The issue of unions has always been a controversial one. Proponents on the left argue that Unions allow workers to fight for their rights against the interests of the capitalists, while detractors on the left argue that unions are an ineffective and poor way of organising. This controversy is further added to by the fact that historically, unions have always come attack from elite interests. This ranges from the struggle for the eight hour day, to the struggle for the minimum wage. Whatever your opinion on the subject, it is undeniable that Unions have had an important part to play in the history of social activism. These days, some unions are not exactly the most militant’s forces in the world. Groups such as Unite often have hierarchical structures, have a tendency to do deals with bosses that stab the rank and file in the back and to organise A to B marchers that fail to achieve anything. Despite these faults, it is important to remember to always support strikes when they happen, and to take it as a principle, never to cross a picket line! An example of a union without these faults, is the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a left wing union that organises direct action against unfair treatment of workers. It seems strange then, that in the face of rampant attacks from the government on the rights of workers and students, that some conservatives disregard the political function of unions, Instead arguing that unions political functions is in conflict with unions function to represent everyone. This controversy can be most recently seen in the case of Conservative Students in places such as Oxford and Cambridge urging, and incidentally losing, a referendum on disaffiliation from the National Union of Students (NUS). This blog post will look at the case concerning the NUS, arguing that both workers and students unions share a political project, and that unions cannot be de – politicised, as their function to represent workers and students is a necessarily political one.
What are the problems facing Students and Workers?
At the heart of right wing policy is to make sure everything works in the interests of profit, and I am disappointed to say that universities and workplaces have not escaped the scourge of privatisation. The government’s university minister, Jo Johnson, has already said that planned higher education (HE) reforms are about turning universities into a ‘pipeline’ for directing students finishing their degrees, into the economy. This means that under these plans, courses will be judged based solely whether they meet that sole requirement that Tory’s like Jo Johnson love to laud over so much: Can the skills on offer make a profit? What this means is that, if the Higher education reforms are allowed to continue, degrees that are not considered as employable as others - such as the creative arts, will be scrapped. This is regardless of the fact that many students want to study these subjects anyway, and that there is clearly value to education beyond increasing your labour power. Plans to introduce price competition among universities, by raising tuition fees and selling publicly funded care services in universities to private providers, further show off the right wing desire to turn education into a commodity to be bought and sold. All the while this is going on, so called counter terrorism schemes such as prevent, excessively curb students liberty, while gender and racial discrimination still occurs on college campuses and student mental health problems constantly grow worse. If you care about students, you have a duty to view this as a political fight.
While it may look at first, as if there is not much of a link, the ideology of ‘scrap everything that can’t make a profit’ is exactly the same one that is driving the privatisation and cutting of the NHS and our other public services. Furthermore, problems such as counter terrorism, harassment and mental health are not limited to education alone by any means. All this is clearly driving discontent, not only among students, but among workers. With regard to the Higher Education reforms, the NUS recently passed a boycott motion, after surveying students. In light of these facts, how dare anyone argue that the fight to represent the interests of students and workers is not is not a political one, and that organisations such as unions ought not to take sides. If you care about this situation in the slightest you have an obligation to take sides against the profiteers, and in the interests of those whom these problems effect the most.
There are problems with unions, but disaffiliation is not the answer
You would have to be pretty naïve to suggest that there are no problems with Unions whatsoever. Most notably, their lack of democracy contradicts the basic principal that unions rest upon, that workers and students should have the right to organise independent of tyranny from bosses or profit interests. It is probably for this reason, that unions tend to operate along a set of safe ideas and principles that fail to challenge dominant power structures. Such principles include not proposing anything revolutionary, and not taking part in any actions which harm the image of the union. A notable example of this is the National Union of Student’s decision to pull support for the Free Education demonstration in 2014, on the grounds of ‘safety concerns’. Incidentally, there are also problems with antisemitism on the left, which despite being weaponised by the right for their own political agendas, need to be addressed. In light of these problems, students and workers must organise for more democratic unions that reflect their interests, and do not act as capitalistic institutions in themselves.
Despite these problems, the conservative approach will clearly make these problems worse, not better. It promotes a view of unions as organisations used to facilitate the role of students and workers, as consumers to be exploited by the capitalist system. As such, any meaningful political action that is proposed under this view of unions, will be dismissed as lefty nonsense. The appeals to lack of Democracy and Censorship that we are seeing from conservatives today are simply attempts to hide the fact that we have got an education system and an economy subordinated to the interests of profit. One might even question how a union represents both conservatives and socialists, when historically it is conservatives who have gutted social movements, and whose principles firmly contradict the principles of the left. Indeed, in my opinion, to view people as passive drones capable of nothing but consuming, working and leisure time, is a deeply misguided view that is corrosive to social movements that are trying to make the world a better place. It is for these reasons that conservatives contest the idea of representation and politics as being necessary components of each other.
Conclusively, Unions have a proud history of fighting fascism and fighting for workers’ rights, all these were distinctly political actions which involved taking sides. Conservative groups pushing for disaffiliation from unions fail to understand that the problems students face today are distinctly political ones, caused by market interests. Whatever problems we identify with unions, it should be made clear that in the face of a government working on dismantling our rights, we need the solidarity that workplace and university organising offers us, more than ever.