The attack on Progress by the GMB union at its annual conference is odd and reflects the uncertainty of trade unions as they try and work out their role and status in a 21st century which is proving very unfriendly to trade unions across the world. In the United States, only 7 per cent of the private sector workforce is unionized. The figures in France are similarly low. In Britain, TUC membership has shrunk for the fourth year in succession.
Union bashers may rejoice, and certainly there are Tory MPs who think the last great bit of Thatcherite unfinished business is the extirpation of organized labour. But workers are citizens and the plethora of labour regulations that the state has imposed is a function of the absence of social partnership that can solve workplace differences as a negotiation process rather than an assertion of legal rights. As shop stewards disappear every solicitor’s high street window offers legal representation right for employees with a grievance.
In Germany, workers need a 75 per cent strike vote to stop work. That is not law but German union practice. Swedish unions reject a state imposed minimum wage and promote free trade. The German-Nordic union model remains the most successful model in the G20. I confess, as someone who believes that trade unions are the only counterweight to the greed and cruelty and inequalities so well described in Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few, that I long for a major renaissance of unions able to recruit and represent the broad mass of salaried workers.
So it is odd that as part of the subterranean and necessary discussion of the need for a new role and purpose of unions in British democratic left politics, there is an attack on one of the most ecumenical outfits contributing to evolution of the post old-new Labour Party. Progress may have been launched by so-called Blairite outriders but it has now hitched its wagon firmly to the Miliband (E) project; and Ed Miliband is always the keynote speaker at Progress conferences. The Blair-Brown wars are so yesterday.
Picking a fight with Progress is incoherent and misguided, especially as this government cannot communicate with workers in the way that all successful Tory administrations have since the days of Disraeli. Even Mrs Thatcher was careful to divide unions into her Scargillite foes and those she could do business with. Today’s Tories have no language for talking to unions.
The GMB would be advised to work with Progress rather than denounce it. After three decades of ‘Enrichessez-vous’, the search for a fairer deal for the waged and salaried losers is palpable. Old unions are over. New unions are waiting to be born and the party that can shape a new unionism will dictate the flow of politics in the next era.