Thursday, 18 March 2010

The BBC, propaganda, and the need for a serious debate on revolutionary unionism

Presented as "a platform to debate key stories in the news," Have Your Say is perhaps the most interactive element of the BBC News website. Today, it asks us "do unions have too much power?"
The question is, quite clearly, a loaded one. Although not constrained by advertising and ownership in the same way as the corporate media, a constant bombardment of accusations from the organs of flak that it is biased to the left ensure that the BBC operates within the propaganda model of media control. As such, debate is cordoned off so that it fits in with the view of the elites and, for this specific example, only right-wing criticisms of trade unionism (or, as a counter-balance, centre-left defences of it) are available.

With these deeply-ingrained parameters of debate established, the question is expanded upon with some background;
Unions representing ground staff in the US, France and Germany have pledged their solidarity for the strike, organised by Unite, the biggest union in Britain.

However, prime minister Gordon Brown's opposition to the strikes has been questioned recently after it was revealed that Unite is Labour's largest donor, providing £11m since 2007.
The Unite union may well be Labour's largest donor, but this in no way suggests that the union has too much power or that Brown supports trade union values. Quite the opposite. Motivated by the privilege offered to them within the union hierarchy and its ties to established power sectors, trade union "leaders" quickly become far more moderate and accomodating to power than they might once have been. For Unite, the most relevant example is their attempt to delay or altogether avoid the democratically mandated strike action despite the uncompromising stance of British Airways leadership. The eventual capitulation to democratic mandate was long overdue and still surrendered the bargaining chip of Easter strikes without anything to show for it in return.

What the solidarity for the strike by international unions shows, on the other hand, is that the consciousness of the working class is far from dead. If only we can throw off the shackles of the reformist unions, we might have a chance of striking the fatal blows in the class war. As it is, hamstrung by the anti-union laws imposed by Margaret Thatcher, the idea that trade unions have too much power is laughable.

The follow-up questions offered by the BBC offer a very narrow premise for discussion;
Are you a member of a union? Should unions be permitted to make political donations? Are unions good for workers, companies and society in general?
Whether unions should be allowed to make political donations is a question of liberty. By what right can anyone prevent them from doing so, supposedly as advocates of the working class, when the rich and the elites can do so without much scrutiny?

Whether or not unions should make political donations is an entirely different question, to which I would say no. Whoever you vote for, government wins, and workers need to concentrate on building up viable alternatives to the dominant state-corporate system. In this regard, unions can be good for workers and society in general. (Not for "companies," I suppose, but then the workers are the company and removing the boss class can only be good for society.)

However, they can only be so within the context of bottom-up organisation, as the predominant trade union structure is no vehicle for change. But, in order to challenge the prevailing doctrines of hierarchy and concessions to power, we need to spread this debate beyond the "revolutionary ghetto" and into the mainstream.