March 27, 2011
Even Worse than British UnionsBy Robert Feneron
Viewers from "across the pond" are watching with keen interest, as the elemental struggle between Republican politicians and the public sector unions is played out. With, on the one hand, a sense of "déjà vu", and on the other, a feeling that, for once, the old country is in better shape, British observers can see clearly the similarities in circumstances, but also the (primarily legal) differences, between our two countries.
The first obvious parallel between the British and US trade union movements is their almost complete colonization by the Left. Starting in the 1960s, unions in both countries increasingly came under the sway of the Left. Previously contemptuous of unions, Leftists now recognised that the unions provided an ideal vehicle to promote their agendas, and with low participation from ordinary members, were ripe for the taking. With the electoral and insurrectionary roads seemingly blocked, the socialist paradise was to be achieved with the aid of union funds and goodwill.
Since then, British and US unions alike have fallen prey to every aspect of the left's cultural agenda: Postmodernism, multiculturalism, lifestyle diversity and Islamophilia are all now firmly embroidered on union banners, and with traditional bread and butter issues relegated to the margins.
But it is in the approach to totalitarianism that the complete political transformation of British Unions can be really understood. UK Unions now openly embrace Cuban Caudillos1 and Venezuelan strongmen2 like love-struck prepubescents, in a way that must have union giants of days gone by, such as Walter Citrine and Ernie Bevin, spinning in their graves. At the same time as US union leaders such as Samuel Gompers and George Meany were confronting totalitarianism in both its German and Russian guises, the British trade union movement was a staunch ally in the fight against the same menaces.
Contrast this to the words of current British TUC (Trade Union Congress) General Secretary Brenda Barber. Speaking to the 2010 annual meeting of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, he said that the Castro regime "has always been at the forefront of the struggle for global justice, freedom and liberation."3 And at the TUC Congress held in 2009 in Liverpool, Cuban "union" leader Salvador Valdes Mesa received a standing ovation from the assembled delegates.4 The real trade unionists languishing in Cuban jails did not get so much as a passing mention.5
The second common denominator between the UK and the US is the numerical and political domination of the respective union movements by the public sector.
The tipping point was passed long ago in Britain, when public sector union membership surpassed that in the private sector. Now there are 4.1 million union members employed by the state, compared to just 2.6 million in private industry and services.6
As in the US, this development has meant that the trade union movement increasingly resembles a public sector lobby organisation, and that, as the numbers of private sector workers in unions continues to decline (down to 16% in 20097), British unions and the TUC are increasingly ignorant, of, and hostile to, the process of wealth creation and the needs of small and medium sized businesses. The increasingly unhinged rhetoric about "fat cats" and "greedy bankers" that passes for economic analysis in the British trade union movement is, of course, more than handsomely mirrored by their American union brethren. On both sides of the Atlantic, and in an unintended compliment to George Orwell8, the unions have seemingly updated his famous slogan, and now chant "Public sector good, private sector bad".
But whereas the unions in both countries have fallen under the spell of leftism, in two key respects the freedom for unions to wreak havoc is far greater in the US than in the UK:
1) Forced dues/closed shop. The Employment Act of 19829 started the process of dismantling the "closed shop", which was the means by which British unions were able to coerce workers into membership, on pain of dismissal or non-engagement. The 1982 Act meant that unions could still enforce a closed shop in workplaces, but only if 80% of workers voted in favor of it in a secret ballot. The TUC adopted a policy of non-co-operation with the Thatcher Government's employment reform program, and refused to organize ballots to save the closed shop, probably because they realised that they would lose them.10 Finally, in 1992, the Major Government put the closed shop out of its' misery by making it illegal.11
Since the early 80's, union membership in the public sector (where closed shops invariably operated) has shrunk from an estimated 90%+ to just 57%12, as unions have had to recruit and organize without the coercive power of the closed shop behind them. Contrast that situation with the position in the US, where in a majority of states, "forced dues" are still legal. To this observer, for such practices to still be legal in the "land of the free", more than a generation after they were outlawed in Britain, seems perverse in the extreme.
2) Political funding. Restrictions on party political spending are rigorously applied in the UK, and union members have a clear legal right to refuse to contribute any part of their subscriptions to the Labour Party.13
An Act of 1913 established the principle that unions have to maintain separate General and Political Funds, and that members must have the ability to "opt out" of paying into the latter.14 Most British unions maintain Political Funds, though many of them are not party political affiliated (the teachers' unions, for instance), and the amount allocated to the Fund per member is relatively small -- for example, Unite, the UK's biggest union, ring-fences 61 pence ($0.99) out of a total of £10.96 ($17.77), from a members' monthly dues.15
This means that UK unions raise far smaller sums of money to finance their Labour Party allies, compared to the mind-blowing sums of money handed over to the Democrats by their American counterparts. For example, British unions donated a total of £2,825,000 ($4,578,760) to the Labour Party for the 2010 General Election campaign.16 Contrast that with the $87.5 million spent by just one union (the AFSCME) in the 2010 US election cycle17, and you begin to understand why US unions carry such enormous clout in the political arena, even though they are not formally affiliated to the Democrats.
So what does all this mean for American democracy? Well, if I could be so bold, I would suggest that the current emphasis on collective bargaining in the public sector misses the point: In Britain, after all, the public sector unions have full bargaining rights. The real issue is how, accepting the (admirable) limitations of the Federal system and the American Constitution, an end can be made to forced dues and the use of members dues as a slush fund by the Democrats and their Leftist friends in the unions.
The problem is not with collective bargaining per se: It lies in the fact that discussions between Democrat politicians and public sector union chiefs are not so much a negotiation, but more a conspiracy to fleece the taxpayer, paid for by unsuspecting union members.
Back in Britain, there are a few positive signs, which may lead one to think that a responsible and representative trade unionism can be resuscitated. USDAW, the shopworkers union, is the country's fourth largest trade union, with over 390,000 members, and is the UK's fastest growing trade union, with membership increasing by over a quarter in the last decade. Adopting a collaborative approach with some of the biggest supermarket chains such as Sainsbury's, Tesco's and Safeway's, USDAW is the model of a modern, business-friendly, union.18
And in the teaching professions, two moderate unions, ATL and the NASUWT, now easily outnumber the Leninist-led National Union of Teachers (NUT), whose influence and credibility are declining at a rate of knots.19
But for those of us on both sides of the Atlantic who still believe in traditional trade unionism, it is a moot point as to whether unions are salvageable in the long term: The death-grip of the left may well prove fatal. Though the situation in the UK is a bit rosier, with forced unionism and unlimited political spending still very much alive in the US, the Left-dominated American union movement remains well placed to continue its' ravages of the domestic economy and body politic for some time to come.
Addressing the AFL Convention of 1904, the great Samuel Gompers (who, incidentally, was born and raised in Spitalfields in the East End of London) said that "we are against the American labor movement being made a political party machine."20 If he were alive today, his dismay at the parlous state of his beloved unions would only be matched by his determination to save them from the clutches of Leftist interlopers. Ending forced dues and unlimited political spending are the best means to achieve that noble end.