Trade Unions are in their simplest form, people working together to achieve a common interest. The concept is nothing new, as the story of Spartacus from Roman times shows, people throughout history have stood together in solidarity. Collectively people are stronger to stand up to power structures than they are as individuals.
Industrial trade unionism that we know today is barely 200 years old and came out of the industrial revolution. When people moved from rural based peasant society to urban industrial capitalism, the working class was formed. This economic system meant people to survive had to sell their labour power to capital. Exploitation, unsafe working conditions, child labour and other terrible working conditions were common. The response of working people was to act together to demand better working conditions and better wages.
The Tolpuddle Martyres story of workers trying to organise in early 19th century Britain was a significant moment in trade union history. Unionism was initially illegal in the UK and most other industrialised nations. In Tolpuddle six agricultural workers were arrested in 1834 for attempting to organise and were sentenced to deportation to Australia. Mass protests resulted in the six being pardoned two years later. Through these sorts of actions, eventually it was accept that unionism and workers organising collectively was inevitable under industrial capitalism.
Many of the current global union organisations are products of the early to mid 20th century. The late 19th and early 20th century is the era that the modern trade union movement grew and made most of its political gains. Unions became a significant industrial and political force who often fought long hard struggles to improve the lot of their members.
Trade unions have a place and an important role in improving our working lives. Things that many of us in the developed world take for granted today such as weekends, sick pay, health and safety standards, anti discrimination laws, the end of child labour and countless other working conditions are the results of often long hard struggles by unions and their members.
Since the 1980s union membership has been on the decline globally. The official union/left response to this has been that this was the result of Neo Liberalism and attacks by the right. Certainly, the end of the post war boom and the attempts to offset this through Laissez-faire economics made life tougher for unions. However it is very easy to claim unions were victims of a right wing attack, rather than look any deeper.
Austerity and the free market economics we’ve lived under since the 1980s has held down wages and have failed to achieve the significant economic stimulation promise. But unions and the political left generally have not had a coherent response or proposed alternatives to this. Responses have been either to accept the changes and wonder why workers turn away from the organisations. Alternatively unions have harked back to the good ol’ days and proposed solutions that effectively ignore a) the causes of the post war boom to end b) development and changes in technology and c) solutions that in many cases weren’t that effective when they were in place 40 + years ago.
This is the first in a series of blog posts about my time working in the union movement. Like earlier posts, it will talk about my life and involvement with events. From this perspective, I will also talk about where I see the unions and the future of work. I will be challenging in these posts. But I have no intention of writing a series of articles arguing ‘unions are moribund’. But nor will it be a series of posts filled with glib cliches about workers solidarity and references to 1930s folk songs. These posts will will express my views, without sugar coating or spin. These posts will record certain events from my perspective (including photos and media). My hope is it will add to a useful discussion about the future of work, the future of collective organising and how to achieve a better working life for everyone in the future.
Earlier Blog posts about Nick: