When my friend was talking to me about the problems at his job last night I thought, and said (not for the first time either), "If everybody in the workplace joined a union it would make England a different country overnight." And it would. Most bosses say they don’t recognise unions and won’t negotiate with them; but if everybody was in a union, they would have to recognise them. So why don’t people join unions when pay and working conditions are dreadful for so many? A common thing you’ll hear in objection to unions – from people who can be bothered to engage in a discussion about it – is that the unions are "in it for themselves". Some unspecified person at your or my union’s head office is cynically using the union cause to seek publicity and profit. Well, it’s natural they’re going to get publicity during disputes and negotiations because the media is following them around asking for interviews. But what sort of masochist do we suppose would actively seek the kind of vilification union bosses receive during strikes? The press hates them, everybody who is mildly inconvenienced by the action they’re taking hates them … and the scorn poured on them by the Government would be enough to drive most rational men into spasms of vengeful rage.
I’m not sure where the supposition that the union bosses are making large amounts of money comes from. At senior level they’re doing a job and getting a salary for it, I suppose; but shouldn’t they? You could hardly run Unison nationally and double as a junior office worker. I wouldn’t have a clue how much the union bosses get paid to do their jobs – obviously I’m not as well informed as other people – but I would bet they don’t earn anything like the money the boss of your company earns while he or she is paying you peanuts for breaking your rear-end for forty hours a week. And the stewards in workplaces sensible enough to be unionised, if there are any left, do what they do for free. I know, I used to be one of those dangerous rabble-rousers.
"Well, the unions did nothing for my Auntie Sophie when she fell over a wet floor sign and had to be off work for a week," people will tell you.
"They did nothing for me when I was dismissed for ‘continual absence’," someone else will say, even though he wasn’t a member. "’Continual absence’ my arse. Can I help it if I have recurring migraines and intermittent back spasms? And depression? And cholic?"
I’ve heard these criticisms of unions all my working life as I tried to organise in places where they had no union. The preferred topic of office or shop floor conversation was usually who was fucking who, but if I did manage to steer us onto unions for a moment the measure of the validity of the union was always what it could do for the person I was trying to recruit, not what it might do one day for everybody. And had any of these people who’d supposedly had negative experiences with unions ever done anything about it? Had they ever complained to the union? Had the few who’d actually been members at one time or another put themselves forward as stewards and tried to organise so that the union could negotiate with their bosses from a position of greater strength? Of course they hadn’t; they’d just sat back and complained about the terrible way they were treated like the majority of us do in this country about everything from the weather to the planned obsolescence of white goods. And then they’d dismissed the union for being unable to defend cases that were pretty indefensible in the first place and let their membership lapse.
Talking about trade unions with most people these days feels strangely like communicating down a tube from a parallel universe. It might sound logical to some when I say why unionisation is important, but for some reason the logic of it doesn’t apply in their reality. I’ve lost count of the number of people I gave union application forms to in my last job, but I don’t think any of the people who took a form actually joined; and then they were back complaining about pay and working conditions, harassment by the boss, even racism – all things a powerful union could have dealt with. Why is that? What is it that’s going on when a lot of people are experiencing some very real pain but they refuse to adopt the most obvious solution for dealing with it?
Fear and cynicism. Intellectual inertia. Most people can’t see outside the Capitalist ideological framework anymore and the revisionist historians have painted anything that isn’t supinely Capitalist as Communist. The majority have had their minds so corroded by mass media they don’t even see Capitalism as an ideology anymore; nor, for that matter, do they see Capitalism as Capitalism – it’s just the way we live: we work, we shop, we holiday, we work, we shop. And bastard bosses and ridiculous laws are part of that natural order. When an old grey-bearded pot-bellied curmudgeonly malcontent like me starts advising people to reject what’s being forced on them he might as well be teaching algebra in Japanese. To sea lions.