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Can unions shape the new opposition movement?

Membership is growing, and support for strikes is on the up. But they are not yet the united national force they could be. 

October 01 2022, 09.08am

Around 900 Arriva bus workers in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire took forty-eight hours of strike action in early September over real-terms pay cuts, the biggest bus dispute in the region for decades. The picket line in Luton, located across a busy stretch of a main road, happened to be a stone’s throw away from my house. Every few minutes, I’d hear the honk of a vehicle followed by a cheer. Many of those who would beep in support were HGV drivers, paramedics and refuse drivers who themselves are fighting for better pay and conditions in their own respective sectors. Following the bus strikes, workers received a vastly improved pay offer of 11.4% in Hertfordshire and 10.4% in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, workers are taking industrial action to tackle it through the pay packet. The current wave of strike action takes place against a backdrop of declining trade union power over the past few decades.  In 1979, 13.2 million people were members of a trade union. Since then, membership has more than halved and successive governments have enacted legislation to cripple the power of the trade union movement. With the decline of industry and manufacturing and the shift to a service-based economy, many have found themselves in insecure, low-paid jobs in the ‘gig economy’.

Anti-trade union legislation has continued apace in recent years. The introduction of employment tribunal fees and the 2016 Trade Union Act, which introduced a 50% turnout requirement for strike ballots, have weakened the power of the unions. Emboldened by such legislation, many companies have attacked the pay and conditions of workers. Practices like fire and hire, where employers dismiss workers and rehire them on new terms less favourable to them and the blacklisting of union officials as a tool of fear and control, have become commonplace. It’s fair to say the past few decades have been bleak for the trade union movement.

However, the past few years, and the past few months in particular, suggest the trade union movement is in the ascendancy. Trade union membership in the UK increased for the fourth year in a row in 2021, with official figures showing a rise of 118,000. The wave of strike action in the past few months hasn’t come out of nowhere. Anger has been bubbling below the surface for a very long time. Austerity cuts to public services, Covid-19 and now, the cost-of-living crisis haven’t just exposed the British class divide - they have exacerbated it further.

During the pandemic, we cheered for key workers who kept the country going. Many of those workers have experienced the longest period of wage stagnation since the 1800s and now face further real-terms pay cuts amid the worst squeeze on living standards since the 1950s. Two-thirds of adults in poverty are now in a working household. As energy prices soar, food and fuel prices rise, rent prices go through the roof and workers face real-terms pay cuts, it is no surprise that many are saying ‘enough.’

From a summer of solidarity to an autumn of action

Billed ‘hot strike summer’, hundreds of thousands of workers, from call centre staff to cleaners, bus drivers to brewers, and lawyers to journalists, have already taken part in industrial action for better pay and conditions.

A significant factor in the resurgence of trade unionism in the mainstream were the media appearances of straight-talking RMT union General Secretary Mick Lynch. With sanguine takedowns of trope-laden interrogations by centrist journalists and podium thumping slogans like “The working-class is back. We refuse to be humble. We refuse to wait for politicians. And we refuse to be poor anymore”, he effectively changed the narrative around industrial action in the country, with pollster Opinium recorded a net 12-point shift in favour of striking workers.

Amid this wave of strike action, the Enough is Enough campaign has sprung up, bringing together trade unions like the RMT and CWU, the right to food campaign, Fans Supporting Foodbanks, the tenants’ union ACORN, and Tribune magazine in an attempt to bring together working-class people to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. The campaign has five core demands: slash energy bills, a real pay rise for workers, an end to food poverty, decent affordable homes for all, and increasing taxes on the rich to fund these progressive policies. In a mere few weeks, the campaign garnered half a million members-demonstrating a strong appetite for a political movement outside the confines of Westminster.

Towards a united trade union movement

The campaign raises the spectre of coordinated strike action by different unions from different sectors, with support from non-union allies. But despite bucking a decades-long trend, the union movement is still facing an uphill slog.  Increasing union membership in the private sector has been one of the biggest obstacles trade unions have faced in the last decade. Young workers in particular are underrepresented in the trade union movement. According to the Trade Union Congress, less than one in ten workers aged 16 to 24 are union members, and amongst union members themselves less than one in twenty are 16 to 24. Union density in sectors such as hospitality, where there are many young workers, remains as low as 4%. Increasing organising activity in these sectors is vital to building a sustainable union movement.

There is cause for hope. In August, Amazon workers took wildcat strike action across sites in Tilbury, Coventry, Bristol and Rugeley. The workers at the Tilbury fulfilment centre in Essex initially walked out over a ‘pathetic’ 35p-per-hour pay rise. Across a number of sites, workers staged sit-ins in canteens in protest. One Amazon worker in Doncaster told me over 1500 Amazon workers had joined the GMB Union. Just a few weeks ago, the GMB union started a historic first formal strike ballot at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, it’s clear that a new wave of trade union militancy is beginning to spread beyond the public sector.

It's clear that more workers are coming together. But what about the unions? One of the challenges in uniting the union movement is the differing structures and organising models. The American union organiser and author Jane F. McAlevey conceptualises two models of industrial organising; the organising model that involves active organising in the workplace to build union power and foster on-the-ground leaders empowered to organise; and the servicing model, where the unions are seen as a service for workers and intervene on behalf of their members on a case-by-case basis. Unions differ too in terms of their structure. While some unions are federated, with power devolved among regions, others are incredibly centralised, with union elections fiercely contested by different factions. 

Despite these challenges, unions are already beginning to pursue a greater degree of coordination, beginning with a joint opposition to  planned anti-union legislation. Last Tuesday, more than eleven trade unions launched legal action against the government over plans to make it possible to replace striking workers with agency staff. The legal action is being coordinated by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and ASLEF, BFAWU, FDA, GMB, NEU, NUJ, POA, PCS, RMT, Unite and Usdaw unions are involved.

The summer of solidarity is becoming an Autumn of action. Today, October 1st, , the RMT union, the ASLEF union and the TSSA union will be holding a rail strike. They will be joined by 115,000 postal workers from the CWU trade union for the biggest day of strike action in recent history. Enough is Enough has called for a National Day of Action on the same date, organising 50 protests across the country from London to Glasgow, Cardiff to Portsmouth. Will this mark a turning point for the movement? Is this the start of a mass movement of diverse working-class communities uniting to demand better? It’s both necessary and possible to bring people together to fight for a better collective future, created and shared in by all.

Truss and Kwarteng are quite open about their determination to cripple this nascent revival of the trade union movement. Against this backdrop, unity and solidarity between trade unions has seldom been more crucial and urgent.