Union Action Against the ‘Cuts’

Maid of the Loch Paddle Steamer
British Industry as it used to be!
This post was published on LabourList on 13th September 2010.

The TUC conference starts today, and union leaders are declaring war on the coalition’s deficit-reduction strategy. Although some union leaders are talking about ‘civil disobedience’ campaigns and co-ordinated strikes, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber is taking a more cautious and constructive line. He wants a ‘political campaign’ that depends not just on a negative stance against the ‘cuts’.

He is absolutely right to take this approach, for two major reasons. Firstly, while it is absolutely right that individual groups of workers make the case that removing their jobs are false economies, it is too easy for the coalition to claim that without reducing the deficit and the interest payments that are attached to it ‘things would (or will) be worse’. And the reason it is so easy is because there is a lack of understanding of the economic paradigm that underpins the coalition’s rhetoric. Sadly this economic paradigm was shared by the 1997-2010 Labour governments.

And the second reason for a positive approach by the unions is that this economic paradigm is so obviously, stunningly wrong. Corporations free to seek financial profit, accumulate in size and power and to determine how we seek our livelihood, largely independent of human, social and environmental concerns, cannot be a sustainable future for this and any other country. If there was any doubt over this this on empirical grounds, the events of the last two years have shattered it.

Moreover there is no shortage of alternative paths we can take from our present situation. For a start, it is quite obvious that it is not the risk of higher interest rates that is the major brake on economic activity today, but the static accumulation of financial capital. Yet this financial capital was actually accumulated in the process of a hugely damaging bubble of asset prices. Using asset taxes to get this money moving again is not only a fair approach to those who gained in this way, but can serve to boost tax revenue and reduce the need for the inevitable harm public service cuts must do in an economy as unequal as ours.

On its own, it is not enough simply to get the economy moving. It has to start moving in a different direction. One in which human, social and environmental concerns are neither ignored nor centrally imposed as an afterthought, but built into the very way economic institutions operate. We can no longer afford to let efficiency of financial return be the sole driver and measure of economic dynamism.

If the unions and the Labour Party were to get behind these sort of arguments we could start a game-changing campaign in Britain.

4 thoughts on “Union Action Against the ‘Cuts’”

  1. I agree. There may not be room for fastidious quibbling regards the bona fides of the unions, the degree to which they embody a kind of degeneracy. The Thatcherite dye in our thoughts construes union-position-taking as a kind of stasis demonstrating maladjustment to ” the market ” that calls for relentless flexibility. But who really is for non-stop flexibility ? It reminds me of the argument against complete meritocracy which points out the erosion of family as one cost. The point of the argument is just to point out our support for meritocracy is qualified and we’d do better if we thought harder about the qualifications.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Sorry about the spam that appeared to be a derogatory response to your comment. I think it was just random nonsense! I’ve gone back to some level of moderation of comments.

    I think the point that one must not forget about the unions is that they are democratic organisations – they do have mechanisms for expressing the wishes of their individual members. And this makes them much more legitimate voices than many that would dismiss their concerns. And are they the ones to blame for the oppositional atmosphere that often pervades British industrial relations? I’m not so sure.

    Your point about ‘flexibility’ is well made. If it involved more real options that would be fine, but generally the choices are limited to those that suit the interests of greater profit.

  3. Thank you, Diarmid. Ref oppositional atmosphere, I have no direct experience. One of my relations used to work in British manufacturing. He said the managers had a bizarre sense of superiority over the workers which he couldn’t fathom.

    Yes, the unions are democratic, although that claim is also an Achilles heel. It’s often the target for criticism. Some of that has convinced many that unions aren’t altogether democratic.

    I suppose the issue isn’t necessarily democratic practice but leadership and what’s on the agenda. That applies to the officer class as well. Quite obviously.

    We are at point A and have to travel to point B. What do we know about B ? The following perhaps:
    – it will be easier to get there if we engender a co-operative culture
    – inequality must be reduced “massively”, as they say
    – practical skills and trades must be encouraged
    – “clever” and “intelligent” are due a very big rethink indeed
    – sharing of resources is the big unexplored possibility and is bound to be a big part of our future
    – the “right to work” is going to be taken seriously and may possibly be a shock to the consumerist society that must in some measure fall away
    – we must maintain lively, competitive domestic markets to avoid Japanese style paternalism and stagnation
    – the UK has a great many strengths not least the young

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