THE POWER OF UNION: RECENT DEVELOPMENTS FROM THE UK AND ABROAD
Like most people who have returned to the office, my day generally begins with the commute into work. For me, barring engineering works and signal failures, this usually involves catching the TFL line into Liverpool Street, and from there taking a short journey on the central line to Chancery Lane station. As I write this, however, train drivers associated with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) are taking industrial action in response to the “unacceptable and intolerable demands” that they believe they may face as a result of the reintroduction of the Night Tube and associated overnight shifts. There is a walkout on the Central Line, and I am taking the number 8 bus towards Holborn.
As with any occasion that workers, especially those in the public sector, decide to instigate strike action, the unfortunate general reaction of the press and politicians is to lambast both the members of the union for their selfishness, and the leaders of the union for their greed. From The Evening Standard:
“Union chiefs came under fire on Friday after a Tube strike prevented thousands of commuters from getting to work and dealt a heavy blow to the London economy on one of the busiest shopping days of the year […] Businesses said the strike was “disgraceful” while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “This is the last thing that Londoners need.”
The bad faith in which this is written is evident. Firstly, successful industrial action requires the consent and participation of a wide base of the union membership – it is not simply on the whim of ‘union chiefs’. This choice of phrasing can probably be attributed to a fear of being labelled as hypocritical; after all, directly attacking the same workers freely labelled as ‘essential’ during the pandemic for their efforts to win more sociable hours and better pay would not be a great look. Secondly, it is a curious argument to hold against a strike that the action is inconvenient – that is the point. If services and customers were unaffected by the strike action, what possible leverage would this add to the strikers’ demands?
It is often cited as a truism that the age of the trade union is over in the UK. I am not of this opinion. I believe that recent events from around the world can give us faith that collective action and solidarity still has a place in the modern world.
The United States
In the minds of many a European, the United States represents the wild west of employment relationships – a land devoid of employment rights, where the boss is king. Nevertheless, workers up and down the US have taken it into their own hands to win what they feel they are owed, with the wave of industrial action across October and the preceding months being dubbed ‘Striketober’. Workers at Nabsico (subsidiary of confectionary giant Mondelez) weathered 5 weeks of strike action, including clashes with hired security guards, and returned with a wage increase and bonus. The United Auto Workers union managed to bring 10,000 employees over 14 plants of the John Deere company out on strike in mid-October. The result? Amongst other improvements, John Deere agreed to a $8,500 signing bonus, an immediate 10% increase in wages with a further 10% increase over the lifetime of the contracts, as well as the re-implementation of a cost-of-living adjustment to wages. Aggressive anti-union action has been implemented by companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, as calls for union recognition spread from location to location. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz probably revealed more than he had wished when he compared the experiences of working at Starbucks to that of Holocaust prisoners, at a meeting with employees debating unionisation at one of the coffee chain’s Buffalo, New York locations. The results of their historic union vote will soon be seen.
I believe these stories leave us a simple yet hugely important question: if there, why not here? We are talking about the land of McCarthyism, Reaganomics, laissez-faire, ‘free’ competition – the icon of free capital. Yet, if the pandemic has taught us anything, is that all value is ultimately produced by workers: highlighted humorously by reports that a salaried worker at John Deere attempted to fill a position of a striking worker on the factory floor, before swiftly crashing his tractor into a utility post (without serious injury). It is this lesson that the those striking in America are utilising, and what those in the UK and can learn from.
For a year between November 2020 and November 2021, thousands of Indian farmers camped across Delhi’s borders and highways in protest of three proposed new farm laws. The effect of these farm laws was effectively to deregulate the farming system in India. Previously the majority of produce had been sold by farmers at government-controlled wholesale markets or mandis at a ’minimum support price’. However, the new legislation proposed that farmers be allowed to sell at market prices to private buyers. Many small farmers saw this as a doorway for big agricultural businesses to undercut them and threaten their ability to make ends meet. An umbrella group of 40 farmers unions came together to unite farmers in action against the new laws and after a year of continual protest, Indian PM Narendra Modi was forced into repealing the proposed laws – as the kickback threatened his party’s chances in key state elections.
What about Britain?
It is hard to envisage such an example of collective action in modern day Britain. The shadow of defeat in 1985 still lingers, and subsequent legislation has undercut the ability of unions to enforce truly collective action amongst members. Reports of rallies 500,000 strong in Uttar Pradesh seem plausible in the UK only in the context of some generational event, such as the Iraq war protests of 2003.
However, consciousness is growing. The UK’s current ‘great resignation’ shows that, post-pandemic, employees are tired of being under-recognised for the value they add to their employers. Those described as ‘essential’ throughout the worst periods of Covid are beginning to demand that their working conditions and pay are commensurate to this label; NHS workers have recently overwhelmingly rejected a proposed 3% pay rise which they believe to be insulting and could soon initiate strike action.
Perhaps this is utopianism, or a nostalgia for a time of solidarity and collective bargaining that never truly existed. Or perhaps, through hard fought and incremental gains, these developments in the UK and around the world could begin to show that, to turn a phrase, another world is possible.
This blog was written by Michael Green – paralegal, didlaw