What’s the big deal about the trade unions?

We’re seeing a lot of talk about the trade unions; in the news, on social media, maybe from the mouths of your workmates. But what are they? What’s the big deal about the unions? What role do they play in society and in the socialist movement? 
James Larkin

We’re seeing a lot of talk about the trade unions; in the news, on social media, maybe from the mouths of your workmates. But what are they? What’s the big deal about the unions? What role do they play in society and in the socialist movement? 

Consider this; 

  • Since 2008, 18-21 year-olds’ wages have been cut by 16% in real terms (meaning we are worse off today than we would have been over a decade ago in the same jobs); 
  • Minimum wage is held so low, that even if you’re working 40-hour weeks, you’re still barely scraping above the poverty line;
  • There are at least 1.8 million workers in the UK on zero-hour contracts, meaning none of these workers have any guaranteed income from week to week, and lose out on a lot of employment rights;
  • A UCL study showed that those on minimum wage contracts are 50% more likely to develop mental health problems than those on guaranteed hours contracts
  • Workers have fought for and won an 8 hour work day throughout the last century, but in many sectors today, shift lengths average closer to 10-12 hours in length;
  • A Unite the Union survey also found that 9 in 10 hospitality workers have either experienced sexual harassment first hand, or witnessed it happen to a coworker.
  • Millions of workers have lost their job as the bosses throw them under the bus at the first sign of crisis.

Why are these conditions the norm? Hasn’t everybody had to tighten their belt recently?

These inhumane working conditions have been upheld in the context of industry bosses (in hospitality and retail especially) boasting of their most profitable years in decades. The top bosses are getting richer precisely because they’ve been able to give us nothing more than the crumbs off the table for so long. They’ve been able to get away with this, fundamentally because they have out-organised us. The bosses get together to push for their interests to be heard, and we need to do the same. 

It’s no coincidence that youth trade union membership is as low as 3% and that the sectors which are made up of mostly young people are the ones with the worst conditions. Minimum wage and 0 hour contracts are largely symptoms of sectors without a trade union presence, because without workers getting together to ensure their voices and demands are heard employers will continue to squeeze every last penny they can get out of us, with no regard for our wellbeing. 

The essence of trade unionism is you getting together with your workmates, identifying the issues and wants that you have in common, and acting collectively to achieve your demands. Start a whatsapp group with coworkers you trust and talk about the issues you have at work, then contact your trade union. By joining a trade union, you get support from experienced organisers – and workers everywhere – to help you win. Our rights have never been handed to us out of a moment of kindness from the capitalist politicians, but are won by workers taking collective action to demand them.

More and more young people are starting to get organised and fightback against the conditions they face. We’ve witnessed TGI Friday workers strike for fair tips, McDonalds workers fight for a living wage, Wetherspoons workers fight for better conditions,McDonalds workers fight for an end to sexual-harassment at work, we’ve seen nurses fight for better pay. Then during the current crisis, we’re seeing workers across a variety of workplaces- Premier Inn, Marriott, Hastings, Wetherspoons (I could go on) – fight and win 100% of their wages during furlough, a reversal of the company’s decision not to furlough them, a reversal of redundancies.

Currently, we’re witnessing Debenhams workers in the South take incredible protest action to save their jobs (whilst strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines). In their fights, these workers are setting such a strong example to others – they’re proving that you don’t have to and shouldn’t sit back and accept attacks on your living and working conditions, that when you and your coworkers get together you can secure significant improvements

The trade unions also have a special significance in Northern Ireland. Our history is often taught as the history of “us vs them”, but actually we have a very rich history of Protestant and Catholic workers coming together and fighting on their shared class interests-such as the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike, the 1919 engineering strike, the 1907 dockers’ and carters’ strike (more info on these can be found on our website). It is in the workplaces where many workers meet people from the “other side” of the community, often for the first time.

The workplace is where Catholics and Protestants are subjected to the same exploitation by the same bosses. Peter Hadden, an Irish Marxist, said, “Common misery teaches the virtue of solidarity”. The trade union movement organises 250,000 workers in the north, across the community divides. Trade unions are an essential foundation of the potential for cross-community struggle. The bosses, with their divide and rule tactics at hand, fear nothing more than workers recognising that they have more in common with their fellow workers from across the divide, than they do with their bosses of the same religion.  Twice in recent years – in 2011 and 2015 – the unions brought tens of thousands onto the streets to oppose austerity, giving workers just a glimpse of their power.

Unfortunately, the potential of these movements has been cut across by conservative trade union leaders who would rather seek so-called ‘partnership’ with the bosses and politicians than assist workers in organising to fight to defend our living standards, rights and public services. This was graphically demonstrated by the abdication of responsibility by the majority of union leaders in the aftermath of the 2011 and 2015 public sector strikes. They were unwilling and unprepared to follow up these one-day strikes with serious campaigns of industrial action that could have won important victories for working-class people. Similarly, during this crisis, prominent leaders in the trade unions have pushed the idea that “we are all in this together”, when this patently is not the case. 

Socialist Party members are active fighters to build unions in our workplaces, industries and sectors. At the same time, we campaign with other activists to transform the unions into democratic, fighting organisations which are controlled by their members, with the election of officals who live on the

Workers face many problems today. With the looming global economic depression, criminally low wages and poor conditions, alongside cuts to already underfunded public services – it is absolutely vital that we are organised and prepared to fight back against any attacks that are made against us. Get together with your workmates and join your trade union. Trade union action shows us the power that we have as workers to change society.

But as Larkin alluded to over a century ago, trade unionism is but one fist that a worker can fight with; we need political representation as well. The joining together of the political and industrial strength of the workers’ and socialist movement are how we can secure real change. The trade unions, isolated, can fight only for a regulation of the exploitation we face, not its entire overthrow. Capitalists will always try to roll back on the rights workers secure for ourselves. So, we must also build a revolutionary socialist party to politically direct the power of the working class – not towards a never-ending battle in the fight for reforms, but in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and the building of a socialist society.  Help us build that political power. Join the Socalist Party today – for workers’ unity and socialism!

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