What kind of union movement do we need?

The question has to be asked: what kind of trade union movement will workers need to deal with existing and future attacks on our living standards?

By Paddy Meehan

The past 18 months have seen strike after strike with workers from the postal service to nurses taking to the picket line across Northern Ireland and Britain. Many of these disputes have seen significant  pay increases while most have seen important concessions from the bosses. However, workers are still being made to suffer the burden of inflation and many companies in tech and finance are announcing significant redundancies in the face of further economic crisis. So the question has to be asked: what kind of trade union movement will workers need to deal with existing and future attacks on our living standards?

It’s clear bold and determined action will be required but to date the primary strategy being employed by the trade union leaders has been the ‘long dispute’. This strategy employed in the rail, communications and health strikes has been one of intermittent strike action and lobbying for talks to bring pressure to bear on employers to ‘do the right thing’. This is a misunderstanding of the main goal of the employers which is to preserve and maximise profit at the detriment of workers. Instead a programme of struggle is needed with significant and sustained strike action to defeat the bosses, not convince them. Strikes that have won have generally been shorter and sharper with a specific target and a good knowledge of what will hurt the bosses – knowing the weak points that can stall production, effective picketing, identifying and pressurising key investors.

To do this real engagement and input is needed for workers themselves. Secret negotiations and a lack of communication from union tops about disputes have pushed workers out of any real control of their own strikes. Instead workers themselves have the best knowledge about how their disputes could be run. Weekly or daily mass strike meetings where workers can debate and discuss the disputes and how to make them more effective would transform many of the disputes ongoing at the minute.

Trade unions are an organised example of the need for the working class to protect itself from the constant push by the bosses to lower costs through wage suppression, increased productivity and throwing workers on the scrapheap when they’re deemed surplus to requirements. Rather than a lobbying body or arbitrator, unions should be run by and accountable to their own members. This requires real democracy through networks of reps and shop stewards which could act as forums for mass participation of workers. It is also crucial that those in elected positions in the union movement are connected to and directly accountable to their members – officials should be subject to recall and should earn no more than the average wage of the workers they represent.

Fundamentally the power that the trade union movement holds flows from the role working class people play in keeping society going. When we withdraw our labour, as the recent upsurge in strike action has shown, we can bring society and the profits of big business to a halt. Faced with a cost of living crisis that is slashing working class people’s living standards, we urgently need a trade union movement based on building workers power – bringing striking workers together and coordinating action to be as effective as possible, utilising every tool at our disposal to win.

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