Why Brendan Barber is wrong about helping the economy


Brendan Barber, the outgoing General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has given an interview to the Independent in which he talks about the role of unions in the recession. However, the path that he sets out is one that we must be very careful to avoid.

The argument he sets out is as follows:

During the recession, business leaders acknowledged very widely that the union response had been very pragmatic.

We worked very closely with a lot of company leaderships to minimise the damage to jobs in particular. To keep skilled workforces together to ride out the worst of the recession and keep the companies viable. There is nothing new about our interest being in maintaining successful businesses but sometimes maybe we don’t emphasise it enough. Most of the attention has been on where there is conflict and disagreement.

The type of trade unionism that Barber speaks of here is most often referred to as “social partnership.” In other words, employers and unions are equal partners in maintaining healthy and competitive businesses – the former to maintain their profit margins, the latter to keep their members in jobs.

The problem with this outlook is that it presumes bosses and workers to have shared interests and an equal stake. In reality, their interests are opposing and the relationship of employer to employee is based upon the exploitation of the latter.

Employers are bound to the logic of the market and capitalism. That is, to stay afloat, they must remain profitable – in essence, producing as much as possible for as little cost as possible. One key cost that they wish to keep down is the worker, whose interest is to earn as much as possible (for the purpose of maintaining themselves and living their life) for as little labour as possible.

It is the opposition of these interests that gave rise to trade unionism and which won its most important victories.

This point cannot be over-stated. Every right that we enjoy as a result of worker organisation, from the 8 hour day to maternity leave to health and safety legislation and beyond, was the result of struggle. We forced concessions from the bosses and improvements to our own lot not as social partners but by threatening and enacting social strife.

On the other hand, we have seen the TUC’s vision of “helping the economy” in action before. In the period following World War II, for example, it collaborated with the Labour Party to enforce wage restraint in a period of post-war austerity. It helped to police the workforce as a number of wildcat strikes broke out and the government used troops to break the strike. In the name of social partnership and helping the economy, the TUC betrayed the very people it is supposed to represent.

We should be in no doubt that the same would be true in the present. Barber’s “pragmatism” can be seen already in holding back from strikes against austerity. In unions that accept pay cuts on the grounds that they will save jobs. In the collapse of the November 30 strike coalition last year when UNISON got enough to justify agreement in sectional talks.

It is not the job of unions and workers to help maintain capitalism. Capitalists and the state can do that well enough themselves. Our job, especially in times of austerity, is to fight in the name of the workers so that we aren’t screwed over in the name of profits and “the economy.”


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