Unions essential for a just economy

Unions have always represented the industrial army of wage labourers. But, at their best, unions have also represented workers on broader questions like peace in the world and in the William Morris sense of how we live and how we might live. In other words, the idea that Scotland or Britain needs a pay rise may be a necessary demand but it is an insufficient one.

Unions need qualitative demands which have a social, cultural and environmental dimension. Arguably, the most important of all is the historic demand for economic emancipation and a decisive shift in power, from capital to labour, from landlord to tenant, and from men to women – from those who own the wealth to those who actually create it. Such a shift in ownership and control of the means of production should tackle other structural iniquities like wealth inequality, environmental injustice, and the class base of society itself.

Historically, unions have been part of a broader, worldwide movement for radical change, as well as self-help institutions for workplace organisation. And strong, vibrant unions are vital to creating a more egalitarian society by reducing working time, enforcing workers’ rights including health and safety and environmental protection, securing industrial democracy and humanising work, and campaigning for comprehensive social security from the cradle to the grave and dignity in retirement.

That’s precisely why in one of its first acts the Conservative government is planning to attack the union movement on both its industrial and political fronts. The Trade Union Bill seeks to deploy the apparatus of the state to crack down on democratic union activity. The Bill is not merely an attack on individual workers’ rights – it is also an attack on the entire working class and its representative institutions. And it demands the unity and common purpose, not of a nation, but of a class to resist it.

It seeks not just to blunt union industrial action, recruitment and organisation inside the workplace but to silence union political interventions outside the workplace too. But those interventions are essential if unions are to inform and lead the public debate on the ecological impact of our jobs and economy, and to argue for just transition.

If we are to return to local and macro-economic planning, which we must, for the higher goals of social, environmental and economic transformation, and if we are to turn the tables so that the popular sovereignty replaces market sovereignty, we will need a recharged, environmentally conscious and politically educated labour movement.

Neither is it enough to denounce the current economic system nor be anti-capitalist: we need a movement which is for a credible democratic socialist alternative. We are not merely contemplating a revolt but a revolution by consent, where necessary challenging public opinion not merely following it, building up ideas and idealism, even running the risk of being utopian, but linking vision with action and organisation.

It means radically redefining what progress means, treating people as citizens – not just consumers – with a collective desire for social and ecological change rather than individual solutions to collective problems. We are looking for a green shift as well as a red shift. Not a Keynesian style reflation of the old economy in place of austerity, but the construction of a radically new economy in its stead. This demands a decisive and permanent transformation of power relations between labour and capital.

We have to radically change the legal basis of property, corporate and commercial law as it currently exists. It means reforming the path of capital accumulation, socialising ownership, including land ownership and production decisions. It means looking to the local economy, local effort and grassroots initiative and planning. But it demands a macro-economic and social strategy too, including an industrial strategy for holding to account and putting within the reach of democracy the corporations who dominate the economy.

The oil industry is a case in point. The annual Scottish Business Insider survey of the Top 500 companies in Scotland measured by turnover and profit showed in 2015 almost a half of the Top 30 companies were either offshore supply companies or oil and gas exploration corporations. Nearly all were overseas owned. The collapse in the Brent crude price and the state of the international oil price cannot be ignored, and will undoubtedly alter rankings next year. But we should never accept the cost of this market crisis be passed on to workers with massive job cuts, closures, and erosion of terms and conditions. It’s right to demand employment protection but we also need to formulate a view of what a post-oil Scottish economy would look like.

Challenging inequality and climate change, and vested interests, will not be easy but our efforts to do so build upon the legacy of those who went before us, those who chose not to bow down, but to stand firm against the odds and advance the common good. Success is not guaranteed, some of our attempts may end in failure, but transformation is not only possible it is absolutely necessary.

Richard Leonard is the GMB Scotland Political Officer