Britain: Combative, vibrant unions should be central to Corbyn movement

Union movement must be transformed into one fit for battles we face

'If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.' Some Corbyn supporters seem to be taking this refrain to an extreme in their continual attempts to befriend the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party. The failure to learn the lessons of the multiple rejected attempts at olive branches and compromise from the Corbyn wing is full of dangers.

This debate about the correct approach for the Corbyn movement is manifesting itself within the trade union movement too. The Socialist Party has argued that the trade unions have a potentially key role to play in this process, and finding clarity on the way forward is therefore vital.

Jon Lansman, a leading figure in the pro-Corbyn group Momentum, gave an interview in the Guardian recently appealing for peace. He called for Corbyn's team, trade union leaders, and MPs opposing Corbyn to "work together so Labour can transform Britain."

In reality, the interview was a response to Len McCluskey, the leader of general union Unite. Len had correctly criticised Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson for his speech at the party's conference attacking the left and defending the record of New Labour. Reflecting the interests of the capitalist backers of New Labour, Watson said "capitalism is not the enemy" and warned that under Corbyn Labour had "ended up sounding like we are anti-business."

In contrast Len rejected any return to the so called 'third way' and pointed out that under the Tony Blair governments, "we lost one million manufacturing jobs, the gap between rich and poor continued, the seeds of inequality that we are seeing today were watered then."


He went on to say "if Tom wants to try to refresh his mandate it would be interesting to see what happens." Lansman, on the other hand, was keen to stress that no challenge should be made against Tom Watson, or indeed any of the right. He suggested that in return for not pursuing mandatory reselection or other challenges, the left might receive "reciprocation" from the Blairites – in the form of an end to the purges and exclusions of Corbyn supporters.

This is at exactly the same time that Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Momentum, is suspended from the Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitism (and subsequently removed from her Momentum position). While the comments made by Walker – who is herself Jewish – were crass, they do not indicate anti-Semitism. And it is clear that this issue, as well as conflating opposition to the right-wing Israeli government with anti-Semitism, is being used as a cover for targeting prominent Corbyn supporters.

It is fantasy for Jon Lansman and others in Momentum to think anything they do will persuade Blairite MPs to fall into line behind Corbyn's anti-austerity leadership and allow his supporters to organise in defence of it. As we have pointed out numerous times, there are now essentially two parties in the Labour Party – a new party for the 99% around Jeremy Corbyn, and the establishment's same old New Labour. Only one side can win this civil war.


But not all trade union leaders see it in this way or are clear about being on Corbyn's side of this battle. The two sides of the Labour Party are mirrored by two sides in the trade union movement. Similarly to Tom Watson, Dave Prentis, leader of the Unison public sector union, called for Jeremy to cave in on allowing MPs to elect his shadow cabinet, and "slap down those who pursue divisive tactics such as changing the rules to enable mass deselections of MPs."

The GMB union backed Owen Smith in the leadership race. The main excuse the leadership has used to muddy the waters with GMB members is Corbyn's correct principled opposition to Trident nuclear weapons. Many defence workers are organised in the GMB and fear the effect of scrapping Trident on their jobs and the future of their communities. The only way to win these workers over is to be firm and clear on an alternative, socialist plan for creating skilled industrial jobs, including nationalisation of key industries under democratic workers' control and management. The GMB should take a stand against nuclear weapons on this basis of 'not one job lost'.

There are parallels between the battle in the movement today and the ones at the end of the 19th century that led to the formation of the Labour Party. Similarly to the conservatism of the right-wing union leaders about transforming Labour now, there was reluctance then – particularly from the bigger unions representing better off workers – to break with the Liberal Party and form one of their own. In fact, initially less than half of the TUC unions (generally the smaller, more militant ones) took this step and affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee at its first meeting in 1900.

Despite these divisions, the trade unions remain an important pillar for the Corbyn movement to secure. They are at root potentially powerful and decisive bodies for the 99% to organise against the bosses. They include 6.5 million workers. Their structures allow striking junior doctors, Durham teaching assistants, Deliveroo drivers – in other words, those at the sharp end of the austerity Jeremy Corbyn stands against – to speak with a collective voice.

It is this collective voice that should be given a weight proportionate to its size within a refounded, democratic, socialist Labour Party. It is clear how much the right wing fear such structures – the decades prior to Jeremy's initial victory had seen gradual reductions in the role of the trade unions in Labour. In 1993 local trade union delegates lost their vote in selecting parliamentary candidates while the unions only have around 20% of the votes in Labour's national policy-making forum.


The Blairites knew that – even if the dominant trend was trade union tops which were docile and accepting of their policies – a structural role for trade unions meant that the capacity existed for a major challenge to their rule when the trade unions were reinvigorated by mass movements in the future.

But as has clearly been shown by the decisions and actions taken by some trade union leaders in regard to the Corbyn movement – counter to the interests of their members – it is not enough to just say the unions should have a greater role. The right-wing leadership of shop workers' union Usdaw may claim that the 440,000-strong union had a say in the leadership election by backing Owen Smith. But in reality this decision involved only a phone-poll of its 16 executive committee members!

The Socialist Party always called for democratic checks of the trade unions' collective voice, known as the block vote, by the rank and file of the unions. Collective representation for the trade unions is only truly democratic if the unions themselves function democratically. So it also matters what kind of unions we have – we need dynamic, democratic, combative unions, to mirror and work with a working class party of the same character.

Unfortunately this isn't the case for most unions today. Most of the union leaderships moved to the right in tandem with the rightward shift in the Labour Party leadership over the last three decades – a process analysed extensively in previous Socialist Party articles. This contributed to top-down bureaucratic approaches that have led to a hollowing out of the unions at branch level and low participation in decision making. Some have even targeted activists for demanding the union show a lead in struggling for better pay and conditions.


Also, while they are still inherently strong organisations at their present size, the unions need to increase their reach. Slightly less than a quarter of all workers are in trade unions. But this is significantly less for young workers – 12% of those workers aged 20 to 24. Only 3.5% of 'accommodation and food service activities' workers are in a union. Unionisation in the private sector is 14%, compared to 56% in the public sector. This shows a failure by most of the trade union tops over decades to reach out to new layers of workers and to build in previously unorganised but growing industries.

Instead we need unions that lead struggle – and in doing so expand their size. Time and again it has been shown that when strikes take place, workers join unions because it is clear why it's worth it. Many of the unions that formed the Labour Party in the first place had only been recently formed themselves through the New Unionism movement. Then low paid, un-unionised workers moved into struggle for the first time, using working class methods of strikes, picket lines and solidarity. They formed new unions to organise through. They quickly felt the need for a party to fight politically for the demands they were striking and marching for.

Like then, the trade union movement must be transformed from top to bottom into one fit for the battles we face. We need conscious campaigns to recruit and organise migrant workers, young workers, and those in precarious and unorganised sectors. We need efforts to recruit and train reps in every workplace to organise regular workplace meetings discussing industrial and political issues and feed workers' views into the rest of the union.

This type of change could win the vibrant trade unions we all need to play a full and proper part alongside a socialist Labour Party in the fight against the Tories and against austerity.


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