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The importance of Unions

This article was originally published in Concrete.

 

The statistics we repeatedly hear about graduate employment are bleak – Concrete has reported on the disturbingly high levels of joblessness on many occasions. Nearly half of all graduates are still unemployed six months after finishing their degrees according toTotaljobs,  and EU Agency Eurofound recently pegged the numbers of people under 30 still living with their parents in the UK at just under a third. This is testimony to the difficulty with which young people are finding jobs and homes. Add to this the unsympathetic attitude of the current government, who would like to scrap benefits for those under 25, and the message becomes clearer: austerity disadvantages students.

Trades union have been in decline since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, and before Margaret Thatcher’s government caused numbers to decline dramatically from the 1980s. The UK Government’s Department for Business and Skills reports that 6.5 million employees nationwide were trade union members in 2013, down from their peak at just over 13 million in 1979. Many people frame this decline in the context of rising affluence and better living and working conditions. However, union membership is important as ever, particularly in these increasingly worrying times. Conditions are not improving for many people: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  notes that income inequality reached its highest levels since 1961 during 2009-10, and shows a drop in median incomes of 7.8% from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The living standards of poorer households have fallen as a result of welfare cuts and falling earnings, and poverty among working-age adults has steadily risen over the last few years. As graduate unemployment rises, and employers use zero hour contracts to mask the true levels of unemployment among the workforce, union membership can be a key to success.

A demonstration in Barcelona by the European Trade Union Confederation Photo: www.eutc.org

There are several reasons why being in a trade union can be a boon to students. Solidarity comes high up on the list: being part of a union improves one’s chances of achieving change (be it longer breaks, more flexible hours, childcare options, or a pay rise) via collective action. Collective action is often framed negatively, for instance regarding the UCU’s recent action over pensions that threatened to leave year students unable to graduate. Collective action was essential in this dispute, and the support of the students’ union at UEA added weight and credibility to the UCU’s campaign campus. Despite the bad press, collective action and solidarity achieved some of the demands of lecturers, though not all, demonstrating the importance of organising and working with colleagues.

Students are often employed in low-paid, low-skilled jobs such as bar work or retail (despite often being highly qualified). Young people dominate the workforce in industries like these because they are so energy intensive and are easy to enter, but they are traditionally under-represented. This means however, that union representation can be incredibly successful or instance, the Norwich Bartenders’ and Hospitality Union has recently been established, and has so far succeeded in increasing the prospects of many of its student (and non-student) members in an industry that is characterised by low pay, terrible hours and difficult conditions. Workplace organisation and solidarity puts pressure on employers, encourages good practice, and discourages actions that take advantage of young, inexperienced employees. It can educate members their rights and inspire political or labour activism, potentially bringing people with divergent (or perhaps absent) political beliefs and ideologies together under a common cause.

Although political and ideological motivations are important, particularly for those on the left, this can be a turn-off for many people, especially for those in part-time employment with a high turnover, which inspires an attitude of “it doesn’t apply to me”. Trade union membership is arguably even more important for transient jobs because employers have more opportunities to take advantage. Zero hour contracts, for example, allow employers to call the shots – if they don’t like you, you won’t get fired, but you won’t get any shifts either. Students have historically been a politically empowered group society, but the promotion of career and employability skills in British universities has forced a shift in the focus from radical politics to employment and job prospects. Union representation appeals to both of these foci – it can augment one’s work life as well as encourage political awareness and mobilisation – and is therefore a win/win strategy.

Union membership is important to bring together class people, students and the unemployed in a society that has steadily become fragmented, with undue focus on consumerist ideals. The way in which the wage system and capitalism works serves to reinforce inequality between employees and employers and students play an important role in any struggle to create a more equal society, poised as they are between being part of the oppressed working class and as being potential employers, entrepreneurs, and part of the educated middle class. The abolition of the wage system is the focus of more radical trade union such as the IWW but the role of unions is also important to challenge the status quo that separates workers and bosses more dialectically. To build a stronger and more egalitarian framework requires both discursive and practical radicalism, ranging from a centre-left critique of austerity to militant direct action such as sabotage(commonly misconstrued as damage to property, but taken to mean deliberate withdrawal of efficiency).

