THE TUC ASSEMBLES in Brighton in mid-September for its annual gathering just two years ahead of its 150th birthday. Unfortunately, the venerable institution is not ageing well. However dynamic current General Secretary Frances O’Grady may appear when compared with her immediate predecessors, the membership of TUC-affiliated unions remains static, with roughly a quarter (24.7%) of a workforce now exceeding 30 million in union membership. While the TUC has retained a capacity to mobilise tens of thousands for occasional weekend marches through the streets of London or Manchester, two reports this summer have highlighted the parlous state of trade unionism in Britain.
On 27th July the TUC itself issued a report, based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states, which suggested that Britain’s workforce was neck and neck in a race to the bottom with Greece’s since the 2008 financial crash.
According to OECD figures only three of 28 member states recorded an actual fall in real wages. Only Greece and Britain reported falls exceeding 10% during a six-year period.
And why have wages plunged so much in the past decade? Public sector pay freezes and the decline of collective bargaining are central, but a report from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) offers a key explanation. Last year saw fewer than 170,000 days ‘lost’ to employers through strikes, marking the second lowest total since official records began in the late 19th century. According to the ONS, only 81,000 workers struck in 2015, the smallest number since 1891.
Ironically, the most sustained national campaign of industrial action has come from the junior doctors in the non-TUC affiliated BMA. Of course, strikes large and small continue to capture headlines and provoke hypocritical howls of media outrage – witness the current RMT dispute at Southern Rail. Determined local campaigns still secure victories, but the overall dearth of strikes is astonishing given the erosion of living standards and mass redundancies across the public sector, especially in local government.
Against this background Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as Labour leader seems all the more remarkable and significant. The Party, founded by trade unions, has in Corbyn its most left wing and union sympathetic leader ever. In Jeremy and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Labour has leaders who are neither ashamed of Labour’s union links nor afraid to join picket lines. A Corbyn-led Labour government would be firmly committed to repealing the Tories’ latest anti-union act along with the Thatcherite legacy that New Labour left intact.
For beleaguered union activists, Jeremy is the only choice in the current leadership election, whatever the likes of Sir Paul Kenny or his successor at the GMB, Tim Roache, might say. As in 2015 Corbyn has now secured the nominations from three of the ‘big four’ union affiliates, however reluctant some of Dave Prentis’s supporters in Unison might be to accept Jeremy’s decisive win (58% to 42%) in the union’s consultation of Labour Link payers.
The challenge for Corbyn supporters in the unions will be to translate the enthusiasm sparked by Corbyn’s Labour leadership into recruitment and organising campaigns that can both relate to the ‘gig’ economy and persuade workers in many a workplace that they have the collective power to challenge the ‘austerity agenda’, not least on the picket line.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP