Greens, Trade Unions & the ‘Labour Movement’


All too often, trade unions and associated bodies (notably the Labour Party and the Co-operative Movement) are viewed as some sort of homogenous whole, basically of one mind and purpose. This viewpoint perceives the ‘labour movement’ as an essentially progressive army, in which the aspirations of the rank and file filter up through a network of shop stewards committees, trades councils, regional and national committees, plus, course, ‘conference’ … and then flow back again. Thus the movement is seen as almost analogous to the human body’s nervous system.

In reality, trade unions by their very nature tend to be sectional, i.e. advancing a specific group interest. They are also frequently ‘sectionalist’, i.e. putting the interests of own members first, at the expense of fellow trade unionists, let alone the general citizenry. Indeed the first unions, emerging amongst skilled workers, were quite hostile to their unskilled co-workers, particularly with regard to wage differentials and so-called ‘dilution’ (access to skilled work by ‘unqualified’ labour).

Many unions have also defended overtime working, even though it soaks up paid work that otherwise might be made available to the unemployed. Furthermore, union pay claims often take the form of demands for percentage, not flat rate, increases, something that obviously favours higher scale groups over those less well paid. Often workers themselves undermined the struggle against job cuts when they took the redundancy money and ran off into the distance.

At the same time, many calls for ‘solidarity’ have fallen on deaf ears since individual unions routinely look to their own. Indeed trade unions have frequently been vehicles for sexist, racist and, in some cases, religious discrimination. In some countries, notably France, trade union successes regarding job security have in practice made in harder for young people to enter employment.

Sometimes, workplace conflicts are replicated within the union itself, for instance when people like office departmental heads or school headmasters, individuals who may well browbeat their underlings, are one and the same person as the union rep. Trade unions often focus just on short-term too, ignoring what might the best interests of their members in the more distant future.[i] Many craft unions, for example, failed to get to grips with technological development, trying to defend skills and practices that already were passing into history.

Indeed trade union sectionalism can easily slip into straight corruption. Perhaps the most notorious example has been the American Teamsters. In Britain, the print unions exercised such a stranglehold on their workplaces that one often had to be a relative of the ‘father of the chapel’ and his clique to have any chance of getting a job. In places like Fleet Street, stories abounded that people such as ‘M. Mouse’ and ‘D. Duck’ were claiming wages.

Downright reactionary politics and corruption have also characterised some union and Labour Party links. An odious example was the GMWU in the years of Andy Cunningham, later imprisoned for corruption (he headed the union’s northern region, was a town councillor sat on the Labour National Executive and sat on, sometimes as chairperson, several ‘quangoes’, not least his local Police Authority). Much more generally, over manning and all sorts of other unsustainable practices have been defended on ‘union grounds’. In terms of individual case work, unions often have to defend members whose laziness, incompetence and other failings only serve to harm other workers who have to make up for the shortcomings of such individuals.

In broader terms, trade unions often end up defending jobs and indeed whole employment sectors that threaten the collective good, ones that would have to be phased out in the transition to an ecologically sustainable society. Of course such a process does not need to be as brutal as, say, the closure of the coalmines by the Thatcher government (not done, of course, for ecological reasons!). It is right and proper to care for individual well being in any such reconstruction.

Yet trade unions as an entity are likely to feel that their power base is being eroded and therefore oppose the necessary change (e.g. defend coal production, both deep mining and open-cast, when, as an activity, it must be phased out as soon as possible). Or they are likely to advocate alternatives which are, in fact, pseudo-solutions in that they either do not solve the original problem and/or aggravate other ones (huge expansion of public transport, vast housing programmes, giant wind turbine farms, large-scale production of ‘green cars’, etc).

In actuality, in sector after sector, from airport expansion, nuclear power plant construction and arms manufacture to the defence of the status quo in the public services (some of which might well contract in a sustainable society[ii]), trade unions can be found on the wrong side of the barricades.

A microcosm of such issues and potential problems was provided by the dispute in 2010 between British Airways and its cabin crews. The initial support from staff for action suggests that BA management style was largely to blame for the breakdown in industrial relations. Nor were BA’s staff as privileged as widely alleged, though many really poor people might disagree.

What is clear, though, is that their action not only jeopardised a company facing stiff competition but also disrupted the holidays of many working class citizens. More significantly, measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable impacts of air travel will reduce job security and perks far more than anything demanded by BA management. So uncritical support for the strike and, by extension, the protection of the status quo for staff is not something Greens can give.

To be fair, there have also been several instances in a number of fields such as silviculture (where mechanised clear-cutting has felled jobs as fast as the forests) or renewable energy plant manufacture (e.g. the Vestas struggle) where there was scope for a positive synergy between the workers’ short-term interests and a long-term programme for ecological sustainability. Perhaps the best example comes from Australia and the ‘green bans’ of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, led by Jack Mundey.[iii] But this does not change the bigger picture, namely that some trade unions are likely to be the current industrial order’s last ditch defendants and therefore, at best, very wary of bodies like the Green Party, if not downright hostile.

