What are Trade Unions for?

Here are some obvious answers.

Increasing members’ pay:

Karl Marx was ambivalent about this. He called it an economic act, as opposed to a political act. However, to ask for increased pay for all workers was a political act; and he thought unions could become political, in this narrow sense, over time.
Antonio Gramsci saw this as a commercial act. Workers sold their labour, as companies sold goods and services. So both workers and companies were engaged in commercial acts, but each side had different political ideals.
George Woodcock’s political ideal was for unions to walk in the corridors of power. This assumed the primacy of politics over economics. Activity in national politics was the correct way to increase members pay.

Reducing inter union rivalry:

By reducing the total number of unions in Britain, and leaving a smaller number of very large unions, this would reduce the number of unions in any one workplace or office. So when union became into conflict with management there was only one large union to negotiate with. Also, in any conflict there would not be one union taking action, and another not.

Creating Industrial democracy:

Placing workers on boards of directors ensured that there was a voice arguing for members interests. Especially if redundancy was on the agenda. This could lead to a greater questioning of management’s prerogatives. It could also lead to the union member internalising management’s problems.

Creating a good relationship with the general public:

The British Social Attitudes Survey has been asking questions since 1983 about wider social and political issues. But there has been a regular series of questions about trade unions. Here are some examples.

Question: Are Trade Unions well run?
47% thought that they were in 2009, as opposed to 24% in 1983. This is clear evidence of an improving relationship over 26 years.
However, when asked about unions helping to improve working conditions in 2010 the figure was 20%; in 2003 it was 28%. This is evidence of weakness in confronting working conditions, which have been worsening in recent years.

Question: Have Trade Unions the right amount of power?
In 1985 the answer was yes for 33%; in 2007 it was 55%. This can be read in a number of ways, but a simple answer is that this significant increase is not seen as unions being too powerful.

So, what are unions for?

Unions are for all of the above, but to differing extents over time. Secondly, there is no agreement about the relative importance of any one of them Thirdly, I could have given many more answers about gender, race, equality, workplace abuse etc..
What is striking about the above evidence is that unions are better regarded by the public than the mass media often suggests. As to the earlier historical arguments about union’s role in society, unions now need to be concerned about the general return to labour in hard times, including pay, and job security; and finally getting a fairer share of any future economic growth.
Brendan Caffrey.


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