In the current climate of austerity and the erosion of civil liberties, union membership can present a challenge. As all students are painfully aware, the Coalition government increased the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year, making the average cost of an undergraduate university education upwards of £26,000, pricing many poorer students out of , and into (frequently low-paid) employment. This year, it was also agreed that £900m of student debt is to be sold off to private companies, meaning that students may be forced to retrospectively pay even more for their degrees if private financial institutions decide to increase interest rates in the future. This is part of a wider trend of privatisation, for instance of the NHS, education (shown by the rise of free schools) and public services such as the Royal Mail. Wages are not increasing in line with inflation (for instance, lecturers at have received a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, which was the reasoning for the proposed UCU marking boycott) and a bachelor’s degree is sadly no longer the ticket to success it once was. With the rise in graduate unemployment, more students are using masters degrees to guarantee a leg in the door, though this is a pursuit reserved for those that can afford fees of £5000+ per year. The ONS announced last week that house prices increased by 9.9%, largely driven by swollen costs in London (18.7%). Wages can’t keep up with the inexorable march of spiralling rents and inflated living costs, thereby marginalising those on low incomes, such as students, the unemployed and the working class.

While rents continue to soar, homelessness is on the increase and corporations further marginalise and denigrate those forced to sleep rough, for instance by installing anti-homeless spikes. This is symptomatic of the contempt with which the ruling classes, corporations and governments treat the most vulnerable in society. Right-wing media outlets target vulnerable groups, who fall foul of fear mongering and scapegoating, illustrated by the attitudes of people who believe benefit recipients to be ‘scroungers’ and migrants to be after their jobs. Strong unions create solidarity, improve conditions, and challenge the austerity rhetoric of governments. This erodes the pre-conditions for conservatism and the counters the arguments of extremist groups like Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the EDL, which flourish in difficult economic climates. Trades union represent a challenge because they bring together such broad coalitions of members, and present strength in numbers.

The situation is looking bleak, and apathy and a lack of action are not going to change anything. Students need to reignite a love of radicalism, and embrace trade unionism as a proactive form of activism that can realise achievable and legitimate goals. Collective action can be an empowering and effective tool to challenge the austerity that preserves the privilege of elites while undermining the ability of the 99% to lead rewarding and enjoyable lives. Union organisation works on a multiplicity of scales – from challenging unjust practices in the workplace to contributing to the creation of a better society at national and international level. The struggle against injustice must be fought on all levels if it is to succeed. Collectivism is strength, and only together can we change the world.

This was prompted by an invitation to speak at an event debating the relative merits of voting, or not, inspired by the Russell Brand/Paxo interview. It’s rough, but mostly encapsulates what I’m thinking about the whole thing at the moment.

 

Voting is one of the most fundamental civil rights we have in society – it is supposedly one of the most significant methods of expressing our opinion as citizens, and exercising our power. However, election turnouts are dwindling, perhaps showing the widespread mistrust of politicians and apathy in the electorate, which begs the question; is it worth voting at all?

 

In my mind, we have one of 3 options:

 

  1. Vote, and choose the best (or least bad) candidate for the job. Collude with the system, affirm it, and contribute only to change from within the system, and nothing to radical change.
  2. Don’t vote, and void any opinions or ideas you might have about party politics, because you did nothing to change the system itself.
  3. Spoil your ballot, register your disgust with the system as a whole, and state your determination to change things for the better, and create an alternative outside of party politics.

