Trade Unions: Friends or Enemies?


In Britain today the earnings of many workers in real terms are less than they were before the financial crisis of 2008. Millions of employees both in the private and public sectors have seen the terms of their pension schemes reduced.  Contracts of employment have been changed, worsening working conditions and making jobs more insecure.


Employers and the State are waging a massive war on working people and we are on the losing side.


So why are we losing the war the bosses are waging on our living standards? The answer is simple: most trade unions are useless at protecting their members’ pay and conditions.




Forty years ago around half of employees in Britain were trade union members.  Then the unions were on the whole successful at defending and improving their members’ earnings and terms of employment.  But with the onset of economic depression and the anti-trade union Thatcher governments the unions went on the defensive.  Following the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-5 most trade unions have played a passive role and have failed to carry out their basic trade union functions.  Now the unions have around half the number of members they had in the past.




The problem is very simple.  Most trade unions, especially the larger ones such as UNITE, UNISON, GMB, etc., no longer serve the interests of their members.  Rather, they are run to protect and enhance the generous salaries and fringe benefits of their full-time officials.  These people want to avoid any serious confrontations with employers.  The officials fear that defeats could result in the decline and break-up of their union organisations and thus the loss of their highly paid jobs. These trade union bureaucrats do all they can to keep their members passive.  In effect, the officials are controlling their members in the interests of the employers.  These types of unions are enemies of working people.




Some of the smaller unions still operate effectively in defending members’ wage and conditions, e.g. RMT, ASLEF and FBU, despite the obstructive anti-trade union laws.  It is noticeable that these unions still have functioning democratic procedures whereby the members and not the officials determine policy.  This shows that effective trade union action is possible in Britain today.


Some members of the larger unions do try to make them into effective fighting machines.  But they are obstructed in doing so by the bureaucratic apparatus of the unions effectively controlled by the full-time officials.  Attempts by members to overcome the stranglehold  of the full-time officials have not been successful.




Some workers in the main unions have rebelled against their officials and taken “unofficial” action with some degree of success, e.g. postal workers.  This should be done more widely.


Given the uselessness of the main unions, some of the lowest paid workers in occupations such as fast food and cleaning are getting together and forming new grassroots unions.  These include United Voices of the World, Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union and Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. And they have been winning pay rises and better contracts.  Many of these militants are migrant workers.  They are taking the lead!  Unless the main unions get their act together new, more militant and effective unions will emerge.  In with the new, out with old!