Class wars either side of pond

There is a class war going on. Sometimes open but mostly hidden, this class war has seen the proportion of total national income accounted by wages fall from a high of 65% in the mid-1970s to 53% by mid-2010s. And given that the number of extremely high paid executives has rocketed, you can get a sense of what this means for the relative value of the wages of most citizens. Capital, the minority class in a capitalist society, is beating labour, the majority class in a capitalist society, with a rather big stick and winning to boot. Other indications of this class war are Britain ranking 103 out of 112 countries for wage growth in the post-financial crash period where the value of the average wage fell by 1% a year; the 5.3m workers working 2.1bn hours of work for free, amounting to a tax free gift to their bosses of £33.6bn; and the prevalence of bogus ‘self-employment’, zero hour contracts, people with two or three part-time jobs and the like.

Given the continuing problems Corbyn faces in turning Labour into an effective and credible left fighting force, the union movement remains working people’s best defence as number of contributors like Lynn Henderson argue in our special edition. As she acknowledges, it will be no easy feat given the following: the extent of workers covered by collective bargaining coverage on their pay has fallen 37% in 1996 to 28% in 2015 while the percentage of workplaces with a union presence fell from 50% to 43% over the same period, and overall, union density fell from 32% in 1995 to 25% in 2015, with private sector density falling from 21% to 14%.

Unions cannot win on their own because they need supportive political parties. So the question of Corbyn returns. As in Scotland and Britain, the Corbynistas have strengthened their influence on some of Labour’s leading bodies but the sense is that time may be beginning to run out for them. It is not just unity and new developing attractive new policies, as Corbyn said after the spring 2017 Scottish Labour conference, that are needed. They are necessary but not sufficient because mobilisation is needed to assert and implement many of the policies, and that cannot be done within the confines of the Palace of Westminster. Mobilisation means extra-parliamentary activity in terms of mass campaigning, civil disobedience and direct action to stop closures and cuts and to support councils setting ‘needs’ budgets.

‘Scottish Parliament ‘infested with vermin’’ was a headline in the Scottish press in early February. It reminded me of the ‘all Tories are vermin’ dictum apropos of Aneurin Bevan in 1948 saying, ‘So far as I am concerned they [the Tories] are lower than vermin’. It will be interesting so see how well the rats do in the local elections after a strong showing last May in the Scottish Parliament elections. The next test for Labour will come in May with the local elections, and so we continue our coverage of these elections from the last issue with two articles by two leading councillors, one Labour, one SNP.

Contrary to some opinion, Trump is not a fascist but a right-wing populist and opportunist who is racist, sexist, homophobic etcetera. Gerry Friedman looks at the roots of this populism while Colin Darroch reviews Bernie Sander’s new book. Apropos of this, the beginning of the Trump presidency, and to coincide with this edition’s focus upon unions, it’s worth briefly crossing the proverbial pond to ponder the situation there. Union density figures are published every January by the US government, Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the previous year. They make for grim reading, with some parallels with Britain. In 2016, overall density was just 11% (with 14.6m members), down from 11.5% in 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available, union density was 20% with 17.7m members. The highest union density in the post-war period was 35%.

Within these overall figures, for 2016, public sector workers had a union density (34%, with 7.1m members) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6%, with 7.4m members). Within the public sector, density was highest for local government (40.3%), which includes employees in heavily unionised occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. In the private sector, industries with higher density included utilities (21%), transportation and warehousing (18%), telecommunications (15%), construction (14%), and educational services (12%). Low density occurred in finance (1%), agriculture and related industries (1%), food services and drinking places (2%), and professional and technical services (2%). Despite this, median weekly earnings of non-union workers ($802) were 80% of earnings for workers who were union members ($1,004) although this difference may not all be attributable to union influence. Among individual states, New York continued to have the highest density (24%) while South Carolina continued to have the lowest (2%). The next lowest rates were in North Carolina (3%), Arkansas (4%), and Georgia (4%). New York was the only state with a union membership rate over 20%. Over half of all union members lived in just 7 states (California 2.6m; New York 1.9 m; Illinois, 0.8m; Pennsylvania, 0.7m; and Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, 0.6m each), though these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.

In 2016, the union membership rate continued to be slightly higher for men (11%) than for women (10%) although the gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when rates for men and women were 25% and 15% respectively. Among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers continued to have a higher membership rate in 2016 (13%) than workers who were white (10%), Asian (9%) or Hispanic (9%). By age, union membership rates continued to be highest among workers ages 45 to 64 (13%). Membership rate was 12% for full-time workers, twice the rate for part-time workers at 6%. It would seem a return to the 1930s of the revival of American unions with militant strikes and sit-downs will be needed to change this terrible state of affairs.

The Editor.

Scottish Left Review is always seeking to expand and renew its range of contributors. If you’d like to write an article or propose a theme for the magazine, please get it touch with the editor, Professor Gregor Gall at to discuss either.