It’s been a long time coming, but there are signs that sections of the trade union movement in Britain are prepared to take an internationalist approach to the challenges posed by the advance of corporate-driven globalisation. Until now, the unions have generally taken a nationalist, keep-our-jobs British, view. Leaders like Tony Woodley of Unite (TGWU) have pleaded with New Labour to protect manufacturing jobs which the corporations want to transfer abroad. Naturally enough, he has failed to impress a government that is actually the facilitator of the operations of the global corporations in Britain. The first signs of a change were apparent at the conference on globalisation and internationalism organised by the South-East Region of the Trades Union Congress (SERTUC) at the weekend. As far as anyone is aware, it is the first time the official union movement has organised such an event. Barry Camfield, the assistant general secretary of Unite (TGWU) said that the trade unions had to create "new international forms and nothing less" if they were to take on the corporations on a global scale. He suggested that the existing rule books were no longer fit for purpose and that a "new global strategy" was required. For example, shop stewards needed an international handbook that enabled them to develop a strategy of effective and practical collaboration with workers in other countries. The days when internationalism consisted mainly of foreign junkets by general secretaries were over, he said.
Tens years of New Labour under Blair and Brown have taken their toll on the unions. The rate of union membership (union density) for employees in the United Kingdom fell by 0.6% to 28.4% per cent in 2006, the largest annual decline since 1998, when the total was around 31%. Union density of skilled trade occupations has continued to decline sharply – from 30.1% in 2001 to just 24.0% in 2006. This figure in particular reflects the shift of manufacturing jobs from Britain to cheaper-labour areas like China and India. Only one-third of UK employees are covered by a collective pay and conditions agreement. This figure, Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights told the conference, is by far the lowest total in the European Union. In 1979, over 85% of UK employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements. Ewing described how under New Labour, with Chancellor Brown in the driving seat, Britain had become a place of minimum rights. These emphasised a flexible labour market, where for example workers would be helped to find another job but had no rights to challenge closures or redundancies. There was a minimum wage, but it was not a living wage. There was a right to belong to a trade union, but rights to workplace recognition were well below the standards set out by the International Labour Organisation. There was a right to strike, but no right to take solidarity action in support of workers employed by the same transnational corporation. Unlike in previous periods, he said, the unions could not depend on the state or governments for support. They were on their own. This stark message had the merit of telling it how it is. Trade unionists have watched the party the movement founded over 100 years ago abandon them to manage the globalisation process in favour of corporate power and seen New Labour create a market state in place of the welfare state. If the trade unions are serious about challenging the power of the global capitalism, they will, therefore, not only have to defy the state’s ban on solidarity action but also break with New Labour and launch a campaign for new forms of political representation for their members.
Paul Feldman, communications editor