 

I will opt for the third option on every occasion, a hundred times over. I respect people who vote, and those who don’t, as long as they can provide reasoning. If you think candidate x will genuinely change things, I can think you’re misguided, but ultimately I will respect that opinion and the fact that you voted. If you are simply voting for someone that you hate because they are the least worst option, I might suggest you think about engaging in politics outside of the ‘legitimate democratic process’, i.e. get involved in union organising, or direct action, or some kind of political movement. Voting tactically makes sense locally – where I’m from in North London, the local Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, is a pretty radical bloke, and has achieved a lot of really cool things in the time he’s been elected (some 30 years). In that area, voting Labour makes sense locally, even if it may not make sense nationally – it depends on how you value the trade-offs between local and national politics.

If you don’t vote and don’t engage in politics on any level, I think that in short; you’re an idiot. You have no valid claims to make about politics and you certainly can’t complain about things if you have made zero effort to change things at all. It reminds me of an advertising campaign run during the early noughties elections. If you think everything is absolutely perfect as-is, fair enough, but I doubt you will find a soul who changes their mind about perfection as quickly as the government changes colours. People who engage in politics outside of the party-political pseudo-democratic sphere I can understand – I know a lot of people from the London Left (Dirty Commies and Filthy Reds), who I am most familiar with, having grown up there – opt for this. This is the point of contention for me, and something I have an internal dilemma about. If you actively try to remove the corrupt system that is in place (AKA Smash the State/Crush Capitalism/etc.) and in its place create something better (Transition Towns/Co-operatives/Community Centres/etc.), yet choose not to vote, I can accept your utter rejection of the state in all its forms. It’s a bit purist, but I get it.

My justification for spoiling my ballot is that I am doing the best of both; pursuing a multi-pronged attack. I am a) registering my discontent/disconsolateness/disgust/repulsion (delete as appropriate) with the political system in its own terms whilst b) actively trying to remove it from outside and create a better alternative in its place. I respect those who don’t vote, yet strive to create something better outside of the framework of our so-called ‘democracy’. However, those who seek to cultivate the impression of being left field, living the ‘anarcho’ lifestyle, are just as bad as anyone else who doesn’t vote and doesn’t engage. Narcs who do pretty much nothing but go to demos to bait cops and drink special brew are just as bad as any tabloid-regurgitating square.

 

Ultimately the argument of ‘the suffragettes fought and died for your right to vote’ will come up – I think it is one’s own decision whether or not to exercise that right to vote, and that whatever you decide is valid, as long as you can justify the choice. Engaging with politics on any level, whether its student politics, attending national marches against unjust wars, listening to debates in Parliament, writing letters to MPs, chaining yourself to banks or being a keyboard warrior over the internet (as long as it’s reasoned) is all legitimate – and if you do something on any shade of the spectrum, you have a basis for not voting. It’s only if you refuse to engage in politics entirely – whether its with a big P or a little p – that you should be condemned.

 

Politics is relevant to everyone and everything, yet party politics is such a turn-off. It would help if people were more educated on the alternatives. Doing things and changing things for the better can be so exciting, and could change the way we do things as a society, if only we taught it in schools. I would still encourage people to choose option 3 because it challenges the status quo from within and without, but it only works if you are involved. That’s the crux of the matter – more people need to get engaged, get angry, and get involved.

Absentee Anderson and the faded-trouser philanthropists

Of all strata of society that perpetuate the current abusive and oppressive capitalist regime, the (ahem) landed gentry and landlord class is one of the worst. Despite the archaic terminology – there is much debate about whether the concept of class is still valid, and you can probably tell I’ve been reading too much 19th century polemic – this concept is still relevant today. In this case, the tradesmen of Tressell’s Mugsborough are students, and the landlord are, well, landlords. Students are shackled with a burden of debt that they will carry well into their twenties and thirties – I am lucky that I will emerge (hopefully) from my academic chrysalis with a degree or two and only (gasp) £30,000 of debt. I pity the poor souls who are paying £9 grand a year, and labouring under the pretence that education is an ‘investment’, rather than a right. To label the pursuit of knowledge such, and to commodify it, is a sore attempt to turn students into automatons who learn to pass exams throughout their schooling and university careers, primed and pumped for the plunge into the ‘real’ world where all but a lucky few are destined as fodder for the machine that turns human labour into gold for the 1% who sit getting fat on it at the top.

