Education is the starting point for all progressive movements. All activism has to be guided by ideas and all organising has to be built upon a foundation of popular knowledge and shared understanding. This said, what should be the educational priorities for the trade union movement struggling to revitalise itself?
I will attempt to answer this question from the perspective of a UK based trade union activist with broader concerns for social justice on an international scale. To begin with I will try to illustrate the nature and extent of the current trade union crisis by drawing on several well informed sources. Drawing further on these sources I will argue that our current situation is the result of a crisis of identity brought on by a loss of vision and perspective. We will then briefly look at some signs of dissatisfaction within the trade union movement. Using this understanding of the current crisis, and hopefully building on this dissatisfaction, I propose the need for education for revitalisation – an education program run by and for trade union activists in which we collectively learn to conceptualise economic justice as a means of recovering a common identity based on an alternative vision of society and thus overcoming our crisis.
The Nature and Extent of the Current Trade Union Crisis
"There is no question today that the labor movement is in crisis" said Dan Gallin at a Global Unions, Global Justice Conference in 2006. He then went on to describe the nature and extent of the current crisis as follows – "What we are facing is: … "
• serious loss of membership in most countries of the world, especially in the unions’ industrial heartland in Western Europe and North America;
• an inability to organise the huge and growing mass of unorganised workers, not least in the informal economy;
• the lack of political and industrial power to resist and defeat repression, either in the form of a systematic campaign of murders, as in Colombia, or of State policy, as in China and many other authoritarian States, or of anti-labor legislation backed by a hostile government, as in the United States or in Australia;
• lack of capacity to resist the dismantling of social protection, of social services and of public property, an agenda carried out by conservative and social-democratic governments alike (as in most of Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, and, under pressure from the IMF, in Africa, Asia and Latin America).
More specific examples of the crisis are found in an article by George Monbiot discussing the relationship between the (UK) Labour party and the affiliated trade unions. Monbiot writes that Gordon Brown’s government "has room for no professional trade unionists." However, he continues referring to Digby Jones (previous head of the Confederation of British Industry and current minister for trade and investment) " it does contain their sworn enemy." It was Digby Jones – who Monbiot informs us "refuses to join the Labour party" but has "been permitted to enter the government on his own terms" – who "campaigned to freeze the minimum wage, neuter the EU’s working time directive, block corporate killing laws, promote privatisation, cripple environmental rules, and curtail maternity leave." He has also said of trade unions that they are an "irrelevance", "backward looking" and "not on today’s agenda".
Despite this disgraceful situation Monbiot points out that "some important victories have been won since 1997". For example we now have "a minimum wage, better pension protection, improvements in parental leave, and better conditions for part-time workers." But he also points out that "the list of defeats is much longer" -
"There is the private finance initiative, doggedly promoted by Gordon Brown, which now dominates the provision of most public services. There is the creeping marketisation of health and education … And the government has refused to repeal Thatcher’s draconian union laws … we still don’t have a corporate killing act. Inequality has reached scarcely imaginable levels, tax evasion is rampant, the railways are still in private hands, council housing remains moribund, companies don’t have to publish operating and financial reviews, and the minimum wage is far from being a living wage. And there is still the small matter of an illegal war in which perhaps a million people have died."
Incredibly, Monbiot reports, "The cash-for-honours scandal has frightened off almost all the major private donors, leaving the party largely dependent on union funds." So, Monbiot asks, "what do they intend to do with all this power?", He concludes "To judge by their recent statements, nothing". "Desperate to believe, union leaders cling to broken promises. They refuse to utter the only threat that Brown will heed: disaffiliation".
In an attempt to try and gauge trade union desperation Monbiot phoned the TGWU and asked a spokesman "what might prompt disaffiliation"? "Nothing," he told me." Monbiot pushed the point asking – "
"So if Labour adopted the swastika as its logo and started holding torch-lit rallies in Parliament Square, it could still count on the TGWU’s support? "That’s an extreme example," he replied. But he did not deny it."