Changing world of work: changing unions

The Labour Movement itself has changed dramatically in recent years. The closure of so much heavy industry and a shift towards employment in the service sector have meant that any strikes and other action such as go-slows tend to hit the general public directly and quickly. In the past, the downing of tools by, say, car or shipyard workers had no such direct effect. One of the miners’ strikes in the 70s in Britain did, of course, lead to significant power cuts but, even then, its effects were not quite the same as a train being cancelled, a benefits office closed, a fire engine not coming to a burning building, let alone bodies not being buried.

Another change in modern times is that the ‘employer’ is less some factory-owning capitalist but rather a chief executive, serving faceless institutional shareholders or, ultimately, a government minister in what, in the case of countries like the UK, is a vastly expanded public sector compared to the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, the spread of the so-called ‘contract culture’ has eroded that base of well-entrenched, long-serving workforces on which strong trade unions could be built. The deduction of union subs directly from wages and salaries has further weakened the link between union structures and the ordinary membership. At the same time, the general trend towards more ‘private’ lifestyles (increased physical separation between work and home, with long distance commuting from one to the other, the lure of home entertainment systems and a host of other distractions, a generally more individualistic culture…)[iv] has further reduced members’ participation in the internal life of trade unions as well as further undermined union membership itself.

Furthermore, many unions now lack a coherent identity, covering a whole range of jobs and workplaces. Indeed they could be seen as conglomerates in their own right. Often they have rather meaningless ‘brand’ names like Accord and Prospect. Many ordinary union members seem alienated from what are sometimes rather remote, even mysterious entities.[v]

Today, many branch meetings struggle to be quorate, while committees often have vacant posts which no-one is willing to fill. Even postal voting in internal union elections, when all members have to do is to seal an envelope and put it in the post, is often characterised by low turnouts.


The notion of the ‘Labour Movement’ owes much to the interaction of the early Labour Party and the unions of that time. The Labour Party was very much the creation of trade unions seeking the removal of anti-union legislation by parliamentary representation, though bodies such as the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and the Fabian Society also played a significant part in its development.

The resulting movement, ‘Labourism’, was based on a division of labour: trade unions dealing with employers, Labour with Parliament, though, of course, certain unions played a major role in formulating Labour Party policies through their block votes at the latter’s conferences. The levy on union members for Labour finances further strengthened that influence.

The notion that union workplace ‘muscle’ might be deliberately used in conjunction with parliamentary action was, however, an anathema (unlike the Conservative Party which will use its connections in its ‘workplaces’, like the Stock Exchange, to trigger a financial crisis, like a ‘run on the pound’, to undermine a Labour government). It might also be noted in passing that, traditionally, trade union leaders have aided the right-wing of the Labour Party.[vi]

There is an old story that tells of the trade union official trying to negotiate a better deal for his members from the boss. Every time he comes back with an improved offer, the workers reject it. Finally, exasperated, he asks them what on Earth they want. ‘Abolition of the wages system’, they shout back. To which he replies: ‘But I cannot demand that: there would be nothing left to negotiate then.’ Trade unionism is a kind of reformism: it works within the institutions of the dominant social order, trying to win improvements within it.

With the exception of revolutionary syndicalism, the mainstream trade union movement has not been about the overthrow of that system. Indeed, during the British General Strike (which started as a protest against wage cuts), the British Worker, put out by the Trade Union Congress leadership, went out of its way to deny any revolutionary intent. As J. R. Clynes, President of the General and Municipal Workers union and subsequently Labour Party leader and government minister, once put it: “I do not fear … to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.”

Economic struggle and Politics

However others take a more radical view of the potential of trade unionism, ‘bread-and-butter’ struggle is seen as a positive transformational process, a veritable school of socialism that teaches participants the need for a collective solidarity and impresses on them the vision of a new classless society. Some have gone even further seeing the strike — and the launch of a general strike in particular — as the political weapon.

The most enthusiastic were the revolutionary syndicalists such as the Industrial Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’). Others supported the strategy of a ‘knock-out’ general strike, notably the Marxist Rosa Luxemburg in her writings on the “mass strike”.[vii] At the same time, many on the Left viewed events such as the British General Strike of 1926 or the French strike wave in 1968 as potential revolutionary situations.

However some critics, notably Lenin, attacked what they saw as an ‘economism’, one that puts its faith in an almost automatic progression from a (limited) trade union awareness to a full-blooded and comprehensive political one.[viii] Such critics stressed the need for a separate and overtly political party, standing on a comprehensive programme and engaging in a range of activities, of which the trade union ‘front’ would just be one.

