How do we revive the global union movement?

The global labour movement is at a crossroads.

That’s the verdict of Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School in Barnsley this week. Workers are being hit by neoliberalism across the world – that much is obvious – but politically, the issue is this: how are unions to respond in the face of supposedly left-wing parties that have conceded to many of the neoliberal policies unions despise?

It’s question being asked while the populist right soar in much of the global north – filling the void where previously socialist politics would have existed.

Fletcher sees the current attacks on workers – from privatisation to public sector cuts – as representing the ‘obliteration of the social contract’ that emerged following the Second World War. But it was a social contract that was also ‘historically specific’ – built amid fear of the red threat.

It’s a message echoed by Asbjørn Wahl of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. For him, the tripartite state-union-employer relationship dominant across much of Europe following World War Two was the ‘child of class compromise’ – a child that’s now left home. In other words, there’s no going back. But neither should we. Capitalist and union cooperation dampened the radicalism of working class in an attempt to bolster support for the Cold War.

While it did lead to several decades of social progress in the West, social democracy became a mere ‘mediator between classes’. Such mediation became the final aim of the labour movement. And in capitulating to this, they gave up on socialism, contributing to an ideological crisis on the left.

Yet the end of the social democratic accord in the 1980s has made nation states less and less responsive to popular demands, while the stresses of neoliberal globalisation turn populations against one another. For Fletcher, the system’s weakness has created a breeding ground for a right-wing populism – what he amusingly calls ‘the herpes of capitalism’ – that is now on the rise across Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, any resistance to the neoliberal project is met with repression.

There is clearly a strong sense of alienation among people however. It’s up to the left to politicise this discontent. To do this will require broad new social alliances, concrete alternatives, and unions taking on broader political responsibility amidst mainstream party capitulation, Wahl claims. Such alternatives must be built on a minimum programme that includes standing against austerity, taxing the rich, cancelling public debt, socialising finance and defending democracy.

The current crisis is of course political. The response must also be political – rebuilding labour movement and rebuilding left must go hand in hand. There’s no going back to the corporatism of the 1970s. But Fletcher argues unions can be a ‘civilising force amid the current chaos’ – if they go through a reformation.

Such a reformation must involve the re-radicalisation and re-politicisation of unions instead of continuing a business or servicing model. And that’s no small task. But if the labour movement is to get out of this current conjuncture, we can’t depend on doing the same and expecting different results. Nor can we rely on revivalism and nostalgia for some by-gone social democratic past. Instead, we need a fresh start if we’re going to have any chance of challenging the ‘capitalism on crack’ that is the current paradigm. That will include working with social movements like those that organised the millions-strong Madrid march against austerity in March. If we do this, Wahl says, ‘we have a chance to avoid extinction’. It is, therefore, a chance we can’t afford to miss.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘Capitalism, Anti-Capitalism and the Trade Union Movement’.


Unions get behind alternative resistance

After appearing to settle down after March 26th’s half a million strong ‘march for the alternative’, the anti-cuts movement has been boosted in Britain in recent weeks by some hugely encouraging developments within the unions, flying in the face of those who wish to marginalise organised workers in the campaign.

Unions have found new ways to tackle attacks on the public sector in the past few months – and now PCS civil servants union and the TSSA transport union have agreed to join in ‘non-violent resistance’ to the sweeping austerity being imposed on the UK and Europe as a whole.

The TSSA at its conference on Friday passed a resolution to encourage ‘participation in non-violent resistance activities in conjunction with others such as trade unions, trades councils, the People’s Charter, the Coalition of Resistance and local community organisations’.

This follows the PCS union just a month or so ago voting to ‘fully support the protests and peaceful civil disobedience tactics used by the grassroots campaigners UK Uncut’. Members are being encouraged to join the demonstrations – Cornwall has its own action in Camelford on the 10th June and it is hoped that members in the area will attend.

