A new trade unionism in the making?


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A trade unionism able to facilitate and express the practical knowledge of its members, as workers and as citizens, is critical to the renewal of public services and for confronting a global politics of austerity.

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About a new trade unionism in the making?

Publication type

Delivered 12 October 2010
It's exciting to contribute to a conference where trade unions are moving on to the high ground and proposing alternatives, in alliances with groups sharing a common interest in quality public services.

I want to explore lessons we can draw from practical experiences of such strategic trade unionism.

But first a point about the context.

We face the extraordinary situation in which what began as a crisis of the financial markets, and the institutions that drove them, has now become a crisis of public spending to be solved, it is argued, through  cutting back on social provisions.

We need to have some explanation of this process to develop effective strategies - both in the short and long term.

I want to focus on the implications of one part of the explanation which I think has a special importance for the distinctive role of trade unions – in particular public sector trade unions - in the coming years.

A key factor that  allowed the dominant narrative to move from a financial crisis, to a political bail out, to the current crisis of public spending and cuts in social provision was an absence of sustained mainstream voices  articulating the values and goals of public good and societal needs. There was no effective counterpoint to the pressures and imperatives of the corporate market. I'm not talking here about a radical socialist programme, all I mean is a greened social democracy that meant it.

A key moment in this process was the weakness and ultimate marginalisation of voices in the US and in Europe arguing for the billions spent to save the financial institutions to be used to  initiate a dynamic of democratically directed investment towards  goals of environmental sustainability and social and employment justice.

This was a political weakness – especially in the UK and the US - at the very moment when briefly, political institutions had real bargaining strength vis a vis financial power.

This de facto defeat for democratic public intervention at a decisive moment, consolidated the fundamental neoliberal notion that public spending, especially on social provision, holds back the private sector, the sacrosanct driver of the economy. (see notions of 'crowding out'; a 'burden' etc )

In other words, the financial crisis is completing the delegitimisation - within the political and media institutions - of the economics of social need and public goods; the economics of the non-commodified sphere that has since 1945 existed as a compromise within capitalist economies.

This process of marginalisation must be understood, in part at least in the North, asssociated with the structural inability of social democratic and euro-communist parties to renew themselves in the 70s and 80s in order to improve, extend and support innovation in the public services which they helped to create.Instead we have seen their defensive acquiescence in the treatment of public goods as secondary and contingent of theon the  permission of the financial markets.

Filling the political vacuum?

In the context of this vacuum and its regressive consequences, the role of the trade unions, beginning with the public sector unions, is potentially central.

The unions are in many countries the largest, best resourced, most stable, most institutional, and in some respects most rooted (with all the ambivalences and problems which such characteristics imply) movements in civil society.

These attributes give them the potential to be, as Carmen  Sosa, a water workers leader in Uruguay, suggests 'the vertebral column of the popular movement'. Unions can facilitate the organisation of  knowledge, practical actions,  expert research, and popular expression, of the mass of people to defend social needs and ensure the means of meeting them.

It is through this role as the backbone (recognising the autonomy but connectedness of the vertebrae), of building social alliances around the defence and improvement of public services and resources, that unions could fill the political vacuum.

I will explore later what 'filling the political vacuum' could mean.

I stress this role as a potential because in the North at any rate, the unions have tended to have a quite rigid division of labour between the industrial and the political activities of the labour movement, abrogating wider social, not immediately industrial issues, to the 'political or parliamentary wing '. At the same time they have closely guarded their role in collective bargaining and industrial action – whose scope, with historically important exceptions, is generally narrowly defined. This has meant all too often, especially at a national level an intellectual subordination to a neo-liberalsocial democracy – social at the margins, neoliberal at the core.

There are signs that some unions or parts of unions are disentangling themselves from these subordinate relationships with political parties and through working with other allies, in social movements, amongst critical intellectuals, contributing to a rethinking of both politics and trade unionism. It is not entirely new (cf the 1970s in many countries) and is shaped by memories and traditions. It is uneven, fragmented and scattered; to be learnt from and understood, not exaggerated. Any generalisations can only be tentative.

The politics of alternatives to privatisation

I want to take two examples of successful struggles against privatisation – acknowledging that all such successes are precarious, cautiously to explore what is involved in this notion of trade unions playing a role in 'filling the political vacuum'. These are the international struggles over water as a public good and the resistance in several localities to the privatisation of local services on the basis of democratic alternatives. For though both these examples involve electoral politics and a challenge to the existing political institutions, this is on the basis of a distinct and autonomous base of political values, goals and forms of organisation.

Participatory politicisation  


There are many levels to the success of  campaigns for public water – 90% of water is in public hands in spite of determined efforts at privatisation. One dimensions has been the ability and willingness of trade unions to move from defensive concerns with their members' jobs and working conditions, to take up the wider public interest in water as a commons, to be democratically owned and managed and to be accessible to all.

In many contexts they have then thrown themselves, at different levels,  into facilitating, supporting and sometimes co-leading a popular alliance against the marketisation of water.

