Recognising possibilities for change

Posted on May 18, 2013


The trade union movement is in a state of flux, with concepts such as centralised bargaining and the “winner takes all” approach of majority — 50 per cent plus one — unionism now being challenged. “Agency shop” agreements whereby majority unions take a slice of the subscriptions paid by members of smaller unions, let alone the much bigger question of party political alignments are also being seriously debated.

This is a healthy development and will remain so unless the debates turn into polarised arguments; unless reality and reason give way to dogma and fantasy. Accommodation must be found that most benefits the sellers of labour at whatever level, even if it means a radical shift away from what exists at present.

Open, well informed debate followed by truly democratic decision making from the shopfloor up, could see the labour movement united as perhaps never before. This is a possibility because all the ingredients exist in terms of the common interests of workers and the still fundamentally democratic structures of the unions.

Whether such a development is probable is quite another matter, given the degree of bureaucratic self interest and political manipulation that will work counter to it. However, in the interests of the majority of union members and their unemployed comrades, the principled unity of the labour movement is worth striving for.

The same applies to the demands of international labour for decent work and decent pay and jobs for all. This was described earlier this week by a reader, Tim Anderson of Cape Town, as “ludicrously unrealistic”. He wrote that my sense of reality had deserted me in stating that the labour movement should defend “decent wages and conditions while insisting on the provision of jobs for all”.

This opens up an extremely worthwhile debate. And Tim Anderson is right in his assertions, but only if the present economic system, and the social order on which it stands, remains unchanged.

Anderson goes on the mention many of the points about the existing system that have been mentioned in this column over the years. He raises one of the crucial issues currently facing the local labour movement: “far too many little empires and rivalries at stake”.

This is the problem of bureaucracy that some unionists are currently grappling with. Those who wish to bring about change and unite the labour movement may not succeed, but they could do so, because change is clearly possible.

So too is it possible for the global union demand of decent work and jobs for all to become a reality. But not unless some radical change is wrought.

In very recent history, there are examples of this situation existing. Little more than 40 years ago, in New Zealand, there was little to choose in terms of wages and benefits between a municipal gardener, a docker or a journalist. The only unemployed people in that country’s largest city, Auckland, were fewer than 100 unable to work because of disability.

That was at a time when the global economy was booming and there were many more “decent” jobs available in a number of regions than people to fill them. This has changed everywhere and the questions to be asked are: why and what could, or should, be done about it?

As Anderson correctly points out, production today is “more mechanised and automated”; that “Only a small number of bright and highly trained personnel are needed to make the equipment and maintain the production flow.” This is a result of what this column has called the “micro chip revolution” that, under the existing system, has already made millions of people redundant.

Yet, what it could mean is that many more people need to work for lesser time to produce an abundance, a situation once described by Mathatma Gandhi as a world that “provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”.

The vast surpluses generated by the increasing number of mechanical and digital slaves and fewer and fewer human overseers were absorbed for years by what Anderson — again correctly — refers to as products “funded by uncaring banks and loan sharks”. In other words the credit boom that applied as much to individuals as to company and governments.

Now that bubble has burst — and everywhere the consequences are being felt. Skills or the lack of them in one or other suburb of this global village are neither the problem nor the answer. However, parochial thinking still dominates with nationalism providing the blinkers to obscure the wider reality and to promote the TINA — There Is No Alternative — idea.

Yet all the ingredients exist for an alternative: there are sufficient resources, sufficient productive capacity for every man, woman and child to be provided with every basic necessity; effectively, to liberate humanity. So the possibility exists. But whether it will ever be achieved is another matter entirely.

However, even 100 years ago, the idea that workers across the board could organise and be unionised was widely derided. These were times in the industrialised world when workers, skilled and unskilled, suffered the horrendous exploitation graphically described in autobiographical books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Children of the Dead End.

But individuals and small groups dared to dream and to organise, shaking the foundations of both the early guild unionism and society itself. They saw the possibility of a better world and better ways of organising — and worked towards them, giving rise to the modern labour movement.

When all the material conditions exist and all that is lacking is the political will and organisation, they knew it was not unrealistic to hope, plan and work for change. But what was essential then — as now — is the very sort of debate that Tim Anderson initiated this week.