May Day Futures

On the eve of May Day 2019 Layla-Roxanne Hill assesses the emergent new radical forms of trade unionism and what it means for all of us.

International Workers’ Day and May Day are on the horizon, days which allow us to remember and recognise the efforts of the trade union movement within Scotland. As a committed trade unionist – holding memberships with National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Scottish Artists Union (SAU) and various lay positions from branch to executive level within the NUJ – I welcome days and events which allow us to reflect on our movement and for wider society to learn more about the trade union successes.

Only this week, grassroot NUJ members rallied together to organise vigils across the UK in remembrance of Lyra McKee, our colleague and National Union of Journalists comrade Lyra McKee was killed while covering a riot in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Last month, an event recognising and highlighting creative women within the movement took place at STUC, which drew an extensive crowd from all unions and showcased the breadth of our identities.

At STUC Congress earlier this month, I heard a (first-time) speaker use their preferred pronouns whilst they spoke to a motion on the Gender Recognition Act and support for trans and women’s rights. Following a debate, the motion was passed unanimously with a commitment by the STUC Women’s Committee and LGBT+ Committee to work together to promote both trans rights and women’s rights and reject any attempt to divide the two movements.

An emergency motion was submitted and passed to support Bamidele Chika Agbakuribe and his family, a blind PhD student who is at risk of deportation after raising concerns about the lack of support.

Earlier this year, an adult entertainment branch – vitally, sex worker established and led – was formed by GMB Scotland. For the first time in Scotland, strippers, burlesque dancers, dominatrixes, sex workers and all employed in sexual labour or erotic service will have trade union representation. The branch already has Black and transgender officers – marginalised voices which are seldom at the core of established unions and often considered as an afterthought – and aims to secure workers’ safety and workers’ rights, as well as change the Scottish Government policy direction on sex work from the ‘Nordic Model’ to decriminalisation. And there is so, so much more. The training, the network, the opportunity to get stuck in and undertake campaigns. However, seldom is said about practices of discrimination which exist within these unions.

We remain silent of our complicity in capitalism.

Trade unionism is a universal phenomenon and the collective act of protecting and improving living standards by people who sell their labour power against people who buy it. Trade unions were devised to protect their members from the demands of capitalism, belonging to capitalism because they grew out of the conditions it created. We respond to well-established forces such as rising and falling prices, unemployment and government action which influences living standards and over which we have little to no control.

Prosperity to working class people means little more than affording commodities and services, they continue to live in relatively unchanged communities and work conditions.

Society is still primarily based on the private ownership and control of industry motivated by profit, conflict still exists between the sellers and buyers of labour power. Capitalism is undertaking sharp changes in such a way, the trade union movement’s institutionalised practices are unable to respond to.
Trade unions have a long history of taking action to support people beyond the workplace, campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, for the rights and freedom of LGBTQIA+ people, and for voting and reproductive rights for women.

Global Collectivism and Trade Unionism

On January 1, women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, formed a “women’s wall” — vanitha mathil in the local language of Malayalam – to protest a religious ban that prevented women of menstruating age from entering one of the country’s sacred Hindu temples and demonstrate their commitment to the fight for gender equality. even after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of their entry last year. According to government estimates published in the Indian press, approx. 5 million women lined up on National Highway 66, a long stretch of road that runs along the country’s western coast. Though the event had the backing of the state government, its success was due to the engagement of a variety of groups and organisations and the individual women who turned out to participate.

Nearly one week later – on the 8-9th of January – possibly the largest general strike in world labour history took place. It is estimated that at least 150 million workers, perhaps as many as 200 million went on strike in India. Workers throughout India participated — from the largest cities of Mumbai (12 million plus) and Delhi (11 million plus) to the 67 percent of the country that remains rural. The strike was organised by ten different trade unions, covering transport, banks, financial services, government company, power, steel, car and other factory workers.

It follows the struggle against the neoliberal government of Narendra Modi and was built around 12 demands. The first opposes efforts to dismantle the 1926 Labour Law, demanding the government “stop all pro-corporate, anti-worker amendments.” Other demands range from raising the monthly minimum wage, addressing inflation, high, irregular and “non-permanent” unemployment, and social security for unorganised workers, to Foreign Direct Investment policy in banking, including the prevention of foreign or private involvement in some of the key public sector enterprises in the country.

