On Thursday, it was announced that the retailer TJ Hughes was beyond saving. With debts of £433.5m on their hands, administrators declared that there was no chance of selling it on. Six stores have been granted a reprieve but 2,200 jobs have been lost so far and there are more to come. It is a situation which says a lot about the state of the labour movement in Britain.
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) responded to the news by saying that "these latest closures are bitterly disappointing but are now entirely predictable." Their members are "understandably angry," and the union will "support and represent" them through the process as well as "provide advice and support to help them find another job" at the end. But their only major contention is that the company weren't "open and honest with staff and their Trade Union" and their only movement on the issue is to call for "Government to review the laws surrounding liquidation and insolvency."
A comrade who works for the company has told me on a number of occasions of the problems which beset the union. They largely match up with my own experience as a shop steward in Sainsbury's (and by all accounts Unite's piss-poor performance is still better than USDAW!) Full time officials who collaborate with management. No active recruitment efforts. Little to no communication with members. Worst of all, management have a say in who gets to be the union rep - with the inevitable result that those who might be effective in the role are vetoed. Needless to say, even as the company was beset by woes, the number of staff in the union has gone down rather than up.
The unions, and with them the left, have largely retreated to the public sector. Beyond that, the vast majority of workers are non-union, and where there is organisation it follows the model set by USDAW. That is, a service provided to clients rather than a body of members who can act to defend and assert their collective interests. Whilst the big unions in the public sector or manufacturing have many structural and tactical limitations, the servicing unions in retail represent a whole different world.
There are initiatives to combat this situation, including the Solidarity Federation's workplace organiser training and drives to raise awareness of worker's rights. The Industrial Workers of the World have also achieved important victories for low paid workers, and there are regular reports of workers trying to organise in areas untouched by the mainstream trade unions - with varying degrees of success. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and an honest assessment tells us that there is a long way to go before we can build the ideas of revolutionary unionism to the point where we can effectively see off shop closures and massive redundancy.
It also puts a lot of the "general strike" rhetoric coming from the left over the cuts into bleak perspective. We are a long way from 1910-1914, or 1926. If in the most densely organised sector of the working class unions are unable to pull everyone into a limited 24-hour strike, there is sparse hope of bringing the entire country to a standstill even for that same short amount of time.
But I don't say this as an exercise in cynicism or despair. If this shows how far we have to go, then the answer is to redouble our efforts - especially as the ideas of rank-and-file self-organisation are once again in vogue and the most alienated sections of the class lash out in anger at the social conditions they are faced with. The collapse of TJ Hughes may show us just how far we are from a revolutionary situation - but it should also remind us of how important it is to spread the ideas that will push us to that point.