Rethinking Europe

May Day, May Day: What About Trade Unions?

A dues paying union member all my life, still proud to carry my union card, today I cannot see worker power anywhere in the world. No wonder political parties of the left are waning.

Takeaways


  • The US led the way on the decline of unions and the rest of the West followed. Today’s working class is simply no longer organized in unions.
  • The quasi-disappearance of trade unions coincided with the decline of the working class vote for parties like Labour in the UK, SPD in Germany, Parti Socialiste in France.
  • No one cares about the working poor today. They are prey to the demagogy of a Le Pen, Trump or Johnson.
  • "If only there were no immigrants. Or no Muslims" is the kind of narrative fed to the working poor in both in US and Europe.
  • On May Day 2021, it is hard to deny that the nearing end of unions is the end of classic left politics.
  • In 2021, with the demise of unions, any hopes of left parties winning enough votes by themselves to form governments has also ended.

May 1st was May Day in Europe. This used to be a joyous day in the political calendar each year for many trade unionists, workers and the entire political left.

Tens of thousands of them enjoyed marching and making speeches. In many a European country, they denounced the iniquities of capitalism.

Good-bye to that

But those days are long gone. I say this with quite some sadness. After all, I have been a trade unionist for most of my life and still proud to carry my union card.

As a young leader of Britain’s journalists’ union, I organized the first-ever strike by BBC journalists.

Before entering the UK Parliament as an MP, I worked with unions in Poland to overthrow communism and with black workers in South Africa to bury apartheid.

I also helped shipyard unions in South Korea in giant strikes that got rid of autocratic governments.

Worker power: A hollow phrase

But today I cannot see worker power anywhere in the world.

I still remember how, in 1988 when working in Geneva, I carried my eight-month-old daughter, Sarah, on my shoulders for a May Day demonstration in Plainpalais, a large open space in Geneva where I then worked.

The location was a historic one for the workers’ rights movement. In 1932, there had been a demonstration against unemployment on Plainpalais.

A rightwing Swiss Army officer ordered his men to fire on the workers. 12 were killed and 65 wounded.

Even the Swiss made peace with workers

The event nine decades ago led to the famous “Peace Treaty” between Swiss trade unions and employers. They agreed to mutual respect and to negotiate out any differences without resorting to strikes.

This, far more than banking secrecy, laid the foundations for the post-war success of the Swiss economy.

Russian revolution lovers

As I walked with my daughter that May Day thirty years ago, a white-haired woman came up to me.

She explained that, when she had been a baby in 1918, she had been carried on her father’s shoulders in Plainpalais.

That May Day, she said, Swiss workers and unions celebrated the Russian revolution.

Today, nobody in the West is marching for Putin. To have political impact, he relies on troll armies, cyber espionage and far more nefarious methods, including political assassinations.

The U.S. led the way – and the rest of the West followed

Today’s working class is simply no longer organized in unions. Only one in ten U.S. workers carries a labor union card and most of those are in public sector unions.

In my home country, the United Kingdom, only one in ten workers in the private sector is unionized.

These unions do not challenge capitalism as they happily depend on taxpayers for good pay, pensions and health insurance.

Shrinking leftist parties

But that isn’t the only bad news for the left. The quasi-disappearance of trade unions in the 21st century has had important political effects.

It coincided with the decline of the working class vote for parties like Labour in the United Kingdom, the SPD in Germany or the Parti Socialiste in France.

Dreaming of a living wage

Those without jobs, or living on benefits, or scratching out a living by working a few hours here and there at minimum wage rates feel bitter and ignored.

No one really speaks for them. The traditional parties of the left have moved on to “richer” grounds. They are busy trying to get voter support from public sector employees most of whom never have to worry about job security.

The working poor: Now prey for the political right

In a stunning political realignment, the working poor are now prey to the demagogy of a Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson. At least, they pretend to care.

According to the fairy tale the working poor are fed, whether in the United States or in Europe, all would be well (and like it used to be) if only there were no immigrants. Or no Muslims.

According to what the disillusioned, helpless people are told, it is campaigners for the cause of anti-racism who undermine the rights of the native-born citizens to have a good job and decent pay.

Age-old siren songs

Those siren songs are age-old, of course. But in the past, they could be countered effectively and resolutely by trade unions that organized and represented people in every corner of the communities they were active in.

The reasons for this demise are manifold and have been told often. Automation and globalization are just two of them. Overpromising and underdelivering on the part of union activists is another.

Conclusion

On this May Day 2021, it is hard to deny that the nearing end of unions is the end of classic left politics.

Along with the demise of unions, any hopes of politically left parties winning enough votes by themselves to form governments are dashed.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury, London, October 2019. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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