19 October 2020

The case for strengthening trade unions is not leftist, but humanist

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It would seem a quixotic, or a plain silly thing to recommend the strengthening of trade unions on an opinion site attached to a famed right-of-centre economic think tank, which played such a large role in the Thatcher governments. But hear, or scan, me out.

This drear time is presently rich in calls for a determined reassertion of the values and institutions of community: The Upswing, by the acclaimed Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, is the most recent and insistent invocation of what he calls “the communitarian virtues”. One of these virtues is workers’ solidarity, most effectively created by strong and popular trade unions.

Putnam sees a former American union culture where “union locals provided medical clinics, resorts, radio stations, sports teams, educational classes and a myriad of opportunities for informal social connections”. Above all, they “replac(ed) individualism with collective identity” – a bulwark against generational shifts which, in the 1960s, grew around the union men and women, and within their homes, as their children increasingly saw personal identity as trumping collective solidarity, the me eating away at the we.

Putnam’s not alone among well known commentators: and most of those singing in the same choir are not leftists. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in an American Interest interview on their new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, strongly endorse unions in seeking to secure workers’ rights, at a time when “the jobs have gotten worse and wages have gone down”. Another authorial duo (though not, like Case and Deaton, married to each other) John Kay and Paul Collier lament the “dwindling” of unions, and note that the only relatively successful ones are those which have “become lobbies for the interests of overprotected public sector trade unions”: an index of failure of solidarity, not its triumph.

Michael Lind, whose work over a decade has blasted the centre left as much or more than the right, notes in his The New Class War that neoliberal policy makers of left and right “chose to dismantle the basic structures of the post-1945 system, weakening organised labour in the private sector”. Professor Ronald MacDonald of Glasgow University’s Adam Smith Centre, in two reports in the last two months on The Post Pandemic New Normal, argues that after the pandemic we must address the “huge inequalities” which a short-termist, low investment model has created – to focus on employment, at a time when unemployment is bound to soar.

And David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ small, restless stable of rightist commentators, in a deeply gloomy essay (America is having a moral convulsion) commends the 19th century British Chartists, a proto-trade union, for “gather(ing) the working class and motvat(ing) them to march and strike” – commenting sternly that “social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings”.

In the centre left administrations of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Tony Blair (1997-2007), unions were rewarded on the one hand, curbed – or curbing legislation by previous governments of the right retained – on the other. Fitting the nations into a globalised world was the overriding imperative: globalisation, the centre-leftists believed (often apparently more passionately than the right) was inevitable, and brought more good than harm. It meant that in many industries, plants – once citadels of union power – could not, indeed should not be defended. Instead, through “education education education” (as Blair put it), workers – or at least their children – would be given “the educational opportunities necessary to succeed in today’s global information economy” (as a Clinton White House press release put it.)

Some of that happened: especially in the UK, university places greatly expanded. But some of it didn’t: working/lower middle class affection for and ties to place and community, trades, family and friendship networks are – in the economists’ terms – “sticky”. Many stuck where they were, their families loath, or unable to move, their children reluctant to join a higher education stratum both unfamiliar and alienating.

Those who took employment in places where, as Deaton put it, “the jobs have gotten worse and wages have gone down” they discovered, if they did not already know it, that in most of the service sector (where jobs usually were) trade union organisation was rare, and actively discouraged. This is now an established factor in the labour markets of all advanced, de-industrialising economies: and unions which try to organise in the new “gig” economy find it hard to locate groups of workers, harder to interest them, hardest of all to get them to meetings.

In the UK, two unions – the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and the United Voices of the World have been established in the last decade, and both have organised industrial action. The IWUGB – has brought out contracted workers on wage claims and won partial victories; and has and represented a courier for CitySprint and an Uber driver, winning employment tribunal and appeal cases to have them classified as workers, not self-employed. But both remain small: the IWUGB had, in 2019, under 5,000 members: the United Voices, which specialises in representing migrant workers, claims this year around 3,000. Idealism and commitment shines out of their self-descriptions: the UVW has no president or general secretary to direct it, but a large council which debates and decides collectively.

They have done well to get where they are. Established unions, especially in the private sector, do well to retain what they have (and often can’t). It seems likely that neither the new nor the established will improve their positions in the near future.

Doing better cannot just depend on voluntarism. The stream of books, essays, reports, debates and journalism which argue the same case as the commentators above now thickens: governments everywhere in the democratic world strain to understand what begins to look like a new consensus against a capitalism “with rent-seeking rather than wealth creation at its heart”, as MacDonald put it.

Unions grew in the late 19th and early 20th century, when reform was in the air: when the moderate socialism of both the Fabians and the unions, and the growing attraction of middle way policies for the right created a steadily growing base for attention to and redress of the powerlessness and poverty of millions. It was given a huge boost by President Roosevelt 1930s New Deal: by the consensus which formed around William Beveridge’s attacks on the five evils of want, squalor, idleness, ignorance and disease came to be seen as the duty of governments in a mass democracy. Unions were part of that: both supported by it and supporters of it.

An inchoate series of movements now run through lower class politics, often brought together under the label of populism. To oppose the reactionary parts of these, and for their civilised survival, advanced societies need a movement, not linked to one party but able to articulate and shape the needs and views of those with a muted presence in political and intellectual life, at times empowered to protest actively against unfairness and discrimination.

Rather than a leftist movement, it is a humanist one. Its aim is to combat the balkanisation of society, replacing – as Putnam wrote – individualism with a collective identity, in which not just unions, but clubs, religious institutions, political groups, NGOs, independent social centres and much else return to active life. Indeed, it is the surest way of protecting our individual selves – to take part in joint endeavours for a just society – a job never to be neglected, and never to be completed, if societies are to return to health.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.