The collective nature of the British trade union movement is gradually disappearing. Where as in the past unions saw strength through unity as the means to confront the boss class, increasingly unions are now turning to the idea of union rights enshrined in law as the way to protect workers. These changes date back to the 1980's when union leaders, faced with rapid economic change, collapsing membership and a hostile Thatcher government, decided to abandon "outdated" notions such as class struggle and replacing capitalism with some form of socialism, in favour of social partnership.
The union's social partnership dream, under which union leaders would sit down with management and help run the economy, was treated with contempt by Thatcher. The unions however clung to the idea until it became clear that the Blair government had the same distain for the unions as their Tory predecessors. This left an increasingly irrelevant union leadership with the stark choice of either attempting the difficult task of trying to adapt to economic change and rebuild workplace organisation or meekly accepting what was on offer under Labour, which amounted to not much more than representing workers under the Labour Governments workplace rights policies.
With hopes of running the economy long gone, the last 10 years has saw unions increasingly warm to the Labour Government rights agenda. The idea of the unions as independent workers organisations that should resist any attempt at government interference has long gone and union leaders now beg for greater state regulation not less. The idea being that with government backed workplace rights in place to protect workers collective strength and strike action is no longer needed.
The only problem with the union's new workplace strategy is that it based on the idea that the state will intercede to protect workers rights. This is nonsense, the reality is that the state always has and always will act in the interest of capitalism. And nothing has change under Labour. Behind all the gloss, all our much heralded new rights at work amount to little more than a fig leave of respectability to hide the continued rise in capitalist exploitation that has taken place under Labour. The last 10 years have saw growing inequality and job security, worsening terms and conditions, and ever longer working hours, all during a period of relatively economic prosperity when workers have traditional made gains.
The unions increasing dependence on socalled rights has only further undermined was little is left collective organisation. The unions are now beginning to resemble advisory bodies whose main role is to advise members about their rights. This is a form of trade unionism that sees members as individual clients, whose role in the union does not go much beyond stumping up their subs in return for union help in times of trouble. This form of client trade unionism reduces members to passive individual consumers of union rights. With the idea of workers coming together and collectively solving their own problems a thing of the past and the unions being reduced to little more than an advisor at the end of the phone, the union's workplace presence is withering away.
As a result in the public sector, where management pay lip service to workers rights, the unions have been able to maintain membership but have been proved virtually useless in stopping privatisation. In the private sector the unions are increasingly irrelevant and all our newfound rights have done nothing to stop the appalling exploitation of the weakest sections of society.
The answer to the decline of trade union power does not lie in pleading for more minor concessions from government in the form of rights but rather through workplace unity that will harnesses the economic power of workers in order to bring about a more just society. As such the long-term aim should be to bring workers together in order to forge a new alliance aimed at rebuilding an independent workers organisation that is capable of challenging both the power of the state the TUC and capitalist exploitation.