Landlords are part of this 1%. They do no work and accrue wealth from those who live in their properties, who are also often given the privilege of paying for their own repairs and being charged extortionate rents. The use of intermediaries (estate agents – the ultimate leeches on society) to further distance themselves from the tenants they are unashamedly ripping off illustrates their unwillingness to engage with real life, and their separation from everyone else.

These people believe they can extort vast sums of money from students who are already burdened with thousands of pounds worth of debt because they can. If all the landlords in an area are doing it, it’s ok, right? Elitist collusion allows this to happen – it’s the same as what’s happening in London and all over the Southeast – rents are being jacked up because everyone’s doing it, and all in the interests of a very few who are pissing themselves laughing at champagne dinners and clapping people like Boris Johnson on the back for “ruddy well doing it again”. Tory legislation, for instance recent laws clamping down on squatting, protects the rights of absentee landlords who are using their properties for diddly squat (excuse the pun), whilst removing a last resort for poor and homeless people and promulgating slanderous propaganda about no-good, jobless squatter junkies and middle-class white kids who go home to get a shower and their laundry done.

None of this is useful to anyone except the few people at the top who extort capital from the poor, and accrue wealth at others’ expense. These are the people who would like to perpetuate the status quo, because it is so obviously in their interest. These are the people that need to be resisted; in small ways, and in ways they understand; taking them to court for demanding more money for ‘damages’, withholding rent, and by tearing down the fabric of their system from around them.

So. Boris the buffoon plans to demolish Heathrow and… er… build a replica in the Thames estuary. Because a new airport there would be nothing like Heathrow, which “blights the lives of hundreds of thousands of Londoners”… of course. The utter idiocy of this plan is rivalled only by it’s guffawing postulator – and the pointlessness of the idea (to quote Ed Miliband) truly beggars belief. To spend £50bn on a new airport, and presumably far more if the Olympics, or any of Boris’s other ludicrous projects are anything to go by, is insane. The new Routemasters are another lovely case-in-point. It won’t do anything except fuck up the already beleaguered transport system, cause absolute mayhem for a decade or so while it’s being built, and fail to detract from the government policy to promote airport expansion and air travel. There are not enough slots at Heathrow, but there are too many short-haul flights. A few years ago the top 5 flights out of Heathrow included Paris and Edinburgh. Both pretty easily accessible by train; a much nicer mode of transport. Instead of fighting for a ridiculous, polluting, and devastating new airport, supposedly ‘green’ Boris should be pushing for better (international) train services and cheaper fares. Oh, and not selling off National Rail contracts bit by bit.. But then again, this is Boris we’re talking about.. and the Tories. So this is all pretty unlikely. A few years ago when the 3rd runway got quietly shelved by the Tories, we celebrated a small victory. But we all knew the Tories weren’t about to give up on the their expansion targets and plans, because everyone knows building airports creates jobs, stimulates the economy, and attracts business, but trains – Hella motherfuckin’ no – they do exactly the opposite. OBViously. The real point is this: we don’t need to build any more airports. We need to build better sustainable infrastructure, and make it AFFORDABLE. Perhaps now the Tories are cosying up to the ‘working classes’ they will. HA HA HA!!

Another sound analysis from Owen Jones

“The Left should learn from George Galloway”

Maybe in some ways, but no self-respecting person, let alone politician, should even consider going on Big Brother, and/or making ridiculous comments about rape that get you into trouble with pretty much anyone with a sound state of mind.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-left-should-learn-about-plain-speaking-from-george-galloway-8498536.html