These developments are not purely symbolic or ‘muscle flexing’. The PCS represents over 300,000 workers. Such a mandate of support can go a long way at countering the emerging stigma against anti-cuts action following demonstrations over the past year.

Even the NUS is getting in on the conference season’s radical policy changes, declaring (albeit quietly) on the 17th of May its opposition to ‘Israel’s siege on Gaza and actively campaign for it to be lifted in accordance with international law’. This is a big shift from the NUS policy of 2008 which refused to condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza which killed 1400 Palestinian civilians.

Yes, motions like these are passed and some perhaps ignored every year. But they highlight real moves towards unity and solidarity which have been missing for a long time. And the PCS decision led to one of UK Uncut’s strongest Days of Action of the year.

Back in ’68…Building an anti-cuts NUS and an international movement

[This piece was written for Militant Student]

The president of the London School of Economics student union, David Adelstein, and Marshall Bloom, president of the Graduate Students’ Association, have been suspended for taking part in demonstrations and direct action against their leadership. Millions of people are taking to the streets in France, and there are massive protests in the US after the government ignores its people’s demands. The year? 1967.

But there are some crucial differences. In the ‘60s university education was free – indeed they actually paid students to go to university. Britain was under a relatively left-wing Labour government. Today we are facing the most brutal cuts for generations – and university fees are being tripled, alongside unprecedented cuts to teaching budgets and the humanities. These are disturbing, and simultaneously exciting, times. As nearly 100,000 workers join forces with students every day in Wisconsin, revolutions break out in the Middle East and Northern Africa and Britain prepares for it’s largest demonstration in years on March 26th – times seem to be changing. In a very big way.

And yet the head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King said recently he’s ‘surprised people aren’t angrier’. When a representative of the bourgeoisie says makes this kind of comment, students and workers know it is time to take the action to another level.

This action is becoming international. Spurred on by the student protests of last year, UK Uncut formed to challenge tax dodging. Just a few months later it has spawned off-shoots in the US, France, Canada and Sudan. In a globalised economy, direct action is too becoming globalised.

At home, however, over 100,000 UCU members look likely to strike this month, and like the radical students of the 1960s we should be joining these lecturers in solidarity – a concept summarised in the book ‘Student Power’ over 40 years ago – ‘the first students to revolt…may not be those who suffer most acutely’. For school and college students to see people already in university protesting against the rise in fees is immensely inspiring, and has strengthened the movement. In this ‘renewal of revolutionary politics’ we are seeing 17 year olds radicalising people in their 50s who were active during the miners strikes of the ‘80s. This is a unity the left hasn’t seen for a long time, and the recent election result in Ireland (five United Left Alliance candidates were elected) only adds to the evidence that unity can have a fortifying impact upon the cause for democratic change.

Figures alone mean little, but the left groups of the UK have seen their numbers grow over the past year, a fact that all socialists and students should welcome. These developments add to the call for a fighting NUS, and after Aaron Porter’s standing down, Mark Bergfeld (for president) and Michael Chessman’s (for vice-president of FE) election campaigns have shown there is a real chance for the National Union of Students to be transformed, as in the late ‘60s, to a body that truly defends its members.

But after the exam period, it is imperative that the movement is revitalised. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are set to lose their jobs this year. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, who are being hit disproportionately. Pandering to the national press, however, is the ‘freedom of the lemming’, as one commentator put it. November’s student protest last year put young people on the map, and sparked a national revolt. Both the March 26 demonstration and the march from Jarrow to London on the 1st of October will bring together many groups, but it is in the student unions and local communities that we must develop the fight – the anti-poll tax campaign had groups in nearly every part of the country when it was introduced.

So as youth unemployment reaches a million, like the LSE student union president of 1967, SU’s must put all they can into building diverse and progressive campaigns against the cuts, and ensuring that this year is the year for a left NUS. Adelstein, it’s worth knowing, was reinstated as president after a militant 10-day occupation at the university. Just something to take note of…

The national movement made local – updates for action in Cornwall

There are a few events taking place over the next coming of months which might not be worth missing. The recent Supporting People demonstration outside County Hall showed that more and more are willing to actively oppose the cuts – but there’s a lot more on its way.

