Waiting for the great leap forward: Trade unions, social movements and the hubris of power

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Just when you think the British Conservatives could do no more to endear themselves to us, we learn that David Cameron’s government is considering a proposal to scrap the May public holiday, replacing it with a long weekend in October that will be dubbed ‘Trafalgar Day’ or ‘UK Day’.

The Tory MP Andrew Rosindell gave his two cents worth on the matter: ‘I don’t think we need a workers’ day any more than we need a day for pensioners or any other group. It is silly.’

You can always depend on the Tories to stick their finger in the eye of the working-class and its traditions. How else are they meant to fill their days? Yet there are those on the Left who would accept, more or less begrudgingly, that Rosindell has a point. The ‘old’ working-class, whose movement displayed its wares every May Day like Orangemen on the Twelfth, is no more. What we have now is a miscellaneous assortment of wage-earners, with little or no sense of common identity. Trade unions represent particular groups of workers, a minority of the labouring population, whose interests can in no way be considered identical with those of society as a whole. There will never be a return to the glorious moments of collective action that scorched the skies of twentieth-century Europe.

An overly bleak view of the present often grounds itself on an excessively rosy view of the past. The people who tell us that the old working-class movement is dead and buried often forget how difficult it was to build that movement in the first place. Eric Hobsbawm recalled some of the main obstacles faced by labour organisers at the close of the nineteenth century in his Age of Empire:

The divisions within the masses whom socialists classified under the heading of ‘the proletariat’ were indeed so great that one might have expected them to stand in the way of any practical assertion of a single unified class consciousness. The classic proletariat of the modern industrial factory or plant, often still a smallish though rapidly growing minority, was far from identical with the bulk of manual workers who laboured in small workshops, in rural cottages or city back-rooms or in the open air, with the labyrinthine jungle of wage-work which filled the cities and – even leaving aside farming – the countryside … in addition to all these there were the even more obvious differences of social and geographical origin, of nationality, language, culture and religion, which could not but emerge as industry recruited its rapidly growing armies from all corners of its own country, and indeed, in this era of massive international and trans-oceanic migration, from abroad.

In the face of such terrific odds, a coherent, effective working-class movement was built. It’s wrong to assume that industries which became centres of militant trade unionism were simply born that way. The FIAT plant outside Turin was the command centre of the Italian labour movement throughout the 1970s; the discussions among its shop stewards had as much influence on national politics as debates in the national parliament or mutterings in the army command. Yet for much of the post-war period, FIAT had managed to shut the unions out of the Mirafiori plant altogether; when a strike finally proved successful in the mid-sixties, every astute observer recognised that Italy was about to enter a new and turbulent era. The miners’ union which obsessed Tory politicians from Heath to Thatcher had remained largely quiescent for half a century after the failed General Strike of 1926 before flaring into life in the early ’70s.

What sectors of the modern economy might follow the same pattern, transforming themselves from barren ground to fertile pastures in the space of a few years? Naturally, such developments can’t be predicted in advance, but we should be ready for surprises. The owners of Wal-Mart – today’s equivalent of Ford or General Motors for the US economy – have spent a fortune trying to block organising drives by the trade union movement in their stores. So far they’ve been successful, but they certainly wouldn’t have allocated those resources if they believed that economic trends had rendered the cause of labour as hopeless as Jedward’s Eurovision entry.

This is not to say that we should expect the pattern of the last century to simply repeat itself. We may see collective action shift from the workplace to the community – something which has been notable in Latin America over the past decade. The Bolivian experience is a useful corrective to the gloom. Its labour movement was decimated by economic restructuring in the 1980s: the tin miners’ union, which had put itself at the head of every struggle for decades, effectively collapsed within the space of a few years. The social bases of left-wing politics in Bolivia simply disappeared as neoliberalism was imposed without any serious resistance. Yet the last decade has seen a remarkable turn-around, with insurgent communities challenging the subordination of their country to the same interests now preying on Europe’s weaker countries.

Political traditions can survive and mutate when the society which once gave rise to them has disappeared. The next few years are likely to be grim, for Ireland and for Europe. But sooner or later the agents of austerity will over-reach themselves, just as they did by trying to charge the people of Cochabamba for the rainwater which fell on their roofs. As the hubris of the powerful gives rise to multiple and quickening moments of crisis, a whole field of political possibility opens up for those who understand that there is a logic to life other than that of the dead hand of the market.


One Response

  1. vincent wood

    May 2, 2011 5:50 pm

    The attack on May day is an attack on solidarity. The Tories – of whichever nationality – have been trying to undo any gains made by ordinary folk for decades.

    What the Tories and their many supporters in the media on both sides of the Irish Sea are doing is to ensure that we don’t acknowledge collective action. Whatever community spirit that exists (and it does in spite of these attacks) is being channelled into ‘celebrations’ of Royal celebrity. That is acceptible solidarity.

    It shouldn’t matter that the nature of the workplace has changed, that’s not the point here.