of capital (as, in the right circumstances, can almost anything in a capitalist society) as if that meant it could not be in the interests of labour.

I don’t want to get into the detail that we do not have (and have never had) “free movement of labour” nor that state imposed controls upon the movement of people invariably fail to prevent “illegal” migration and simply create a “reserve army” of undocumented workers (usually demarcated by race, nationality or ethnicity) who can be used to undercut the terms and conditions of workers with legal rights (so that all calls for legislative or administrative restrictions on free movement are simply demands for the state to further regulate membership of that “reserve army”).

What I am interested in is how the “socialist” case against free movement of labour is made by those whose understanding of the (class) interests of the working class is constrained by an implicit acceptance of the existence – and persistence – of capitalist social relations of production.

The politics of the “British Road to Socialism” underpins the case for “Lexit” – it is a politics founded upon the notion that there can be (and indeed is) a “British” working class, distinct in some way from the global proletariat (and that this “British” working class exists within the – implicitly static - context of “actually existing” capitalism).

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thinking about where the boundaries of such a “national” working class would be drawn (and who would be on which side of those boundaries) to realise that this is nonsense. There can no more be a (distinctively) “British” working class than there is a “white” working class. These concepts are extensions of the error of treating class as if it were essentially a category rather than a social relation, an error which is associated with politics based upon a static conception of an existing class society, as opposed to a dynamic understanding of class struggle.

The politics of those who see themselves as the representatives of a “British” working class are as limited as are those of trade unionists who see themselves as only representing their own section of the class (such as representatives of skilled workers who seek to restrict labour supply to support the market position of their members – as much against other workers as against the employers). These are the politics of those whose “class politics” are entirely about advancing the interests of a section of the working class within capitalist social relations of production, rather than transforming those social relations of production.

There can be no “working class” (or socialist) argument for restricting migration of people across the “national” boundaries of capitalist states. Indeed such national boundaries cannot have meaning from a socialist perspective.

Our interests as workers are international. Those who make the mistake of believing in “socialism in one country” inevitably slide towards prioritising the interests of a “nation” over those of a class – and the interests of a “nation” (in a capitalist society) are the interests of that segment of the global ruling class which is associated with that nation.

The task of socialists is to represent the interests of our class. Those interests do not have nationalities (nor, for that matter, genders nor ethnicities, nor any other particular characteristic – which is not to say that oppressed groups, including oppressed nationalities, do not have collective interests in opposition to oppression with which socialists have to be engaged in developing the consciousness of our class if we are ever to transcend the limits of this society).

Socialism is about uniting our class, which means uniting our class beyond all national boundaries (and identities) in opposition to exploitation and oppression. No one who defends a “British” working class is on the side of the working class and there is no socialist case for controls on migration (no matter how many workers, or self-proclaimed socialists, may insist otherwise).