Sunday, 20 February 2011

When the British working class fell behind the American working class

One phrase I used to hear quite often, talking to trade unionists about apathy and low levels of organisation here, was "at least we're not in America." It has long been a truism that, effectively, there was no American labour movement. But the reality is quite different. To the point where I am coming to believe that British workers are far behind Americans in terms of both organisation and militancy.

A prime example is the recent unrest in Wisconsin. Adam Ford offers a full analysis here, but the upshot is that - faced with pay cuts and an attack on union bargaining rights - workers across the state have been rallying. Most dramatically, they occupied the state Capitol and its grounds.

This is, according to Monthly Review, "the beginning of a new American workers movement." Certainly, something of this scale in a long time. But I have written numerous times of America's ongoing class struggle, and the actions which define it - particularly with the IWW at the forefront. Though it has remained hidden from public eyes for a long time, class antagonism is still very real in America.

But it is worth contrasting it with Britain. Here, 58.8% of public sector workers and 23.5% more broadly are members of a trade union. In America, the figure is 36.2% in the public sector, 11.9% overall. Much lower. And yet, despite the AFL-CIO having much the same role in pushing moderation and compromise as the TUC, the militancy on offer across the Atlantic appears much greater. Although the postal workers in the CWU are known for their wildcat strikes, for example, we haven't seen unorganised workplaces honour a spontaneous picket line, nor any serious efforts to organise workers in Starbucks or the fast food industry.

We certainly haven't seen workers on mass take over a government building and refuse to leave. In fact, the closest thing to it - the seige of Millbank Tower - was roundly condemned for its violence and our trade union leaders are determined that peaceful protest and "lobbying" can win out.

This is why, when the Institute of Directors proposed a similar restriction on public sector collective bargaining here, there was hardly any response. The TUC has "accused" the IoD over its recommendations, and not much else has happened. But then, Britain has the toughest restrictions on trade union rights in the free world, and absolutely nothing has been done in response to that.

In the wake of the ongoing revolts in the Arab world, left-wing groups have quickly latched onto the slogan "walk like an Egyptian." But, with attacks intensifying and the bureaucracy of the labour movement unwilling to do anything about it, we could do worse than look to America for inspiration.