In a recent article about Occupy St Pauls’, a protestor was quoted saying “I don’t understand the purpose of unions”.
Since unions were smashed by Thatcher in the 80s, and the introduction of further anti-trade union laws first by the Tory government and then by Labour, membership of unions in the UK has dwindled from 13 million in the late 70s, to 7.1 million in 2009.
Right-wing and anti-union commentators often gloat that only a minority of the country is a member of a union, implying that trade union action is insignificant and alienates non-unionised workers and the general public.
It isn’t surprising therefore that protestors at the Occupy camps which have sprung up across the globe have sometimes struggled to make the links between their protests and the work of trade unions and the Labor movement in the US.
But trade unions, despite the decline in numbers, are directly connected to the Occupy movement, in its calls for a more equal society. Every time a trade union takes strike action over pay and conditions for their members and wins, they improve conditions for all people who work in that area, whether they are a member of the union or not.
And by pushing up the benefits of people in the workplace, they force employers to use some of the profits to reward the people who produced those profits with a better salary and better working conditions. In other words re-distribution of wealth from the top to the bottom.
Strike action by trade unions is often portrayed as holding ‘the country to ransom’ or ‘a gun to the government’s head’. When in actual fact, what successful strike action does is make sure that workers receive benefits for the work they do and that any profits from their work are shared more evenly between workers and employers.
This idea of making sure that work is enjoyable, sustainable and rewarding for everyone, not just those at the top, is what permeates all union activities and is what unites us with the Occupy movement. And like the Occupy Movement’s idea of a better, fairer society, this is something that everyone who works, or wants to work or has worked, should aspire to.
Non-unionised workers, many in the private sector, who feel powerless and at the mercy of the whims of their employers are understandably unhappy. A life of unrewarded, demoralised labour and uncertainty, to be then thrown on the scrap heap and left to fend for yourself when you reach retirement age is something that private sector workers are right to complain about. It is indeed a dire existence.
But that is where agreement tends to end. From this point the argument goes 2 ways – either those with better conditions ‘stop whining’, ‘live in the real world’ and everyone is reduced down to the worst possible conditions.
Or, we stand and fight together to bring the level of conditions, pay and pensions up, for every worker. In doing this, we also agree that the money is there and dispute the theory that the ‘pot is empty’, based on the evidence we have seen such as the recent increase in energy-company profits and FTSE company directors’ salaries. That is what a trade union does. And that is why so many trade unionists support the new global Occupiers.
And it’s also why the pensions strike on November 30th is a strike for anyone who works, or who wishes to work, or who has worked, and for all those who strive for a more equal society.
Because cuts to pensions affect everyone and it is another small struggle in the fight for a decent way of life for ordinary working people. It is a stand against those who wish to see a further increase in the gap between the 1% and the 99%.
And so it is important that not only all the members of all those unions come out on November 30th, but also that people from every workplace, as well as students and the Occupy movement, show their support for this strike and indeed for any form of resistance to the greed of the current system. A system which takes money from the poor and lower-paid members of our society in order to increase the wealth of the rich, no matter whether it’s from our pensions, our childrens’ playgrounds, or winter-fuel allowance for the elderly.
Teacher and UCU Member
If you are a a trade union member and support the St Paul’s Occupation, please sign the petition below: