As socialists and anti-cuts activists, we engage in both the Trade Unions and bourgeois elections for the same reason: because they are platforms to raise socialist ideas and because elected representatives can actually advance the immediate interests of the working class.
We should try and push these institutions as far as they will go whilst at the same time as building the forces for socialism to fundamentally change society. The TUC are now seriously discussing general strike action because of pressure from the membership. This would be unthinkable 10 years ago, but the Union membership has moved to the Left even if the leadership hasn’t. The Trade Unions are not necessarily the perfect body for achieving the socialist transformation of society, but at this point in time workers seeking to defend their working conditions and to fight the Con-Dem austerity agenda mainly see their Union as the organ to achieve this. That is why we must participate in them, because whilst the TU leadership provides relative traction against workers’ struggle, it can be forced into action by the pressure of the rank and file membership. Only until the membership are unable to exert any significant influence on the leadership (through lack of internal democracy, accountability etc) would we not in engage in these organisations.
Let’s look at the statistics on Trade Union membership in the UK: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/employment-matters/docs/t/12-p77-trade-union-membership-2011.pdf
“Page 9, Chart 1.1 Trade Union membership levels in UK from 1892 to 2011” shows that the trend in TU membership since 1979 is downwards. However, in 1926 (the last General Strike) TU membership was at one of its lowest points since WW1. Since a General Strike is on the cards now, this shows a similarity with today’s situation. The level of TU membership was clearly not a factor in the formulation of the General Strike.
Also, note that the fastest growth in TU membership occurred during the 1917 Russian revolution, the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930’s and WW2, and the run up to Thatcher’s 1979 election. From this, it is fairly clear that workers instinctively saw the TU as their means of organising in favour of socialism/solidarity with Soviet Russia, against fascism and war, and against the most right-wing government in recent British history.
“Page 10, Chart 2.1 Trade union membership levels by sector, 1995-2011” shows that the trend in private sector TU membership to decline has stopped, and membership has slowly begun to increase (for the first time since the blip where New Labour came to power in 97). Public sector TU membership has gone down simply because of the loss in public sector jobs under the Con-Dem government!
“Page 27, table 2.3 Average hourly earnings (in £s) by union status and sector, 1995 to 2011” clearly shows that in both public and private sector, Union members earn a higher wage! Clearly there are still concrete advantages for workers to join a Union!
All of these figures demonstrate that the Trade Unions are seen by workers as their primary method of organisation in the 20th and 21st centuries. Union membership actually increases during times of heightened class struggle, so membership is likely to increase due to strike action in the face of the Con-Dem austerity agenda over the next few years.
To stand on the side lines whilst workers in engage in struggle via their Trade Unions is clearly not the correct attitude for socialists to take. To win workers to socialist ideas we need to stand by them side by side in struggle, even in “imperfect” organisations like the Trade Unions.