People from all across Indian society came together. There were doctors, students, farmers, homemakers and there were Muslims, Hindus and Christians. People came together under a working class identity.

However, as Jeff Crisp states in, The Story of an African Working Class;

“While such modes of resistance are evidently of great importance, a preoccupation with these more obvious forms of working class dissent has a number of undesirable effects. It encourages an excessively institutional approach to the subject, a narrowly intra-elitist perspective which focusses on the pronouncement of union and party leaders, but neglects the activities, attitudes and aspirations of the rank-and-file worker. This institutional approach also ignores the vitality of working class resistance in periods when trade unions and radical political parties do not exist, are banned or have been transformed into instruments of labour control.”

This is certainly true of the thousands of workers in the industrial city of Matamoros who have recently won big wage increases and bonuses in a strike wave that began in January. Demanding better salaries, safer conditions and for union leaders to put members’ concerns ahead of company interests. Union of Laborers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry (SJOIIM) leaders had initially agreed to formally support workers’ demands, but suggested that delegates negotiate individually with each factory and workers felt this would keep them fragmented and weaken their bargaining power. The workers closed factory gates at eight plants and hung up red and black banners, the Mexican labour movement’s universal symbol of a strike. Over the next two weeks, thousands of workers held massive rallies and launched strikes at all 48 factories. These strikes weren’t sanctioned by union leaders, citing a failure by the workers to go through the proper legal channels and would leave them exposed to replacement by scabs and police repression. Finally, due to escalating pressure from the grassroots movement, the SJOIIM officially declared strikes in all 48 factories.
Perhaps the same can be said of trade unions in Scotland.

The means of production are privately owned and labour power is obtained through the open market and so long as these factors remain unchanged, then so will conflict. The necessary condition for the elimination of class conflict is the destruction of the relationship between the buyers and sellers of labour power. No amount of adaption, structural or otherwise will achieve this end. Strikes are an index of conflict and a permanent feature of a capitalist system.

Our organising methods need to link the struggles that exist within the workplace with those taking place in our friendships, homes, communities, homes and globally.
The fight for better pay needs to be fought alongside rent controls. Fighting for better wages needs to address the crippling debt that people experience. Fighting for freedom means fighting against detention.

Let us not be complicit in our comfort.

Comments (7)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    If the NUJ is such a bastion of liberty, why do we have such an almost total right wing media in the UK?

    1. Ian S says:

      Alasdair, I’m guessing the two aren’t connected. Journalists don’t control the means of publishing and distribution, hence they don’t ultimately control what appears in the press. The owners do.

      1. Dave C says:

        Agreed Ian. Don’t think that’s what the writer is getting at, if anything it’s the failings of trade unions here to challenge dominant narratives of capitalism which find themselves within the trade union structures. The press to an extent reflects the society we live in and given right-wing ideology is the dominant ideology, it’s no surprise our media is right-wing. There is well documented research which suggest reporters/writers are more left-leaning but political leanings shift to the right with more senior positions – including editorial. As a former NUJ member, I remember the code of conduct being held up as the bastion of good writing/reporting but the likelihood of all media types adhering to it is pretty low. Support independent media where you can (with an understanding of who is behind the stories/set-up) – Scotland is well served with West Highland Free Press, The Ferret, Common Space and of course, BC – but also push existing press to change.

  2. Elaine Fraser says:

    Is it true that the word “women” has pretty much disappeared from all union policy papers. For example , the Musicians Union? Is it “pregnant people” we say now ?

    Asking for a friend.

    1. Nancy says:

      Don’t believe that is the case Elaine. It is possible though, to move towards a less binaried form of identity which will help us achieve true equality, whilst also recognising the nuances and oppression particular people – women, working class people, lgbtqia+, black and people of colour experience.

  3. Jonny says:

    The editorial team at BC have done really well in finding this writer, the diverse range of topics, thought and knowledge is rather impressive. Shame this isn’t found more in mainstream avenues.

    1. Thanks Jonny – we are delighted to have Layla as one of our regular columnists.

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