In effect they have been part of processes of what could be described as   participatory politicisation.

What I want to highlight with this concept is that privatisation involves a  systematic process of depoliticisation of the fate of public  services.

Even when neoliberalism was at its most ideological, for example under Margaret Thatcher, privatisation of public services, was never presented as  an election issue, to be debated politically and voted upon.

In two countries where the movements against privatisation have been  notably strong, Brazil and Uruguay, the governing parties of the 1990s never made the privatisation of water a part of their election manifestos, even though that is exactly what, under pressure from the IMF,  they attempted. Privatisation is always referred to by politicians and the sympathetic media in the most euphemistic, depoliticised manner. The talk is of ‘opening up new markets’, ‘restructuring state assets’, ‘diversity of providers’, ‘what matters is what works’, and so on.

The significance of the role of the trade unions in leading or co-organising alliances against the privatisation of water on the basis of its importance as a public good is that these alliances have given expression to underlying beliefs in the distinct value of public goods; beliefs that otherwise have little or no mainstream expression, left alone influence or power.

In the case of the UK, the unions mobilised a voice, a set of counter arguments that gave confidence and a language to the instinctive recognition that water should not be treated as a commodity. (Even after Mrs Thatcher had driven it through, opinion polls showed  89% of the public against it)

In Brazil and Uruguay, those values were also the basis of mobilisation of considerable power inside and outside the workplace. They were also the basis of staff and citizen participation in improving the way that public water companies were managed.

Another distinctive  feature of the struggle to reclaim public water has been its international character. This has been vital to its success in the face of an international drive to privatise involving both international financial institutions, most notably the IMF and transnational water corporations like Suez. Crucial here has been the creative and practical role played by Public Services International, supporting local and national struggles and playing a leading role in establishing the international campaigning network, Reclaiming Public Water.

2.Local government

The same process of participatory politicisation, and the role of the unions in facilitating it, has been a distinctive feature of several successful struggles against the privatisation of local government services. These services had again been depoliticised as supposedly 'technical' and hence opaque, to facilitate a  behind-the-scenes process of contracting out.

In Trondheim, Norway and Newcastle, England, a key part of the anti privatisation struggle was to open up municipal decision-making to public scrutiny and debate.

In Trondheim, the local trade union federation made privatisation the central election issue, involving their members in developing an alternative programme for public service reform. They made this the basis of an election campaign against the parties that had privatised many of the council. Following the defeat of these parties they then worked with the municipal workers union nationally to develop the Model Municipality – a strategy of public public service improvement based on staff and management sharing  knowledge onhow to improve the services, involving community organisations in the process and negotiating with  elected politicians.

This process eventually became the model for an effective national campaign against privatisation, which won the support of an alliance of the Labour Party, pressured for the first time to work with the radical Left Socialist Party. This alliance won the elections in 2005, helped in part by the challenge to neoliberal policies mounted by the unions.

In Newcastle, in the North of England, the unions' strategy of politicisation was to challenge the pervasive process of contracting out and where they couldn't halt it, to  open it up making every stage  a matter of visible, contested political choices, insisting that there was a public alternative that would be better value for the municipality  than privatisation.

This strategy had several levels: city wide campaigns bringing together unions and community groups; an extension of collective bargaining to include the tendering and contracting process and more generally questions of management and service improvement; and finally an emphasis on the participation, training and development of staff. The union's strategy was based upon seeing its members as knowledgeable and committed providers of public services. This approach required workers' employment and conditions to be secure – as only then would staff feel confident to share this knowledge and commitment as the basis of public service improvement.

Kenny Bell the secretary of the UNISON branch in Newcastle explains: “The benefits of people being more involved in their work is widely understood in terms of higher quality performance and so on but what is not recognised, and in many contexts does not exist, is the role that a union can provide as guarantor and security.' In Newcastle that meant winning a commitment to avoid compulsory redundancies; it meant management knowing,  as a a senior manager in Newcastle put it, “I was under no illusion that if we got things wrong and if we didn't respond, Kenny would escalate the issue.”

This process of participatory politicisation is clearly a very different  process from the lobbying campaigns through which trade unions have traditionally pressed political parties to take up their political demands . In the cases of of both water and local government, the campaigns engaged with, challenged and changed the decisions of political parties and in Uruguay, Brazil, and Norway they contributed to electoral change nationally.

But what was distinctive was that these alliances had their own autonomous political perspective; indeed this was their source of strength and wider impact.

The cases that I've discussed are in some ways unusual; how far are they ahead of their times; a sign of a tendency likely to spread?

Political traditions and organic connections

What factors explain the political character of the unions in these cases? In Uruguay and Brazil, the unions involved in the movements for public water had learnt their politics and developed traditions of collaboration  with other social movements through resisting dictatorships. But the spirit of these traditions were rekindled by the relationship of water workers to those who use the water. “For us,the problems of water in rural areas is very sensitive” explained Adriana Marquiso, former president of the water workers union in Uruguay. “. “There are staff of the public water company (OSE) in even in the smallest rural towns. They grew up there, they live there, and they are part of the affected population. Water is too vital for  water provision to be treated as any other job.”

