Trade unions have a role to play in tomorrow's digital economy—if only their leaders could see itby Philip Collins / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are too many candidates, alas, for the title of the moment trade unionism went wrong. The dire years of 1974 and 1978 cast a long shadow, even now. But, as a metaphor for a particular tale of trade unionism, it is hard to improve upon the catastrophic events of 1984. The Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mick McGahey, put the point with a candour that was so revealing it must have been inadvertent. Pressed to conduct a ballot on strike action but afraid it would draw what he saw as the wrong conclusion, McGahey said “we shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.”
The strike of 1984 is an incident in a familiar and mostly tragic drama. The story unfolds through aggressive and increasingly politicised trade union leadership. It is fronted by men who act as if the best way of communicating an unpopular point is to say it again, this time even louder. It is a story of the decline of once proud single-trade unions, merged into giant conglomerates without any remaining contact either with region or occupation. It is a story of a slow death by consolidation. Unions are increasingly concentrated in the public sector as new professions are created whose workers do not see the need for union representation of the conventional kind. The numbers of members keeps falling and the leadership which, for a generation, had pinned the Labour Party in the centre of politics, shifted to the irrelevant left. It is a tale of decline unto death, if we are not careful, which ends in unpopular action, for dubious industrial causes, such as the series of strikes currently turning the London transport network into chaos.
“The tragic truth of trade unionism is that the decline was not inevitable, though it may be unstoppable”
The Labour Representation Committee, the predecessor of the Labour Party, was established to facilitate the passage of working men to parliament. The trade unionists of the turn of the 20th century were the first group to make the case for victory. They wanted power to herald change in the conditions of life for working men and women (it was mostly men, at the time). The notion that there are abstract principles worth losing for would have struck that hard-headed generation as the most obvious offence against common sense. Today’s trade unionists are often accused of not knowing their politics. It is worse than that. They don’t know their history, either.