In recent years Labour has always found itself in a difficult position when it comes to trade union disputes. On the one hand a parliamentary political party has to try and represent all people in society, but its roots in the trade union movement make condemnation of strikes a betrayal. An example of this confusion was in relation to strike action by junior doctors. Some Labour MPs condemned the scheduled strikes but others said they would be standing on the picket line with them. Clearly a party of the Left cannot condemn strikes but endorsing all industrial action, from a perspective of pure realpolitik, risks alienating voters, a majority of whom are not unionised. This isn’t just a problem for the UK Labour Party, all left-of-centre parties need to reconcile these two positions if they seek power through the parliamentary route. It’s important that we get this right.
The current position of the Labour Party, and other left-wing parliamentary parties, is that strike action is regrettable but that these parties will stand in solidarity with workers who take industrial action. Although this rhetoric is fine the problem is that it often doesn’t translate into actual solidarity. Saying you are standing in solidarity with workers on strike means nothing if you are going to avoid this issue. A party cannot really stand in solidarity with workers on strike but then welcome when strike action is averted.
Having said this I believe that trying to find a middle path is the right approach, as supporting all strikes would be problematic for a left-wing political party that was in government. Further if a radical political party wished to decouple labour from income there are many sections of the trade union movement that would oppose such a move. Trade unions, of whom I am overwhelmingly supportive, exist to strengthen to the rights of workers who may be under threat from unscrupulous employers. If labour and income were no longer interdependent, trade union membership may decrease, which puts again raises another set of questions about the future of the Left.
With all these questions, what is the solution? The current social democratic half-way house cannot continue, but there are some approaches the labour movement can adopt. A short-term solution is that whilst the Labour Party should retain its commitment to negotiation, the party should unapologetically endorse strike action and stand in real solidarity with these workers. Solidarity without a willingness to practically support workers is just a word, and if the political party founded to represent the labour movement isn’t on a picket line then who will join these workers? Industrial action in opposition to Tory policies or greedy employers must be regarded by the Labour Party as justified. When Labour is in government strikes mustn’t be allowed to take place. The party of the Labour movement cannot be seen as the cause of industrial disharmony, because that will reinforce perceptions of the trade unions as unreasonable.
There are two longer term things that Labour must do. The first of these is to recognise that the working class of the 1970s no longer exists and in pursuing it’s goal of a strong trade union movement, Labour must adapt to the 21st Century. This involves introducing workers protections for the self-employed, creating trade unions for part-time workers, and embracing technological advancement. The unions themselves have already begun this vital work, but the Labour Party needs to be at the forefront of this change.
The second dimension is to change the strategy of the trade union movement. Rather than allow the current playbook to be constantly repeated, workers should collaborate to minimise disruption for other sections of society whilst hitting the financial assets of management. For example if rubbish collectors in a local area go on strike, don’t refuse to collect people’s garbage, dump it outside the Town Hall as a protest.The era of mass media in which we are currently living will result in these pictures flying around the country. A standard strike with picket lines and placards works in some cases, but we can be more innovative than simply downing tools for a few days.
Labour needs to shake off the idea of trade unionism as an insult, and stand with workers conducting industrial action. But this is not enough. The modern labour market is completely different to previous eras of mass industrial employment. Labour and the trade union movement needs to adapt, and whilst this process has begun it must extend to include dispute tactics. We have had nearly forty years of trade union vilification by politicians and in the media. Challenging this conditioning will not be a short-term project, but by changing union actions those previously hostile to the labour movement will be more open to the concerns of working people.