Firstly, the increasing activity on the anti-cuts front in Cornwall. With the NHS consultation touring the area – and apparently hoping no one turns up – a perfect opportunity is offered for those who oppose the insidious privatisation of health-care. People will be out on the streets leafletting all over the county before March 26th to encourage as many as possible to come to the huge March for the Alternative in London this month. If you can help with leafletting, send Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance an email at

UK Uncut has been off the radar in Cornwall recently, but the next day of action (whenever that is) should see some interesting actions in Truro, or potentially spreading to Penzance, Camborne, Redruth. Who knows. A library in Bodmin was occupied recently in opposition to library funding cuts, so there are people in most towns willing to put on some form of light-hearted dissent. There will be more intense rebellion in other quarters of the coalition of resistance.

The student movement, for a start. Since 15,000 people took to the streets on January 29th, the movement has become more localised and has manifested itself in a revived occupation season. Glasgow was occupied, and then several others followed suit. I’m sure, with the momentum, Falmouth University compatriots will be willing to enter that exciting status – ‘occupation’ – at some point again. This time, perhaps a lecture theatre would be better than a large cafeteria. Still, tents are better than no tents.

Slightly less radical but no less important is the half-day seminar on the Equality Act at the Eden Project on the 10th May, hosted by Equality South West. Something to look out for no doubt. Also: Take Part Cornwall (where have all these groups come from?) are organising a community citizenship session on the 9th of March on how to campaign effectively and ‘get your voice heard’. There probably won’t be direct action workshops  – but the free lunch looks tempting. Anyway. Back to the important stuff.

Two pieces of new today alone show that there is more than student fees to fight though. Cornwall Council are shutting down recycling facilities at all Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Cornwall, and scrapping £200k of funding for recycling schemes. Instead, private companies will be ‘contracted’ to offer limited facilities in out-of-town areas. Progress? I’m sure this will go a long way to reducing Britain’s waste problem. So with the Unitary Council opting out of green initiatives like this, central government meanwhile are being shunned by South Western Ambulance Service, which is becoming a foundation trust. It will be given more ‘financial flexibility’, but exactly what that means is unclear. Flexibility to lay of more staff or cut wages, perhaps. Or, like the council, to pull in even more private contractors to our vital public services.

And the prospect of a double-dip recession looks ever more likely.

By the way:

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance is undergoing big changes, with plans to launch into a mass, democratic body over the next few weeks. Trade unions are being linked up with as well as local community groups. Updates will be on the Canticall site as soon as possible.

The pretext of consensus: Why the anti-cuts movement needs structure

One of the most profound questions that the anti-cuts movement currently faces is one not necessarily of leadership, but one of structure. Most groups begin as forums for discussion. But as decisive action needs to be taken, structure begins to develop. Indeed it needs to develop. The point here is this – since these groups eventually assume roles, leaders, hierarchies and as they increase in size – it is better for these to develop democratically, for elected roles to be assumed, than personalities assuming roles without mandate under the pretext of consensus  or that everyone’s voice is theoretically equal.

The critique I express here isn’t one against ‘consensus decision making’, used frequently in anarchist, green and other political circles. Because there isn’t anything inherently wrong in that. But frankly, it is not what we have in the anti-cuts movement, especially in Cornwall. What we have is certain voices becoming dominant and decisions being made without even reference to consensus, and certainly without democratic voting. The fear of minutes, agendas, and chair/secretary/treasurer roles is mostly irrational. These tools are democratic, they get decisions made and they ensure that the voice of an individual person does not exert undue influence upon the will of the majority – again under the pretext of consensus.

The Green party were notoriously sceptical of leaders for a long time. Shortly after the party elected a leader, they also got elected their first MP. Caroline Lucas has given a huge boost to the Green party and a clear direction.

