Tuesday, June 28, 2022

GUEST POST Can trade unions make a big comeback?

This could be the time for a resurgence of trade unionism, argues Stuart Whomsley.

The arrival of Arthur Scargill on the RMT picket lines made me reflect on the decline and possible resurgence of the union movement.

Margaret Thatcher wanted to destroy the miners and get revenge for the Miners' strike of 1974 and what it did to Ted Heath's government. Slightly ironic, as without the strike, she would have been unlikely to have taken over as leader of the Conservative Party. 

She also wanted to break the trade union movement. The unions were the powerhouse of the working people of Britain. Break the miners, and you break the workers. So she plotted and planned and set a trap for Scargill, and sadly he walked into it. Not so much King Arthur, more King Harold, charging down the hill.

An analogy for a union leader would be a guide taking their members through a dangerous jungle where there are tigers that want to kill them. Thatcher was such a tiger. Instead of getting his members through the jungle, Scargill went trophy hunting, trying to overthrow the government. In the process, he got all his party killed by the tiger.

The economic climate in the early 1980s meant there would be a reduction in coal mines. But the miners were still in a strong position, on top of the hill. The rest of the workers could have been brought behind them in solidarity with the right strategy. Emotionally Neil Kinnock wanted to support them with his dad being a miner. 

What should have happened was the miners used their strength to make sure that as some pits closed, the local communities were kept intact and enabled to transition into new forms of work.

Instead, the strike and its aftermath broke communities and damaged the union movement. Thatcher had won. The right-wing press blamed Scargill and deflected attention from Thatcher's ruthless plan. However, he did make mistakes. His focus was not solely on defending his members; he had political aspirations for what the strike would lead to.

Now could be the time for a resurgence of unionism. If the RMT led by Mick Lynch is successful,  working people may unite in a common cause to protect their terms and conditions against their erosion by the bosses and companies that seek to exploit their staff to increase profit.

Suppose the RMT shows the power and strength of collectivism and solidarity. In that case, other people will join unions as a source of collectivism that can defend their rights. It needs to be kept free from any ideological utopian dreams of how society overall should be structured and organised. Micky Lynch seems to get this.

Unionism began with the primary aim of workers getting together to stop their exploitation collectively. We need unions for that. The conditions now are not as challenging as when unions began in the nineteenth century, to state the obvious. Still, the last forty years have seen the erosion of workers' rights. The time to rebalance could have arrived.

You can follow Stuart Whomsley on Twitter.

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