Of course, there was the danger that such a party (or, rather, its leadership) would see itself as the very embodiment of the proletariat’s best interests, thereby justifying, post-revolution, the suppression of independent trade unionism as, indeed, was to happen under Bolshevik rule (somewhat ironically, the young Trotsky had warned quite presciently of what he called “substitutionism”).

Greening the trade unions?

Greens have to relate to trade unionism, regarding both its role in the world of today and in the desperately needed transition to a more sustainable society. Central to any transitional strategy will be work-based issues, from training, job-sharing and flexible working to the whole scale and content of production. Indeed the entire issue extends to the very size of the work force and thus public policies regarding population, including immigration.

For all that, the trade unions do represent one of the largest blocks of citizens. Indeed, in some ways, they can claim to speak for the mass of the country – if one counts not just trade unionists but also their partners, children and other directly affected by union members’ wages and conditions. There is something even more important than sheer numbers, however. The unions cover the bulk of people whose knowledge and skills would be vital for the construction of a more sustainable society.

They can construct and furnish homes and other buildings, they do the actual farming of food, they fix the wiring and the plumbing, they operate the machines and production lines, repairing them when they break down, they do the cleaning, they stack the shelves, they process the forms, they operate the various means of transportation and communication, they provide the care and education …Without such work, society would quickly grind to a halt.

Now take the CEOs, board directors, financiers, stock brokers, traders, commodity dealers, marketing gurus, corporate lawyers, big landowners, media ‘barons’, the quango bosses and all their ilk. Take them away and life would go on, even if, initially, there might be some disruption. Indeed, in the long run, life would continue much more sustainably or, at least, there would be a better chance to create a more sustainable society.[ix]

In terms of specific sectors where Greens have a particular interest – the various utilities, transportation, vehicle manufacture, health care, the arms trade, etc. – there is often a significant union presence. Positive co-operation with the unions in such cases is likely to reduce opposition to needed changes and make their implementation more successful. A Green government or a coalition with a strong Green presence could well do without challenges of the sort presented by the Ulster Workers Council strike (1974) which wrecked the then power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. So Greens have good reason to consider very carefully their strategy regarding the unions.[x]

No illusions

What is most certainly not needed is that knee-jerk politics characteristic of the traditional ‘Far’ Left. It almost automatically and uncritically supports just about every strike or hastily advocates all-out action as the best way forward. Such politics often involves dishonest exaggeration of how much support a given strike has or is likely to get. Worse, it one-sidedly blames ‘sell-out’ leaders when strikes fail.

It has to be underlined just how tenuous is the link between union involvement and political consciousness. Most strikes, for example, come and go without leaving any political trace. No radical left-wing group was able, for example, to build a significant and sustained presence in the NUM during the 70s, despite all the energy released by the two big national strikes.[xi]

Of course there will be individuals whose whole outlook on life might change by their involvement in a union dispute.[xii] Sometimes it can be a whole group of people, a striking example being many miners’ wives during the bitter pit closure disputes on the mid-1980s. It might be further noted that radicalised individuals often conclude that life is better elsewhere and cease to be local trade union activists. In Britain, this has often led to the door of Ruskin College and perhaps a new career as, say, a social worker or FE lecturer.

But the general pattern persists in which trade union struggle yields few long-term political dividends. The huge strikes in France in 1968 led to few lasting gains for the Left, for example. Indeed political parties can be harmed when the general public perceive them to be connected to socially disruptive strikes (e.g. the Labour Party and the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of 1978).

The ideal scenario might be one in which union power is mobilised to halt environmentally destructive activities. But the likelihood of such a development must be soberly assessed. Yet there are potentially promising areas in which Greens could make a worthwhile contribution to the work of trade unions while the latter – or, more likely, some sections of them – might well play a positive role in the struggle for sustainability.

So it is important to look at the Labour Movement as it is. It is easy to be seduced by romantic images of the toiling masses and their alleged representatives. Whenever someone waxes lyrical about ‘the class’ or ‘the people’, we should take a big pinch of salt.[xiii] Perhaps there are, however, a number of principles and policies Greens can readily support:

  1. Standing up for union rights

The most basic one is that union membership itself should be viewed as a basic right (including the right to strike or else it is meaningless). Peaceful picketing is a legitimate aspect of that right. Certainly campaigns to unionise part-time workers and others afflicted by the ‘contract culture’ should be supported by every Green. More generally Greens should argue that for all their flaws, trade unions are a necessary and often very valuable part of a fair and democratic society.[xiv] Such rights seamlessly connect to demands foer a ‘living wage’ (though Greens look beyond that to the implementation of a Citizens Income Scheme, a untested basic payment to all citizens as of right)

  1. Emphasising non-wage issues

Green trade unionists might encourage a stronger focus on various issues other than wage demands, especially amongst the better-off sections of the working classes, e.g.