Of course, there is the question of UK Uncut, a loose-knit coalition of groups across the country. And it works. But it works because the idea is simple, and because it is mostly just a protest-brand that groups can attach themselves to and work around – democratically. Those at the ‘top’ of UK Uncut do not necessarily need to be elected because they merely facilitate the functioning of autonomous groups across the country. Nonetheless, how much longer can we go on trying to bring down a government through Facebook and Twitter? Sooner or later, people will want those at the top to be accountable to them.

On a smaller scale, this is equally essential. We are facing the most vicious cuts in living memory. Communities around the country are organising, but the pace is slow, and more so if three quarters of discussion regards the 1980s and not what we are facing now.

This debate will not end soon, and it is a healthy one to have. But the essential thing that the left must bear in mind is that if we become mere debating societies and cannot make firm and democratic decisions, Cameron and Osbourne will have the easiest four years of their lives, while the demonstrations get smaller and less focused. This is not 1968. There is no time to reminisce.


Democracy and direction – lessons from the unions

There are now probably more than a dozen significant anti-fees and cuts organisations involved in the fight against the government’s right-wing agenda. There’s been varying amounts of co-operation between these campaigns since November, with activists from the vast array of networks coming together in the national Days of Action. The media are not incorrect when they say that a large number of these protests are organised via Facebook and Twitter. Certainly much of the action conducted in Cornwall has been done this way, with students, Labour party members and the emerging Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the foreground.  But will this movement fizzle out without a leader? Or will it merely lead to a more grassroots-led campaign?

Laurie Penny has been arguing extensively in the New Statesman for a more ‘democratic’ approach, that is, a campaign run by students which has no fixed leadership. But the worry is that the movement loses momentum and coherence if it continues in the form of unaccountable groups, setting up events through Facebook in the hope that everyone else follows suit. But another frightening aspect of the criticisms of leadership concerns the casual dismissal of trade unions. Coordinated strike action will have a bigger impact on the government than a few thousand getting kettled in Parliament Square.

Part of the fear of leadership stems from the NUS’s timidity, nay, aversion, when it comes to supporting the student movement. Aaron Porter has truly failed young people in his attacks on the Millbank occupiers, his support for cuts (as leaked to the Telegraph) and his failure to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of the idea of leadership in general. Len McCluskey of Unite has been immensely vocal in his opposition to the cuts, calling for a programme of strikes. Similarly, Matt Wrack of the FBU, figures in the CWU, and most clearly, Mark Serwotka of the PCS (which leads the ‘There is an Alternative’ campaign), are all indispensable presences in the anti-cuts movement.

There is no way around it. Unions are democratic. They are organised. And they have 7 million members. Student support for the unions should not merely be tactical though. It is a moral issue. The working class will lose out more because of the cuts than middle-class students. 1.3m jobs are at risk because of the government’s economic plans. The higher rate of VAT will punish families. Cuts to housing benefit will force 300,000 out of their homes – in London alone. The assault on welfare – £18bn in cuts – is going to be detrimental to both workers and the unemployed. Students have to stand alongside workers as a matter of principle – the principle of solidarity.

This sense of solidarity is in danger of being broken. The Socialist Workers’ Party, famous for their unsteady reputation on the left and the right, have organised demonstrations about education in Manchester and London on the same day that protesters from Youth Fight for Jobs are having theirs in Manchester. The SWP are good at mobilising activists, making it likely that the marches are well attended. But on the Facebook January 29th protest event page, Youth Fight for Jobs say ‘its unfortunate that some of the education campaigns are organising separate events’ – as if having action on a national scale is a bad thing. Having protests in two cities is not divisive – it will probably boost the turnout by widening the ability of people to actually get there. Having an elected leadership that could organise without this kind of jealousy would clear up some of these disputes.

