Unions without the Union

BreakingUpBritainThe British labour movement has traditionally been hostile to independence movements within these isles which are seen as a threat to the unity of the British working class. In this extract from Breaking up Britain, published as part of our series to mark the book’s release, Gregor Gall argues this concern is misplaced and speculates on what a post-Union labour politics might look like.

Left politics has traditionally been founded on internationalism, taking inspiration from the historic appeal to workers of the world, regardless of country, to unite together in common purpose. Herein lies the source of the accusation wielded by some on the left against others on the left that giving any support to any independence movements on mainland Britain will lead to a fundamental, irrevocable and unwelcome fracture to the working class. The fear is that the unity of the working class movement in Britain will be broken, leading to retreat and defeat as well as the end of the socialist project.

Those on the left who support the right of the peoples of Scotland and Wales to national self-determination are castigated as nationalists while those arguing against these nations’ self-determination are held by the other side of the left to be unionists. Such a division reflects of an age old schism amongst the left between the polarities of what pass for understandings of nationalism and internationalism.

The internationalism that the ‘unionist’ left subscribe to is the product of an interpretation of internationalism as transnationalism and non-nationalism where nations are regarded as insignificant and regressive units of social identity.

But if internationalism is to be understood properly, it is a concept consisting of relationships between nations in a social world where nationalities are distinguished amongst and between themselves in order to reflect their cultures and identities – these remaining vital and thriving sub-global units of social organisation.

And in any project of leftwing social transformation, the role of organised labour as a mass body of workers is critical. So a salient question for this chapter is: has Britain always had a labour movement in the singular, that is, has there always been a British labour movement? These are important questions for it is assumed by many left-wing critics that the ‘break-up’ of Britain would have wholly negative consequences for the labour movement in Britain. Put bluntly, as it often is, the splitting the working class by ending the unitary union would prevent the realisation of socialism in Britain.

So just how grounded are the fears of the ‘unionist’ left? First, those of a labourist persuasion believe mistakenly in abstract notions of working class unity that supposedly determine the effectiveness of unions à la ‘unity is strength’. So the standard accusation that independence will split the unity of the working class is preposterous when that unity cannot be demonstrated to either exist in any meaningful, manifest sense or to be capable of delivering effective outcomes.

Rather, it is the willingness to collectively mobilise (with the requisite strategic and tactical deftness) to pursue interest representation which determines efficacy. So it is not the united action of miners in a previous age or postal workers or civil servants today north and south of the border which determines its strength. It is the action itself and there is no reason to suppose that postal workers in England fighting their separate (English) Post Office employer would be any less effective if their Scottish counterparts were not fighting with them. Furthermore, there is no reason to suspect why workers of one employer north and south of the border would not want to fight together against their same employer.

Second, a fairly convincing case can be made that the labourist political tradition within the union movement has been a block on such effective mobilisation because of the division of economics (dealt with by unions) from politics (dealt with by the Labour Party) and the considerable influence of the Labour Party in urging union moderation in the economic field for fear of unions making Labour politically unelectable. Aspirations of relations of unity must allow for the building of strength for unity in strength is only manifest if based on action (not inaction) and on activity (not passivity). The cases of the industrially militant but political party unaffiliated RMT and PCS unions since the early 2000s highlight that the relatively more unconstrained environment they have constructed for themselves. And the RMT itself has shown that effective industrial militancy under company-level bargaining – that, is amongst Scotrail and the plethora or other rail operators in England – has been achievable.

Third, and in a different way, organisational structures do not determine efficacy. In a globalised era, and notwithstanding that unions still need to develop levers over nation-based states because those states are still powerful actors, the actions of nation-based unions require some reconfiguration in order to act against transnational players, whether these be employers or supra-state agencies. In this era and in this sense, whether unions are Scottish- or British-based is not the salient issue for what has now become salient is how these unions mobilise in concert with sister unions elsewhere in Europe or North America to effectively bargain with employers and regulatory regimes which operate across national borders.

Fourth, dealing with employers which operate north and south of the border of an independent Scotland will require unity in collective action between different unions and amongst different workers. Workers in a separate Scotland would not necessarily need to be in separate unions from their brothers and sisters in England or Wales for, as with Ireland, workers can be in the same union which organises workers in a set of companies within a sector and which operate across the British Isles. Lastly, the growth of ‘super-unions’ in Britain has not made a strong case for the organisational aggregation of union members in a small number of very large, cross-Britain conglomerate unions being more effective than their dispersion amongst a larger number of smaller unions. This again suggests the abstracted notion of unity in the form of organizational structure has again, unfortunately, become totemic. And, under such super-unions, membership participation and control are harder to facilitate as is the representation of legitimate sectional interests.

So the crux of the matter for unions here is to develop practices and structures which are both more participative and democratic as well as effective in collective interest representation. The forms of organisation this could take be would autonomous regions for Scotland within existing Britain-wide unions or even separate unions in Scotland which work with others unions wherever they be. Either way, unions need to develop levers of power to wield against the various actors which operate in different arenas and at different levels. The one certainty is that collective grassroots mobilisation of a genuine transnational nature will become a pre-requisite for effective unions.

Gregor Gall is a contributor to the collection Breaking Up Britain : Four Nations after a Union. This article was published in Our Kingdom, with many thanks.

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  1. Scunnert says:

    Good post. I’ve recently discovered this guy – Conan says he knows him well so he must be a good yin.

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