For the water union, the threat of privatisation activated and politicised the  connection between their members as workers and as citizens. It built on pre-existing openness to the union playing an autonomous political role, based on its participation in the movement against the dictatorship.

In Newcastle, the local UNISON branch too had organic reasons for a close connection to the citizens organisations and a pre-existing tradition of autonomous politics.

The basis for an organically close connection to community organising and building wider alliances lies in the nature of the workforce. Over 70% of UNISON members are women and many of them are part-time. Their priorities bridge community and workplace. When the Newcastle branch did a survey of their low paid women members, to identify priorities for collective bargaining, the response showed that access to good quality free or low cost child care was their top priority.

This kind of work-community connection, integral to the changing nature of the workforce, provides a basis on which some unions are already seeking to change and extend their organisations beyond the workplace.

Newcastle UNISON too developed an autonomous politics resisting the economic dictatorship, if that is not too strong a word, of the unregulated capitalist market. In the 1980s, the branch developed strategies for service improvements working with the local tenants federation. They extended collective bargaining to include social priorities within public tenders which  private bidders could not meet.

Valuing such autonomous political traditions and building on their legacy will be an important part of building a politically minded trade unionism ito take on  21st century privatisation.

The democratisation of knowledge

A distinct understanding of knowledge and its organisation is fundamental to participatory politicisation. The traditional division of labour between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement was historically underpinned by a very restricted, notion of knowledge as social scientific laws known only to experts. The practical know how of the frontline worker or the insights of service users embedded in their experiences and desires were not considered legitimate sources of knowledge.

There is now a more pluralistic understanding of what and whose knowledge matters, but there is still little recognition of the significance – including by trade unions themselves – of the knowledge of organised workers and of other social movement actors.

From the experiences of resisting privatisation of water and of local government, I would point to two key areas where  this plural understanding of knowledge can play a critical role in  the struggle for quality public services.

First, the importance of the overview, or in reality underview, that organised workers have of  a workplace, municipality or  service and it users. This can often be superior to the knowledge of public sector management, fragmented by siloed organisation, competitive empires and bureaucratic vested interests. This isn't to imply that unions are knowledgeable saints; but that where they well organised, cohesive and motivated, their ability to share knowledge of the requirements and possibilities of service improvement is impressive.

Secondly, I want to point to the importance of  research that values knowledge embedded in experience and based on a close relationship between researchers and workers and communities engaged in resistance and alternatives. In the case of the movement for public water, for example, this kind of collaboration between the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) and  popular alliances resisting privatisation has been vital to the development of  international strategies necessary to expose and challenge the  international coordination of  leading water corporations.

The integration of different kinds of knowledge has also stimulated a creativity in developing alternatives. One example is the development of Public Public Partnerships for improving public services, which have built on experiences of solidarity between trade unionists and citizens and municipalities and provided both a focal point for resistance to privatisation as well a practical workable alternative for making necessary improvements to public services..

Relational collectivity: beyond the atomised individualism of the market

Talking of creativity bring me to a final point about the distinctive kind of politics that is emerging in alliances between trade unions and citizens organisations. It concerns the relationship between individualism and collectivity. The distinctive kind of politics involves a distinctive notion of collectivity in which the realisation and contribution of each individual is a condition for the realisation and contribution of all.

The importance of this in the development of a distinct trade union politics autonomous from the political parties (that  conceded so much ground to neoliberalism) struck me when glancing at Tony Blair's ghastly but revealing autobiography. Early on in his description of the making of New Labour, he declares “the left doesn't get aspiration.” He goes on to to explain why “Britain needed the industrial and economic reforms of the Thatcher period.” His argument was that by the 60s, those helped by the welfare state had been liberated . They didn't want more state help, rather they wanted “choice, freedom to earn more money and spend it.”
In other words, he understood aspiration in terms of a very narrow, asocial individualism. To be fulfilled primarily through the market.

What he seems to miss - and New Labour 's understanding or misunderstanding of the state – is that aspiration can involve and in the 60s and 70s did involve, a truly social understanding of the individual. Feminism expressed this best with its aspiration for  every woman to realise their full potential, that came with a recognition that this involved social change for which each of us is responsible. This was a notion of individuals as both shaped by social relationships and also creating, transforming or reproducing them.

(Not understanding or taking on board the liberational politics of the 60s and 70s and remaining stuck in the cold war dichotomies of market and state was probably a fundamental factor in the failure of social democratic parties to renew themselves, but that is a story for another time).
A trade unionism able to facilitate and express the practical knowledge of its members, as workers and as citizens, thus creating the conditions in which creativity can thrive, is central to the possibility of an autonomous political trade unionism . It also enables the transformation public resources management which can make services responsive to the diverse aspirations of  its users while fully utilising the skills of those who deliver and  produce them.

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