When it comes to the fight-back, we have to accept there will be differing opinions on how to organise and what our message is. This is inevitable: but with no clear leadership, our message may become obscure. Are we fighting against education cuts or all public sector cuts? And if there are hundreds of bickering organisations are we not weakened? The solution could be a consolidation of the networks into a major democratic force with an unambiguous direction, which can then function on the same platform as the unions – not in competition with the unions.

Merging the different campaigns may not be the most popular suggestion, but it’s one that needs to be seriously considered before we decline into a disparate sprawl of disconnected individuals. The last thing we should be thinking of doing is eradicating the notion of leadership.

This is our generation’s 1980s

For a lot of people under 30,  the ’80s seem not much different to any other decade before then – a dark, bygone age, which though still despised, is viewed as somehow irrelevant nonetheless. That may be starting to change. Though the Thatcher era shifted the main stage of politics to the right, the very opposite may now be happening. Just as the neoliberal doctrines of Thatcher’s time were challenged by socialists – Scargill’s NUM being the Conservatives’ staunch and powerful opponent for several years – now we are seeing a new generation of increasingly outspoken students and activists willing to take on the Tory-led government. Whether this movement’s fate will be the same as the miners’ remains to be seen.

Take one comparison. The NUPE (a large public sector union) in the 1980s was drawn sharply to the left because of the sheer scale of the attack on workers’ rights and conditions coming from the Tory government. Last month, Unite (the largest British union) elected Len McCluskey to general secretary on a socialist slate. It seems the force of right may be increasingly counterbalanced by a growing left – and one that is younger and more vibrant than the left of the 1980s. Unions will have a huge role to play in the fight against the cuts, but the student movement looks set to become more prominent in the fight than was expected – especially after aeons of the old ‘lazy/apathetic student’ stereotype.

Crises polarise politics. But politics becomes even more polarised when those in power betray the electorate – and I’m not just talking about the Lib Dems. Cameron was calling any VAT rise ‘regressive’ during the election campaign, and the Lib Dems essentially campaigned against a VAT rise altogether. In just a week it will go up to 20% – the highest it has ever been. Similarly, in ’79, Thatcher had promised not to double VAT, a promise only narrowly kept after she raised it from 8% to 15%.

In No Such Thing As Society, Andy McSmith points out that the Thatcher years merely resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Indeed, the UK’s richest boosted their wealth by 55% last year, and executive pay at the top is literally thousands of times the average wage.

There are countless more examples showing the parallels between today and 30 years ago. Thatcher’s attempts at cutting public spending actually increased public spending as a proportion of GDP, because as simple economics dictates, putting people out of work does not solve our financial problems. What is does do is increase the benefit burden and lower tax revenue.

The astonishing emergence of the UK Uncut anti-tax dodging movement finds little company in the 1980s, but that is not to say tax dodging was not an issue. While over 3 million were unemployed, the company Vestey was raking in £4m profits. How much tax did the business pay on it? £10. Ten. Pounds. Sounds a little like Sir Green, does it not?

And as our financial woes were exacerbated at home, our international relations were becoming increasingly fraught, with the threat of nuclear war at the back of everyone’s minds. The narrative of the Cold War does not need to be retold here, but the West/USSR tensions are not unlike the tensions today between the ‘West’ and Iran, North Korea, China etc, viz ‘Eastern’ nations. Indeed our plan to upgrade the Trident nuclear missile system is a mirror image of Thatcher’s upgrading of the Polaris system to Trident, at an immense cost to the tax-payer.

The police, as an arm of the state, seem determined to destroy legitimate political dissent. As their tactics become more violent, so the reaction of demonstrations will become more volatile. Images like mounted police batoning strike pickets in the 1980s may become more frequent in the age of austerity.

We cannot predict what will happen over the next four years. But with the resistance to the cuts getting more support by the day, with more outspoken union leadership and with campaigns such as the Coalition of Resistance and Education Activists’ Network working alongside each other for a common cause it is looking like this decade may become the our generation’s Thatcher years, only this time, we’re seeing former miners linking arms with their sons and daughters to move the goal-posts back to the left.