Workers of the World Unite! Or Something Like That…

  This famous (mis)quotation from the 1848 Communist Manifesto sums up the general mood of the Year of Revolutions. There was a general feeling among the lower classes across the nations of Europe and their colonial empires that the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie had oppressed the rest of the population for just about long enough, thank you very much, and the people were going to do something about it. And though in most places the wave of revolutionary activity failed to achieve lasting change –  Denmark, France and Austria-Hungary being notable, if partial, exceptions – the 1850s saw an upsurge of socialism and trade unionism on a scale never before imagined. For a time, it looked as if the words of Marx and Engels might inspire real, dramatic reform.

  Now, with the death of Bob Crow, RMT leader and surely the most outspoken trade unionist since the ‘glory’ days of Arthur Scargill, perhaps it is time to look back on the long decades of unionism and ask ourselves whether we need a change in direction.

  Like it or not, Trade Unionism has become synonymous in recent years with a bullying, self-serving group of powerful union bosses who held large portions of the country to ransom in order to preserve their own popularity within their unions. This kind of behaviour was emphatically not what Marx and Engels had in mind. The purpose of trade unions in the 19th Century was to protect their members from the callous abuse of power that many employers chose to undertake. For the most part, they performed this purpose admirably. As employment laws became more and more stringent during the twentieth century, the role of the unions changed. They became policy-makers, becoming involved with the process of formulating new laws. This allowed the governments of post-War Britain to ensure that new economic and industrial policy would be amenable to the workers who had to live by it. But this new function, whilst undeniably useful, had problems.

  Trade Unions placed themselves in the position of having considerable power over legislators – particularly the Labour Party, which they had disproportionate control over – whilst simultaneously trying to continue in their original purpose of championing the rights of the workers. It should be fairly clear to see how this could not be sustainable – one cannot both be part of the establishment and attempt to challenge it. The unions did try, however, and it led to chaos – anarchy in its least political, and most total sense. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she was having none of it, and curtailed the powers of the unions so severely they have never really recovered. And when Tony Blair took over Labour following the death of John Smith, that party too began to cut the ties with the now-disgraced unions.

  Witness the modern trade union, then – an organisation largely founded around the personality of its leader, where the individual members have little power. A group associated to other unions through the once-titanic TUC – now relatively powerless and no longer in control of the Labour Party it helped found – many of whom have nothing in common with it and whose interests are as likely to run contrary to its own as alongside them. A political entity reviled by the media, disparaged by government and opposition alike, and whose support among the very people it claims to represent is falling away.

  It would be a shame if the death of Bob Crow also marks the final nail in the coffin of British trade unionism, but to be honest I wonder who exactly would shed a tear if it did? In its current state, I certainly wouldn’t.

  But this terrible tragedy, the death of a man who – whether you liked him or not, and I didn’t – died far too young and had much left to offer British politics can be used to fuel a revolution within trade unionism itself. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, by removing the unions’ disproportionate level of control, has in fact done trade unionism a favour. Now finally separated from the political establishment, the way is open for new unions, democratically organised and without the dominance of the individual we have seen in recent years, to step up to the plate of truly representing the working classes. 

  It would be a fitting tribute to Bob Crow’s memory, after all, to create the kind of unions he always aspired to but never succeeded in building.

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