The Root Causes of the Current Trade Union Crisis
Returning to the "Global Unions,Global Justice Conference" speech Gallin then asked "Why has this happened?" He states that this "crisis is generally attributed to the economic, social and, ultimately, political effects of globalisation, unfolding in the 1980′s and 1990′s". However, for Gallin these are "true insights, but they are partial truths and partial insights". For Gallin the "crisis of the trade union movement today is in fact the outcome of a larger crisis of the broader labor movement, which began much earlier, much before the onset of globalisation." According to Gallin "To understand what has happened, we need to do a flash back, about seventy years ago or more" –
"Fascism in Europe, whatever else it may have been, was a gigantic union busting exercise. Its consequences, and the consequences of WW2 , are too often forgotten. A whole generation of labour activists, the best people, disappeared in concentration camps, in the war, or did not come back from exile."
"At the end of the war" Gallin continues "the labor movement re-emerged, superficially strong, because it was part of the Allied cause, and had won the war, whereas capital was on the defensive, having largely collaborated with fascism in the Axis countries and in occupied Europe." However, Gallin adds –
"In reality, the labour movement had been greatly weakened, with a decimated leadership and its capacity to act as an independent social force severely undermined. All democratic governments in post-war Europe were initially supportive of the labour agenda and consequently the trade unions, in their weakened condition, developed an over-reliance on the State. No longer was there any aspiration to represent an alternative society. Amidst the new found peace and prosperity, the labour movement had disarmed ideologically and politically."
As a result of these historic events Gallin argues that the "real crisis of the labour movement is a crisis of identity and perspective". Continuing this theme Gallin adds that "a serious challenge to the domination of global transnational capital cannot be mounted unless the labor movement recovers a common identity based on an alternative vision of society: the vision of freedom, justice and equality that inspired it at its origins and made it the greatest mass movement in history." Gallin states that "We do have an international trade union movement, such as it is. It has no vision, and it does not inspire anyone." Adding that "What we have here is an ideology of global "social partnership."" and for Gallin "the ideology of "social partnership", which became dominant in the labour movement in the three decades following WW2, has now become the main obstacle to the necessary renewal of the movement."
In a similar vein to Monbiot’s earlier comment regarding "union leaders cling to broken promises" Gallin observes –
"Large parts of the trade union movement are still unable to come to terms with the loss of their presumed "social partners", even while transnational capital has obviously abandoned any "partnership" perspective and is using its vastly increased power to unilaterally impose its interests on society."
Some Signs of Dissatisfaction
There are however those who seem willing to face up to the reality of the situation. In his article Monbiot also quotes Bob Crow, the leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), who recently told the other unions that "any hope of the Labour party working for workers is dead, finished, over. I think all you who are staying in the Labour party are just giving credibility to it." In 2006 the RMT sponsored a conference at which over 300 trade union activists called for "the establishment of a National Shop Stewards’ Network". At the conference Bob Crow stated that "If we are to roll back the tide of privatisation and war, rebuilding the grassroots of our movement is essential." The conference collectively declared that " … enough is enough; we can and must turn the tide. It is time we got together to organise the fight-back against the whole range of attacks and the laws that aid and abet them."
Similarly Elaine Bernard of the Harvard Trade Union Program has argued that revitalisation of the trade union movement requires a return to what she refers to as their "social movement heritage". What Bernard is referring to here is Labour movement campaigns that resulted in the National Labour Relations act (US) of 1935, the purpose of which was " … not simply to provide a procedural mechanism to end industrial strife in the workplace [as with social partnership]. Rather, this monumental piece of New Deal legislation had a far more ambitious mission: to promote industrial democracy."
Bernard points out that " … workers are schooled every day at work to believe that democracy stops at the factory or office door. But democracy is not an extracurricular activity that can be regulated to evenings and weekends." She argues that "labor today needs to tap this source of wider appeal for unions by placing the extension of democracy into the workplace front and center."
This is not to say that trade unions should abandon the bread and butter issues of the day to day support of its members. Bernard rightly points out that "there has always been a tension within unions between servicing members and fulfilling the wider social mission of labor to serve the needs of all working people, whether they are organised or not." But for Bernard "it is becoming increasingly clear in today’s political environment that unions need to do both" -
"Unions, like any organisation, will not survive if they do not serve the needs of their members. But unions will not survive and grow, if they only serve the needs of their members."
Education for Revitalisation
However, as radical-progressive economist Robin Hahnel has commented –
As important as it is for union members and elected officials to move their unions beyond bread and butter , or "business" unionism, Bernard’s proposals would only return the [ ... ] labour movement to its pre-Cold War agenda.
