Trade Unions are often affiliated with the main left or centre-left political Party in their given country. In parts of the world trade unions are aligned to either communist or social-democratic factions, and these unions will compete for members on that basis.
My experience of unions both in New Zealand and to a lesser extent in the UK has not convinced me that unions affiliating to a political party, usually Labour, is always a good idea. Unions are political by there very nature, and they need to actively engage in politics. But is openly aligning to a political party the best way for a union to do this?
The Labour Party was founded to be the political and parliamentary arm of the labour movement in the early twentieth century. The idea was that eventually, most workers would join a trade union, that they would be the majority, and in turn, they would put representatives up through their party who’d get elected and would be accountable to the movement. This was the parliamentary road to socialism, the alternative to revolution and Bolshevism.
The reality in 2020 is of course very different. In New Zealand, roughly one in five wage workers belongs to a trade union, a figure that is consistent with the UK and many other democratic societies. Most workers do not join a union, a matter I will address in my next post. This has two implications. Firstly, it means that the Labour Party cannot get into government by winning the support of trade unionists alone. Given the significant decline in union membership since the 1970s globally, increasingly Labour or Party’s of the left have needed to have a broader appeal and having relationships with unions has become far less useful. Secondly, given union membership is low and has declined drastically in recent decades, what value have long-standing political affiliations with the parliamentary party’s really achieved?
I am not arguing that trade unions should not affiliate to Labour or any other party for that matter. But if they do, they need to answer one simple but important question. Why?
An effective trade union is democratic, and member led. For a union to set a successful industrial strategy, it needs its members who work on the front line not just to buy into the strategy, but proactively have input and make the calls on what should happen. The political strategy is no different. If a union is affiliated to a political party, you should be able to walk up to the train drivers, cleaners, Postie or whatever professions the union covers, ask the member why the union is affiliated to the said political party and for them to a) have a clear understanding of why and b) have been part of that decision-making process.
What often, though not always happens is a far less democratic process. Union members will elect some delegates or shop Stewart to represent them onsite. From there these representatives will send a representative to the regional forum. From there one person from each region will sit on a national committee. This national committee or a subcommittee within the committee will make a decision about political affiliation. Possibly, the matter will go to a biannual conference and will be debated by the select few union members who could take the time off and were selected to represent their workplace at the conference. In very few cases, do unions that politically affiliate have strong ongoing democratic decision-making processes where the full membership decide whether their union, which they joined to protect their employment rights at work, should join a political party. In many cases, union members may not even be aware that their union are affiliated, or that part of their membership dues is donated to a political party.
Unions should have a political strategy. At the very least union peak bodies should have a very clear idea of what employment and health and safety legislation should be. At a sector level, you would expect education or transport unions to have clear positions on what government policies they should or should not support. Having worked in trade unions I am sad to report that this often is not the case. In many cases, unions are focused on the day to day servicing of union members and do not have a clear vision or strategy to improve things. In some cases, political affiliation is an easier substitute for union leaders than having to work with members to develop an independent union political strategy.
As much as Labour or left Party’s have less need for strong relationships with trade unions, the same could be said for unions towards them. In New Zealand for example, since the Second World War, the centre-right National Party have won two out of every three elections. In fact, in most English-speaking democracies the party of the political right is the natural party of government which wins more elections than it loses. So why align with the party that usually loses?
When Centre-left Party’s do get into government, this is not always good news for unions or their members. In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party came to power and began a programme of new right economic reforms, resulting in the single biggest transfer of wealth from working people to the very wealthy in the twentieth century. Throughout the six years of this government, union leaders were mistakenly calling for loyalty to the Labour Government, even when their members were losing their jobs or facing significant pay cuts. This is an extreme example, but one which illustrates why blind loyalty to a political party, regardless of the policies they advocate is very foolish.
On the flip side, there have been occasions where unions have been able to win major policy concessions under Centre-Right governments. Another NZ example was in 2016 when zero-hour contracts were banned in that country under a National (conservative) Government. This same government implemented a $2 billion pay settlement to increase pay for care and support workers. Yes, in both cases, Labour and other opposition party’s were calling for change, but ultimately the centre-right government made concessions due to the successful political strategy of unions.
While undoubtedly there have been times when unions having a close relationship with Labour or left Party’s has been successful, it has certainly not always been the case. For unions to evolve to what they need to be in the 21st century, they need to be extremely focused and democratic organisations with a clear idea of who they are, what they are doing and why. Unions may still be able to do this while having formal affiliations to a party, but in far too often this simply is not the case.
Earlier posts in this series:
Earlier Blog posts about Nick: