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Amid TUC decline, Britain’s radical unions grow

The Trades Union Congress is facing a decline in membership that many within the organisation are recognising as a crisis. At the same time more radical unions are not only growing but actively winning time and again. What do they offer that the TUC doesn’t?

The TUC’s membership crisis is a generational one. Of those currently in work, the generation with the highest density of union members is edging towards retirement.

Those following on behind them, currently around the middle of their working lives, are only marginally less likely to be union members — but they’re getting older. When we look at those just starting their working lives, however, the drop in density is stark. In essence, when older trade unionists retire there’s nobody coming in behind them. The next generation of workers simply isn’t unionised and the membership crisis is set to come to a head in about 15 years.

Under the TUC umbrella this has provoked reactions ranging from denial to panic. However, even when they acknowledge the problem that doesn’t mean the answer is necessarily useful. Seeing a TUC blog suggest that “instead of saying ‘let’s stand in solidarity together’ we might say ‘unions are your best way to get ahead at work’” tells you all you need to know about how wrong-headed the direction they’re heading in is.

But while the TUC is looking at “three new models” to “engage” young workers, ready to run a “full pilot” of what they view as the best in 2018, something far more crucial and exciting is happening. Workers are getting organised in the most precarious sectors of the economy and making enormous gains.

The traditional unions aren’t declining because young people don’t think they’re hip, or because the next generation is riddled with individualists looking for career advancement, willing to accept any affront from zero hours to unpaid overtime to do so. That kind of line only serves to accept the narrative of 21st century capitalism and justify a service-provider unionism which is clearly going nowhere. The actual reason for the decline is in the retreat to the public sector and other traditional strongholds of union membership such as manufacturing, dismissing the gig economy, the service sector and so on as “impossible to organise” and so hardly worth the time.

One recent honourable exception to that rule is the “McStrike” by the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). But in TUC terms this is an aberration, with stale parliamentary lobbies over the public sector pay freeze and the predictable one day strikes to follow more par for the course.

By contrast the efforts of unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) are truly inspiring. These unions have proudly staked a claim to the impossible to organise, and over the past couple of years there has been a marked growth in their numbers.

Cleaners and security guards in places such as the University of London, cycle couriers, private hire drivers, restaurant staff and more have quickly established themselves as the militant edge of the organised working class in Britain, far ahead of the sabre-rattling “awkward squad” of the TUC.

What’s important is that this militancy isn’t just defined by taking strike action. The civil service union PCS took more strike days than many other unions from 2010 to 2014 as it lost, in succession, disputes over pensions, pay and attacks on terms and conditions. But these low paid, precarious workers are actively winning. The Living Wage, outsourced workers getting the same conditions as in-house staff such as occupational sick pay and holidays, the reinstatement of sacked reps, the list goes on.

A key factor in this is the tactics, of course. Strikes which are called to inflict economic damage rather than as mere protests are the linchpin of a wider arsenal which has included occupations, blockades, marches and demonstrations far more loud and vibrant than veterans of dreary TUC-organised trudges across big cities may be familiar with. But these tactics are effective because they’re backed by effective grassroots organising and vibrant rank-and-file democracy.

You don’t have to be an anarchist to realise that the approach of the TUC unions is completely antithetical to this. The extreme examples are the open hostility of full time officials to lay members taking any initiative and doing things without their say-so and unions actively purging activists for having unpalatable politics.

More mundane is how live issues are stripped away from members to disappear into “negotiations in confidence” and stale campaign tactics imposed upon workers from above. Trade union politics are as weary and soul destroying as the most toxic office politics and any seasoned rep with an ounce of sense has long since been disillusioned and embittered by the whole thing.

In the 21st century, how we organise has to evolve. We have more ways than ever to communicate with our fellow workers, and they can be a great asset if used effectively. But the core principles of organising which works and yields results remains the same: talk face-to-face, agitate over issues that workers actually care about, pick winnable battles and use direct action to win them so that workers can realise their own collective power, escalate as more workers get involved.

In theory, that’s trade unionism 101. But even if a union has an organising model in theory, in practice it doesn’t sit well with the bureaucracy’s need to sustain itself and retain its handle on power at all costs. Democracy and autonomy for members and branches, too, are obstacles to this.

As workers, the prospect of a new generation not being organised should worry us. The attacks we’re currently facing are the result of a ruling class seeking to kick us when we’re down; they perceive the union movement as weak enough to allow them to roll back the gains of previous decades, and they’re not wrong. With a crunch in union membership, there can be no doubt that they’ll see the opportunity to stick the boot in further.

But as anarchists, we have an answer. It’s the same answer as it always has been — organising democratically from the ground up and using direct action — but the size of the movement putting it into practice is growing.

Unions like IWW, IWGB and UVW are doing so in the workplace, and though they’re worthy of an article all on their own it’s worth mentioning that tenants and claimants groups as well as organisations like Sisters Uncut are doing similarly excellent work in communities.

The importance of all this is that it’s not just a more effective way of making and defending real gains in the present. Combined with an anti-state and anti-capitalist perspective, it’s the movement we need to build if we’re going to shape our own future as well.

Who’s doing what

Industrial Workers of the World
Founded in the US in 1905, the syndicalist union currently lists 14 active branches around Britain, making it the most geographically diverse of the base unions. Particularly active in places such as Bristol and Sheffield, it has a solid organising background and excellent international contacts.

Independent Workers of Great Britain
Originally organised as an offshoot of the IWW, IWGB has made its bones working with precarious and migrant workforces across London, particularly in universities, and recently made a big splash by facing off against controversial taxi app service Uber over its treatment of staff.

Solidarity Federation
Doesn’t have official workplace branches as it is not a registered union, but maintains a strong presence in Brighton and active Locals in half a dozen cities nationwide.

United Voices of the World
Strong presence with migrant workers in London, fighting casualisation and for the Living Wage. Recently backed the Ferrari Two in their wage fight against H R Owen.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal

Pic: Deliveroo workers rally in August last year, by Steve Eason

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