This observation is also true (but in different ways) of the National Shop Stewards Network which as it stands would only return the UK trade union movement back to its pre-Thatcher position. Although Bernard’s proposals are welcomed as a "necessary first step", for Hahnel "If [ ... ] unions are going to promote the economics of equitable co-operation more successfully in the twenty-first century than they did in the twentieth, they are going to have to change in other ways as well." Drawing attention to a central weakness in the trade union movement Hahnel states that –
" … few union leaders today could tell you if they thought the workers they represent are exploited because they are not paid their marginal revenue product, or exploited precisely because they are paid their marginal revenue product … As passionate as union leaders are about economic justice, they have a remarkably difficult time saying clearly what it is."
"No wonder" Hahnel concludes "the most powerful progressive movement of the twentieth century, the union movement, became confused and hypocritical on the subject most central to its own mission." Picking up on Gallin’s earlier point regarding a lack of alternative vision within the labour movement, Hahnel points out that -
"Unfortunately most unions have fallen into the ideological trap of justifying wage demands on the basis of the market value of their member’s contribution, their marginal-revenue product"
Again echoing Gallin’s earlier point Hahnel argues that "Unions must return to their mission of being the hammer for economic justice in capitalism" adding that –
"There is no good reason unions can’t do a better job of educating their members about economic justice."
According to Hahnel "Unions don’t have to wait on new organising successes to teach present members what economic justice is and is not. This is not ground that should be difficult to conquer." He continues -"The first step is to clear our own heads of cobwebs and relearn how to preach to the choir."
Learning to Conceptualise Economic Justice
Of course trade union education should never be dogmatic. Rather, its primary function should be to encourage a rich and lively intellectual working class culture. The only guiding principles for a course on economic justice would probably be that it takes as its starting point the values of solidarity, democracy, freedom, equality and justice that historically have underpinned the labour movement. From there we can clarify these values and use them as a kind of criteria for assessing and evaluating how good or bad any economic system is by our standards. We can also explore means of organising our economy so that these values become real. In other words, we collectively design institutional features for an economy that would actually deliver traditional labour values.
Such courses already exist both online and in book form. For example Michael Albert’s "Thinking Forward" which is a book based on an online course on economic vision. Part one of this interactive book sets the scene by asking "What is an Economy?" Participants are encouraged to identify the basic functions – Production, Allocation and Consumption – of any economy.
Following from this basic introductory understanding there are sections exploring different values for production, allocation and consumption. This is followed by a further exploration of possible institutional features for production, allocation and consumption. Naturally enough, from this exploration a number of questions emerge that are central to economic justice. For example -
• Ownership – who should own economic institutions?
• Internal structure – how should the workplace / economy be organised?
• Decision-making – how and by who should decisions be made?
• Remuneration – what criteria should we use to work out how much people get paid?
• Planning – by what overall means should we manage the production and consumption of goods and services?
• Impact – we may also want to consider the effect that any given economic system has on other social spheres – such as the political, kinship, community spheres – as well as the natural environment.
There are also sections on "Existing Visionary Options" and "Evaluating Economic Vision". In these section we identify already existing economic models – for example variants of capitalist economics, socialist economics, community economics and participatory economics. We then clarify the institutional features of these economic models and consider means of evaluating them. Perhaps most importantly this process equips participants with the intellectual tools to go beyond evaluating existing models and empowers them to consider alternatives and potentially invent entirely novel economic systems.
The result of this process is that trade union activists would be able to think for themselves in a non-dogmatic fashion about economic justice. They would be able to participate in a lively debate about an issue that is of central importance and interest to all labour movement activists. Of course, when thinking about economic justice not everyone will agree on every detail. But with clarity and consistency of thought we can expect that some broad agreement on the basic institutional features that go to constitute a model of economic justice can be achieved.
The generation of such an intellectual culture within the trade union movement is what is necessary if we are to address the crisis we find ourselves in today. By teaching such courses we address the root cause of the crisis – which, as we have seen, is a crisis of identity brought on by a loss of vision and perspective. Furthermore such courses are the only means by which we can genuinely recover a common identity based on an alternative vision of society. Education for economic justice is therefore a crucial first step towards trade union revitalisation.