  • Focus on work flexibility and job enrichment rather than a one-sided focus on pay demands;
  • Support for flat rate, as opposed to percentage, wage increases;
  • Advocacy of work-sharing against overtime working;
  • Demands for more action on health and safety matters;
  • Support for plans for ‘alternative’ production (at least, genuinely appropriate ones!);
  • Promotion of initiatives in the workplace to reduce car usage, promote recycling schemes & other such environmental measures …

Overall, the trade union world might not be the most fertile one for Greens yet it is one it would be foolish to ignore. Indeed Greens could and should put their weight behind a number of worthwhile struggles in which unions are centrally involved.

In discussing this or that union issue, sight should never be lost of the big picture. Regardless of the merits of specific causes taken up by trade unions, they are doomed to become lost causes without ecological sustainability.


[i] This author was a member of NATFHE when it tried to cling on the old terms & conditions, the so-called “Silver Book”, when it was clear that the status quo was no longer viable. A better strategy might have to put forward a whole new set of proposals for change, giving something to management in return for a decent deal for the members.



[iv] See, for example, Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’, Beck’s ‘Individualization’, Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’, Miller’s ‘Egotopia’, & Whittle’s ‘Look at Me’. There is also the major study by Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone’, which charted the decline of many mass membership institutions, not least the bowling clubs of his title. The footnotes to this essay either give references, examples or further amplification of a point but anyone wanting to read it quickly can safely omit them.

[v] Such factors have led to a significant decline in the overall membership of trade unions as well as a shift to a unionism based on the public sector & therefore with a vested interest in high levels of government spending. Union membership has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to 7.5 million in 2009. Only one in seven workers in the private sector is a member of a trade union, though it is over 50% in the public sector. There has also been a big decline in the number of strikes, contrary to the impression given by the Tory press. This is particularly true of the private sector, where days lost because of strike action are roughly 25% of the figures for the public sector. Today, employers often have the whip hand & workers behave much more cautiously than in, say, the 1970s. Greens should never tire of stressing that far, far more days are ‘lost’ because of illness & injury caused in the workplace than by strike action.

[vi] For examples, study the activities of Arthur Deakin (TGWU), Tom Williamson (GMWU) & Will Lawther (NUM) in the 50s or the so-called ‘St. Ermin’s’ group of right-wing trade union leaders in the 1980s. Sometimes former trade unionists are used a fig leaf to cover the Labour Party’s pro-business orientation (e.g. John Prescott ‘covering’ Tony Blair). The union-Labour link has significantly declined, with example, comparatively few union branches now sending delegates to the local constituency Labour Party.


[viii] Britain’s one senior Maoist trade unionist Reg Birch made a similar point in his introduction to the 1966 IS (SWP) pamphlet, Incomes Policy, Legislation & Shop Stewards (see )

[ix] For a selection of self-serving greedheads, see

[x] It can be imagined with painful ease that Green measures would be actively opposed by not just employers but also workers in fields such as factory farming, road haulage, air transport, centralised power generation, superstore retailing, financial services, & indeed many more sectors. Chris Mullin’s story of the undermining of a radical Labour government, A Very British Coup, could easily be rewritten with a Green government in mind. It might be remembered that the young Bolshevik government in Russia was badly hit by a bank workers’ strike.

[xi] This author once sold over 100 copies of Socialist Worker on a march of striking ambulance crews in Durham. There were also large-scale leaflet distribution and public meetings in support of the strikers’ cause. Yet there was absolutely nothing to show for the activity one year later. The strike leader, however, later became a key ‘fixer’ for Tony Blair & was duly rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. The author also once got a big donation from a local miners’ lodge for the then Tyneside anti-nuclear campaign yet it meant nothing in reality (his presentation was the last item on the agenda before the Sunday lunch-time bar opened downstairs & he suspects that the generosity was not unrelated to a rank & file desire to close the meeting & get down to the real business below).

[xii] Perhaps the classic description remains the autobiography of Farrell Dobbs, one of the rank & file leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters’ strike. He went on to be a Trotskyist candidate for the American presidency. See his Teamster Rebellion in particular.

[xiii] A sobering & wise treatment of this web of illusions was written by Peter Sedgwick many years ago but the myths remain entrenched in many sections of the radical Left See:

[xiv] That last point might need underlining. Not long ago, the author was told in conversation that trade unions are “evil” (sic). This sentiment was voiced by an intelligent & decent-minded individual who, like so many these days, works in a non-union environment. Such people thereby lack direct experience of what unions actually do, leaving them vulnerable to the anti-union nonsense spouted by the likes of the Daily Mail. In reality, a great many problems are sorted out by trade union representatives, often behind the scenes, to the benefit of one & all, including employers, without any recourse to disruptive industrial action.


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