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When it comes to social justice, trade unions are the only show in town

Workers at Primark in Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for strike action after the company attempted to impose a pay freeze on its shop staff for the second consecutive year. Primark’s staff are paid just £6.84 an hour, yet in the past two years the company has seen its profits soar to an estimated £644 million. Union reps are meeting next week with strike action in February looking increasingly likely.

The fact that a call for industrial action by staff at Primark has made the news at all is testament to how organised workers’ struggle has become something of a rarity in recent times. This is reflected in the trade unions themselves, where there has been a steady decline in members in the last 30 years. Six-and-a-half million people were in a trade union in 2010, down from a peak of around 13 million in the late 1970s. These figures also conceal a large discrepancy between public and private sector membership, with only 14 per cent of private sector employees being members of a union compared with 56 per cent of those in the public sector.

Media superficiality would have it that trade unions are little more than a quaint irrelevancy to 21st century life. The economic downturn has added to the scorn heaped on anyone viewed as rocking the boat by popularising the notion that the burden of the financial crisis is being shared equally. “Get on with it” perhaps best describes the attitude of most of the print media to discontented workers; and in the case of the Primark dispute bosses see nothing wrong with telling staff to meekly accept their lot – despite the fact that there undeniably is a great deal of money swilling around.

This attitude is not confined to the bosses of Primark, either. In Britain’s lightly regulated labour market employers increasingly have the power to do what they want to a degree unthinkable since the First World War. A recent report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – and published by the Independent revealed that Britain’s largest supermarket chains are paying their staff poverty wages while making huge profits and raising executives’ salaries.

Not only has years of anti-union rhetoric affected how large companies treat their workers, but it has also had a discernible impact on the Left, which increasingly spurns trade union activity in favour of occupations, protests and flash mobs. The idea of autonomy is at the heart of the tactical switch; and the sacrifice and solidarity of the strike feels grey and outdated compared to the free-for-all of the tent city and the high-octane exertions of the Black Bloc. Little do they realise it, but even today’s protesters have adopted some of the commitment-less individualism of Thatcher-Blairism.

The political assault on trade union activity has been reignited recently, with Boris Johnson, a Mayor elected with the first preferences of just 19 per cent of his electorate, calling for a minimum turnout threshold on industrial action ballots. Others fantasise about going further, openly musing on whether “we” (meaning in reality society’s top 1 per cent) should permit strikes to happen at all.

Scratch an anti-trade union politician, however, and you will find the same contempt for democracy that has in the past lobbied against everything from the right of working people to vote to the right of the poor to receive medical treatment. For many the workplace already remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD)found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.

It is not as if the law as it stands comes down in favour of those democratically withdrawing their labour, either. There is in reality no such thing as the right to strike in law in Britain. Walk-outs are only possible because unions have immunity from any subsequent claims for damages.

Extending democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism will not be done by erecting a tent in one of capitalism’s bustling metropolises, nor by inconveniencing shoppers in Regent Street. It will come through the tireless and unglamorous struggle of those, like the workers at Primark, who realise that by standing together they can claw a little back from those who would make off with everything given half the chance.

Trade unions are by no means perfect, but if the left is to become relevant again it must rediscover the notion that social justice begins at work.

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