The purpose of unions is to represent labour in its struggle against the intrinsic abuses of the capitalist class. Almost all of the rights workers now take for granted such as the 40-hour work week, paid overtime and holidays, and safe work environments were fought for by unionised labour often with the loss of lives. Not one was freely given by employers.
Unions also serve as organisational vehicles for ordinary people to get involved in politics and influence policy. That they organise people on economic rather than ethnic or religious grounds is also significant. This political role has in some ways been especially obvious in the US, where workers lack a labour or Socialist Party, but these parties in the European scene have also historically depended on unions to organise, educate, and mobilise their social base. In this respect unions are a linchpin of effective capitalist democracy, where they are one of few major counterweights to the power of capital.
Concretely, in terms of policy outcomes, unions have been essential for the emergence and growth of the set of policies we think of as comprising the welfare state: health insurance, old age pensions, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, social housing, and so on.
They have also been important for the defence and extension of classic civil rights and liberties: against censorship and for free speech, association, and assembly; against arbitrary detention and for due process in criminal procedure; and for non-discrimination in labour markets and other spheres.
There is a strong correlation between the percentage of workers who belong to a union and a country’s standard of living and its democratic standing – the top five being: Iceland 92%, Denmark 66%, Sweden 65%, Finland 60% and Belgium 50%. That said the union movement worldwide has been undermined by automation, offshoring and more insipidly free market philosophies.
However it appears that there is now a resurgence of union activism precipitated by the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. For example in the UK, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson used to clap along with the nation to thank nurses, junior doctors and other essential workers for showing up to work despite the very real risks associated with the disease and the zero to minimal increases in their salaries. Now as the world comes out of the pandemic, these same workers are experiencing wage deterioration from inflation but also have more leverage thanks to a shortage of labour.
Several strikes are ongoing in the UK and Europe in what is being called the Summer of Discontent. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers recently held three days of action that brought rail travel in the UK to a standstill. Even barristers have been striking, causing delays to court trials.
And while Covid-19 related supply chain problems are behind the current inflation spike, it could well be that industrial action will take over the mantle of disrupting production and supply chains. A strike planned for yesterday by French oil workers at some of TotalEnergies’ oil refineries in France was predicted to remove 240,000 barrels of oil products at a time of highly restricted capacity. The powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union with 22,000 workers has been threatening to shut down California ports over a new agreement.
The proportion of American workers in a union has fallen off a cliff from a high in 1954 of 35% to only 10.5% in 2018. The reasons for this are primarily, automation and capital relocation; fewer employees in the most unionised industries, and those remaining often in plants relocated either abroad or to the non-union South.
However there are now signs of a younger generation of activism in new sectors. Chris Smalls, a former worker at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse known as a “fulfilment center” successfully established a union there after a two-year fight over work conditions. This included employees so concerned about not meeting their quotas they chose to urinate into bottles so as to avoid a bathroom break.
Coffee chain Starbucks has seen 150 of its stores unionised and was recently accused by federal labour regulators of intimidation and other retaliatory practices against union supporters. Most reprehensibly its reaction in the wake of the Supreme Court abortion ruling is that it may not extend its offer to pay for flights to unionised workers who need an abortion out of state. Corporate benevolence only goes so far.
Guyana has a noble history of trade unionism. For example the Guyana Public Service Union recently celebrated its 99th anniversary but just as in many other countries membership and political influence have been in decline. An ageing leadership has also not helped with its failure to make way for younger activists – something not unique to the unions. The movement has also been struggling with larger forces, most obviously race based differences that have undermined worker solidarity. The demise of the sugar industry and the growth of contract workers within the public sector have also hurt while successive governments have never lost an opportunity to limit the power of unions through such measures as suspending the check-offs for union dues and agency fees and most cynically engaging in the annual game of refusing even to meet with unions over wages and then just a few days before Christmas imposing what it unilaterally considers to be a suitable increase.
Also the nature of work has changed In Guyana with far more young people choosing to be self employed. As such unions are increasingly seen as anachronisms from a bygone era rather than powerful tools for resolving current labour issues. That is not entirely accurate as many of the larger companies such as Banks DIH and DDL have generally good working relations with their unionised workforce. For example Banks DIH and the General Workers Union in November concluded a three-year agreement with a 9% pay increase for 2021; 5% in 2022 and 3% in 2023.
It may be that we see a resurgence in union activism as Guyana benefits from its oil boom: no longer can any government offer the excuse it has no money to pay workers properly. One area that unions should also focus on is workplace safety. It is shocking to read recently of young men falling off scaffolds, being electrocuted or being buried alive in mining accidents. However it is encouraging that there does seem to be a more conscious approach with other sectors being influenced by the oil and gas industry which is highly focused on safety. And in general we are already seeing higher wages rippling through to the private sector as employers look to retain staff in what is a tight labour market in some areas.
Just as the private sector have their commissions, chambers and associations so workers are entitled to join together to lobby for their rights. And it may well be that the conditions are right for unionism to once again become vital and relevant in Guyana and begin to address the deep inequalities between the business class and labour.
Not sure if it matters but it is interesting to note that the only reason it remains as high as 10.5% is because of the growth of unionism in public sector employment — where the political and social implications of unionism are somewhat different than in the private economy. In the private sector — where it is properly a labor-capital antagonism — it is only 6%. The public sector in the US today is 34% union.