Industry matters: ONS figures track decline in union militancy

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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A new report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) charts the decline in union militancy in Britain as measured in strike days. In 1926, year of the general strike, British workers notched up 162 million strike days. In 1979, year of the ‘winter of discontent’, the number was 29 million. In 2016, just 322,000 days were lost to strikes.

These figures, demonstrating just how far trade unions have departed from their original remit as organs of class struggle against capitalist exploitation, cannot be ascribed solely to the loss of jobs in heavy industry: a healthy trade union movement would have risen to the challenge of combatively mobilising workers across all sectors. The root cause of the decline of militancy is rather to be found in the long-term debilitating effect of the unions’ relationship with the imperialist Labour party. (See The strange death of strikes in Britain by Patrick Collinson, [link href=””]Guardian[/link], 3 June 2017)

The Morning Star greeted the publication of the ONS report with the strange headline, “Strikes double in spite of Tory union busting”. It turns out that this cheery message refers to the difference between the paltry number of strike days in 2016 (322,000) and the corresponding number for 2015 (170,000), an even lower index of militancy.

The slight upward blip from 2015 to 2016 is very largely (about 40 percent) accounted for by the junior doctors’ strikes. These strikes, whilst indeed reflecting a very welcome level of militancy from an unexpected quarter, hardly redound to the credit of the BMA union’s leadership, which panicked and fled the field, leaving the medics in the lurch. (See Strikes double in spite of Tory union busting by Peter Lazenby, [link href=””]Morning Star[/link], 31 May 2017)

Any sign of a growth in militancy is good news, even if only from a very low base figure, and sooner or later the struggle of class against class must break to the surface afresh. But this process will not be assisted by the likes of the Morning Star encouraging us to grasp at statistical straws and telling everyone to vote Labour.

New shoots?

One possible way in which organised labour will reassert itself is already visible in the mushroom-like appearance of ‘do it yourself’ unions springing up to serve the needs of those whom more traditional unions have failed to mobilise effectively.

One example is the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), which has given a lead in pursuing tribunal cases seeking to prevent employers like food delivery courier service Deliveroo from depriving their workers of their full employment rights on the spurious pretence that they are ‘self-employed private contractors’.

Another is the lead given in the struggle of the cleaners at the London School of Economics to improve their pay and conditions. The cleaners are currently on indefinite strike for one day every week.

This determined struggle, led by the United Voices of the World (UVW), was raised by delegates to the University and College Union (UCU) Brighton conference on 27 May, who appealed to the UCU to support the cleaners, noting: “UVW’s combative and lively actions are an inspiration to us all … They are very brave to take on these employers. We have to support them. Their present situation should not become our future. We have to have a united fight against these issues in our universities and colleges.” (Solidarity at UCU’s national conference with the LSE cleaners by Vera Weghmann, [link href=””]UVW[/link], 29 May 2017)

Now the state gets to decide who runs Unite?

The consequences of retreating in the face of ever more insolent intrusions by the state into the way unions choose to run their own affairs are on full display as the defeated candidate in Unite’s recent leadership election, Gerard Coyne, runs snivelling to the union certification officer to beg him to declare Len McCluskey’s re-election invalid.

McCluskey had earlier correctly characterised Coyne’s antics around the election as part of a proxy war against Corbyn conducted by a cabal of hostile Labour MPs. Yet it was McCluskey who had already declared himself content to accept further state interference (in the form of strike ballot thresholds) in exchange for the introduction of new hi-tech ballot procedures, thereby cutting through the branch upon which he sits.

Armed only with left social democracy, McCluskey is as ill-equipped to deal with Gerard “This is not north Korea” Coyne as is Corbyn to deal with his own reactionary PLP mafia. (See Fresh bid to oust Unite union boss Len McCluskey by Ross Hawkins, [link href=”″]BBC News[/link], 2 June 2017)