For fighting, political unions!
“Now I'm a union man, Amazed at what I am, I say what I think, that the company stinks. Yes I'm a union man” – some of you may remember this as the opening verse of the Strawbs hit single which hit the charts in 1973.
As a piece of nostalgia, it leaves a glow but we are now in an era where being part of a union is not as straightforward as their lyrics suggest.
Three of the UK’s largest unions are going through leadership changes and the machine politics of the right has so far triumphed in two of the elections with Unison and the GMB returning Starmer sympathetic general secretaries. There is a bit of good news with the 'left' taking the majority of the NEC places on the Unison NEC, including the position of President.
Perhaps the most important is yet to poll – Unite with the prize of succeeding Len McClusky as the goal. As one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters – and a vocal critic of Starmer’s lurch to a policy lite right stance – this is a key election for both wings of the Labour Party.
As the right cement their control of the machine – did they ever relinquish it? – unions are the last hope of a challenge to the leadership within the Party in face of a PLP that is little more than a nodding dog.
If you go back fifty years, the trade union movement was the backbone of the Labour Party and workers’ rights, pay & conditions and role in the economy were central to the Party’s policies.
Now, as we consider the Anneliese Dodds’ led “Labour’s Stronger Tougher roadmap” which was previewed recently (who comes up with these meaningless straplines?), it is clear that the idea of supporting workers is over.
A trite promise for “Better jobs and work” – what an earth does that mean? – is number one on a list that gets vaguer by the pledge. “Public services that work”, “A future where families come first”– really, how does these make Labour different from the Tories’ lies?
But what is telling is the complete absence of any practical or specific support for trade unions fighting to protect their members’ jobs or pay as employers use Covid to restructure and make redundancies.
McClusky has been a constant voice reminding the Labour leader of the day that workers should come first in a party indebted to the trade union movement.
But if the runes are being read accurately by those watching the Unite poll, it is likely that Unite’s left leaning influence will be diluted by whoever is chosen.
For the left, continuing to organise within trade unions is vital as one of the few organisations in the labour movement where debate and democratic discussions are still possible – albeit increasingly confined to those unions on the left.
The Labour Party has been hollowed out in terms of democracy with even MPs now rebelling against Starmer’s presidential style of leadership which looks like being a negative factor in the upcoming Batley and Spen byelection.
For the maintenance of a class perspective where workers come first and organising in the workplace should be a natural Labour pledge, the left needs to fight for every opportunity to influence how trade unions fight back against attacks by the Tories.